A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Biblical women and Lifetime’s The Red Tent

The Red Tent. Photo by Joey L. © 2014 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLCThe Red Tent was perfect for the Lifetime channel. The network’s four-hour miniseries closely followed Anita Diamont’s 1997 novel, which gave voice—and agency—to the biblical character of Dinah. In both the novel and the miniseries, Dinah the daughter of Jacob is characterized not as a victim (as in Genesis 34) but as a strong, assertive woman raised by a band of mothers who draw power from one another and from their worship of the Divine Mother rather than the patriarchal god of Jacob. And yet, as much as she delivers strong speeches against patriarchal ways, Dinah Redux does not stray from the traditional scripts for women. Her life is shaped by romances with muscled men and by motherhood.

Dinah is tenderly loved by two men. Her first husband Shalem, who in Genesis 34 is called Shechem and is described as seizing Dinah by force, becomes in The Red Tent Dinah’s consensual spouse. Refusing to request permission to marry from her father, she claims her union with Shalem as “my life, my future, my choice.” It is the men of her family who construe her choice as defilement, using it as a pretext for slaughtering Shalem and all the men of his village. Her second husband, created for the novel, overcomes her reluctance to marry again and, like her first husband, consummates their union in slow motion on a dimly-lit bed of mutual pleasure and tenderness. While criticizing patriarchal ideas in general and some men in particular (including Laban, who is depicted as a drunk, gambling, abusive tyrant), Dinah clearly loves her husbands as well as her brother Joseph.

From the beginning of her pregnancy with Shalem’s child, Dinah’s identity rests in her role as mother. When her son is claimed by Shalem’s Egyptian mother, Dinah is willing to live in a mice-infested cellar and be treated as a slave in order to remain in her son’s life. Childbearing as the essential essence of womanhood, indeed, runs throughout The Red Tent. Even as a child, Dinah learns from her mothers in the women’s-only space of the tent the power of menstrual blood and the ability to give birth; her later role as midwife allows her to continue to participate in this most female of activities.

In placing romance and the mother-child bond at the center of women’s lives, The Red Tent follows a very modern script. Like the heroines of romance novels, Dinah willingly surrenders to the attentions of attractive men and is passionately devoted to her son. Other modern tropes appear as well. She and her mothers attempt to protect Laban’s wife from domestic violence, treat slaves as their equals, and eventually manage their anger. While Dinah resists patriarchy as a system, she ultimately forgives the people (like her father) who embody that system. Dinah is strong and independent but still desirable to men, still a devoted mother, still kind in a self-sacrificing way.

The novel The Red Tent is so beloved by many women because it offers a relatable female biblical character, one whose loves, commitments, and challenges resonate in the modern world. Presented as the recovery of the lost voices of ancient women, it also plays well with a current climate of distrust in religious traditions and institutions. Like The Da Vinci Code, The Red Tent is fiction, but its claim that history has demeaned women’s stories rings true for many who are desperately seeking a usable past.

And yet, by making the past mirror the present, this retelling of the biblical story not only does disservice to the past but also reinscribes the very gender scripts it claims to resist.

My recent work as the editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies aims to work against such anachronistic assumptions. In the case of ancient Israel, our participating scholars explored topics such as the nature of goddess worship, marriage, gender roles, and the social significance of children. They argue that the worship of female deities was not limited to women and had little bearing on the well-being of human women; that children’s importance was as much economic as affectional; that “biblical marriage” required neither female consent, mutual vow making, nor romance; and that low life expectancies not only promoted the “marriage” of females by the age of 13 but also meant that few people would have ever known their grandparents. Johanna Stiebert, author of “Social Scientific Approaches,” contextualizes The Red Tent as one strategy of feminist appropriation of the ancient world, while Susanne Scholz (“Second Wave Feminism”) and Teresa J. Hornsby (“Heterosexism/Heteronormativity”) explain the perspectives of those who find the valorization of romance and motherhood as reflective of rather than resistant to patriarchy. Deborah W. Rooke (“Patriarchy/Kyriarchy”) traces the history of conversations about goddesses and women in the ancient world.

These and other entries suggest just how speculative, selective, and skewed many of The Red Tent’s portrayals of the ancient world are. In Diamant’s world, four women willingly share Jacob as husband and experience little competition within women’s space. In the red tent, they cooperate with one another, sharing stories and essential oils. Such portrayals downplay not only biblical stories of tensions between women but also the modern systems that pit women against one another.

By paying attention to the ways in which gender is constructed in the diverse texts, cultures, and readers that constitute “the world of the Bible,” gender-sensitive biblical scholarship seeks to move beyond such stereotypes of women. It suggests that women—and men and those whom societies place as “other”—operate within systems and structures that must be named and, when necessary, critiqued. Though giving Dinah agency within a world that limits women’s roles to romance and motherhood might seem liberating to some readers/viewers of The Red Tent, gender studies brings into focus the socially constructed nature of these limits of women’s worth.

Image credit: The Red Tent. Photo Joey L. © 2014 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC

This essay is reprinted from the Oxford University Press website.  You can leave your comments on the original post.