The Red Tent

by Anita Diamantredtent
{ 1997 | St. Martin’s Press | 336 pgs }

I feel the need to preface my remarks by saying that I am extraordinarily easily influenced by others’ opinions when it comes to books and movies, which is why, ironically, I avoid reading reviews beforehand. My cousin let me borrow this book, saying merely that it “was well written” and that she “had strong feelings about it.” Of course, I interpreted that as a negative commentary. Being aware of my tendencies,  I tried to counteract the pull to think of the book in negative terms.

Alright. Shall we begin with a summary?

The Red Tent is, according to the author, an attempt at Midrash, or filling in the gaps in Biblical narrative to aid in the understanding of the story. Diamant’s work is told from the point of view of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter who is mentioned only briefly in Genesis 34, where she is defiled by the prince of Shechem and her brothers take revenge on the city. This becomes the central event in The Red Tent and is preceded by narrative both about Leah & Rachel and Dinah’s history, and followed by an imaginative account of what happened to Dinah after Genesis 34. There is a great deal of emphasis on the relationships between the women in Jacob’s family; the title comes from the red tent to which the women retired for 3 days during the new moon/menstruation cycle.

And my thoughts:

What on earth is Diamant’s deep-seated hatred toward the Jewish patriarchs? She has virtually nothing good to say about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and makes Joseph into an arrogant, self-important man during his rule in Egypt. The women in the story are consistently bitter towards the men, as well as condescending (in their gossip in the red tent, not directly). While Diamant certainly knows how to tell a story, she seems to be attempting to convince her reader that the Jewish heroes are actually horrible people. Dinah is full of hatred towards them and is portrayed as a strong and noble woman (like her mothers, Jacob’s wives), a stark contrast to the men in the story. Only four men are shown any respect: Dinah’s two lovers; Reuben; and Judah.

Diamant’s retelling changes a major detail. The rape of Dinah becomes Dinah’s consensual relationship with the prince, and the acts of her family are then cruel, vindictive, and motivated by Simeon and Levi’s violent, angry temperaments. Jacob changes his name to Israel out of shame, because people speak of the deeds of Jacob as evil. There is no sense of family unity or togetherness in the entire book except for when the women come together in the red tent. Maybe that was the author’s point, but it wasn’t believable.

It was interesting to read this on the heels of The Da Vinci Code (bleh), where the female divine is such a focal point. The women of The Red Tent are very much in tune with the earth, the seasons, and the supreme female goddess, to the point of having bizarre – really bizarre – rituals regarding menstruation. I’m not sure where Diamant got such ideas, but I was better off before I read them.

As I said, I really did try to counteract the negativity I felt towards the book. But despite the creative storytelling, I was disappointed with Dinah’s lack of maturity throughout the book. She describes her life from birth to death, but seems to mature only physically and never emotionally or mentally. At the end she was just as petty and critical of others as she was in the beginning. Her voice makes it clear that in her eyes, she alone is blameless. She hates Jacob for disowning Reuben (who slept with Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah) and Judah (who, although the story does not mention it, slept with his daughter-in-law). Dinah is adamant that Reuben and Bilhah shared a true love and should not have been punished for their passion.

Maybe that’s what was most irritating about The Red Tent – despite being an attempt to portray how women lived during Biblical times, Diamant doesn’t care about the social constraints and rules of the period. Even if Dinah willingly went to the prince of Shechem, doing so before an official marriage would be considered immoral. I’m shocked that Dinah’s narration does not acknowledge this at all, and that it excuses Reuben’s act on the grounds of love. This is simply too modern an interpretation.

Also, I really hate the cover art. It’s hideously ugly.

I think that’s about all I have to say. Now that I’ve given you my negative view, why don’t you read The Red Tent and tell me what you think?


18 Comments on “The Red Tent”

  1. kendy says:

    I’ve seen this in bookstores, and shook my head at it. I always avoid what, if you think about it, is really just bible fanfiction. It’s almost guaranteed to be as distorted and clueless as this.

  2. Jim says:

    Unfortunately, this sounds like yet another version of iconoclasm, mingled with feminism, embellished by negativism. That would make it a “not in this life” book for me to read. But thank you for being brave and bold and reading all the way through so I don’t need to.

    It seems that regardless of the setting, when any author undertakes to criticize persons or groups that they don’t understand, all that really comes out in the end is the author’s own bitterness of soul, and who needs that? I have my own bitterness to overcome. Give me something positive that makes me believe I can do it.

    For example, I recently re-watched “On Golden Pond” for a school assigment. Despite the problems that the characters faced, the movie’s overriding message was that love, forgiveness, and tolerance of others’ weaknesses will make everyone happier, and in the end, produce something good out of a bad situation.

  3. Shai says:

    “She hates Jacob for disowning Reuben (who slept with Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah) and Judah (who, although the story does not mention it, slept with his daughter-in-law). Dinah is adamant that Reuben and Bilhah shared a true love and should not have been punished for their passion.”

    I’m Dinah supposed to love them because of or in spite of those acts? what the critique is here I cannot fathom.

    “Maybe that’s what was most irritating about The Red Tent – despite being an attempt to portray how women lived during Biblical times, Diamant doesn’t care about the social constraints and rules of the period.”

    In the Biblical times spoken of here, women were were children and so were cattle and livestock. Single women, even widows, were never allowed to give consent to sexual was up to a closely related elder male ” owner” to give consent For her..or not.
    So even if Dinah and the prince were a Biblical Romeo and Juliet, so called consensual relations between them would not just have been would have been [since no consent was given by the only one[s] legally allowed to do so]..Rape. Whatever Dinah felt about the matter.

    Further, as the last male in a long jewish line [more than 200 ” close relatives” in israel] may I say I was not the least offended by the portrayal of the Patriarchs..understanding that license may have been taken in filling in the gaps….and giving a woman;s or the women’s spin to it.
    And since women in the times were placed under the head of ther father or husbands, were not allowed to talk back, had no vote in the decisions only men could make..where else to gossip, gripe, and get advice in the management of men than in a space solely reserved for women…who were sent there because they were ” unclean”
    I honstly wonder if this reviewer has spent any time at all in the middle -east..for it would surely give her a much more sympathetic view of Red Tent, the book.

    “As for the bizarre rituals mentioned….I strongly recommend a brilliant and well-researchd book: The Chalice and The Blade by Riane Eisler or some books about early caananite and goddess temple shrine rituals..even early Roman rituals..where intercourse in a newly plowed field and a gift of mentrual blood on full moon to the earth, among other customs was a long-standing practice
    Don’t believe me..ask the academics or go to an online encyclopedia and look under fertility rites:
    fertility rites magico-religious ceremonies to insure an abundance of food and the birth of children. The rites, expressed through dances, prayers, incantations, and sacred dramas, seek to control the otherwise unpredictable forces of nature. In primitive agricultural societies natural phenomena, such as rainfall, the fecundity of the earth, and the regeneration of nature were frequently personified. One of the most important pagan myths was the search of the earth goddess for her lost (or dead) child or lover (e.g., Isis and Osiris, Ishtar and Tammuz, Demeter and Persephone). This myth, symbolizing the birth, death, and reappearance of vegetation, when acted out in a sacred drama, was the fertility rite par excellence. Other rites concerned with productivity include acts of sympathetic magic , such as kindling of fires (symbolizing the sun) and scattering the reproductive organs of animals on the fields, displays of phallic symbols, and ritual prostitution. In India it was once believed that a fertile marriage would result if virgins were first deflowered by means of the lingam, a stone phallus symbolizing the god Shiva. Sacrifices of both humans and animals were believed to release the powers embodied within them and so make the fields or forests productive where the sacrifices had taken place. Many ancient fertility rites have persisted in modified forms into modern times. The Maypole dance derives from spring rituals glorifying the phallus.”

    Now I ask far away from the truth of Biblical times and customs near the ancient caravan routes do you think the author really was?

  4. romgi says:

    To Shai: Dude . . . seriously? Couple of things here. 1. this is primarily a family blog, not the New York Times book review. 2. I think the issue here was that the author tries to place modern feminist values back in a time and place where those values likely did not exist. This was not a question of whether or not women had their own worship, or whether or not these ceremonies existed in that quadrant of the world. It is not an issue of whether or not women were property. I am glad that we live in a time of relative equity, where women have equal legal rights to men. But I agree with the review here. I also take issue when authors try to impose modern culture and values in the past. It feels that more often than not, the author is passing judgment on the past based on modern values, instead of insightfully examining the past to see what can be learned.

  5. Katie says:

    So the responses to this post were actually quite entertaining. I’ve had a good Friday Morning Chuckle. Thanks for that!

  6. Sara says:

    Having both read the book and lived in the Middle East, I’d say the review was spot on. My main issue (though I had many) with the book was the superimposition of modern “causes” on an ancient tale. And it would seem to me that someone with such a connection to the Middle East would be bothered by that as well, as one of the biggest problems I see with the Western world’s dealing with the Middle East is the imposition of Western values, interpretation, “causes” on the East. That, of course, goes in both directions, as I believe both sides of the planet could do with a heaping dose of perspective.

    As could random internet trolls who try to turn a book-review-for-personal-reasons into a self-aggrandizing diatribe.

  7. mikaroni says:

    Should I read more books like this? You guys are actually responding to this review!

    Kendy – I think the phrase “Bible fanfiction” is perfect.

    Dad – What was interesting to me was what seemed like the author’s attempt to bring a peaceful, if not happy, resolution to the story. Dinah returns with Joseph to Jacob’s deathbed, where she continues to resent her family but also learns that her tale is still told by the women in the family. After Jacob’s death Dinah goes back to her husband in Egypt and lives out her days in the comfort of knowing her legacy continues. It was as if she thought, “Good, now generations to come will know that my family was cruel and murderous. That’s what’s important for them to remember!” What kind of legacy is that? The account in Genesis says nothing of Dinah’s fate, which is what Diamant was trying to fill in, but to add such hatred – I’d much rather think of Dinah as one who was, unfortunately, taken advantage of than as the character she was portrayed as here.

    Shai – Maybe you misunderstood my comments, as your critiques of several statements seem to say exactly what I said. The bit about Reuben and Judah was saying that Dinah tries to excuse their behavior, and she resents Jacob for disowning them. In no way was I saying she ought to love them extra – in fact, I named Reuben and Judah as two of the men she showed respect to, a rare emotion for her character. I did NOT claim that Dinah and the prince should have been given license to do as they pleased, or that they were in any way a romantic couple where true love should have prevailed. Perhaps you’re referring to these lines: “Diamant’s retelling changes a major detail. The rape of Dinah becomes Dinah’s consensual relationship with the prince, and the acts of her family are then cruel, vindictive, and motivated by Simeon and Levi’s violent, angry temperaments.” Those are statements, not my opinions or interpretations of the book. Diamant wrote the book in such a way. My view, however, is that regardless of Dinah’s feelings about the prince, her family had every right to be upset that she lost her virginity before an actual marriage ceremony (or even any discussion of marriage). I agree that it would have been immoral. I’m really unclear why you present arguments for things I already have said I think. As for the fertility rituals, I merely said that I’m not sure where the author got those ideas. I’ve never encountered such concepts before and was not suggesting that Diamant invented them. Lastly, I doubt that the author intended for the book to be understood only by those who have spent time in the Middle East. I think my background makes me a good example of a typical reader of The Red Tent. It’s unlikely that most readers would be familiar with Canaanite fertility rituals.

    Romgi: Thank you. That’s what I was trying to get across. It really drives me crazy when authors superimpose modern values on historical (fictional) characters.

    Katie: Anytime!

    Sara: Word.

  8. Shai says:

    “As for the fertility rituals, I merely said that I’m not sure where the author got those ideas.

    Well, my guess is she researched the subject. Since what she wrote is supported y the anthropological record.
    As to the idea of imposing modern standards on historical characters…hmmm..that is sort of the issue.
    She is not imposing midern standards….not as much as I feel the largely Western educated commentators here are seeing this book through their own cultural filters.
    Anita’s point was that the only view of the Old Testament Patriarchs we get is mostly male, and not the women;s story. Certainly her way of telling a historical narrative,,even though one cause to consider the day to day lot of women, the moral values of the day versus our own social codes then and now in a different light.
    My critique was based on the perceieved negativity ..of the book and in the review. I found it entertaining and very well written. Made me wanna read the Bible chapters just to undertsand where she drew her inferences from. And I heartily recommend the book to anyone who wants a fresh perspective on Biblical times..from a female voice.

  9. kendy says:

    Congratulations, Roni, your first controversy!

  10. Jennifer says:

    The Red Tent is both well-written and engaging. While I cannot deny Diamant’s talent as an author, I found myself less-than-thrilled with her portrayal of Biblical figures. It can be argued that this is the result of my non-Jewishness, my Western education, my liberated white-female status, and my personal beliefs.

    In Diamant’s negative portrayal of Old Testament patriarchs, Dinah’s contempt for the men of the story is not only acceptable, but justified. Rather than a Jacob who is visited by angels and great visions, we are presented with a man more interested in sexual relationships than the things of God. Joseph is pompous and arrogant, Isaac feeble-minded. The only male figures represented with sympathy (as others have mentioned) are those who defy Jewish law.

    On the flip side, the women of the story are revered and respected for being women—bonding in the throes of menstruation and man-hating (sound a bit modern anyone? I think I may have seen that chick-flick…). I can appreciate that the novel’s focus is on a woman’s perspective of Old Testament events; however, in rewriting what history we do have, Diamant creates a cast of women who seek fulfillment solely through sex and pagan ritual. While the rites Diamant references may be well-researched, placing Rebecca and the wives of Jacob in the role of pagan-worshippers seems not only far-fetched, but disrespectful. Gone is the power of Rebecca’s vision concerning the birthright of her sons, gone is the Jewish heritage of Leah and Rachel.

    I am not alone in my criticism of Diamant’s work. Rabbi J. Avram Rothman voices the following concerning The Red Tent:

    While this depiction may be heartwarming and romantic, it reduces Dina to a character in a Harlequin romance novel, portraying her as little more than a mindless, love-starved girl. Diamant gives our matriarchs the flawed portrayal of someone living in the 21st century and makes a number of significant errors…To ascribe these attributes and failings to our ancestors shows a lack of knowledge in Jewish history…We do not believe our ancestors (or any human being) to be perfect. They, as we, had flaws and made mistakes. However, the issues we have today certainly were not theirs (Rotham, 2001).

    This leaves two central (and in my opinion, very important) questions: why does it matter/why do we care so much? Diamant’s work is one of fiction, not meant to be taken as historical fact. However, as she spins off of a story that concerns deep-seeded matters of personal faith and belief, the imposition of modern, Western values onto an ancient, non-Western culture negates the religious significance of real events and people. While this may not bother all readers, to me, this is a substantial problem. And although Diamant attempts to place women in a position of power and liberation, the novel’s focus seemed to suggest that such power and liberation come through denial of religion and family, a point of view with which I cannot agree. This said, fiction and the stories it tells are a means for us to learn more about the human condition, to see ourselves and others differently than we did before. The discussion her book has generated on this blog alone points to Daimant’s success.

    A special note to Shai: While I appreciate that you have a different perspective than I do, assuming that only a person of Jewish descent has the right to be offended (or not offended) by the portrayal of the patriarchs shows a surprising lack of understanding of the importance people of Christian faith place on Old Testament writings.

    Works Cited

    Rotham, J. Avram. “The Red Tent: If You knew Dina like I knew Dina.” 9 Jun. 2001. Web. 3 Oct. 2009.

  11. sposita says:

    we’re going to be reading this for our Book Group. Can’t wait to hear the discussion then since it’s seemed to cause a lot right now! =)

  12. Anonymous says:

    “A special note to Shai: While I appreciate that you have a different perspective than I do, assuming that only a person of Jewish descent has the right to be offended (or not offended) by the portrayal of the patriarchs shows a surprising lack of understanding of the importance people of Christian faith place on Old Testament writings.”

    That wasn’t my point and I apologize for giving that impression. My point was that I didn;t not detect anything anti-semitic per se, even though we were given a view of Patriarchal heroes with clay feet
    from inside the RedTent. This is more of a black & white struggle between a Feminine Mother Earth [neo] Paganism vs [Patirarchal] Father God Monotheism played out in a sweeping, colorful narrative
    inspired by a “holy” historical text.

    Early jewish history is replete with anecdotes and Old Testament confirmations that monotheism was not always practiced..that pagan gods had their sway and their followers among the Israelites. In fact God is constantly complaining about the jews being a stubborn and stiff-necked people..who for the absence of Moses all too easily slipped back into pagan-animist -shamanistic worshiping the golden calf.

    And as far as complaining women go..whenever we do see women presented in the Old Testament it is almost always in the role of a victim or a negative role model…the great exceptions being Ruth and Esther…
    We have Eve,Delilah, Jezebel, …and the complaining wife of Aaron who nags about the shortcomings of the red-haired, stuttering Moses..including his unfortunate choice of a dark-skinned Egyptian wife.
    Again, the emphasis in Old Testament narrative was always on the Patriarchs and their special relationship to Jaweh and HIS commands, rites and miracles…and of course the Covenant.
    Women were seen as property, not equals..not Spiritual leaders..or having any place in those matters. We are told they were banned to special tents or places of isolation away from men on a monthly basis..bit nowhere in the Bible are we told what really happens inside…beyond ritual bathing.
    So taking a bit of license and reversing that perspective to me is ..besides being a good literary angle of approach in telling her actually refreshing..if not always comforting.

    In the end Ms Diamant succeeds in telling a compelling story in a compelling way…and whether
    you agree or not with her portrayal of “religious”characters, Old Testament celebrities, in the way she writes them…I believe every reader will come away from this book the better for having read it.
    To those who would rather read a review than the book itself I say don’t deny yourself the opportunity to challenge your views now and step outside the cultural conditioning, and to see with different eyes for a while. Even if you only end up more confrmed in your original perspective.
    For What faith is it that cannot be tested?

  13. demasculated says:

    Reading this book helped me to realize that all women consider us men to be mere sex objects. It seemed as though all they want from is the use of our bodies for there own physical gratification and our heart felt devotion and expressions of love for there own sick and twisted desires for romance. As a man I feel used, cheap and dirty :P

    Have a great day!!!

  14. demasculated says:

    Yes I actually did read the book. (Well ok I didn’t ACTUALLY READ it, I listened to it)

  15. demasculated says:

    My own partial, honest poinion is this,

    I believe that Jacob, (ISRAEL!!!!) Leah, Rachel etc…and Dinah were actual people who really lived. If I was a betting man, I would wager a substantial amount my herds (goats, sheep, camels, idols, etc…) that these people would (and perhaps have) take considerable offence at the portayal of their lives. I think they would strongly disapprove of SOME of the liberties and conclusions that Ms. Diamant has made.
    To me the story seemed inconsisent. The first half of the book (as does the Bible) describes Jacob as a very good, upstanding man who can’t help but make better everything he touches. (I wonder where Joseph got his prowess.) Ms. Diamant describes him as a kind and loving husband and leader or dare I say it PATRIARCH. He is a capable, honest and just head of a large polygamous family. The quintesential antithesis of Laban. AND THEN HE SUDDENLY BECOMES LABAN!?!?!?
    The book was obviously has a prevailing Goddess worshipping, femmenist flavor to it and yet at the same time seems to condone child molestation with a foreign object. (I’m half way being facetious so chill out) It is (and I will venture to guess that is was historically) definately NOT okay for any man to deflower a young virgin girl. But, is/was it okay for a moonstruck group of women including loving mothers to do a little deflowering of their young protege in the name of the “Queen of Heaven” or whatever??? WOW! here’s a origional idea Ms Diamant. I’d bet that the only one actually (historically) responsible for poor Dinah’s deflowering was Mr. Shechem prince guy. Harlequinish (is that a word?) though it mave have been.
    However I do have to praise Ms. Diamant’s portayal of the interaction between Jacob’s wives which was much more realistic than anything I’ve ever read by way of hostirical fiction dealing with polygamous situations. Most of which I’m sure were written my devout christian, monogamists who have religous roots in the Polygamous Patriarchs of the Bible and can’t seem to reconcile their modern monogamic supremecy with the actions of these renoun men of old and try to explain them away ORSON SCOTT CARD!.
    By the way all those who read this book may be interested in the Women of Genesis sereies by the previously mentioned author.

  16. romgi says:

    ::shakes head::

  17. Anonymous says:

    :: wags finger::

  18. greg cryns says:

    This is a great book.

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