One Minute Book Review – The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Diamant Red Tent

The Bible is filled with so many, many stories that it is easy to read superficially without thinking much beyond the words on the page. One story easily overlooked is that of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, the Old Testament Patriarch, father of the twelve men who formed the tribes of Israel. Dinah appears only in chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis and her name is mentioned here only six times, half as many as that of her father, Jacob. And while Jacob speaks, Dinah’s voice is not heard at all.

Dinah 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 (KJV Genesis 34:1-3) so much so that he wanted to marry her. He and his father approached Jacob and offered a generous bride price. Jacob agreed but added the demand that they and the men of the city be circumcised. Hamor and Shechem agreed to this but while they were recovering Jacobs sons, Simeon and Levi, attacked the city, killing all the men, looting the city and surrounding countryside and taking the women and children captives. Nothing more is said of Dinah once she has been removed by her brothers from Shechem’s house.

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant takes the story of Dinah and brings her to life, giving her a voice. While the story of her ‘defilement’ is pivotal, it is not the end of Dinah’s life. The novel is narrated by Dinah as she tells not only her own story but that of her mothers, the wives of Jacob – Leah the mother who gave birth to her, and Leah’s sisters Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. The first part of the book, My Mothers’ Stories begins with Jacob’s arrival in the lands belonging to his kinsman Laban, father of Leah and her sisters, and follows their lives up to Dinah’s birth and that of her half brother Joseph nine months later. Dinah knows these tales as they have been shared by her mothers during the time they spend together in the red tent, the place where they withdraw to when they are menstruating, giving birth or are unwell. The second part of the book is Dinah’s story and, as well as describing Dinah’s life, it explores her relationships with her mothers and the complex friendships and tensions between the women. The daily lives of the women and the settlement are described in fascinating detail which does honour to the essential work of women to ensure that both life and hospitality are maintained. This section of the book also follows the biblical narrative with the departure of Jacob and his family from Laban’s encampment and their journey towards the land of Shechem. The world in all its splendor and strangeness opens up to Dinah on this journey. It ends with the slaughter of Shechem and Dinah’s reaction to it. The final section of the book is set in Egypt and details the remainder of Dinah’s life.

The Red Tent is well researched with Diamant drawing on history and anthropology for the world she creates rather than theology. It is beautifully written and both breathtaking and heartbreaking at times. There is a large cast of characters but each is clearly drawn. For the most part, and perhaps understandably, the women are far more sympathetically presented than the men.

Dinah’s ‘defilement’ is usually, but not always, presented as rape. Diamant’s reading of Genesis 34  was that Shechem’s behavour did not seem to be that of a rapist, especially as he was willing to submit himself to the painful procedure of circumcision in order to marry Dinah. Because Dinah is really nothing more than a name in the Bible story, there was vast scope for Diamant to fill in the silences and so create a vivid and memorable woman and a book which definitely deserves a second reading.

A more detailed review can be found here.

 

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