The honorable son of a not-so-honorable Canaanite ruler, Shechem wants to marry Dinah. Jacob's sons treacherously agree to the match on the condition that the young man, his father, and all the menfolk of their city will be circumcised, and while the Canaanites are still sore and weak, Jacob's sons kill all the men, take their wives and children captive, make off with all their goods, and ravage what remains of the city. Immediately thereafter Jacob is told by God to return to a place called Bethel and build an altar there. Before they depart Jacob instructs his household to "put away the strange gods" that are among them.
This episode caught the eye of Thomas Mann, who devoted a chapter to it—heavy with his characteristic irony—in Joseph and His Brothers. Whereas Mann's narrative is aloof, urbane, Diamant's Dinah tells her own story. Her chronicle is plainspoken, intimate, woman-to-woman. The red tent of the title is the place where the women go when they are menstruating. It is also the place of childbirth, of storytelling, and of pagan ritual. (The women, with their spells and amulets and alternative creation stories—like the story of the goddess Uttu that the young Dinah hears—are not particularly attentive to the exclusive claims of El, the jealous God of the Old Testament.)
In Diamant's novel, all of the values of the biblical narrative are inverted. The Canaanites are morally as well as culturally superior to Jacob and his people, their polytheism preferable to the harsh narrowness of monotheism—though all talk of God or gods, the novel concludes, is ultimately but a puff of wind. "There is no magic to immortality," Dinah says: what endures is family, ordinary joys and ordinary sorrows, the common human heritage handed down from generation to generation, better represented in the modest traditions of women than in the boastful sagas of men.
The Red Tent wasn't an immediate success. But word of mouth, complemented by Diamant's own vigorous and savvy promotion (she was an agent before she became a novelist), kept it alive, and in time it became one of those rare books that publishers dream about, selling and selling for years. Today, almost a decade later, reading groups centered on Diamant's novel continue to flourish—even where I live, in the heart of the Midwest—and her success has inspired a mini-genre.
"In the tradition of The Red Tent," these imitators hopefully proclaim. India Edghill's Queenmaker, for instance, is the first-person narrative of Michal, King Saul's daughter and one of David's wives, whose bitter account seeks to cut the giant-slayer, psalmist, adulterer, and king down to size. Queenmaker has the flavor of a contemporary divorce-novel, transposed to a biblical setting and translated into the excruciating, faux-primitif idiom that many ot novelists adopt.
Most of the women in our small group at the evangelical church we attend (my wife included) read Diamant's novel, and they are not alone. Without a substantial audience among evangelical women, The Red Tent would not have enjoyed such a sustained success. These are women who take the Bible seriously, and there's far more at stake for them in such a retelling than there is for readers who regard the Bible as merely a collection of fables about an odious patriarchal deity.
Publishers have taken note. Last year, the paperback publisher Signet (a division of Penguin) launched a series called "Women of the Bible" with Abigail's Story by Ann Burton. Like Queenmaker and The Red Tent itself, this story—about another of King David's wives—decries the exploitation of women and features a Strong Woman as protagonist while simultaneously mining the erotic potential of its setting. (Both Queenmaker and Abigail's Story, for example, include a scene in which David surprises the protagonist while she is bathing.) But in Burton's book, romance is unambiguously triumphant. On the cover, Abigail stands proudly, staring into the distance, her lovely but keenly determined features framed by a luxuriant mane of windblown hair. Her dress leaves her shoulders bare, but a shawl is draped fetchingly across one side; one hand rests firmly on a staff. (Burton followed up with Rahab's Story and, earlier this year, Jael's Story.)
Abigail's Story is clearly intended for Bible-believing readers, evangelical and otherwise. In that respect it hardly differs from the ot novels issued by evangelical publishers in the wake of The Red Tent, such as Ginger Garrett's Chosen: The Lost Diaries of Queen Esther (NavPress) and Lynn Austin's series "Chronicles of the Kings" (Bethany House; in other ways, however, Austin departs from the conventions we've been following: her series largely eschews quasi-feminist romance). Surely, one might suppose, these books—which, in marked contrast to The Red Tent, accept Scripture with no revisionist spirit—will find an even wider audience among evangelical women.