Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Red Tent

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
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Dec 31, 07

bookshelves: judaism
Read in January, 2002

The Red Tent is (very) loosely based on the story of Dinah in Genesis, and it is a book that is very easy to read. Dinah's tale is one that deserves fleshing out; in the Bible it is an interesting though undeveloped and uncertain chronicle. The author does a fairly decent job of developing her female characters, but her male characters are largely flat, stereotypical, and unnecessarily negative.

In the Bible, the characters of Jacob and Joseph are more well-rounded; they are humans with both faults and virtues, moments of greatness and of pettiness. In Diamant’s novel, we largely see only one side to these men--the downside. We never get any sense that they are worth caring about, that there is any emotion within in them that we, as readers, can relate to. The narrator states that Jacob was devastated by Joseph's reported death, but we have no reason to believe it, since the author has neither developed nor depicted any love or affection between them. Although Diamant seems to be developing something interesting in the nature of Judah, she quickly drops the matter.

The author unnecessarily, I believe, alters some segments of the Biblical narrative. She even suggests that the significant, divine naming of Israel (a true milestone in the Jewish story) was nothing more than Jacob's cowardly choice to change his name so as not to be associated with the slaughter in Schechem. When Rachel steals her father's household idol in the novel, Jacob seems both to know and yet not to care (at least for a long time). In the Bible, however, he thinks no one among him has taken it, and he basically says, "If anyone took it, let him die," in effect unknowingly cursing his beloved wife, who does die later in childbirth. Had Diamant not altered this point, it might have made for some wonderful pathos in the novel.

Despite being written by a Jewish author, The Red Tent is in many ways an expression of a growingly popular modern neo-paganism, which incorporates the myth of the universal, goddess/Mother, feminist ideology, and a sort of body/self worship. I don't complain that Anita Diamant made some of the characters pagan; it is clear from the Bible that many early pre Israelites were, and of course, the Israelites themselves were always sliding back to idol worship. But in The Red Tent, Jacob appears to be the only monotheist in the world (and even his monotheism is on shaky grounds). What is more, polytheism almost seems to be portrayed as a healthy, feminine alternative to the somewhat deranged patriarchal religion of Jacob's fathers (an idea that does not comport too well with the actual historical treatment of women in cultures that embrace polytheism and goddess worship).
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

What an astounding review. I found myself in total conflict with the Bible and the book, and I wish that Diamont would have just stuck with the women's relationships, rather than re-invent what God, man or whomever you believe authored the Bible wrote!

Nicely done, Skylar!


message 2: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa I agree, Brava, Skylar, and a nod to Rita's insightful comments. Both put my superficial ranting to shame!


Shelia What a excellent review! I am currently reading this book and have wondered some of the exact things you pointed out. Thanks for sharing your insight!


Skylar Burris Thanks for the comments!


Miriam Hummmm. Interesting commentary, and I agree on some points. But, regarding the "flat" male characters, while I agree, I think it was for a purpose. Considering the era and culture, from a woman's perspective who had gone through what Dinah endured, how much would she have really known about the men? The Bible was generally written by self-absorbed aggrandizing males (I know, that's an arguable point), so, for me, it was refreshing to get the female perspective.

As Sandra Hack Polaski pointed out in the study of "The Red Tent" titled "Inside the Red Tent"--the style of the book was in the Jewish Rabinical practice of "Midrash" where stories are written and re-written from every potential viewpoint possible for the purpose of uncovering the meaning of scripture that instruct and edify the community. This is both an ancient and contemporary practice and done to gain insight into all possible interpretations.

Anyway, I liked it. But, I'm still wonderying why she changed Simeon's name to Simon? Anybody out there who knows?


Skylar Burris "The Bible was generally written by self-absorbed aggrandizing males"

A statement like this makes me wonder if you've ever actually read the Hebrew Bible. Most of the writing is anything BUT aggrandizing.

Simon was a Greek name commonly adapted by people named Simeon; why she would use the Greek instead of the Hebrew, I don't know.





Miriam "A statement like this makes me wonder if you've ever actually read the Hebrew Bible. Most of the writing is anything BUT aggrandizing."

Hummmm. Interesting. I can understand why you might feel that way. My interpretation differs however.

While Moses had a meekness about him sometimes, especially after all those years of isolation before returning to Egypt, God himself (or herself) kept trying to teach Moses to quit being so full of himself--so much so that Moses didn't get to go to the "promised land" because of it.

Ezekial had a mouth on him that would make a modern day Marine blush.

King David, as a youth, was certainly anything but self-aggrandizing, but once king, that changed quickly. After murdering so many people that even David couldn't live with the guilt, David became humble for a while, but even so, was back and forth on being full of himself.

Isaiah & Ezekial and other prophets certainly had a "holier-than-thou" attitude. Of course, all those people they were preaching to may have "had it coming." But, I'm always just a tad wary of only hearing one side of the story. Wouldn't you love to hear the Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, Amorites, and Hittites sides of these stories?

When it came to women, I have no doubt that these Hebrew writers honored the cultural norms and saw women as far beneath themselves. (It's pretty evident in their writing from as much as what they DON'T say as what they DO say.)

From their xenophobic perspectives, not only women, but slaves, people from other cultures, and even people not of their own tribe were also seen and treated as beneath themselves--if not out and out murdered.

So, call me wrong--and I very well may be, but from these view points, at least for me, I feel that it's a kindness to call these Hebrew writers self-aggrandizing.



Marc Well put!


Judy I too was bothered by the negative portrayal of the males in the book. There didn't seem to be any relationship between the men and women in the book except that which was sexually motivated. I also was bothered by the relationship between Sarah and Abraham and the divergence of their worship practices portrayed in the book.
I find it interesting to compare writings by different authors such as Halter, Card, Kohn and Chamberlin with their diverse intrepretations of events in the Bible and history.


Lorraine Just a thought -- does Diamant write off all the male characters as flat to give the voice to the female characters as a response to the flat characterization given to female characters in the Bible (at least most of the women connected with this story)? If so, I don't feel like such a move strengthened her story; I would have liked to see more depth in the characters of Joseph and Dinah's son; Jacob and Reuben, too.

Otherwise, Sklyar, I concur with the others -- great review!


Skylar Burris Perhaps, but I don't really think the Bible DOES give a flat characterization to the female characters _as compared_ to the male characters. From the Bible, I know as much about the psyche of Leah, for instance, as I do about the psyche of Jacob. It is true though that we know almost nothing of Dinah from the Bible, but then we know almost nothing of Schechem for that matter either.


message 12: by rivka (new) - rated it 1 star

rivka the style of the book was in the Jewish Rabinical practice of "Midrash" where stories are written and re-written from every potential viewpoint possible for the purpose of uncovering the meaning of scripture that instruct and edify the community. This is both an ancient and contemporary practice and done to gain insight into all possible interpretations.

That is NOT what Midrash is. Among other things, Midrashim have sources and allusions within the text; they are not made of whole cloth according to an author's whim and by twisting the biblical narrative into something almost unrecognizable.

Great review, Skylar.


message 14: by rivka (new) - rated it 1 star

rivka *amused* I have been studying midrashim -- in the original Hebrew -- since I was in junior high. I am familiar with what they are, thank you.

In any case, I'm not sure what exactly in the wikilink you believe contradicts what I said? Please note that it says: Presence of apparently superfluous words or letters, chronology of events, parallel narratives or other textual anomalies are often a springboard for interpretation of segments of Biblical text.

As I mentioned: sources and allusions. Not inventions of whole cloth with no textual basis.


message 15: by Skylar (last edited Oct 07, 2008 10:40AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Skylar Burris Miriam, returning to your earlier comment, when I said the writing was anything but self-aggrandizing, what I mean is that the Hebrew Bible never shies away from cataloguing the sins of Israel and routinely points out the immoralities, flaws, and weaknesses of its greatest cultural heroes.

We can rail against the evils of the ancient Jews all we like, but before we launch into a series of accusations about their failings in the world of modern -isms, we might consider judging them against the surrounding cultures of their times, rather than against our own 21st century culture, which is in good part the product of thousands of years of influence from Jewish values (as opposed to Phoenician, Ebonite, or Edomite values). In other words, if we are enlightened enough to oppose slavery, it is in part only because the ancient Jews laid the groundwork for us to oppose it by first limiting its cruelties in a world where slavery was the norm. If we are enlightened enough to want to see women treated equally, it is in part because the ancient Jews laid the groundwork for us to do so by traditions that gave more value to women than the traditions of the surrounding ancient cultures. If we are enlightened enough not to be tribalistic, it is in part because the ancient Jews laid the groundwork for us by teaching in their scriptures to welcome the stranger.

Yes, it would be interesting to read the Canaanite side of the story. But I suspect it would not be nearly as "interesting" to live in a culture influenced by thousands of years of Canaanite values rather than in a culture influenced by thousands of years of Jewish values.



message 16: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy Skylar you make a very good point.
To live "in a culture influenced by thousands of years of Jewish values." That is why I was disappointed in Diamant"s treatment of the male characters of the book. Biblical men had their faults but they need to be looked at in terms of the cultures of their times.
Too often we judge past cultures and even cultures not our own by our modern day standards rather than try to understand them.
Our present cultural values and relationships may be judged as appalling by future generations.



Kathryn I agree about her characterization of the men in this novel, I don't think they were like that at all.


message 18: by Charmain (new)

Charmain Skyler, many thanks for your review. I won't even consider reading this book now. I don't like writers that don't stick to the full truth in the Bible.


message 19: by Kara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kara Ripley "...we largely see only one side to these men--the downside."

I am not the whole way through the book but so far I don't feel this way. Yeah, Dinah's grandfather was scuzzy but Jacob seems genuinely (so far) like a nice guy. He cares about his wives and he is gentle with them. Jacob loves his children. I don't think it's his fault that in his society polygamy was acceptable.

Even if Jacob's character changes, I will still recognize that he treated his wives with respect.


message 20: by K.D. (new) - rated it 2 stars

K.D. Absolutely Great review, Skylar!


message 21: by Cass (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cass Great review. While I enjoyed the book I found that as a Christian I was very bothered by such a negative portayal of men so important to my faith.

You have summed up the reasons for this very nicely.


Emily I feel differently about the book. The heart of the story is about women, so I'm glad that the author did not delve into the men much. You have to imagine it from Dinahs point of view. Women and men often led mostly separate lives, even husbands and wives, so not "knowing" about the men in more detail seems appropriate. And from her point of view, her emotions and actions also seem appropriate. I just really enjoyed the book :-)


Colleen I feel like you both missed the point. The Bible is the telling of the story from the male point of view, TRT is the telling of the story from the female point of view. The story the male authors left out because it wasn't considered important- as women were not considered important other than what they can be used for by the men in their lives that manipulate them for maximum use and profit- like they do all their livestock.


Rachel Wiegers I disagree with your view on the male characters. But I think the reason the female characters were put into more detail was because the female characters were Dinah's biggest influences.


Skylar Burris The Bible story does not use third person limited (or first person). It's from the narrator's point of view, not from Jacob's.


message 26: by rivka (new) - rated it 1 star

rivka Colleen wrote: "The Bible is the telling of the story from the male point of view, TRT is the telling of the story from the female point of view."

Except it's not the same story. Diamant changed whatever she felt didn't fit, and made it a different story altogether.


Kristi Gonzalez I couldn't agree more with your review. Thank you.


Bonnie I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I tried to say the same, but I believe you said it so much clearer. I honestly believe it's not a male vs female issue. It's an issue when we deny the power of the one true God.


message 29: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma I didn't think the men were portrayed as flat at all. I did see the strength and weakness in Jacob (and this being from a person who didn't know who Jacob was until reading the book). I did see his love and emotions towards his children and wives. Joseph was similarly shown as both strong and weak. So I'm not sure I would call it flat. Does it focus more on the female characters? Absolutely. That's the point of the book, to show a biblical story from a completely different point of view that we haven't gotten to hear. I didn't see the men as flat characters, just MINOR characters.


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