Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Genesis chapter 34 covers the violent rape of Dinah, and subsequent revenge killings
carried out by her brothers.
“And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went
out to see the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor the
Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her. And he took her, and raped her,
and humbled her.”
Abravanel provides Bible students his perspective on the crime and punishment. Given that Shechem
son of Hamor committed the rape, was it excessive punishment to massacre all the men of the village,
Abravanel asks? “And it came to pass on the third day…that two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s
brothers, took each man his sword…and slew all the males.”
And, if we put forth that Jacob’s sons sought to avenge Dinah, why did they subsequently pillage the
place? “And all their wealth…they took…even all that was in the house.” Abravanel asserts that revenge,
if it is to be morally defensible, must adhere to strict parameters. Certainly, greed cannot enter into the
equation. Thus, after Jacob’s sons killed the men and rescued Dinah, why did they take booty?
Abravanel dives into the chapter devoted to Dinah’s rape – and repercussions. He bases the discussion
on the legal/moral code that was widely accepted and practiced by the ancients. We speak of the
Noahide laws. That code, among other things, forbade promiscuity and stealing – on penalty of death.
These are Abravanel’s prefatory remarks. In that light, Dinah’s brothers must be judged, Abravanel
posits. Rape, of course, violated the law. Stealing, also, infringed Noahide laws. By raping Dinah, and
then abducting her, Shechem the son of Hamor committed multiple crimes. As for Shechem’s fellow
villagers, they didn’t utter disapproval, let alone criticize the prince’s felonies. Silence in the face of
crime was tantamount to collusion. According to Noahide standards, Shechem’s fellow citizens’ tacit
consent amounted to culpability – punishable by death.
Here's more evidence against the townspeople. Shechem and Hamor gathered their countrymen to
discuss the terms by which Jacob and his sons would dwell among them – they were all to undergo
circumcision. “These men are peaceable with us” the princely father and son declared to the assembled.
“Therefore, let them dwell in the land, and trade therein, for behold the land is large enough for them.
Let us take their daughters for wives, and let us give them our daughters.” The referendum, per se,
passed with loud cheers. And all the men underwent circumcision.
Abravanel believes that in the forefront of the men’s minds was one thing: getting their hands on
Jacob’s vast wealth. This, then, is the backdrop to understanding Simeon and Levi’s deadly deed. After
the two killed the villagers, their brothers came and plundered the town.
Jacob’s sons taught posterity a lesson in morality, summed up by the sentiment: Fight fire with fire. The
villagers conspired to do harm to Jacob. His sons outsmarted them by taking the initiative.