Study Guide

The Red Tent

by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent Summary

Summary

In The Red Tent, author Anita Diamant re-creates the popular Biblical story of Jacob by giving a voice to his only daughter, Dinah. Known as simply the object of her brothers’ wrath, Dinah serves only a minor role in the traditional tale. Here, she tells her own story.

Dinah begins her story with that of her mothers—the four daughters of Laban: Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. One day, Jacob, the man who would be Dinah’s father, comes upon Rachel at a well in Haran. He is arrested by her intense beauty and kisses her. Rachel decides that she will marry him, and after Jacob has worked for Laban for many months, he asks for her hand. But Rachel is afraid of consummating her marriage, and the sisters conspire to have Leah take Rachel’s place during the marriage ceremony. Jacob then demands from Laban dowries for both women, and he is given also Zilpah and Bilhah and a small portion of Laban’s flocks. Leah soon gives birth to her first son, Reuben, and she later gives birth to six more boys; Zilpah delivers twin boys; and Bilhah has one son who survives. Rachel, however, remains barren for many years. After spending so much time with the midwife Inna, she learns the art of midwifery. Leah again becomes pregnant. To the delight of the sisters, Rachel predicts that the baby is a girl. In her happiness, Rachel conceives. Shortly after Leah gives birth to Dinah, Rachel gives birth to Joseph.

Once his sons are old enough, Jacob takes them into the hills and tells the boys stories about his father, Isaac. Joseph shares these stories with Dinah, but soon the two drift apart as Dinah becomes consumed in the lives of the women’s circle and her days become filled with chores and stories. As time goes on, Jacob harbors a growing disgust for Laban, and he decides that he will move his family to Canaan, the land of his birth. After bitter negotiations, Laban allows Jacob to take all the possessions that are used by the four sisters, two of the bondsmen and their wives, and a portion of the flocks. Jacob and his family leave Haran and do not look back.

On the way to Canaan, Jacob is wracked by nightmares concerning his inevitable meeting with his twin brother, Esau. Surprisingly, when the two brothers meet and Jacob submits himself at the feet of his brother, Esau embraces him. The families of the two brothers join camp briefly, but the men decide to not tease past grievances and part ways. Jacob settles his family in a village named Succoth. Here, Dinah’s family prospers: her brothers take wives, the bondswomen birth many children, and the flocks multiply. Jacob’s camp is visited by a messenger requesting their presence at the home of Jacob’s mother, Rebecca. The family visits Rebecca, who interrogates each wife of Jacob and demands that Dinah be left behind for three months after the family departs. Dinah learns why her grandmother is considered an oracle, yet she fails to feel that she has learned much from Rebecca.

Jacob is once again seized by dreams of a new land, and he moves his family from Succoth to the valley of Shechem, where his sons Simon and Levi have bargained with the king Hamor for a parcel of land. Dinah’s mothers are comforted by the physical setting of their new home but they detest the ways of the Canaanite women, who show no regard for custom or tradition. When Dinah returns home, she is consumed by thoughts of her imminent womanhood, and she welcomes...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)

The Red Tent Chapter Summaries

Prologue

A woman in the Bible who is only known through a passing reference, Dinah introduces herself to the reader and thus claims a voice in the narrative of her own history. Dinah recognizes that for centuries she has remained virtually nameless—she has been a woman associated with rape and revenge. Her father and brother, the well-known Jacob and Joseph from the Book of Genesis, dominate Biblical stories surrounding their family, and Dinah has only been the object of her brothers’ war-like quest to avenge her honor. In this tale, the women’s stories have been lost, replaced by the memory and the oral tradition of men.

Dinah is now here to reclaim her voice, to give life to her story, and to give honor to her name. According to Dinah, there is much more to her story than what the Bible tells. She recalls her past as a midwife and rejoices in the stories she once sang. Dinah reminds the reader that to know a woman is to know her mother; for Dinah, this is complicated because she lived with four mothers—the four daughters of Laban and his wives. Each woman contributed to Dinah’s upbringing and character development: Leah, Dinah’s mother by birth, passed on her arrogance; Rachel passed on her gifts of midwifery; Zilpah taught Dinah to think; Bilhah listened. As one would imagine, these four distinctive personalities did not always agree. Dinah’s mother and aunts shared Jacob as their husband; as a result, they were caught in a mess of conflicts in the home.

But the women cherished Dinah, the only daughter in their sea of sons, and to Dinah they gave their stories. They were of course proud of the sons they bore for Jacob because each woman was measured by her sons, yet they cherished the daughter who would ease their troubles. Through Dinah, the women’s stories remained alive. The women gifted these stories to Dinah in the red tent, the place where women sat out their menstrual cycles and gave birth.

Now even though Dinah has left home and her mother and aunts have passed away, she carries their memory in their stories. She offers these stories here to the reader, whom Dinah knows craves the truth. She promises to offer the entire story to the satisfaction of the reader. Dinah blesses the reader and welcomes the reader into this story that has never been told.

My Mother's Stories (Chapter 1)

Dinah begins the retelling of her four mothers’ stories on the day that her father Jacob arrives at their home. Jacob comes upon Rachel at the well; taken by her immense beauty, he kisses her. Even though she has not yet begun to menstruate and is, therefore, still considered a child, Rachel resolves that she will marry Jacob. Her eldest sister, Leah, scowls and laughs at her foolishness, and their father, Laban, demands to hear the details of the encounter. He is not surprised that Rachel has received this attention for he, like everyone else, has been taken by Rachel’s beauty and powerful nature since her birth, which was violent and caused her mother, Huna, to bleed and die. After Huna’s death, Laban’s other wives looked after Rachel as their own. Smelling of perfumed water, Rachel enchants all around her.

Leah, on the other hand, is shunned by others because she was born with one green and one blue eye. When Jacob arrives at Laban’s threshold seeking familial hospitality as the son of Laban’s sister, Rebecca, Leah immediately likes him because he holds her gaze rather than looking away. He does not see in Leah the witch that others claim to have seen; instead, Jacob is drawn by Leah’s height and her shapely, strong figure. Unlike her sister, Rachel, Leah smells of bread and yeast, which draws Jacob to imagine her sex.

Aside from his legitimate daughters, Laban also bore two daughters from slaves who once lived in his home. His second daughter, Zilpah, is olive-skinned and raven-haired, and she has little time for men. Zilpah praises the moon, the Queen of Heaven, and everything feminine. The youngest daughter, Bilhah, is dark and silent and is left to herself by the others in the home. One day, Bilhah proves herself by correctly predicting the birth of kids from a she-goat thought barren.

Once Jacob comes into the home, Leah begins creating a feast to comfort him, and Jacob ends up remaining in the home of Laban for many weeks. Jacob eventually makes a proposal to take Rachel as his bride, and Jacob and Laban argue over the proper bride price. A stingy man who has been known to take a wandering hand to his daughters, Laban tries to offer Bilhah in place of a proper dowry. Jacob, however, will not stand for this, and the men settle on Jacob’s working Laban’s herds for one year. But when the year is over, Rachel has still not begun to menstruate, and Laban’s wife, Adah, will not allow the marriage. When Rachel’s cycle finally begins, her sisters introduce her to the rituals of the red tent. According to custom, Jacob is forced to wait another seven months to wed his bride.

My Mother's Stories (Chapter 2)

Rachel’s impatient waiting stirs the entire house. She sneaks out to meet Jacob in the fields for an innocent rendezvous, unaware that Jacob has taken a liking to seeing her sister, Leah, at least once a day to inquire about business. Zilpah senses the lust in the air; knowing that Laban’s days as the patriarch of the house will soon be over, she decides to turn the tide in her favor. Zilpah despises Rachel, and she makes her believe that her wedding night with her husband will be painful by telling her lies about the size of Jacob’s manhood. Out of fear, Rachel agrees to allow her sister, Leah, to take her place under the bridal robes and veil on the day of the wedding. As custom dictates, Leah and Jacob spend the first seven days and nights of their marriage in the bridal tent wrapped in the passion of lovemaking. But Rachel regrets her decision and insists that she be given her place as the proper wife of Jacob. So the ceremony is done again, and this time Rachel and Jacob spend their week in the tent. Jacob then demands a dowry for both Leah and Rachel, so Zilpah and Bilhah plus a large portion of Laban’s flocks now belong to Jacob.

Shortly after the weddings, Leah shows signs of pregnancy and Rachel, jealous, also begins to show the same signs. The two sisters carry together, but unfortunately Rachel miscarries. When Leah goes into labor, her mother, Adah, is too sick to be of real help and her three sisters struggle in their inexperience. After a night of hard labor, the women send for Inna the midwife, who arrives to help Leah through her delivery. Her son, Reuben, is born—to Jacob’s delight. Reuben is circumcised in the tradition of his father’s family, and mother and son remain in the red tent for one month. When the two emerge, Leah is glowing in her new motherhood and immediately resumes her role as the caretaker of the family. She births her second son, Simeon, two years later, and her line of sons continues in rapid succession.

Rachel continues to miscarry, and she seeks every possible method to try to become pregnant: lying in running water, sleeping with her belly against trees, taking potions of herbs. Rachel regularly visits Inna for help, and from the midwife she learns the art and science of midwifery. When one of the house laborer’s wives goes into labor, Rachel delivers the baby safely into the world and earns her new title as midwife.

My Mother's Stories (Chapter 3)

Rachel eventually grows quiet in her barren state, and Jacob stops calling for her at night. Sensing her distress, Rachel’s youngest sister, Bilhah, asks Rachel to allow her to go to Jacob so that she might bear a son in Rachel’s name. Rachel agrees and Bilhah, who learns pleasure in her husband’s body, becomes pregnant. The two women enjoy the pains of pregnancy together, and with Rachel as support, Bilhah gives birth to Dan. But soon after Dan’s birth, Rachel again falls into despair, and with Leah nursing, no one is able to keep Jacob’s bed. Leah asks Zilpah to finally look upon her duty. Jacob calls for Zilpah on many nights, trying to bring her to see the sweetness in their coupling, and Zilpah is grateful when she...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

My Story (Chapter 1)

Dinah does not remember if her earliest memories belong to her or if they are constructions of her mothers’ continual stories. Dinah’s closest companion is her brother Joseph, and although he takes his first steps before Dinah, she is the one who is first to speak. The two children are spoiled by their mothers because they are thought to be the last children the women would bear. But the great age difference among the twelve children causes a rift between the siblings: the elder children form one gang and the younger form another. The elder boys often taunt and tease the younger children, and as time goes on, the younger boys seek entry into the older group of siblings. In time, even Dinah and Joseph’s immediate brothers...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

My Story (Chapter 2)

Caught in sleepless nights, Jacob frequents the comfort of the terebinth tree near the altar. There, Jacob confides in Zilpah that he has had dreams calling him back to his homeland, Canaan. While the women are in the red tent, they speak of Jacob’s dreams and his plans to move them south to his homeland. Rachel, who has travelled to many lands to birth children and aid the sick and dying, is eager to see the mountains and be near a bustling marketplace. Leah, on the other hand, is content living in the valley of her birth. Bilhah is reluctant to leave behind Adah’s bones and the memory of the only mother she ever knew. But Zilpah staunchly resists the move, claiming that the family will upset the gods to their own detriment if...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

My Story (Chapter 3)

Once on the road, Jacob’s family members are arranged around the caravan to protect the women, children, and herds of animals. Soon a figure appears on the road; she is the midwife Inna. Having angered the husband of a client, Inna has fled her home in fear and appeals to Jacob through Rachel to be allowed into his family. Jacob consents. Inna’s presence lifts the women’s spirits, and even Zilpah is moved to sing.

Soon the family reaches a great river, and Dinah fears that she and her family and the animals will be swept away—none of them, except Jacob and Inna, have seen such a great body of water before. But all pass safely, and once in the water, Dinah feels caressed by the river. Zilpah says that Dinah is...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

My Story (Chapter 4)

The family’s fear of Jacob’s brother, Esau, increases when Esau’s eldest son, Eliphaz, arrives at their camp and announces the upcoming arrival of his father. But Jacob insists on meeting Esau on the way, and the family walks to meet his brother. Surprisingly, the two brothers embrace upon their greeting. Jacob leads his brother back to his family and introduces his many sons and wives; Esau does the same.

Dinah quickly favors her cousin Tabea, the only daughter of Esau’s wife Basemath. Back at Jacob’s camp, Dinah and Tabea are sent to fetch wild onions for the evening meal. Once away from everyone else, the girls talk about their mothers and their Grandmother Rebecca. Dinah reveals the close nature of the...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

My Story (Chapter 5)

A month before the barley harvest, the mothers prepare for the journey to meet Rebecca, the Grandmother. Dinah is given copper bracelets, and the family receives new and mended clothing. The journey to Mamre takes only a few days, and they soon see Rebecca’s tent shimmering in the distance. Jacob formally introduces his wives and sons to his mother. Dinah cannot stop staring at the Grandmother, who is tall, elegantly painted, and swathed in purple robes. Rebecca is attended by a group of women wearing white robes, and each is named Deborah. Soon, Jacob’s father, Isaac, arrives; he is attended by another Deborah. As Jacob greets him, the men embrace and weep. The family sits to the meal that Dinah’s mothers have prepared, and...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

My Story (Chapter 6)

When Dinah returns to her home, she is overwhelmed by everyday occurrences that now seem foreign to her: noisy animals, crying babies, screaming women, and smelly men. Dinah feels that her every move displeases her mother, Leah, so she seeks the comfort of her aunts. As Dinah becomes reacquainted with her home, she is troubled by her imminent womanhood and becomes fascinated by the sounds of lovemaking coming from her brothers’ tents.

While Dinah is consumed by her curiosity, her father is again seized by dreams of new lands. Jacob’s family continues to grow and their land can no longer contain the size of the flocks, so Jacob and his sons discuss moving to new land. Simon and Levi visit Hamor, the king of Shechem,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

My Story (Chapter 7)

After hearing tales about Hamor’s palace in Shechem from her brother Joseph, Dinah longs to visit the city and is thrilled when a messenger arrives from the queen, Re-nefer, requesting the help of the midwives. Upon arrival, Rachel speaks frankly with Re-nefer, and Dinah aids Ashnan through her delivery. Hearing a male voice in the hallway, Dinah goes to the door and there is caught in the gaze of the prince, Shalem. For many nights, Dinah dreams of the prince; she stifles her tears when he does not come after her when she and Rachel depart the palace. But Dinah’s dreams soon come true when another messenger is sent from Hamor’s palace requesting that the daughter of Jacob return. Levi takes Dinah back to Shechem, charging...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

My Story (Chapter 8)

Leah falls to the ground upon seeing Dinah’s bloodied body and fears that she has been murdered. Relieved when she sees her daughter walk, Leah reaches out to her, but Dinah tries to run back to Shechem. Her aunts take Dinah into their care. From the tent, Dinah hears her brothers return and boast of the booty they have taken from the city. Dinah leaves the tent to confront her brothers and screams for her father. When Jacob emerges from his tent, she curses her father for the murders that her brothers have committed in his name. In a voice that she does not recognize as her own, Dinah tells her father that he will never again know peace in his house. She curses each of her brothers, naming them one by one in honor of her...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Egypt (Chapter 1)

Dinah is rescued from the gate of the city Shechem by Re-nefer’s manservant, Nehesi (the only man who survived Simon and Levi’s deadly attack), and he brings the girl to his mistress. Dinah is surprised that her mother-in-law does not hate her for the destruction and death caused to her house; Re-nefer only blames herself for arranging the love between Shalem and Dinah. The three flee Canaan and return to Egypt, the land of Re-nefer’s birth. On the way, Dinah is wracked by fitful nightmares of the death of her husband, and Nehesi warns Dinah to rid herself of her dreams. Re-nefer forces Dinah to agree to her version of the events that have transpired, and the three reach Thebes to beg the hospitality of Re-nefer’s brother,...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Egypt (Chapter 2)

Dinah’s life has revolved around her son, and in his absence she feels lost and alone. With Re-mose gone, Dinah must earn her place in the house of Nakht-re. She speaks less often to Re-nefer and eventually moves out of the house and into the garden shed. Dinah hears of the life of her son only through letters sent by Re-mose’s teacher, Kar, who has taken a liking to his gifted student. In her loneliness, Dinah is comforted only by Meryt, the midwife who attended her delivery. Meryt shares the secrets of her life with Dinah, but Dinah does not reciprocate, fearing that the knowledge of her past would haunt Re-mose and impede his success. Meryt eventually accepts Dinah’s silence but will not ignore that Dinah is an...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Egypt (Chapter 3)

Benia delivers Dinah’s carved box as promised, but Dinah looks at it only in shame, feeling that her lowly status does not deserve such a treasure. Meryt scolds Dinah for not returning Benia’s affection, but Dinah will not be moved.

The women continue their work and are summoned to the home of a priest to attend his young concubine. Both mother and child can not be saved, and the priest blames Dinah for their deaths and claims she is a foreign witch. In her native tongue, Dinah curses the man as a pervert.

Dinah returns to the house of Nakht-re; shortly after, Re-nefer dies in her sleep. Dinah does not feel that it is her place to attend the rites in Memphis, so she stays behind. Soon Nakht-re passes on...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Egypt (Chapter 4)

More than a year after Dinah received the last message from her son, Re-mose, he appears at her door and implores her to return to Thebes to serve as midwife to As-naat, the wife of his master, the vizier Zafenat Paneh-ah. Wishing to honor her son, Dinah goes with him, and As-naat safely delivers a little boy whom they name Menashe. The next morning, Dinah falls dreadfully ill with fever, and a large woman named Shery cares for her. When Dinah becomes conscious, she inquires about the baby. Shery assures her that he is healthy and ravenous. Shery then tells Dinah stories about her master the vizier, for whom she has obvious scorn. The vizier is from Canaan, and it is rumored that he was sold into slavery and used by his master for...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Egypt (Chapter 5)

Dinah is welcomed home to the loving arms of Kiya, Meryt, and Benia. Meryt makes Dinah a meal, and Dinah tells Meryt every detail of her trip to Thebes, and then she finally tells her life story. Her friend massages her feet and listens with a sympathetic ear. Later a message arrives from Joseph proclaiming the birth of his second son, and he sends Dinah bolts of fine linen. When Benia questions the gift, Dinah tells him every detail of her life while he holds her in his arms.

Being a generation older than Dinah, Meryt has had her time in the world and dies peacefully in bed surrounded by her family. They bury her in a hillside cave, and Meryt’s family gives Dinah the honor of the eldest aunt. That night Dinah dreams...

(The entire section is 451 words.)