Novel Review

The Red Tent

By Jessica Goforth

The Red Tent is a historical fiction novel based on the events described in the book of Genesis, in particular the story of Dinah, Jacob's daughter. The novel, originally published in 1997, became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages. It has recently been turned into a two-part television miniseries on the Lifetime network.

In the novel, Dinah (who never speaks a word in the book of Genesis) narrates the story of her life. The events of the story are based on the Bible, but with some alterations. Certain details in the Biblical account are changed — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah are all sisters, Leah has seven sons instead of six (one of Bilhah's sons in the Biblical account is transferred to Leah), and the prince of Shechem did not actually rape Dinah; she consented to pre-marital sex with him.

The tone of The Red Tent is very different from the Biblical narrative. Dinah is smart, skilled and hardworking, although it seems that she has inherited a measure of arrogance and pride from her mother Leah. While the Biblical narrative focuses on the men in the story, The Red Tent has hundreds of female characters, and the events are told primarily from their perspective. The women are never portrayed as being silenced into submission, but all find a way to take control in their lives, albeit a small measure of control in a patriarchal and polygamous society. The novel is a very interesting glimpse into the customs of the Ancient Near East and ancient Egypt.

Like the account in Genesis (where Dinah's ultimate fate is a mystery; she is never mentioned again after the events of chapter 34 except in genealogy lists), there is no happy ending to this novel. After the incident in Shechem, where Dinah's husband is murdered by her brothers in their bed, she curses and disowns her father and brothers and is taken to Egypt by her mother-in-law, where she bears a son. She finds a small measure of happiness when she re-marries an Egyptian carpenter, but her relationship with her son grows distant and finally dissolves entirely when he discovers the truth about his father's murder, curses the king's vizier (Joseph, his uncle), and is banished to a town by the sea. Dinah spends the remainder of her life as an Egyptian midwife, and near the end of the novel she is forced to go back to Canaan with her brother Joseph as their father is dying. It is then that she learns that her father and brothers never spoke her name again, but her story still lives on among the Hebrew women.

The Red Tent is in no way a Christian novel. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is only mentioned marginally; the women of the story are pagans and remain faithful to their false pagan gods and customs. Dinah does not embrace her father's God, but becomes devoted to the false gods of the Egyptians after she moves there. Many of the characters in the story are ruthless, arrogant, hard hearted and cruel. The themes of forgiveness and unconditional love are practically non-existent; enemies are cursed, and when Dinah says her final farewell to her son, she tells him that she does not expect or encourage him to forgive his father's murderers. Dinah never forgives her father or most of her brothers, and they are never reconciled. There is a hint of a small measure of reconciliation between Joseph and Dinah, Jacob and Esau and Rachel and Leah, but it is miniscule. There are also graphic descriptions of pagan customs, sex, childbirth and violence.

In summary, The Red Tent is a fascinating glimpse into what life may have been like for a woman who lived in the ancient world. It brings a fresh perspective to the Biblical stories, fleshing them out and giving the female characters a voice.

TagsReviews-Critiques  | Womens-Issues

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Published 12-16-14