View from the Red Tent

Scripture Readings: Genesis 34, John 8:1-7

In the Genesis story Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, is raped by Shechem, a Hivite prince, and then two of her brothers avenge the rape of "Jacob’s daughter" by killing all the Hivite men of the city of Shechem. The murder of the Hivites causes Jacob to fear that other peoples of the land may seek revenge, but Simeon and Levi answer their father: "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"

The Genesis story then tells us that Dinah was taken from Shechem by her brothers, but we never hear of her again. When Genesis 46 names all the family members that Jacob brought to Egypt shortly before his death, Dinah is not included but is only identified as the daughter born to Leah. The story of Jacob and his sons in Genesis does not judge the sons of Jacob for the murder of the Hivites and does not answer the question, "What happened to Dinah?"

In Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, Dinah tells her story. "My memory is dust," Dinah begins. "No one recalled my skill as a midwife, or the songs I sang, or the bread I baked for my insatiable brothers. Nothing remained except a few mangled details about those weeks in Shechem." We know from the Genesis story that those terrible events in Shechem changed Dinah’s life, but she begins her story by telling us about her mothers – about Leah, who gave her birth, but also about the three other women who bore Jacob children – Rachel, Leah’s younger sister, and the servants of these two sisters, Zilpah and Bilhah.

These four women bore Jacob twelve sons and one daughter. They gave birth in the red tent, and there they stayed while they were impure because of their bleeding. In the red tent, away from the men, the women had a life of their own, which included worshiping gods and goddesses associated with healing and fertility. In the red tent Dinah learned what it meant to be a woman.

Diamant gives us a view of Dinah's life that is hidden in the Bible. Genesis 34:3 tells us that the young Hivite prince loved her, but we never hear how she felt about the man who is accused of raping her. In The Red Tent Dinah tells us that she loved him. And we can readily believe she was eager to leave her male dominated tribe for life in the city with her prince, because he loved her so much he agreed to be circumcised in order to marry her. In Dinah’s story their love is luscious, and his death is a disaster. She flees Shechem with her husband’s mother, who takes Dinah to Egypt so the child in her womb will be safe from the murderous sons of Jacob.

In Egypt, Dinah bears a son, cares for him, continues her life as a midwife, and after her son is grown finds happiness with another man. She meets her brother, Joseph, who comes to power in Egypt as the Genesis story says, and with Joseph she visits her father, Jacob, just before his death. Dinah also receives from one of her brothers a gift from her mother, and she meets a niece who remembers the story of Dinah and relates it with sadness and wonder.

The Red Tent is fiction, of course, but so is the Genesis tale of Jacob and his sons. None of the events in Genesis can be verified historically. The story was told to explain and justify the Israelite claim to a land first occupied by other peoples. Moreover, the Genesis story tells of a God who justifies genocide against those who threaten his chosen people.

That, too, is fiction. However, faith is not belief in fiction. Faith is trusting in the Source of life and love. There is a glimmer of that wondrous Creator in the story of Genesis, but this spark is nearly snuffed out by the darkness of the deceit at Shechem. The foul acts of Simeon and Levi, and Jacob’s refusal to seek justice for the surviving wives and children of those slaughtered, have nothing to do with being faithful.

Contrast the tale of John 8:1-11.* Men gather around a woman, who is accused of adultery, ready to stone her to death, as they believe God’s justice requires. When Jesus is asked to pass judgment, he says: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." He does not defend the woman, nor does he accuse those who accuse her. He helps the accusing men see that they also have sinned. We all fall short of being the loving men and women we were created to be.

When the men go home, Jesus tells the woman to go home – merely urging her not to sin again. This passage from the gospel of John is not a Christian story condemning Jewish law. This is a story about wondrous love. 

Let Anita Diamant’s Dinah have the last word:

"My last years were good ones. [My good friend] Kiya had two more babies, another boy and a girl, who took over my house and my husband’s heart. We received countless sweet-breathed kisses every day. ‘You are the elixir of youth,’ I said, as I tickled them and laughed with them. ‘You sustain these old bones. You keep me alive.’"

"But not even the devotion of little children can stave off death forever, and my time arrived. I did not suffer long. I woke in the night to feel a crushing weight on my chest, but after the first shock there was no pain."

"[My husband] Benia held my face between his great, warn hands, Kiya arrived and cradled my feet between her long fingers. They wept, and I could not form the words to comfort them. Then they changed before my eyes, and I had no words to describe what I saw."

"My beloved turned into a beacon as bright as the sun, and his light warmed me through and through. Kiya glowed like the moon and sang with the green and solemn voice of the Queen of the Night."

"In the darkness surrounding the shining lights of my life, I began to discern the faces of my mothers, each one burning with her own fire. Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah…Strong, brave, wonderstruck, kind, gifted, broken, loyal, foolish, talented, weak: each one welcoming me in her way."

"’Oh,’ I cried, in wonder. Benia held me even tighter and sobbed. He thought that I suffered, but I felt nothing but excitement . . .. Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art. Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death . . .."

"In Egypt, I loved the perfume of the lotus. A flower would bloom in the pool at dawn, filling the entire garden with a blue musk so powerful it seemed that even the fish and ducks would swoon. By night, the flower might wither but the perfume lasted. Fainter and fainter, but never quite gone. Even many days later, the lotus remained in the garden. Months would pass and a bee would alight near the spot where the lotus had blossomed, and its essence was released again, momentary but undeniable."

"Egypt loved the lotus because it never dies. It is the same for people who are loved. Thus can something as insignificant as a name [Dinah] – two syllables, one high, one sweet – summon up the innumerable smiles and tears, sighs and dreams of a human life."

"If you sit on the bank of a river, you see only a small part of its surface. And yet, the water before your eyes is proof of unknowable depths. My heart brims with thanks for the kindness you have shown me by sitting on the bank of this river, by visiting the echoes of my name."

"Blessings on your eyes and on your children. Blessings on the ground beneath you. Wherever you walk I go with you. Selah.”

*This story is not included in the most authoritative ancient versions of John’s gospel.

October 2008 © Robert Traer 2016