“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill; of things unknown but longed for still, and his
tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged birds sings of freedom.” Maya Angelou
American realism portrait and genre artist Eastman Johnson’s “Dinah, Portrait of a Negress” is modeled after African-American abolitionist Harriet Ross Tubman, whose remarkable story depicts one of courage and resolve to save hundreds of slaves, leading them to freedom by way of the “Underground Railroad.” Eastman Johnson studied art in the Hague, influenced by Dutch masters of the 17th century. Known as The American Rembrandt, revered for his portraits of distinguished Americans such as Henry Wadsworth, President Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and scenes of everyday life, he was the co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The oil on board painting “Dinah, Portrait of a Negress” completed in 1867 is displayed at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina.
Christened Araminta Ross, Harriet was affectionately called “Minty,” fiercely determined to free herself from bondage, abuse, and the unwanted advances of her slave master. This masterpiece is not a picture of a young, Jewish Dinah, also known as “The Canaanite Woman” in this confusing story.
A Drifter's Dream Deferred
A curious and naive Dinah ventures out into an unknown, unsafe community. Driven by an infatuation with Jacob and Leah’s daughter, Crown Prince Schechem violently rapes her. Dinah’s enraged brothers Simeon and Levi murder Prince Schechem and every male citizen in defense of their sister. The vigilante duo deceitfully used the traditional sacred rite of circumcision to justify the massacre. Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the Shechemite men of the city, including Shechem and his father (Genesis 34:25-29).
Looking more closely into the conflict, we can observe the following: The family has sojourned into Shechem, and they were the minority. There was no trust between Shechem and Simeon, and Levi. The people of Canaan are promiscuous with no moral compass. The narrator of the story attempts to persuade the reader to believe that cultural assimilation between Jacob’s family and the Schechemites was mutually impossible, considering the Canaanites’ immoral lifestyles and sacrilege.
A Corruptible Mutual Deceit
The conflict exacerbates when the Shechemites negotiate for the marriage of Dinah and Shechem. Jacob’s silence and indecisiveness heighten the conflict, leaving an inevitable retaliation into his enraged sons’ hands. Both parties were at fault here.
The essence of the conflict was that they took a sacred rite of their religion, and they used it as a ruse. Simeon and Levi used circumcision as a military tactic of subterfuge (Genesis 34:14-17). The Shechemites agreed to compromise and be circumcised, not just to intermarry. They talked among themselves about the trade-off they would get in controlling the possessions of the Israelites as well. All were mutually deceitful. The Shechemites used religion for financial benefit. “Will not their livestock, their property, and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” All who went out of the gate of his city was circumcised (Genesis 34:23-24). Even though the intent was to bring about justice, Dinah’s rape did not merit the slaughtering of Shechem’s men.
The marriage was supposed to be the solution and the way to reconcile with the Shechemites. In Jacob and Esau’s case, the reconciliation takes place over 20 years, with Esau taking the initiative to forgive his brother. It was a peaceful reconciliation between Isaac’s sons, although at first, Esau sought to kill his brother for stealing the birthright (Genesis 32:4-36:43).
“But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:31, ESV). This is a strange way to end the story because after Jacob scolds Simeon and Levi, explaining the inevitable repercussion of their actions, they continue to adamantly focus on what Shechem did to their sister as an argument of justification of their murderous actions. The narrator leaves several questions unanswered.
A Confusing Cast of Characters
Each character in the story was self-absorbed, foolishly determined to obtain their needs at any cost. Shechem’s sights were on Dinah. Simeon and Levi’s sights were on vengeance and destroying the enemy; Jacob was seemingly more concerned with his own protection and well-being. His lack of concern for Dinah is also a confirmation of this. Although it was not her fault for the rape, Dinah ventured into an immoral community, leading to her exposure to the rapist Shechem. No one thought through the consequences before acting. It is as if the narrator is justifying the male-dominated slant in the story of a young woman with no voice or identity other than who her parents were and the treacherous violation Dinah suffered.
The Normalcy of Rape Culture
Nicknamed as “The Canaanite Woman,” Dinah is labeled a sinner by scholars and other sources who blame her for what happened because she became curious about the city’s happenings, which put her in harm’s way. Some Jewish scholars believe that the story of a voiceless, violated woman is an allegory that epitomizes tribal feuds and rape culture. The normalization of sexual assault is the essence of rape culture. The victim is always blamed for the abusive act. New cultural norms have evolved in a darkening world where institutions protect rapists and embrace an impugned, non-liable disposition. Victims are shamed by society and forced to live in fear and guilt to survive.
Rape is among many other detriments like mental, emotional, or physical abuse, dreams deferred, or the tragic loss of a loved one. Have you suffered the ills of another? Dinah undoubtedly screamed for help - the ears of her father closed. Today, be encouraged and know that, just like Hagar, the mother of Isaac’s Ishmael, our Heavenly Father, The One Who Sees, hears and feels your pain. He willingly unloaded our grief and chastisement onto Himself liberating the abused.
Hold on to hope and the assurance that even before you call, He will answer, and while you are speaking, He hears you.
Prayer for Strength and Protection
Lord God, heavenly Father, you know that we are set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
Grant us such strength and protection, to support us
in all danger, and carry us through all temptations;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Martin Luther, the German Litany,
Third Collect, [Die Gebete Luthers, #5]
Copyright 2021, William S. Barnett
“Dinah, Portrait of a Negress”: Public Domain.
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