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The Red Tent | Context

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Biblical Comparisons

The Red Tent is based on the biblical figure of Dinah and her immediate family, including her mother, Leah; her father, Jacob; her aunts, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah; and her many brothers. The novel also depicts Dinah's relations with her maternal grandfather, Laban, and her paternal grandmother, Rebecca. In Genesis the story of Jacob begins in Chapter 25 and continues to Chapter 46, during which Jacob's favorite son, Joseph, reunites with his estranged brothers and father and reveals his identity.

In the novel Anita Diamant relates many of the main events of Jacob's and Joseph's lives as depicted in the Bible without significant changes. For example, the author has Jacob meeting Rachel by a well and immediately falling in love with her. As in the Bible, Diamant describes Rachel as being beautiful. In addition when Jacob and his family prepare to leave Laban, Diamant has Rachel steal Laban's household gods, which are in the shape of small figurines. After Jacob and his family leave Laban chases after them, furious about his gods being stolen. When Laban catches Jacob he frantically searches the camp for the figurines but can't find them. Rachel has hidden them in a saddle on which she is sitting. These events are very similar to what is described in the Bible, as are scenes from Joseph's life: he is left to die by his brothers, sent to prison in Egypt, becomes skilled at interpreting dreams, and grows prosperous in Egypt after finding favor with the pharaoh.

Diamant's major departure from the Bible concerns Dinah's relationship with Shechem, the son of a prince named Hamor. According to Genesis Shechem raped Dinah but then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. In the novel Shalem (Diamant's name for the Shechem character) and Dinah fall in love and willingly becoming sexual partners. In the Bible Jacob agrees to a marriage between Shechem and Dinah, even though he and his sons are furious at Shechem because he defiled Dinah by raping her. To get revenge the sons pillage Hamor's city, killing all the males including Shechem and Hamor. Jacob seems mortified about his sons' pillaging of the city, suggesting that he believed they were not justified in committing this brutal act. But Diamant depicts Jacob's sons Levi and Simon as hating Hamor and his people because of their different customs and gods. So they betray the marriage agreement and, along with some of their brothers, slaughter the males in the city. In another change Diamant makes Zilpah and Bilhah, who in the Bible are maids of Jacob, half-sisters of Rachel and Leah. Both the Bible and The Red Tent describe how Laban agreed that Jacob could take all the striped and spotted sheep with him when he left. Even though they are few in number, Jacob knows that this type of sheep tends to be hardier.

Extra Biblical Stories and Midrash

In The Red Tent Diamant creates many descriptive details not in the biblical narrative. Bible narratives are known for being sparse in details. For instance, these narratives usually do not convey what people are wearing, what the weather is like, or what a person looks like. Genesis, for example, says that Rachel is beautiful but does not say specifically how she is beautiful. Diamant provides such details. According to the author Rachel has "brown hair shaded to bronze, and her skin was golden, honeyed, perfect." The descriptive details about settings and people help to form a vivid, tangible world for readers.

Moreover, Diamant creates an extensive storyline for Dinah that is not referred to in the Bible. By doing this some scholars claim that the author is creating a type of midrash. In the Jewish tradition midrash is commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) that seeks to answer religious questions. A midrash writer, therefore, uses biblical references to spin new stories that can shed light on contemporary issues. There are two types of midrash—midrash halakah and midrash aggadah. Midrash halakah provides commentaries on the law and religious practice as described in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. On the other hand midrash aggadah creates stories based on the Torah and also interprets narratives in this text. The Red Tent can be considered a midrash aggadah.

However, Diamant notes that to fully appreciate a midrash a person must be familiar with the biblical narrative on which the midrash is based. In contrast The Red Tent can stand alone as a story apart from the Bible. Scholar Karen Flagg suggests that the book is somewhere between fiction and midrash. She acknowledges that The Red Tent can be seen as a more modern feminist midrash, and claims that female readers "use the book to re-imagine the lives of biblical women and connect with them."

Female Divinity

In The Red Tent Diamant refers to various forms of female divinity. Many ancient polytheistic religions worshipped goddesses. A polytheistic religion worships more than one god or goddess. The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion that included "great mother" goddesses. Ancient Egyptians had a sky goddess called Nut and a mother goddess called Astarte. In East Asia the Japanese who practice Shinto worship a sun goddess named Amaterasu. In the Near East during ancient times, the Semitic peoples, Jews and Arabs, also worshipped many gods. According to Genesis some Semites such as Jacob and his wife Rachel worshipped household gods called teraphim. The teraphim were small, portable figurines. Rachel was able to steal Laban's teraphim by sticking them in a saddle. The type of teraphim probably varied depending on the household. In The Red Tent there are two teraphim: one is a pregnant mother and another is both male and female.

In addition Dinah, her mother, and her aunts worship a mother goddess called Innana (Inanna is a more frequently used spelling for this goddess). Rachel refers to this goddess as "Queen of the Night." Inanna was an ancient Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and war. Other cultures also worshipped this goddess but often changed her name. For example, the Assyrians called her Ishtar, and the ancient Greeks called her Aphrodite. In all these cultures Inanna was believed to be an extremely powerful goddess. In The Red Tent Dinah and her mother and aunts view Innana as the goddess who gives life to all people. Zilpah tells Dinah, "We are all born of the same mother." In this context Innana represents the feminine side of the divine to the ancient Semites.

In contemporary culture feminists such as Diamant have tackled the issue of the male, monotheistic God of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions in various ways. Because of this male godhead these religions have developed a strict patriarchal structure, in which men take leadership roles. Feminists see this patriarchal structure as restricting and excluding. Some feminists advocate going back to worshipping goddesses, like the ancient polytheistic religions. Others have worked toward expanding the traditional view of a male God to include the feminine. For these feminists God is both male and female. They use various interpretations of the Bible to support this view. For example, the scholar Phyllis Trible focuses on use of the term rachamim in the Hebrew Bible. This term is used to convey God's mercy and compassion and is derived from the word rechem, which means "womb." Based on this view of a male/female God, these feminists believe in incorporating more women into church leadership roles.

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