The Red Tent

On my cousin Nina’s recommendation, I read The Red Tent. The Red Tent is a best-selling historical novel telling the story of the biblical Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who’s a marginal character in the Genesis story.
The Red Tent is a novelization of now-familiar feminist readings of Genesis, found in quasi-scholarly works like Sarah the Priestess, by Savina Teuval; decent scholarly works, like In the Wake of the Goddesses, by Tikvah Frymer-Kensky; and contemporary traditions developed in communal, non-academic settings.

From these genres, the novel takes:

  • a silhouette re-reading of the patriarchal bible stories where the men are the main characters by definition. In the Red Tent, the women are main characters, and men take the stage occasionally.
  • the worship of goddesses and gods in groves and statues, excoriated as idolatry by the bible’s editors, depicted as the center of spiritual life for the female characters
  • a parallel, woman-centered set of religious traditions being gradually replaced by patriarchy. The Matriarch Rebecca acknowledges that she will have no heir to become the next Oracle of Mamre.
  • female traditions of spinning, weaving, gardening, brewing, baking, and especially healing and midwifery (the female crafts seem to be drawn pretty solidly from scholarship, to the best of my peripheral knowledge).

From feminist ritual and myth, the novel takes:

  • the eponymous Red Tent, where women seclude themselves for menstruation, coming of age rituals, bridal celebrations, childbirth, and the passing on of spiritual traditions.
  • a portrait of sisterhood among the women of a polygamous household, and the mentor relationships in the tradition of midwifery and healing.
  • hagiographic portraits of women embodying various positive attributes; Leah the capable, Rachel the beautiful, Bilhah the observant, Mernit the wise healer.

My favorite aspect of the story is the way that it does midrash — distinctive rereadings of the biblical text, for deliberate reasons.

  • Leah’s eyes aren’t weak, as bible interpretation has it. Her eyes are mis-matched in color, sign of Leah’s bold, unconventional, practical insight.
  • The wedding sister-swap, in which the older Leah is substituted for the younger, more beautiful Rachel, is portrayed as consensual arrangement among the sisters; Leah and Jacob are already attracted, and the very young Rachel is scared of marriage and sex. There’s some jealousy, but the sisters are rivals, not enemies.
  • Dinah isn’t raped by the prince of Schechem, she’s wooed and wed; the rape story is a coverup by the Simon and Levi to justify their brutal murder and destruction of the city.

The most artfully midrashic passages in the novel (though not always the most dramatically successful) are the sections that parallel the Joseph story. Joseph, as readers of the bible story might remember, was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and rose from slave to viceroy. When his brothers come to Egypt to seek food during a famine, they don’t recognize him. Unrecognized, Joseph interviews his brothers for word of the family in Canaan. On the surface, he is the imperious vizier. After the interview, he weeps in secret.
In the Red Tent, Dinah travels incognito with Joseph back to Canaan to visit the dying Jacob. Unrecognized, Dinah interviews a female relative about the fate of various family members. The grandniece recounts the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah; a family tree with numerous female names that weren’t recorded in the bible. Dinah wonders if she has been remembered, and is gratified that her story is still told.
In the Joseph story, the irony is within the tale. Joseph knows what his brothers don’t. In The Red Tent, the irony is largely outside the story. We know what Dinah doesn’t; how little of the story of her mothers survived; not even the names of the female kin.
These readings are in the classic tradition of midrash, in which the Rabbis, troubled by some aspect of the biblical text, reread the story with substantial transformation from the literal reading. Diament, reading the geneology of the descendents of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, is troubled that the men’s names are recorded and the women’s names aren’t.
Overall, the novelization works, as the sales figures prove; the familiar bible stories are retold in new ways, with lively portraits of life in canaanite and egyptian cultures, and various emotional dramas; the four-part love story between Jacob and his wives, Rachel’s longing for children, the stealing of the idols from Laban’s house. The writing isn’t first-rate, Diament often tells instead of showing; the characters are somewhat superficial, the romances are harlequin. The novel borrows the biblical structure of narrative vignettes within a meandering but one-directional trajectory. The plot sometimes lags; editing could tighten the story.
Despite these flaws, I found the story moving as a novel, particularly in the way that it remakes Joseph story with a female main character and a contemporary sensibility.
Dinah’s life takes place in segments; as a bold and adventurous girl with her family; lover in her brief first marriage; shy mother and servant in an aristocratic Egyptian household; confident midwife and lover in a late second marriage, and matriarch in artisan class Egypt. The main character’s rise and decline in social status is classic to the novel; and Dinah’s fashioning of self-understanding in an discontinuous life is a contemporary interpolation on the Joseph plot.
I was moved by the ways that the bonds created by the midwife tradition kept a social role for Dinah in Egypt, when she was a foreigner without family. Dinah keeps her origin and story a secret for much of her time in Egypt, gradually discloses the story, which frees her for a rich late adulthood. This is a cliche of psychotherapy, and also a contemporary interpretation of the Joseph story with a female main character.
The contemporary nature of these plot devices is a strength, not a weakness. All midrash is contemporary, and I found the Joseph retelling emotionally compelling.
Pages and pages of Amazon reviews, and, says my cousin Nina, some of her acquaintainces, treat the story as, alternately, a historically accurate picture of biblical life, or an offensively inaccurate bastardization of the literally true Genesis story. The literalist readings, of course, miss the point entirely.
The Red Tent is not great literature, but it is effective midrash, a readable story, and has strengths as a novel. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, and can’t predict who’d like it. But I found it interesting and moving.

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