It is written in the Torah: “Jacob heard that his daughter Dina had been defiled. But his sons were in the fields with the cattle and Jacob kept his silence until they returned home. Hamor, father of Shechem came to Jacob to talk. And when Jacob’s sons returned from the field and heard what happened, they were incensed and engulfed with rage.”1

Analyzing the Events

In the first phrase Scripture informs us not only that “Jacob kept his silence” but until when he kept it, namely “until his sons returned.” This implies that upon the return of his sons Jacob did indeed speak to them, but nowhere does it divulge what indeed he discussed with them.

Jacob couldn’t have spoken to Hamor before his sons had returned from the field, as that would arguably contradict the first phrase that Jacob remained silent until the arrival of his sons. The implication of the Biblical narrative is therefore that Jacob spoke to his sons before Hamor arrived. This seems to be the implication of Nachmanides who writes: “it seems that the brothers when talking were expressing their father’s will and with his advice in mind.”

Although we cannot glean from the Torah what exactly Jacob said to his sons, we can however make an educated guess. Firstly let us establish what Jacob could not have reasonably said. Jacob could not have told his sons to leave Dina in Shechem as that would clearly be unthinkable. Jacob also couldn’t have said to his sons to let Dina become Shechem’s wife for that would be equally untenable. In Nachmanides words: “it is impossible to suggest that Jacob would give his daughter as a wife to a Canaanite who stole her innocence.” Consequently it is most likely that in Jacob’s discussion with his sons he had instructed them to go and retrieve Dina from the hands of Shechem either through a violent or through a peaceful route. Which method would Jacob have been inclined to suggest?

To reach an educated guess of what Jacob said we need to analyze his personality as it is emerges from earlier episodes in his life. From the Torah’s description of his life it would appear that, arguably unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob was not a man inclined towards direct confrontation. To avoid a confrontation with Laban, Jacob sought to leave his father-in-law in a clandestine manner. When Jacob was faced with the prospect of war with his brother, Esau, he did everything within his ability to avoid it. He prayed to the L‑rd and brought gifts and invested in extreme diplomatic endeavors in order to avoid war. Consequently we may surmise that Jacob did not instruct his sons to initiate a war with the inhabitants of Shechem. The only reasonable alternative possibility is that Jacob told them to go and recapture Dinah, which would possibly have entailed the killing of Shechem, and then leave without any further ado. If we are correct in our analysis, we must ask: why did Shimon and Levi not simply obey their father’s instructions? Why did they embark upon the contrived and complex mission which concluded with the killing of the adult men of an entire city?

At this stage let us examine how our Sages explain Shimon and Levi’s actions.

Maimonides and Nachmanides

Maimonides writes that the citizens of Shechem were guilty of a capital crime for not following the Noachide Law of establishing courts of law and a moral legal structure which would have penalized Shechem for his abduction of Dinah. 2

Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides, and argues that according to Maimonides’ reasoning Shimon and Levi should have dealt likewise with all the cities of Canaan in which they had failed to establish a judicial system and where the Canaanites had committed a multitude of other serious sins. Surely all the cities of Canaan were practitioners of idolatry and steeped in other vices; Jacob had not received a mandate to kill the Canaanites and it is evident from the Torah that he did not engage in such punitive measures in relation to the primitive Canaanite heathens of his day

Nachamanides’ own explanation for the initiative of Shimon and Levi is that they sought revenge for what Shechem had done to their sister. They therefore killed Shechem and all his family and all the inhabitants of the city that were subordinate to him. Ordinarily, extending the act of revenge to the entire city may have been unjustified, but since the general populace of Shechem, like all the inhabitants of Canaan, were wicked and depraved, they had no compunctions or reservations about pouring out their wrath on all of Shechem’s citizens .

Two Suggestions of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar

Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar suggests two possible versions of the events that transpired:

The first suggestion is that the bothers actually only intended to kill the criminals themselves but all the citizens of their city rose up in defense of their king and therefore Shimon and Levi were compelled to kill them all. This version raises several questions.

1) When Shimon and Levi entered the city of Shechem to slay its inhabitants there was an established peace treaty between their family and the citizens of Shechem. The citizens having fulfilled their end of the deal would have expected Jacob’s family to uphold theirs. Therefore the mere appearance of Shimon and Levi in Shechem should not have aroused undue suspicion. Shimon and Levi were facing a force much greater than them and therefore they would have had to include an element of surprise in their attack. They would probably have had their swords concealed under their cloaks, in a manner similar to that employed by Ehud who killed Eglon the King of Moav as told in the Book of Judges. Consequently, the citizens of Shechem did not have reason to attack Shimon and Levi upon their entry into the city.

2) Their entry into the city took place three days after the circumcision of Shechem’s citizens who as a result of which were in severe pain and incapacitated. As we know from the remarks of our Sages and other commentaries on Genesis 18:1, on the third day after undergoing circumcision, the post-surgical pain is at its maximum.

3) As mentioned, the element of surprise was crucial for the two brothers. If they started slaughtering the citizens of Shem before killing Shechem and Hamor they would have been a commotion and the element of surprise would have been lost. This would have given Shem and Hamor a chance to prepare their defense and perhaps even execute Dina knowing that the brothers have broken the peace, or, at the very least, flee.

The second version of events suggests that the citizens of Shechem were killed for assisting in the abduction of Dinah. This idea is problematic, as Dinah was wandering alone when she was encountered by Shechem. At any rate, Shechem would have needed the assistance of no more than one or two servants to do it, and not the whole populace. Even if they had wanted to, all the citizens could not have physically participated in the abduction.

A Possible Resolution

I would like to make my own tentative suggestion of what may have happened.

Firstly, Shimon and Levi understood that they were largely outnumbered and outgunned and hence made sure to weaken the populace of Shechem through circumcision. Secondly, it was obvious that Shechem himself would not willingly give up Dinah and would have to be killed. Thirdly, they knew that once they will have killed Shechem, Hamor’s favorite son, Hamor would march against them with his army, if not immediately, then after they had recovered from their surgery. They knew that their family did not have the strength to repeal the attack of an entire army and therefore decided to conduct a pre-emptive strike and kill all of their potential combatants while they were weak and exhausted. This is the first time that the right to a preventive strike is described in the Torah. I envision the following unfolding of events.

Shimon and Levi entered the city, as friends, with their swords hidden under their cloaks. With the element of surprise still intact they entered the palace and killed Hamor, Shem and all those who were close to them. As the action happened inside the palace the citizens outside would not have heard the commotion. Then Shimon and Levi dealt with each citizen of Shechem individually, as they were still affected by the pain and the frailty brought on by their circumcision, the males would have been confined to their beds.

This was the only way that they could carry out Jacob’s instructions without fear of immediate retaliation with its fatal consequences.

It is also possible that Shimon and Levi had another secondary motivation. The Shechem episode occurred as a result of first encounter between Jacob`s family and the Canaanites. They knew that their family had to live in Canaan for the forseeable future and that if every meeting with the Canaanites would lead to inevitable bloodshed their life would be a living hell. Hence the secondary objective of Shimon and Levi was to deliver a strong message, demonstrating what they are capable of. The slaying of the citizens of Shechem conveyed a powerful message: “be careful when you have dealings with the sons of Jacob.” Here they were following the footsteps of their grandfather, Abraham. Abraham without any hesitation went to war to free his nephew Lot and thus taught the Canaanites a lesson. From the story of Abraham’s life we know that after that war the Canaanites never endeavored to initiate war with his household again.

The righteousness of Shimon and Levi’s actions is confirmed by history. Even though Jacob was angry with them, the L‑rd planted fear in the hearts of the Canaanites. We also know from the Torah that during their life in Canaan, Jacob`s family was never attacked again.

The author would like to express his feelings of deep gratitude to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar for his invaluable guidance, comments and help.