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L I T E R A R Y   PA P E R
Using a fictional story inspired by the life of one woman mentioned within the book of
Genesis, the novel is contrasted with episodes in the Old Testament (the Torah) of the Bible.


The Red Tent :  A Midrash Using the Bible
 
 
 
 

1 In the extraordinary tale of The Red Tent involving mothers, daughters, husbands, and brothers, we cannot help but wonder which parts of the novel are Biblical and which are the creations of the author's imagination.  With most novels, we usually accept each character portrayed, and the premises given unconditionally, as part of the author's creativity.  In The Red Tent, however, Anita Diamant requires us to take our minds back and forth between what we believe to be Biblical narratives and Diamant's midrashic imagination.  A midrash tells a story to “fill in the gaps” in a biblical story—it's an important part of Jewish tradition.  The complexity of this particular historical fiction causes us, especially those familiar with the Bible, to consistently refer to the holy word while taking this amazing journey through the narrator's elaborate tales.

2 Told in Dinah's voice, this is a powerful novel which deals with the bloody events that led to the founding of the 12 tribes of Israel. Dinah starts the story with a prologue explaining why her story must be told. She begins, “We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote…” (Diamant 1). Diamant's Dinah wants for women to know her, in order to turn the footnote of her life into a living, breathing story and to restore the knowledge of women's roles and rituals in ancient Judaism to modern women.

3 Broken into three books, the first book of The Red Tent recounts Dinah's family history—describing the arrival of Jacob in Haran to the birth of Joseph (Midrash on Genesis 29:1 – 30:24). Book two moves into Dinah's life story—from her childhood to the massacre of Shechem (Midrash on Genesis 30:21 – 35:26). And finally, proceeding into her life in Egypt, book three tells her story from the aftermath of the massacre to Dinah's reconciliation with the family of her childhood (Midrash on Genesis 37:1 – 49:27). This entire story takes place in an ancient time when motherhood was the only ambition a woman could have.

4 Dinah, the only daughter born to the four wives of Jacob, is considered a blessing to the four women, for they had been surrounded by boys until Dinah was born to Leah, the first wife of Jacob. Diamant has created the idea of the red tent in the novel as a place where women reunite each month when they have their periods, give birth, and/or want to find a place of refuge from their men and be relieved of the chores of everyday life. The tent is a place that is their stronghold and a place for the celebration of their womanhood. Dinah will discover the secrets of womanhood, learn how to worship the goddesses, and unlock the mysteries of procreation and birth. The fictional red tent gives the women independence from the world; it is a place where women can bond and pass their stories along from generation to generation.

5 Diamant, a Jewish writer who had not written historical fiction before The Red Tent, built her entire novel on a character who is only briefly mentioned in the book of Genesis — Dinah, who in the Bible offers nothing from her own personal perspective. Giving this character life, Diamant takes the liberty of reinterpreting the story. The only thing known about Dinah is that she is raped (according to the translation from the Hebrew Bible) by a young prince of the neighboring kingdom, but this story is also told from the perspective of her brothers. In Diamant's rendition, Dinah falls in love with the young prince of the neighboring kingdom, who seeks her hand in marriage and to whom she willingly gives herself.

6 The novel begins with Jacob seeking refuge from the anger of his brother Esau. He goes to stay with Laban, the brother of his mother, Rebecca. There Jacob meets the stunningly beautiful Rachel. One of two of Laban's daughters, Rachel is the younger, more attractive one. Leah, the elder daughter, is described as having eyes that are each a different color. Falling deeply in love, Jacob is promised the hand of Rachel by Laban in return for seven years of labor; however, when Jacob comes to be married, he finds that Laban's elder daughter Leah has taken Rachel's place, due to Rachel fearing the act of consummation on her wedding night. Rachel is then portrayed by Diamant as being jealous of Leah and Jacob's union. In Genesis, Rachel is not shown as fearful of consummation, Diamant has obviously changed this scene from the depiction of the Bible. The polygamy of Jacob leads to jealousy in the marriage but not until later in the story does this occur, for Rachel later becomes jealous of Leah's fertility while Rachel remains barren.

7 Also, Diamant presents the relationship of Jacob with his sons in a very different way from the Bible. Most notable is the manner in which the God of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham is presented as being just “one god amongst many, and a fit consort for the Queen of Heaven, rather than just a single old man with a white beard” (Helm par. 2). Most of the other gods involved appear to be either Sumerian or Egyptian and were gods that were genuinely worshipped at the time. A clear distinction is made in the novel that women and men worship different gods. When Jacob is suffering from a sick stomach, he cries out names of other gods, but he comes to rely increasingly on the God of Isaac, his father, and Abraham, his grandfather. The women, on the other hand, worship a whole variety of gods, such as the god of beer and the goddess of victory and fertility. Departing from Laban with Jacob, the four sisters find that the traditions of the tent are not upheld by the women of the different tribes that their sons have married into, and the integrity of the red tent is threatened.

8 Additional accounts created by Diamant's imagination are that Laban welcomes Jacob with open arms instead of with animosity. She also suggests that Jacob breaks his leg and gets his fever from an encounter with a wild boar instead of what the Bible depicts as a wrestling match with the Lord God himself. The roles of Joseph and Rachel are switched in The Red Tent as Rachel is the tailor of a garment that Joseph's brothers sneer at instead of Joseph.

9 Anita Diamant makes it clear that she has used Biblical text only as a starting point and historical context as a setting. She has done much research for this novel, with each meticulous detail being accurately drawn from painstaking historical research. Trying to capture what it may have really been like to be a woman in Biblical times, she stated, “I wanted to know how they made cloth from wool, what the sleeping arrangements were, what their furniture and clothes looked like,” according to Jewish News (Cabot par. 19). Using elements of her imagination and historical insight, she has created a powerful novel of love and loss in a feminist setting.

10 Profoundly, Diamant's creative thought only seems to bring more solidity to the common reader. When reading accounts of the stories in the Bible, the general audience may find the divine word unfathomable and unearthly, but with The Red Tent, her take on the story of Jacob, his four wives, and Dinah seems more realistic and acceptable.

11 Reading The Red Tent, I noticed the experience changed from book to book.  As each of the three books progress, Diamant becomes more daring with her Midrash.  Book one remains close to the Biblical stories. Book two presents a powerful midrash describing the birth of Dinah and her “rape.” And book three reads like a novel.  Using a “unique ability to weave the yarns of biblical verse into a tapestry of detailed design and intricate patterns,” Diamant remarkably filled in the gaps between the lines using her imaginative creativity, while also downplaying the supernatural elements of the Bible .

 


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