The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

Woo, Bible fanfic. Normally I get my fanfic from rabbis and they call it “Midrash” instead of “alternative history” and its central thesis is the awesomeness of the Torah rather than promordial feminine power, but, hey, it’s nice to get a different take.

So, The Red Tent. In keeping with my tradition of experiencing everything either way before or way after it’s trendy, this one was the one all the Jewish and/or feminist book clubs were reading about a decade ago, and it focuses on one of those characters Christians don’t hear much about, because her only mention is in one of those really really unpleasant parts of the Tanakh that Christians don’t, as a rule, read because they don’t need reminders that their religion was built on what is, at its core, essentially a tribal work. The Red Tent is in the comfortable position of (unlike every Midrash on the subject) not having to serve as an apologia for the house of Israel, so it can let the characters’ fundamental prickishness shine without having to come up with dicey explanations of how they’re good people anyways.

The worldbuilding here is excellent. My anthropological knowledge is quite limited, so if there are cultural anachronisms or errors I probably wouldn’t detect them anyways, but the whole feels cohesive as a description of tribal cultures (and in the case of Egypt, national culture) of the early Bronze Age. There is perhaps less deprivation and illness than I would expect in such an early culture (plentiful food and good health is, I understand it, a fairly recent development, anthropologically speaking), but it steers clear of most of the pitfalls: conflicts are essentially tribal, not religious (even the House of Jacob, which in the Torah comes across as rabidly monotheistic, subscribes in this retelling to a fairly weak monolateralism which, judging by some of the peculiar turns of phrase in the Torah, probably does correspond better to early Judaic beliefs than the party line does). That having been said, the big central conceit which abruptly shifts the gears of the story makes a lot less sense in this context: alliance with the elite of an urban culture would be a big step up, statuswise, for a nomadic group, and they wouldn’t spurn it, as a rule (especially not to rescue one of their women, whose primary utility, from the patriarchs’ point of view, was in securing beneficial alliances anyways). But then, Simon and Levi aren’t presented as terribly rational.

So of course, the elephant in the room with regard to this story is its take on ancient gender relations, because the whole story’s basically awash in protofeminism, which is moderately dangerous as it’s built around a sexual philosophy which hadn’t even begun to exist at the time, and which sometimes slips the story out of its otherwise well-considered alternative-history groove. I expected the women in this story, frankly, to be a lot more miserable: it wasn’t a time or place that granted them a great deal of autonomy, but one gets the distinct impression that women in this story do what they like, which is a somewhat rose-colored view of the culture. Dinah isn’t mistress of her fate, of course, which is most chillingly presented throguh the massacre of Shechem, but as mentioned previously, that actually doesn’t make too much sense vis-a-vis the actual social position of women at the time. In Egypt, likewise, her destiny is turned into a path she’s powerless to avoid, but that’s more a social-class issue than a gender issue, and even within her debased state she has a great deal of self-determination (then again, Egypt had a regnant queen as early as 1500BC, so maybe they were just plain unusually progressive). Generally, the women in this story seem a lot more powerful than it seems like women actually did in this historical period, and it’s unclear how that interacts with Diamant’s underlying thesis, which seems to simultaneously praise women for their strength and condemn society for imposing weakness upon them.

It’s an enjoyable and interesting read, though, no matter how you take the social philosophy, and it takes the plot elements of Genesis 29–34 and fleshes them out with an imaginative take on the roles of minor characters. There were elements which didn’t ring entirely true, but it was all-in-all a well-considered effort.

See also: Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

  1. Grace says:

    I love how you describe it as “Bible fanfic.” The book was interesting to me mostly because it put a more human look on a biblical story, offering some insight (however misguided it may or may not be) of what it was like to live during that time period.

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