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Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” Is No Bible Study



David Ives - published on 12/09/14

Steamy mini-series based on best-selling book

If all you know of the Bible is confined to what you’ve heard read at church, you might not be too familiar with the story of Dinah (pronounced Dee-nah). After all, she only appears for a few brief verses in Genesis 34, a chapter that doesn’t really get mentioned that often. And for good reason. Hers is not really a family-friendly story.

Genesis 34 relates how Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and his first wife Leah, is seized and raped by Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite. Trying to make things right, Hamor comes to Jacob and offers to pay whatever bridal price is demanded if Jacob and his sons will allow Shechem and Dinah to marry. Jacob’s sons agree to the marriage, but only if every male in Hamor’s kingdom consents to be circumcised. Later, while Hamor’s men are still recovering from the obviously painful procedure, Jacob’s sons sneak in and kill every single Hivite, loot their city, and take back Dinah.

And that’s it. We never hear of Dinah again after that. Well, apparently that wasn’t enough for Anita Diamant, an award-winning journalist and author of several Jewish advice books. In 1997, Diamant published The Red Tent, a fictional novel which took the bare bones story of Dinah from Scripture and expanded it into a sprawling tale of inter-generational female camaraderie. The book was a runaway hit, spending months on bestseller lists and becoming a perennial selection for book clubs. And now the Lifetime cable channel has adapted the tale into a two-part miniseries.

The first part of The Red Tent covers mostly familiar territory to those who have perused Genesis. It begins with Jacob coming to work for his uncle Laban where he meets and marries Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. After fathering twelve sons as well as Dinah, Jacob returns to his childhood home to reconcile with his brother Esau, whom Jacob had previously cheated out of his birthright. That’s where the story of Dinah’s rape occurs.

Except that’s not quite what happens in The Red Tent. With so little detail given about Dinah in the Bible, Diamant decides to play loose with the facts in order to tell the story she’s interested in. For instance, Jacob is no longer tricked into marrying Leah by Laban as the Bible tells it. Instead, after Rachel begs Leah to take her place at the wedding because she’s afraid of sex, Leah and Jacob concoct a scheme in which they falsely accuse Laban of arranging the switch. Publicly humiliated, Laban agrees to allow Jacob to marry Rachel also, as well as the two handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah. Jacob learns you can get pretty far if you’ve got a smart woman or two on your side.

Of more consequence, the rape detailed in the Bible never occurs. In The Red Tent, Dinah immediately falls in love with Shechem and willfully initiates a little pre-marital sex with him. Following their tryst, the young lovers decide to get married without Jacob’s permission. Jacob is naturally enraged, but his wives calm him down and he agrees to allow the marriage to continue as long as the Hivites get circumcised. His sons have other plans, however, and Dinah soon awakens to find herself covered in her husband’s blood.

So, as a strict Biblical adaptation, The Red Tent is a dud. But that’s not really what the author was interested in writing anyway. In an interview with Ms. Magazine, Diamant explained that she was attempting to explore “the backdrop of the women’s culture, the wholeness of it, the valuing of female relationships — sister, friend, mother, daughter — in a way that was separate from the men."

To that end, Diamant imagined a red tent to which women were sent during their menstruation or when they were about to give birth. Apparently the ancient Jews didn’t actually have such a practice or a place, but it’s a good story device which allows the women characters a place to sit in private and talk to one another without any men being allowed to butt in.

It sounds like a great setup for a lot of feminist rants, but they never really come (at least in the miniseries, I haven’t read the book). There’s some talk about how women see things differently and how they need their own customs and rituals, but nothing that really smacks of an agenda. Mostly, the narrative just sticks to basic melodrama stuff while throwing in a handful of surprising, nearly graphic sex scenes.

Then again, maybe the inclusion of the steamy material isn’t all that surprising. You see, there is one thing blatantly missing from "The Red Tent" (the TV version). In a number of scenes, the women inside the tent are shown worshipping before the statues of their pagan gods. This actually fits in with the Biblical narrative as Rachel did indeed bring her statues with her when Jacob and his clan departed Laban’s. But there are never any corresponding scenes showing Jacob or his sons at worship. In fact, there’s hardly any mention of Jehovah at all. For a Biblical epic,"The Red Tent" is notably light on God. That brings us to the end of Part 1. 

Okay, so “The Red Tent Part 1” wasn’t much as far as straight ahead Biblical adaptations go, but it only had a few verses about Dinah to work with anyway. And now, here we are with most of  the scriptural references to Dinah exhausted and there’s still two hours left to go. What remains to tell?

Admittedly, Part 1 did leave viewers with some questions. Since the rape of their sister, Dinah, as described in the Bible never happened in this version of the story, why do Simeon and Levi still conspire to kill all the Hivite men? How is Jacob going to handle what his sons have done? And where exactly is the God of the Jews in all of this mess involving his chosen people?

Well, according to “The Red Tent Part 2,” the answers are (1) greed and envy, (2) very badly and (3) who knows? As in Part 1, God is pretty much absent this time around.

After the slaughter of the Hivite men, Jacob can’t bring himself to punish his sons, though he has no such qualms coming down hard on his daughter. She’s just a woman, after all. In response, Dinah abandons her family and travels to Egypt with her mother-law, who promptly steals Dinah’s newborn baby as her own. Lots of misery ensues.

Obviously, everything that happens after the murder of the Hivites is entirely a construction of the movie. And, truthfully, once the film has no more of the Bible to mangle, it gets much better. Minnie Driver and Morena Baccarin’s portrayals of Leah and Rachel are missed, but Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Dinah is still plenty engaging enough to keep things interesting.

Dinah raises her son by proxy as a nursemaid. She sets up shop as an herbalist and midwife. She meets a new man. And ultimately she runs into her brother, Joseph, who by this time has risen in the ranks of Egyptian authority after being sold into slavery by his siblings. It’s all fairly engrossing.

But also not very deep. There are some effective moments in which Dinah draws on her experiences in the titular red tent to bring solidarity to the new women in her life, but (for better or worse) there’s not a lot of the radical exploration of the role of women in Old Testament times which is supposedly found in the novel (I haven’t read it, so I’m going on secondhand information here). “The Red Tent” the miniseries seems to be content being a combination of a Danielle Steele-style generational drama and a good old fashioned bodice-ripper (there’s plenty of exposed abs and a bare male bottom or two on display).

All of which means “The Red Tent” is most definitely not the next movie to share with your Bible study group. In fact, one gets the impression that the whole affair would have been better off leaving the Bible alone and just making everything up. It was already 90 percent there already.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ivesspends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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