The Red Tent
Author: Anita Diamant
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 1997
Genre: Historical Fiction
Although barely mentioned in the Bible, the story of Dinah, her mothers, her twelve brothers, and the tribe of Jacob comes brilliantly to life here. Each month during their menstrual cycles, the women conceal themselves inside the Red Tent, away from the men. Because of their isolation, they are able to retain the ‘old ways’ of god and goddess worship, love and support one another through births and deaths, and take care of one another’s children. Their stories live through their daughters, although in this case, Dinah is the only daughter born of Jacob’s four wives, and thus carries the memories of all four of her “mothers.”
Via her aunt Rachel, Dinah learns the art of midwifery, and becomes well-respected. When she and Rachel are called to attend a birth in the palace shortly after Dinah’s first visit to the Red Tent, Dinah is taken with a prince of Shechem. As he is equally smitten with her, he takes her as his wife and they spend a blissful week together, at the end of which her husband and the king go to her father and offer a bride price. Jacob is furious that he was not consulted beforehand, and considers that his daughter has been raped and defiled, despite the fact that she is in love with Shalem. He demands an outrageous dowry – that all of the men of Shechem shall bear the mark of the tribe of Jacob, and be circumcised. Seeing how in love with Dinah his son is, the King agrees and the bargain is struck. The night after the mass circumcision, Dinah’s brothers sneak into the city. They are furious about the kidnapping and rape of their sister, and slaughter every man they can find while he sleeps, including Shalem and the king. They take a shocked Dinah back with them.
Horrified, Dinah curses Jacob and all of her brothers and sneaks back to the city. The queen takes her to Egypt to live and bear the son she is pregnant with, but the angry queen claims the baby for herself, perhaps blaming Dinah for the actions of her brothers. Dinah lives essentially as a slave in relative solitude as her son is brought up as a prince of Egypt.
In Genesis 34, we are told little more than “Dinah is defiled and her brothers take revenge.” To see the story fleshed out is fascinating. We get a taste of what it might have been like to part of a nomadic Israelite tribe. Much of the book is about Dinah’s life in Egypt and her reconciliation of what her brothers have done. Each female character is so lovingly shaped that you wish you knew all of them, even if the male characters are a bit more shallowly written.
Fun Fact: In 2014, a two-part television miniseries of The Red Tent was made, starring Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah, Minnie Driver as Leah, and Debra Winger as Rebecca, Dinah’s grandmother.
Bother if: This one is a no-brainer for fans of historical or biblical fiction. You get to see the world as it might have been in Christ’s time through Dinah’s eyes, and it is so vividly told that you feel like you are there, in the Red Tent. One needn’t be religious or indeed even very familiar with bible stories in order to enjoy this book. I thought that it was an exciting, beautifully imagined story.
Don’t Bother if: I didn’t feel that there was anything particularly offensive about this book. It does include mild historical depictions of sex, rape, violence, murder, and all manner of customs of the time. One criticism is that the male characters were quite a bit less developed than the females – almost certainly by design – but the men fell a little flat for me by comparison. The target market is almost certainly women, as this is a story about the wives and daughter of Jacob, but I think that male fans of the genre would enjoy this story as well.