Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders

April 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on November 29, 2009.)

Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look at the daughters of the land. And Shekchem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he overpowered her. And he became attached in his soul with Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden, and he spoke to the maiden’s heart. Then Shekhem spoke to Chamor, his father, saying: Get me this girl for a wife. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-4)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient city on the west bank of the Jordan.

chamor (חֲמוֹר) = a male donkey, ass

Shekhem is the name of the “most honored” son of the ruler of a city named … Shekhem.  You could call him Mr. Shoulders, Mr. City, or maybe just Mr. Big.  After Jacob stops at the city of Shekhem and buys land, apparently planning to settle down there with his large family, Mr. Big seduces Jacob’s daughter Dinah.  Then he falls in love with her, “speaks to her heart” (Genesis 34:3), and offers Jacob an exorbitant bride-price if he can marry her.

It sounds like a love story—though Shekhem’s father complicates the affair by proposing that his city and Jacob’s household intermarry and become one people.  Then the story turns dark.  Jacob is silent, probably paralyzed by his habitual fear.  But two of his sons, Simon and Levi, pretend to agree to intermarriage if all the men of the city will circumcise themselves.  After the Shechemites have done so, and are disabled by pain, the two brothers swoop in, kill every male, take Dinah, and leave.  Then the “sons of Jacob” (which sons are not specified) plunder the city of Shechem and take the women and children as slaves.

What a vicious trick to play on Dinah’s lover and the peaceful citizens of the city!  Simon and Levi may have learned trickery from their father, but at least Jacob’s tricks never led to murder or slavery.  What’s behind this horror in Shechem?

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

The city of Shechem, at the present site of Nablus, sat in a narrow valley between two hills (“shoulders”of land):  Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval.  Much later in the Torah, when the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan into the promised land, Moses instructs them to perform a ritual on those two hills.  While the Levites recite a list of good deeds that God rewards with blessings, and a list of bad deeds that God punishes with curses, half of the tribes are to stand on Mount Gezerim to represent the blessing, and half on Mount Eyval to represent the curse.  (Deuteronomy 27:11-14; see my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself)

I think Shechem, located between these two symbolic hills, represents the decision point.  North or south?  Good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

Jacob’s sons have a chance to deal honestly with the citizens of Shechem.  For all they know, Chamor’s offer is part of God’s plan to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.  But even if Jacob’s sons refuse to intermarry or proselytize, they could still try to negotiate a peaceful covenant.

Instead, they choose evil.  Does their choice bring down God’s curses?  Read what comes next and see what you think.

P.S.  I wrote a Torah monologue on an earlier part of the Torah portionVayishlach. Before Jacob travels to Shechem, he meets with his estranged brother Esau, though he is afraid Esau still wants to kill him.  The night before their meeting, Jacob wrestles alone with a “man” at the ford of the Jabbok River.  But what does Esau do that night?

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  1. […] Nablus now, but in ancient times the city of Shechem lay in the valley between them.  (See my blog Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders on […]

  2. […] Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.)  Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval.  Then his ritual calls for the men of […]


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