Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Book Review: The Red Tent (Mar-Apr 2002)

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By Anna Evankovich

The Red Tent, is a compelling saga that many Christians aren’t sure they should be enjoying. This retelling of the story of the women in the family of Jacob using his daughter Dinah’s voice as narrator, has sent thousands of readers back to the book of Genesis to answer the inevitable question, “Does it really say that in the Bible?”

We who have been raised with the teaching, “Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” are uncomfortable with the elaborate tale Diamant has woven around the Genesis account of the family of Jacob. Our discomfort, however, is not usually enough to put down this captivating novel.

In writing the story of Dinah’s life, Diamant revitalizes the ancient Hebrew tradition of midrash. Midrash is the examination of the Hebrew Bible in light of oral tradition. Much of the Talmud is based on the midrashic writings of ancient rabbis. Midrashes, for example, offer explanations for Cain’s murderous motives or Noah’s wife, Naamah. Its purpose is that of enlightenment or the clarification of legal issues. There are many ancient midrashes surrounding the stories of Jacob’s family.

Diamant’s midrash is, however, original. The ancient midrashes of Leah and Dinah offer very different explanations for their behavior. The ancient rabbi, Rashi said Leah was “weak-eyed” because of all the tears she shed knowing she was promised in marriage to the unrighteous Esau. When God spares her and she is married to Jacob, she understands that her only daughter, Dinah, could redeem Esau through marriage. But Jacob, fearing for his daughter, locks Dinah in a chest when they meet Esau. Diamant does not lean on these ancient tales, but weaves a new possibility.

Diamant, author of several books on Jewish history, is quick to emphasize that her first novel is a work of fiction. The plot of her saga is based on the sparse details of Jacob’s family given in Genesis 29-49. The Red Tent, while largely faithful to the details in scripture, completely changes the common interpretation of the scriptural account. While some of the minor scriptural details are altered, like the number of years Jacob labored for the sisters, the basic elements of the story, including the pivitol slaughter of Shechem, are scripturally accurate. In the midrashic tradition, countless details are added that are not counter to the biblical text.

Diamant says that it was the rivalry of the sisters, Leah and Rachel, that first intrigued her. Something about their rivalry didn’t seem quite right to her. How could Leah have been unloved if she bore at least seven children to Jacob? Diamant describes a deepening, sensual relationship between Jacob and Leah.

Leah’s daughter, Dinah, seemed the perfect chronicler to detail the relationships of her four “mothers.” Being the only daughter among four women, Dinah receives many and varied blessings from her mothers. Diamant creates the red tent, the retreat for the women during menstruation and childbirth, as the focal point where feminine wisdom is nurtured.

Our discomfort with this tale is unsettling because rather than glorifying or purifying the motives of the members of Jacob’s family, Diamant humanizes her characters with a host of flaws and failings. We, however, want the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel to be models for us all throughout the ages.

It doesn’t take an astute Bible scholar to find fault with the Israelite patriarchs in scripture. Jacob is unquestionably conniving. Levi and Simeon are undeniably murderous. Reuben is undoubtedly incestuous. Joseph is obviously manipulative. Diamant’s story merely elaborates on these human shortcomings.

But The Red Tent is not the story of the patriarchs. It is the story of sisters, of mothers, and of daughters. The women in Jacob’s family were strong. Even in a society where women had little power and could be bought and sold, strength of character and will were vital to survival. The strong daughters of Laban are in sharp contrast to the fictionalized pitiful character of Laban’s second wife. Diamant’s basis for their strength is also founded in the biblical account of Leah’s bargaining for Jacob’s sexual favors and Rachel’s theft of her father’s household gods.

Perhaps the most puzzling omission in Diamant’s midrash is the action of God. As I read, I kept expecting Jehovah to enter the scene, but he never does. What Diamant demonstrates is the newness of the concept of one god. While the scriptural account does have God listening to Leah and Rachel (Genesis 30:17 & 22) the Genesis writer also indicates that Rachel stole the household gods from her father when they left his estate. (Genesis 31:19) The characters in Diamant’s story recognize the power of Jacob’s god, but they do not worship him as the one true god. Scripture reinforces this idea by declaring Jehovah to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not the god of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah.

If The Red Tent is a midrashic tale meant to enlighten us, what can we learn from this intriguing narrative? First, God reveals himself to imperfect people. In our minds we understand this, but in our hearts we think of the patriarchs of the Old Testament with the haloes ringing their heads like in the Sunday school pictures.

Second, the Bible cannot contain every detail of every event. Consequently, there are some things we will never know this side of heaven. The events in The Red Tent are all probable. Diamant herself, while reminding us that her work is fiction, has laid out for us a series of disturbing, though realistic possibilities. It is very likely that these ancient people didn’t have the motives that she attributes to them. But she may have gotten it right. We are uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible leaves us so much room for interpretation. The countless branches of Christianity are testament to this fact. The Bible can’t tell us everything. God leaves room for us to reason and to listen to his spirit.

Finally, Diamant’s retelling of the early Israelites allows us to understand the newness of monotheism. The ancient culture of Jacob believed in many gods. Each family seemed to have their own collection, with individual members having their own personal god. Dinah and her mothers respect Jacob’s god, El, as his god. They can plainly see that Jacob has a good relationship with his god. Laban fears Jacob’s god. But is doesn’t seem to enter anyone’s mind to abandon their own gods in order to worship someone else’s god. If it was true that Jehovah was the God of Abraham, Isaac,  and Jacob, and not the god of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, then perhaps we can have a greater understanding of why the fathers of the twelve tribes were not dynamic spokesmen for Jehovah.

Joseph’s children would have grown up in Egypt, surrounded by the temples of Isis, Osiris, and Ra. After hundreds of years of living in Egypt, it is possible that the Israelites’ connection with Jehovah was very thin.

I have always heard preachers and Sunday school teachers tell of how the Israelites freed from slavery were so quick to complain. I always complacently agreed that slavery and wandering in the desert were the price of deliberately turning your back on God. After reading The Red Tent, however, I am much more sympathetic. It is completely possible, in fact even probable, that many of the Israelite slaves had never even heard of Jehovah. They had no temple or priests in Egypt for their children and grandchildren. As a people, the Israelites’ connection with Jehovah was only newly introduced before their period of bondage. I know that I personally have been too judgmental of the ancient Jews.

Perhaps this is the ultimate message of The Red Tent: we don’t know the whole story. Ours is not the place of judgment. There will come a time when we understand fully how God moved in human history and how people related to him. That time is not now. We need to be cautious when we feel sure that we know what has happened in any situation.

King Solomon understood when he said in his prayer of dedication for the temple “…you [God] alone know the hearts of all men.” (1 Kings 8:39).

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