The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

#BeatTheBacklist book9
2017 book 9

Format: Print (paperback)
Length: 321 pages
Published: 1997

I joined a women’s book club a few months ago.  I have done book clubs in the past, but those were basically wine drinking clubs where a book may or may not be discussed.  This is an actual book club.  As in, we drink coffee instead of wine and the person who suggests the book comes prepared with questions for discussion.  I have been a little surprised to find that I prefer this kind of book club to the other.

This month’s book was Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  It is a feminist retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob.  This is not a book I would have been likely to pick up on my own, which is one of the many nice things about joining a book club.  For those of you that are not very well versed in the old testament, here is a  short, irreverent biblical refresher.

Skipping past Adam and Eve… There was this guy named Abraham.  He had a son named Isaac.  God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac and Abraham said he would because you don’t want to get on God’s bad side.  Then just as he is about to kill Isaac, God shows up again and says “I was just testing you, Abe.  You passed and you don’t have to kill Isaac.”  Somehow this makes Abraham more devoted to the big guy.  Go figure.

Isaac grows up and is also a one god guy.  He marries Rebecca and they have fraternal twin sons, Jacob and Esau.  Jacob is pretty and Esau is hairy and for some reason this makes Rebecca like Jacob more. Add to this the fact that Isaac is still suffering from PTSD since he was almost sacrificed to a trickster God by his father and you have a sense of how seriously dysfunctional this family is. Jacob and Esau are competing for their parents’ love and then Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and all hell breaks loose.  Jacob is banished/runs away with the birthright in his possession.  Which begs the question, what is this mysterious birthright?  Because when we meet Jacob he is broke as a joke.  He has no land, no livestock, no money… But, you know, birthright! So, yay?

Where were we?  Oh yes, Jacob runs away to his uncle, Laban.  There he meets and falls in love with both of Laban’s daughters.  Don’t judge.  He marries the sisters, Leah and Rachel, and then for good measure he marries their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah, too.  Jacob is also a follower of God with a capital G.  Jacob begins begetting.  He begat Reuben and Simon and Levi and Judah and… a bunch of boys.  A gaggle of boys.  Twelve boys.  So. Many. Boys.   And he raises them all to believe in the same god that told his grandfather to kill his father before swooping in at the last minute saying “psych!  Gotcha Abe!  If you could see your face right now, you would laugh…”  Oh yeah, Jacob also has one daughter named Dinah.

The story goes that when Dinah became a woman, which probably means 12 or 13 in biblical times (eww), she was raped by an Egyptian prince or nobleman or something like that.  In the biblical version of the story, after raping her he falls in love with her, which is pure sociopathy.  So, even though he already got the milk by force, he now wants to buy the cow, because it is a very beautiful cow.  He offers Jacob whatever he asks for a bride price.  Because women are property.  Duh.

Jacob is angry about the theft of his property, er, I mean rape of his daughter.  So instead of a material gift he insists instead that the Egyptian and all the men in his family and all of their servants and subjects all get circumcised instead.  You know, for God.  Because if there is one thing God hates, it’s foreskin.  Inexplicably, the guy (rapist? suitor?) agrees.  He and all of the other men go under the knife and then while they are recovering Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi come and kill them all, which is a pretty low blow.

In the bible, this is where Dinah’s story pretty much ends.  She was a daughter of an important man, she had important brothers, she was raped by another man and her brothers killed the rapist and a whole lot of other people to defend her before going on to do more important man-centered stuff like getting sold into slavery for having a pretty coat and fathering the twelve tribes of Israel.

Diamant’s interpretation of Dinah’s story fills in the holes of her early years, provides an alternate interpretation of the “rape,” and tells the reader what happened in the years following Simon and Levi’s massacre.  In other words, it tells the story of Dinah the person.  Most of the women in the story are strong and capable and they have rich inner lives.  The male characters drive much of the story, but they are rendered in outlines and broad strokes – handsome, drunk, kind, lusty… they are identified, but not able to be identified with. The relationships between the women are joyful and powerful.  Dinah’s role as a midwife earns her respect from the other women and gives her a position of some authority.  But her relationship to the men in her life is one of servitude, even to her son.

Diamant’s writing is poetic and her reinterpretation of the story is interesting. I look forward to discussing it at book club.

I am working my way through my ever growing TBR list and am keeping track of it here.  I am always looking for recommendations.

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