“If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.” -Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Genesis 34: 1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. 2 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. 3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel. 4 And Shechem spake unto his father Hamor, saying, Get me this damsel to wife.
13 And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father deceitfully, and said, because he had defiled Dinah their sister: 14 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: 15 But in this will we consent unto you: If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised; 16 Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people.
25 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 the city boldly, and slew all the males. 26 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. 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister. 28 They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field, 29 And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house.
Dinah never says a word in the Bible. Her silence, along with that of so many women in the scriptures is part of what prompted me to start writing about my Biblical heroes: typically, they are the silent voices, often glossed over in the stories of which they are the central character.
How different a book the Bible would have been had women gotten to tell their side of the story….
Anita Diamant wrote The Red Tent ten years ago in an effort to give Dinah and her mothers a voice. Reading the biblical account, she was struck by the words of Genesis 34:3: “And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.” Twenty-three verses later, Shechem and his entire family were dead.
Diamant weaves a tale rich as a Babylonianish garment, and envisions Dinah as a skilled and courageous mid-wife, and the story she envisions gives a new perspective on Jacob’s wives, his sons-particularly Joseph, and the hard dusty spiritual world of that time.
The story, of course, is historical fiction. It is written in a graceful tone, careful to respect the texts from whence it was inspired. Often, such books are immediately branded as feminist propaganda, anti-male, and even blasphemous. This story has had all of those accusations flung at it, and has even been banned by certain religious schools. I, however, did not find that to be the case: while the focus of the story indeed was on the women, and their relationships to each other, but the male characters were richly drawn, and certainly not all antagonists. Women view the world through different eyes then men, noticing and placing their focus on different things. This is a good thing.
What struck me most was the different perception from the one presented in the Bible I had of women like Dinah and Leah and Rachel after reading this story. In the Bible, for instance, Leah is drawn as a somewhat weak and tragic afterthought, but Diamant draws her character as strong, intelligent, loyal and brave. She is, unquestioningly, the Capable and Formidable Matriarch. Diamant has say she *intended* to depart from the text, to make the story her own.
Envisioning Dinah as a mid-wife brings a dimension to the story that shows the necessary strength and bravery of women of that time: many births are recorded, and like life, they run the gamut from joyous to gut-wrenching. Reading it, I recalled the nurses who cared for me when I had my own children, and the instant camaraderie that is born between women during those times. My gratitude for their role in my life was re-awakened.
“You have no fear of childbirth?”
“Midwives have no fear of life.”
Those who find it distasteful or wrong to envision or imagine Biblical stories differently than they appear in the scriptures will not enjoy this book. It takes extraordinary liberties, and turns many of the commonly held interpretations of the events in the life of Jacob and his sons and turns them completely on their heads. While well researched, it is not a *factual rendering* of life during that time. The red tent itself is a concept invented in the author’s mind.
Reading the bible, whether we admit it or not, is done with an unconscious theological slant. Most often, people read it as an authority on how to conduct one’s life, and interpret its words based on values and understandings that have been passed down to us from our ancestors.
Reading a novel, however, can be done without such weight. It is easier to see the characters as real people, not sermon illustrations, with real struggles and real joys and real sorrows. The more vivid the characters are, the more their stories move us. Reading The Red Tent brought these characters to life for me, and in so doing, even though they are long gone, they were able to speak with a new voice.
“Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art. Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death.”