The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has told the Old Testament story of Jacob through the eyes of the women in the family. The novel is narrated by Dinah, who is the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Bible. In Diamant’s version, Jacob’s wives (Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah) worship the ancient goddesses of the Mesopotamian religion, but they have no objection to Jacob’s god. First published in 1997, The Red Tent celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The photo above is from Anita Diamant’s web site.
Central to the women’s customs is the red tent, where they all retreat during the new moon (the time of menstruation) in order to rest and socialize. Dinah, as the only girl, is allowed to accompany the women to the red tent from a young age, where she learns the stories of her mother and aunts.
The novel begins with Jacob’s arrival at the home of Leah and Rachel. Diamant has taken the bones of the story from Genesis but has breathed unique personalities and motivations into each woman of the family. The Red Tent continues through the family’s emigration from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and expands on the Bible’s only story of Dinah, a tragic and horrifying tale.
I enjoyed getting to know each of Dinah’s female relatives, as well as Dinah herself. I kept going back to Genesis to compare the story there with Diamant’s version. As far as I could tell, she does not contradict anything in the Bible, but instead embellishes and expands. She has created a believable ancient world, complete with details about landscape, food, medical practices, customs, and livelihoods. I was rooting for Dinah, and the ending is satisfying as Dinah is afforded a measure of peace despite her tragedy.
I do wish that Diamant had focused more on the conflict between followers of the male god of Jacob, and followers of the goddesses, but this religious split is used more as cultural furniture than to illustrate a seismic shift of a paradigm. At one point Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, admits that the goddess religion is dying, but no one else seems to care—certainly not Dinah.
Nevertheless, Diamant has created a story that gives voice to ancient women’s lives and concerns. At the end of the novel Dinah says to the reader, “wherever you walk, I go with you” and this novel helps us to understand a little bit of what some of humanity’s foremothers may have endured.