Literature Study GuidesThe Red TentPart 1 Chapter 3 Summary

The Red Tent | Study Guide

Anita Diamant

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The Red Tent | Part 1, Chapter 3 : My Mothers' Stories | Summary



Because of her barrenness Rachel becomes depressed. Bilhah suggests a solution by offering to bear a son by Jacob in Rachel's name. Rachel agrees. Bilhah sleeps with Jacob and soon gets pregnant. During the pregnancy Rachel bonds so closely with Bilhah that she begins to have some symptoms of pregnancy. As Bilhad gives birth, Rachel positions herself behind her sister and seems to share the labor pains. However, when Bilhah holds the baby, Rachel realizes she has been living in a dream. The child, a son named Dan, belongs to Bilhah, not Rachel. A few months earlier Leah convinces Zilpah to sleep with Jacob. Zilpah has sex with Jacob out of duty but does not enjoy the act. After a difficult labor Zilpah gives birth to twin boys, Gad and Asher. Inna tells Zilpah to wait two years before getting pregnant again. Zilpah informs Jacob that she can't sleep with him anymore because another pregnancy will kill her.

Jacob now has 4 wives, 10 sons, and a prosperous herd. He is a good father to his sons, teaching them about sheep and goats and how to use a sling and spear. Jacob tells his sons about how the god El told his grandfather Abram to sacrifice his son Isaac. As Abram was about to commit the act, El stayed his hand. Jacob praises the mercy of El. But when Zilpah hears the story she accuses El of being a cruel god. After Laban's wife Ruti stops bearing children, Laban begins to beat her. When Ruti becomes pregnant again, she does not want the bear the child because she hates Laban. She asks Rachel to perform an abortion. After consulting with her sisters, Rachel agrees and uses certain herbs to abort the pregnancy.

Leah feels worn out by her many pregnancies and doesn't want to bear any more children. So when she becomes pregnant, she talks to Rachel about having an abortion. Rachel tells Leah not to prevent the birth of her first daughter. Although Leah dearly wants a daughter, she feels skeptical about carrying a female. However, Bilhah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Leah each have a dream about Leah's future daughter. Leah has an easy delivery, giving birth to a healthy girl. Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah say blessings for the child to protect her from evil. Leah and her sisters have difficulty deciding the child's name. Finally Leah names the baby Dinah because she feels the child picked this name.

Shortly after Dinah's birth, Rachel conceives. Because of her many miscarriages, she at first tells no one about her pregnancy. However, during the fourth month Rachel feels confident enough to tell her sisters and Jacob. Rachel has a difficult labor, and her sisters fear she will die. Rachel, though, fights for her life and delivers a son. She names the boy Joseph.


Diamant explores the theme of patriarchy by showing how it dehumanizes women. This dehumanization is clearly seen through Laban's abuse of his wife, Ruti. After Ruti stops bearing children Laban beats her constantly. The narrator describes her as a "ragged, battered misery." Laban sees Ruti's function as being a child bearer. When she stops performing this role, he treats her as a worthless object. In patriarchies, because men see themselves as superior beings, they treat women as inferiors.

The dehumanizing effect of patriarchies can be seen in the situations of Bilhah and Zilpah. According to patriarchal tradition, Jacob has the right to take these two women as concubines, a lower status than wives. As a result Bilhah and Zilpah are less important than Rachel and Leah. After Bilhah offers to bear a child in Rachel's name, Rachel forms a symbiotic bond with Bilhah and in the process tries to assume Bilhah's personhood. Rachel even shares some signs of pregnancy with Bilhah, such as swollen ankles. When Inna helps Bilhah give birth, the midwife feels the mother has two heads, Bilhah's and Rachel's. However, when Rachel sees Bilhah caress her child, the spell is broken. She suddenly realizes Bilhah is a separate human being, not an extension of herself. Also because of their lower status Bilhah and Zilpah do not have wedding ceremonies before they have sex with Jacob. They are seen as lesser human beings who do not deserve or need this ceremony to mark their emergence into an important stage of their lives. Bilhah misses sharing this ritual with her sisters and, as a result, feels "lonely walking into her husband's tent."

Ruti's abortion conveys the theme of female empowerment through assertive action and secret knowledge. A beaten, submissive slave, Ruti feels the only act of power she can take is to abort her pregnancy. She refuses to give her abuser, Laban, a child. Feeling sympathy for Ruti, Rachel agrees to perform the act. She uses a herbal brew, incantations, and treatments to perform the abortion. Dinah also asserts herself, even as a baby. Unlike most infants, Dinah actually chooses her own name. When Leah mentions the name, the infant lets her mother's nipple fall away and looks up at her. This event foreshadows the choices Dinah makes as an adult to determine her own life.

The symbol of blood emphasizes the theme of birth and death in this chapter. The natural business of procreation often leads to death. When Zilpah gives birth to twins, a river of blood pours out of her, bringing her close to death. Later Ruti bleeds heavily during the abortion. Rachel uses wool to stop the bleeding, saving Ruti's life while killing her infant.

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