A Concubine on the Fringes

Sexual taboos are violated twice in the Vayishlach portion. Two very different women are the objects of the violations: Dina, the only daughter of Jacob, a wealthy patriarch; and Bilhah, Jacob's concubine. First, Dina, Jacob's only daughter, is raped by Shechem and then, in an unrelated matter, Reuben, Jacob's eldest son, commits the number one offense of the polygamous world—he sleeps with his father's concubine. Consequences ensue for (almost) all parties. While Dina's rape is heavily avenged, no one seems to care very much about the actions done to (or with) a concubine.

In the text, Dina's rape becomes the instigator for the slaughter of Shechem's city. Shechem's father attempts to settle the matter of the rape by trying to secure Dina as a wife for Shechem. During the negotiations, circumcision is made a condition of the settlement. An agreement is reached, and three days after the men are circumcised, Simeon and Levi break into the city at night and kill, slaughter, and pillage. Jacob's response to his sons is rather mellow, considering their actions:

You have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land . . . I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated—I and my household (Gen. 34: 30).

Jacob's concern is primarily with reputation, which was also his sons' primary concern:

Jacob's sons arrived from the field, when they heard, the men were distressed and they were fired deeply with indignation, for he had committed an outrage in Israel (Gen. 34:6).

After Jacob reprimands his sons, they respond, "Should he treat our sister like a harlot?" (Gen. 34:31)

The sons are outraged that someone disrespected their family, while the father is concerned that the sons' actions, because of their extreme scale, may actually further harm the family's reputation. In either case, there is general agreement that between Dina's legs resides their manhood. Jacob is not pleased with his sons' actions, but neither does he unequivocally condemn their behavior. At the end of the narrative, Jacob and his sons simply agree to disagree on the proper handling of the city of Shechem.

However, when it comes to Reuben sleeping with his father's concubine, when Jacob learns of his son's behavior, he does nothing. A son taking his father's lover for himself is an outrageous offense. Why does Jacob stay silent? His silence is so inexplicable that the Talmud learns from it that Reuben must not have actually committed such an offense.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: That righteous one [Reuven] was protected from committing that sin, and he did not perform that act. Is it possible that his descendants were destined to stand upon Mount Eival and to declare, 'Cursed is he who lies with his father's wife'—while he himself did this? What, then, are we to learn from the verse teaching, 'he lay with Bilha, his father's concubine'? He wanted to protest his mother's honor. He said: My mother's sister troubled my mother—shall the maidservant of my mother's sister than also trouble my mother? He stood up and moved her bed . . .

Jacob's lack of immediate response may suggest that Reuben's indiscretion was not in fact a major violation, not because he did not actually do it, because of who he did it with. After all, Bilhah was a mere concubine; perhaps it did not matter to Jacob who lay with her? Moreover, Reuben was a member of the family, so there was no threat of outside aggression to contend with.

The Torah's sexual ethic emerges in the narratives of Dina and Bilhah. Above all else is the ability of men to barter the wombs of the daughters and sisters in their possession. By raping Dina, Shechem undermined Jacob's ability to make alliances of his choice. Bilhah was not all that young nor she was a daughter or a sister, just a lowly concubine. There is little interest in who a concubine takes to bed. A concubine's worthlessness was also her freedom. While she had little social status or institutional protections, she was able to have Jacob's son in her bed, with few consequences. For women, there may be moments when existing on the fringes of society may have its advantages.

12/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Anna Batler
    About Anna Batler
    Anna Batler is a writer and an attorney based out of Washington, D.C. She writes about faith, feminism, spirituality, and religious identity at Sotah.net. She also writes a weekly feminist Bible commentary at GatherTheJews.com.