The Red Tent | Study Guide

Anita Diamant

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The Red Tent | Part 1, Chapter 1 : My Mothers' Stories | Summary

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Summary

Rachel runs into her father, Laban's, camp and exclaims that at the well she met a man who said he wants to marry her. Rachel's older sister Leah ridicules Rachel, saying that she is not of age yet to marry. Laban wonders what the man did to Rachel. Rachel's mother Huna died when she gave birth to her daughter. Rachel is known for her stunning beauty and for the unusual quality of smelling like fresh water. The man Rachel met at the well is named Jacob, and he is the son of Laban's sister, Rebecca. Jacob seeks Laban's hospitality. Laban admits that Jacob is kin and brusquely welcomes him.

Leah is 14 years old and has one blue eye and one green eye. She never grew eyelashes, making her eyes resemble the eyes of a snake. As a result most people avoid her stare. Jacob, though, looks directly at Leah, which impresses her. Leah has developed into a tall, nurturing woman, who smells like bread and comfort. Jacob and Leah have an attraction for each other. Laban's second-oldest daughter, Zilpah, is only a few months younger than Leah. Zilpah claims to remember everything that ever happened to her, such as her mother Mer-Nefat's death a few days after she was born. Zilpah does not like men. When Jacob arrives in camp Zilpah senses the presence of El around him. She sees El as a powerful, hard god, as opposed to the lovely goddess, the Queen of Heaven. Zilpah is devoted to this goddess and is also interested in other gods and goddesses. She is tall, slender, and has long, black hair. Bilhah is the youngest of Laban's daughters. Her mother is a black slave named Tefnut who ran off after giving birth to Bilhah. A small, quiet child, Bilhad spends a lot of time alone observing wildlife and members of her family. She has a good heart and can empathize with people.

When Dinah was a child her mother, Leah, told her a story of how she prepared an elaborate meal for Jacob after he first arrived. After the meal Jacob got sick, but not from the food. However, Jacob got well after Leah offered a sacrifice of wine to a god. Laban's daughters despise their father because of his sloth and crude manners. Jacob helps Laban herd his flocks. Jacob proves to be a good worker and soon becomes the overseer of Laban's holdings. Jacob and Laban bargain over Rachel's bride price. Jacob agrees to work a year for Laban, but he wants Rachel to have a dowry. Not wanting to give up any of his flock, Laban throws in Bilhah as part the wedding deal; she will be Jacob's concubine. Adah, though, will not let Rachel get married until she has started menstruating. Rachel becomes paranoid that she will never bleed and tries various methods to induce her period. After several months, to Rachel's relief and the joy of her sisters, she has her first menstrual period. The sisters perform a ritual in which they anoint Rachel and sing for her.

Analysis

In Part 1, Chapter 1 the theme of female empowerment develops through the essential qualities of Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. Each of these women has an essence that is valuable and powerful.

Also these women have power through their use of secret knowledge, which involves the worshipping of gods and goddesses and the performing of rituals. They seem to have developed this knowledge while spending time in the red tent apart from men. Because of the patriarchal system, men and women do much of their work separately. Indeed, in ancient Semitic society men and women did not even eat together. Men had a strictly defined role as leaders, and women had a strictly defined role as submissive nurturers. Leah, Zilpah, and Adah perform a ritual for Rachel in the red tent to mark her emergence into womanhood. They sing to Rachel, "Astarte is now in your womb, you bear the power of Elath." Elath is the mother of 70 gods. The red tent is used as a symbol representing the expression of their secret knowledge and power.

This ritual touches on another theme: life's stages. Rachel moves from being a child to being a woman when she has her first menstrual period. Rachel views this development as being so important that she worries about not getting her first blood and tries to force its coming. The significance of this maturation is emphasized as Leah, Zilpah, and Adah perform a secret ritual to help empower and encourage Rachel as she becomes a woman. As part of the ritual Rachel collects her first blood in a bowl. She and her female relatives believe this blood is a powerful offering to the divine that can help plants grow in the garden. In this context blood is a symbol of growth and life. In later chapters blood also represents waste and death.

The chapter briefly deals with another form of female empowerment: aggression and confrontation. Adah gets furious at her husband, Laban, when he tries to molest his daughters Leah and Zilpah. Because of her wrath and threats to curse him, Laban promises to never molest his daughters again and gives each of them a gift. This aspect of female empowerment recurs later in the novel.

Jacob's god, El, is male. Zilpah sees this deity as powerful but cold. In contrast Zilpah sees the goddess Queen of Heaven as a powerful counterpart to El. El epitomizes the strength, drive, and harshness of men, whereas the Queen of Heaven is nurturing, a typical female trait. The contrast between the two gods—one for men, one for women—sets up a religious dichotomy and reflects the patriarchal system of the ancient Semitic people. As has been shown, this system involved dividing men and women into two separate groups. Each group performs its functions and interacts only when needed. The patriarchal system involves abuse, as the chapter shows when Laban and Jacob negotiate for Rachel's bride price. During this bartering Laban throws Bilhah into the deal as if she were one of his animals. Laban and Jacob view women as less than human.

Birth and death, the beginning and end of the life cycle, are interwoven in this chapter and throughout the novel. Rachel's mother dies when giving birth to her daughter. Zilpah's mother also dies a few days after giving birth.

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