Book review: “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a re-telling of the story of the biblical character Dinah. It allows you to read the story with fresh eyes by using the rhetorical device of changing perspectives, much as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead relates the story of Hamlet from the story of two side characters. I have read a similar re-telling of the Book of Mormon from the perspective of Laman in The Book of Laman by Mette Harrison. As all women in the Bible are treated as side characters, it is very rare that we get to hear their side of the story (for a unique take on one book of scripture written from a women’s perspective, I recommend checking out Adam Miller’s The Sun Has Burned My Skin: A Modest Paraphrase of Solomon’s Song of Songs). The Red Tent changes all that, giving a stunningly beautiful, yet also harsh, view of the life of the women in these stories. The book builds on the account of Dinah found in Chapter 34 of Genesis, but adds backstory as well as filling in what happened to Dinah afterwards. I have posted the whole account as recorded in the King James version of the Bible below. Dinah is taken to wife by a prince among the Canaanites, Shechem, without consent of the father, Jacob. Jacob and his sons respond deceitfully by first seeming to be reconciled to the fact, that slaughtering the entire town in cold blood. I have read this story multiple times before, but from my Latter-Day Saint upbringing, I didn’t know how to make sense of it. The normal Sunday School level dialogue surrounding events in the Bible usually can’t deal with a whole lot of nuance. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are acknowledged as prophets. Prophets when speaking as prophets can essentially do no wrong, Due to our theology of apostasy and restoration, it is typically understood that the gospel essentially exists the same as it does today in dispensations where a prophet was on the earth. In this story, it sounds a whole lot like Jacob was the bad guy. But this is usually uncomfortably ignored, or even justified as the doings of God:

Anita Diamant’s characters are clearly human. Jacob has his strengths, but he also has some huge flaws. Not only that, the culture that existed was entirely different. In addition to women being treated as property, the other big culture shock for me was the religious lives of the main characters. All the main characters worship multiple gods. The god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, El, is another tribal god among many tribes. While Jacob only worships El, his father-in-law, Laban, does not. He has a whole room in his tent filled with household gods. Even more interesting, the religious lives of women and men seem to be almost completely decoupled. The stories men tell and share with their sons are different than those the women share with their daughters. From the text, it appears the women have kept a whole tradition of priestesses secret from their husbands in what is known as the red tent. The red tent is where the women of the tribe pass their monthly pains together and bear children. They offer up the blood from their periods as an offering to a goddess(es). Rebecca, the matriarch of the family, is a high priestess in this tradition, and hopes to carry it on through her daughters. To be honest, if I were to share this with a member of my congregation, I wouldn’t be surprised if they discarded it as blasphemy. But I found the account, while strange, eye-opening in how I approach the stories contained in the Old Testament. Even within the given context, it is clear that monotheism as we know it today was not well established. We know that Sarah and Rebecca came from different faith traditions, and likely did worship other gods. Perhaps it is just jarring when the gaps contained in the Bible are filled in. It reminded me of another book I read that makes a similar point, The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns:

Whatever we do, letโ€™s not imagine that the Israelites were ancient versions of ourselves, maybe less well groomed, who were โ€œnice,โ€ read their Bibles daily, the kind you could invite to church and want to marry your daughter, who would vote Republican or drive a hybrid. We respect these biblical stories most when we try to understand what the writers did and why, not when we place false expectations on them, like seeing them as a timeless script or a permanent fixture for how to think about God.

While the book does fill in the story contained in Genesis 34, what is perhaps most compelling are the bookends, Parts I and III, in which Diamant retells the stories of Jacob and Joseph through the eyes of the womenfolk, Dinah and her mothers included. In fact, Diamant makes the story of Dinah absolutely central to the events following Genesis 34. Jacob’s and Joseph’s misfortune are divine retribution for the murder of the Canaanite city. What is often read over as a skip-over chapter becomes the driving of events throughout the story. There are parts of the story that are likely fiction– for instance, Dinah escapes her family and flees to Egypt with her mother-in-law long before Joseph is sold into Egypt– they add beauty to this tale. After all, if you are going to tell a story, you have to have events to tell. If they aren’t there, then you have to provide them. Interestingly, there is a tradition of filling in the gaps in the Jewish tradition, what is known as Midrash. The author reflected on this in an author interview:

Many Jewish readers see the novel as belonging to the ancient tradition midrash, which is a highly imaginative and creative form of biblical commentary. I am honored by the comparison and I’m sure that my limited reading of midrash inspired me to take liberties with the stories of Genesis. However, I think The Red Tent is a novel that must stand on its own for people who have no connection to or knowledge of the biblical story. That makes it fundamentally different from midrash, which is commentary that reflects on the original text.

That perhaps is true, but it certainly makes you reflect on the original text in a completely new way. I had just listened to a podcast on the Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series published by the Maxwell Institute that was reflecting on the centrality of translation in the Latter-Day Saint tradition. The author, Rosalynde Welch, asserts that translation is an essential process to the text, as it makes the stories come alive again. I thought The Red Tent could also be viewed as a translational process that invites us to re-evalute the text within the Bible and make them our own.

Full Text of Genesis 34

And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel. And Shechem spake unto his father Hamor, saying, Get me this damsel to wife. And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter: now his sons were with his cattle in the field, and Jacob held his peace until they were come.

And Hamor the father of Shechem went out unto Jacob to commune with him. And the sons of Jacob came out of the field when they heard it: and the men were grieved, and they were very wroth, because he had wrought folly in Israel in lying with Jacob’s daughter; which thing ought not to be done. And Hamor communed with them, saying, The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter: I pray you give her him to wife. And make ye marriages with us, and give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us: and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein, and get you possessions therein. And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren, Let me find grace in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me: but give me the damsel to wife. And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father deceitfully, and said, because he had defiled Dinah their sister: And they said unto them, We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised; for that were a reproach unto us: But in this will we consent unto you: If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised; Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters unto us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. But if ye will not hearken unto us, to be circumcised; them will we take our daughter, and we will be gone. And their words pleased Hamor, and Shechem Hamor’s son. And the young man deferred not to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter: and he was more honourable than all the house of his father.

And Hamor and Shechem his son came unto the gate of their city, and communed with the men of their city, saying, These men are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein; for the land, behold, it is large enough for them; let us take their daughters to us for wives, and let us give them our daughters. Only herein will the men consent unto us for them to dwell with us, to be one people, if every male among us be circumcised, as they are circumcised. Shall not their cattle and their substance and every beast of theirs be ours? only let us consent unto them and they will dwell with us. And unto Hamor and unto Shechem his son hearkened all that went out of the gate of his city; and every male was circumcised, all that went out of the gate of his city.

And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon teh city boldly, and slew all the males. And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field, And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house. And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of teh land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?

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