The Story Behind The Red Tent

How much does The Red Tent take from an ancient tale, and how much does it go its own way?

The story behind The Red Tent


If you never thought a Bible story would have you on the edge of your seat, you're about to be surprised. The Red Tent is indeed inspired by a chapter from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. This chapter tells of Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, who - according to the most common interpretation of the text - is abducted and "violated" by a prince. Her attacker then proposes marriage, but Dinah's brothers, enraged by what's happened, take brutal revenge on the prince and his family. This is pretty much all the Bible tells us, and it's the jumping off point for The Red Tent's bold retelling.


In the original Biblical account, Dinah is a silent figure - we're given no indication of what she thinks or wants, and she disappears from the book after her brothers go on their killing spree. The Red Tent doesn't just give her a voice - it tells the whole story through her eyes, and the eyes of women around her. Crucially, it has a different take on the incident with the prince. In this version of events, we see that their passion was mutual. It was not a rape, but a romance - a Romeo and Juliet story set against an ancient backdrop. And one with terrible consequences.


One of the most interesting things we see in this epic story is the red tent itself. This is where the women of Jacob's tribe must go when they're menstruating, and it's this red tent that is their precious sanctuary of womanhood in a time of unbending patriarchal might. Here, Dinah and her mothers (her father has four wives) gather to share thoughts and wisdom, exchange gossip, seek solace in each other, and pass on their knowledge of midwifery and motherhood. No such tent is mentioned in the original Biblical account, but Anita Diamant - author of the original novel of The Red Tent - was inspired by accounts of "menstrual huts" from other cultures, and invented her red tent as a meeting place for her female characters.


While The Red Tent is primarily about Dinah, it also has a sub-plot about something much more familiar to us: the story of Joseph, of technicolour dreamcoat fame. That's because Joseph is one of Dinah's brothers, but don't go expecting happy songs and religious visions in this version. The Red Tent portrays a more "realistic" Joseph, a good but flawed man who must battle his own demons and reconcile with his family. Speaking of religion, The Red Tent doesn't have much time for the God of the Old Testament. This, after all, is a sort of "secret history" of the time, and even shows the womenfolk worshipping pagan idols when Jacob's back is turned.


You can see why some originally accused author Anita Diamant of "blasphemy" when her novel first came out. But here's the paradoxical thing about The Red Tent. While it turns the original Bible story on its head, and puts the focus on women rather than men, it also brings the Old Testament to life in a way that a more "accurate" version wouldn't. Here, for once, we have Biblical characters who are living, breathing human beings, with inner desires and ambitions. These aren't bland stock figures from a sermon, or pious paragons of perfection. These are men and women who laugh and cry and love and hate, and are recognizable to us today, all the way over here in the 21st Century.