Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

The Rape of Dinah — and the Jewish Evangelizing Mission

I’m preoccupied by the old wives’ tale that Judaism has no missionary or conversionary genes in its spiritual DNA. This is one of those untruths that gets repeated so often, it’s taken for granted even by many thoughtful Jews. Maimonides, Sforno, and Rav Hirsch refute it soundly, as I’ve indicated before. Here’s more proof, that as a bonus touches on the historical authenticity of the Exodus from Egypt. 
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. To save their sister from the clutches of the eponymous prince of the city of Shechem, Jacob’s sons conspire to fool the men of the city, who apparently in some way shared his guilt in the matter. They prevail upon the Shechemites to receive circumcision, then in the latter’s weakened physical state, two sons in particular, Simeon and Levi, slaughter them all. 
The story is enigmatic but the Lubavitcher Rebbe sorts out the classical commentators with their seemingly contradictory explanations. The bottom line is that Dinah herself, like her mother Leah, had the gene that disposed her to seek the widest possible canvas on which to paint the future of the Jewish people. She made herself vulnerable to abduction in the first place when she ventured into the city with a view to befriending and evangelizing the women there. 
The men acceded to being circumcised as part of a general plan of voluntary mass conversion. Scripture is explicit that with the death of the men of Shechem, the women and children were left alive (Genesis 34:29). Jacob later criticized his sons for the slaughter of the men since, as converts, they were like new-born children — “born again” — and bore no guilt even for their previous crime in relation to Dinah. The 16th-century Spanish sage Rabbi David Ibn Zimra is the clearest on the matter of this mass conversion to proto-Judaism. 
Which leaves us with a provocative question. The newly converted men died. What happened to the women? Why, they joined the household of Jacob! 
This was not the first addition of new souls, in large numbers, to the community of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham himself converted “thousands and tens of thousands,” as Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah. What happened to them? When the family of Jacob went down to Egypt and became slaves there, the Bible indicates they did so as only 70 people. As Ronald Reagan put it in the title of his memoir, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”
All this so far is on the authority of the Bible and of classical commentators who draw out that to which Scripture alludes cryptically. My own speculation is as follows.

I wonder if that figure of 70 counts only the blood descendants of Jacob: “All the persons coming with Jacob to Egypt — his own decendants aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons — sixty-six persons in all. All the people of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt — seventy” (Genesis 46:26-27). Maybe a far more numerous community of converts went down as well. 
That would help explain how a mere 70 people burgeoned in the course of the 210 years spent in Egypt (per the traditional understanding) into the extended family of well over 2 million Israelites who stood to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai following the Exodus. 
Now, a freakishly high yearly population growth rate today would be about 5 percent, which would give you the needed 2 million or so. Yet it’s still hard to believe, given that modern Israel herself has a growth rate of only 1.71 percent per annum, which would not suffice by a long shot to do the job. This is one of the objections you hear to Jewish and Christian beliefs about the historicity of the Exodus account. 
But what if — as Jewish tradition itself suggested long before anyone heard of an online population growth calculator — that 70 persons was only the core group of Jacob and his own descendants, around which circulated a much larger community of converts? It could then have been thousands or more who formed the party of the emergent Jewish community that emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. A figure of 2 million plus at the end of 210 years would then look much more feasible.
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posted December 3, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Nice explanation — makes sense to me!
“The Holy One Blessed Be He only exiled the Jewish people in order that converts would be added to them.” Talmud Bavli Pesachim 87b.
In my reading I’ve come across several accounts of entire non-Jewish villages in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Russia, and Lithuana, converting to Judaism. One day I hope to compile these accounts, and find more detail if possible, such as any documents or letters from the people involved. It would be interesting to see the attitude toward conversion, and the halachic requirements. (The requirements for conversion in the last century have become more strict among the Orthodox, and more lax among the non-Orthodox.)

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posted December 4, 2009 at 1:53 am

I respect you when you write, “My own speculation is as follows…” and “But what if …” This makes me NOT feel the need to challenge you with “can you get any commentators to support your theory?” Though the following is a challenge to your theory, I’m not actually against it. I’d like to mull it over.
The following site offers a theory on how the population went from 70 to millions (but in 430, not 210 years):
I’m not endorsing this site’s theory; just sharing it. (You and he might care to know that the fertility rate in the Haredi community of Beitar Illit was 7.7 children per woman in 2006, but was 8.9 children in 2001. Can we assume that the grandchildren of Jacob were as pro-procreation as the Jews of Beitar Illit? Any mathematicians reading this blog?)
“Maybe a far more numerous community of converts went down as well. That would help explain how a mere 70 people burgeoned in the course of the 210 years spent in Egypt (per the traditional understanding)”
But then a different traditional understanding could be ignored: the one about the six children per birth.
Here’s another question and a challenge. Are you saying that the children of the twelve sons of Jacob, the ones that make up part of the seventy souls going to Egypt, INCLUDE or EXCLUDE the sons of the women of Shechem? Either way, lets try to imagine children born to these Schechemite women asking their moms their backgrounds. How would the women respond? “Well little Shlomie, your uncle on your dad’s side killed my husband (or father), took me, and got me pregnant. Personally, I wasn’t a willing partner, after witnessing that massacre.” This makes for one heck of a nationwide family dynamic that would’ve left marks. Do we see any sign of these marks in the Torah?
I have one more question, unrelated to the above, on the following statement: “Jacob later criticized his sons for the slaughter of the men since, as converts, they were like new-born children — “born again” — and bore no guilt even for their previous crime in relation to Dinah.” Are you saying it is Rabbi David ibn Zimra who gives this explanation? The Torah itself doesn’t.

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David Klinghoffer

posted December 4, 2009 at 2:06 am

Mark2 (and what ever happened to Mark1?), I wish my math were better than it is. I believe the figures you cite may be incommensurable. Population growth rates include not only births but deaths, if I’m not mistaken.

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posted December 4, 2009 at 4:31 am

“Mark2 (what ever happened to Mark1?)”
I used to be Mark, but someone (LazerB, maybe?) else used Mark for a while, so I upgraded.

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posted December 4, 2009 at 11:10 am

One issue that needs to be considered re the Israelite population is one that has nothing to do with birthrates, the presence or absence of Shechemites, etc., but the bearing capacity of the land. Here is a referenced site giving some sources on the popluation of Egypt based upon estimates (necessarily approximate, as is always true of ancient history) of crop production. Depending on the source, the population of Egypt during the New Kingodom (during which time the Exodus would have occured) is between about 3 and 5 million. Thus, 2 million Israelites would have been forty to sixty-seven percent of the entire population of Egypt!! Most scholars see this as, to say the least, unlikely!
Moreover, even with the manna, the ability of the Sinai peninsula to support 2 million people for forty years was probably very low. Finally, though there are several ancient references in Egyptian and otehr Middle Eastern records to peoples thought to be the Israelites, none of them, even those of much later periods, indicate a population as high as this. Most modern scholars who accept the Exodus as historical (and I think it is historical, if not in all details) argue that it comprised a few thousand at most. Which, unless one is wedded to an absolutely literalist reading of the text, is no problem.

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posted December 4, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Gotta love all the violence and sex god put in his mythology.

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posted December 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Turmarion wrote: “Moreover, even with the manna, the ability of the Sinai peninsula to support 2 million people for forty years was probably very low.”
How do you quantify the effect of the manna? (Not to mention the well and the clouds of glory)?

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posted December 5, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Mark2: How do you quantify the effect of the manna?
Fair enough. Obviouisly, God could have made it so that over two million people could have lived in the desert, without attracting enough notice from other peoples to be mentioned in historical annals, etc. etc. He could also have made it so that Earth only seems to be billions of years old; he could really have stopped the Earth’s motion for Joshua; heck, maybe the sun goes around the Earth and God really stopped the sun and makes it appear to us that the solar system is heliocentric when it’s not; etc. etc.
I go with C. S. Lewis in my belief that the Old Testament, in its accounts of the miraculous, is largely mythology that is intended to make allegorical points. I think most of the material from Exodus onward is pretty much accurate history, with much embelishment and mythologization until the accounts of the post Solomonic kings, at which point the historical part becomes more sound. I think the Exodus in its outlilne was historical and that Moses was real, but the details certainly must have been very much different in order to fit the known scientific, historical, and archaeological data. If said data change, I am open to altering my belief to accepting that the Exodus was totally fictitious, meant to be taken as allegory; or that it happened exactly as related in the Torah; or anywhere in between. As it stands, there’s obviously, it seems, much mythology mixed in.
The only miracle throughout both testaments that I’m unequivocally committed to believing is the Resurrection, since Christianity makes no sense without it, and I think the evidence is perhaps better than many secularists think. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe other miracles attributed to Christ, or even certain ones in the Old Testament didn’t happen; in fact, I think many of them did. I just put a lower importance on them, and am thus less disturbed if they turn out not to be literally true. If the Resurrection could be disproved, well, I’d have to join some other religion; but it probably can’t be proved or disproved, so it’s a matter of faith and belief (or disbelief).
My point was that based on available evidence, it seems that the numbers given by Exodus for the tribes of Israel must be enormously inflated.

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posted December 8, 2009 at 2:45 pm

“As it stands, there’s obviously, it seems, much mythology mixed in.”
It is a fact that “obviously” contradicts “it seems” — in my opinion. (smirk)

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posted December 8, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I haven’t been following this very long, so I don’t know all the other places where you refute the idea of Judaism as a non-proselytizing religion, but this is an intriguing example.
It’s not, though, an example of proselytizing, I think. Simeon and Levi ask the Shechemites to circumcise themselves as a prerequisite for Shechem’s marrying her sister — thus preventing intermarriage. (Unless it was a preparatory ploy to weaken the men for easier slaugher, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.) This is not an example of spreading Judaism so it will have as many adherents as possible.
And, by the way, do you really recommend that? The idea of trying to change someone else’s religion is a little repellent to me — maybe because I’ve been on the receiving end occasionally.

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posted December 8, 2009 at 4:49 pm

“I don’t know all the other places where you refute the idea of Judaism as a non-proselytizing religion”
Two examples:
One could still imagine someone asking Rabbi Hirsch, after hearing his quotation in that 2nd link, “So, does that mean that you are pro-proselytzing?” I really wonder what Rabbi Hirsch would say.

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