The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who appears briefly to be ‘taken and defiled’ in Genesis 34 and is never mentioned again.
The novel is by Anita Diamant, an American writer who has penned a couple of works of fiction but whose main body of work seems to be a veritable library on the subject of ‘modern Jewish living,’ ranging from everyday rituals to what names to pick for your children. Her other novels seem to deal mainly with more contemporary subjects, including Good Harbor (a story of friendship between two women in Massachusetts after one of them is diagnosed with breast cancer, which reminded me of some of Alice Hoffman’s less magical novels, or a less political version of Marge Piercy’s modern-day works) and the forthcoming Day After Night, which I approach with trepidation as it is the story of four young Jewish women in the few years leading up to the birth of the State of Israel/the Palestinian Naqba, or Catastrophe, and I suspect I’m going to find it very offensive, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.
The Red Tent itself is now one of those books which has legendarily sold millions of copies, apparently through the power of word of mouth and reading groups, although I’m now sceptical of most of those claims since marketing companies seem to often have more to do with them than meets the eye. It is an extremely women-oriented novel, telling Dinah’s life story – the years of it after the massacre at Shechem by definition entirely fictional. Respecting the probable level of separation between male and female lives at the time, as well as the writer’s own apparent interests, the tale deals largely with the lives of the women of Jacob’s camp – his wives and concubines Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah – with their father Laban, their many sons and even Jacob largely playing bit parts. Female forebears such as Sarai (Sarah) and Rebekah/Rebecca are viewed as wise, powerful figures, whereas while Abram/Abraham is respected he is very distant and nebulous, and Isaac appears as a blind, feeble old man who has never recovered from his near-sacrifice by Abraham:
“Years later, when his grandsons finally met the boy of the story, by then an old man, they were appalled to hear how Isaac stuttered, still frightened by his father’s knife.”
In line with this interest in the stories of the women of the family, the Biblical God or El is also a distant figure, very much associated with the men. The women worship a range of different local and family deities – hence the conflict when, as described in the Biblical account, Laban finds his household gods have disappeared along with Jacob and his wives. Diamant frames this as part of one of the book’s ongoing themes, the era of Jacob as the cusp of a transfer from matriarchal to patriarchal religions, with Rachel asserting her right as her father’s daughter to take the figures of the Gods, and Laban demanding his right according to a newer male-oriented system to leave them to his oldest son, Kemuel. The extent to which this prehistoric female-centred belief system, as set out by archaeologists such as Marija Gimbutas in a range of books, including the Language of the Goddess and the Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, actually existed across the Middle East and Eastern Europe is disputed, but there is certainly plenty of evidence for a much more varied and gender-balanced pantheon than that offered by the great monotheistic faiths.
The book, which is named after the ritual menstrual tent inhabited by the women for three days at the beginning of every month while they bleed, is highly sensual, both in describing the erotic relationships between Jacob and his wives and Dinah and her husband, Shalem, and also in the non-sexual descriptions of the scents and sounds of living a camp existence, surrounded by goats and dogs, and where Jacob may be handsome but he also smells like any other goatherd in a settlement where water must by pulled by hand. The women are wise, but their wisdom and power is sited in the female domains of baking, weaving and brewing, or in midwifery and healing knowledge, or in the secrets and mysteries of the Red Tent, where they are able to build alliances and cook up schemes in what might be seen as an expression of subaltern power, ‘weapons of the weak.’
Also interesting about this book is the strength of the indictment it delivers against Jacob and his sons for the murders in Shechem. The killings are depicted as primarily the acts of the jealous, bitter twins Simeon and Levi, but with the complicity of Jacob and some of the other brothers. Contrary to the Biblical account, Jacob’s change of name to IsraEl is not by the command of God, but an attempt by Jacob to escape his own name:
“so that people would not remember him as the butcher of Shechem. He fled from the name Jacob, which became another name for ‘liar,’ so that ‘you serve the God of Jacob’ was one of the worst insults one man could hurl at another in that land for many generations.”
The men of Shechem, including the king, Hamor, are largely portrayed as generous and honourable, as are many of those of Egypt, where Dinah spends the rest of her life after the massacre. The descendants of Jacob, meanwhile, are largely portrayed as a dysfunctional group, injured by Dinah’s curses and with their women diminished by their loss of the female rites and knowledge which they are increasingly denied by their brothers, fathers and husbands.
It’s not a perfect book – the language sometimes teeters on the brink between being mannered in its attempt to evoke its ancient setting, and rich in its evocation of the era. The second half, set in Egypt, seems to lose some of richness and depth once there is no background of Biblical scholarship and feminist vs conventional theology to draw inspiration from. But on many levels this is a deeply moving and fascinating book which provides a marvellous alternative version to this section of the Old Testament.