Dinah’s life was a mere footnote in the Bible, as most of the story was devoted to the slaughter of her husband by her brothers in order to “avenge her honor”. We are never told of Dinah’s life, until now. Anita Diamant has taken the little known character from the book of Genesis and given her a voice and a life.
Dinah was the only daughter of Leah and Jacob, raised by her mother and her three aunts, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Mothers wish for daughters in order to pass down their stories, and the birth of one is cause for much celebration. Dinah—being the only daughter of the tribe—was enfolded into their bond from an early age, and gained entrance to the red tent when other girls would know nothing of its secrets. The red tent was a place where women gathered every cycle to worship the moon, and bond as women. It was a place of birth and death, and sometimes resurrection. Bright and curious, Dinah learned how to spin from her Aunt Bilhah, to be responsible and bake bread from her mother Leah, and how to be a midwife from her beautiful Aunt Rachel. She hears things she is too young for while serving her mother and aunts in the red tent, things that prepare her for life to come. She is present for births at a time when no unmarried women was allowed, and begins to pick up the skill of midwifery. It is this skill that leads her to Shalem, son of king Hanor. While there to help a beloved maid bear her first child, Dinah and Shalem fall in love and she is taken willingly as his bride. Taking the unfortunate advice of his greedy sons, Jacob places conditions on the union, only have his sons kill every man in the kingdom to avenge their sister’s honor. Dinah curses her father and brothers, and flees back to the kingdom to die along with her love. Her mother in law, the Queen Re-nefer, rescues Dinah and takes her to Egypt, where she bears a son, only to have him snatched away by his grandmother, so he may be raised as a prince of Egypt. Living with Re-nefer’s family, she becomes a reputed midwife along with friend Meryt, and eventually finds love.
While this is the basic story, there is much more that makes it truly unforgettable. The bonds of womanhood claim a major role in this novel, and Diamant paints the lives of women in ancient times vividly. There are graphic depictions of childbirth, death and murder, alongside stories of happiness and triumph. Dinah’s memories weigh heavily upon her as she moves through life trying to find happiness, a prisoner of her own past. Only when she is briefly reunited with her family does she find peace, knowing her story, while watered down, has lived on.
I chose this book to read for my Women Writer’s class, and I’m so glad I did. It’s been quite a while since I have read a book of such substance and beauty. While not lighthearted by any means, The Red Tent will appeal to most every woman because of its emphasis on being a woman. Do not pass up this thought-provoking read.