Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review - The Red Tent

For a decade, people have been telling me I need to read The Red Tent. Like, pretty much ever since they heard I wrote biblical fiction. I've heard it from multiple sources, but I just never had...until my sister asked if we could read it for our book club. Seemed like a fine opportunity, so we set it as our January book (which we ended up discussing last week when we got iced out of our January date).

And boy, did I come away with some opinions, LOL.

I'll begin with what I loved.

The culture--oh, the culture! SO RICH! Ms. Diamant paints such a vivid picture of life in the days of the patriarchs. You could taste the dust. You could smell the camp fires. You could feel the sun scorching the road.

I loved how she brought to life the women's world. How she painted the relationship between Rachel, Leah, and their two handmaidens. Certainly I loved getting a perspective on the little-mentioned Dinah, and what it must have been like to be the sole daughter among 12 brothers.

I love that in their culture, womanhood (and the coming into it) was something to be celebrated. I loved seeing how midwifery was a sacred calling and earned characters such respect.

There was a lot to love. And had it been a story about any other family at that time, I would have just deemed it awesome and left it at that. But...

But this isn't just a story about any family at that time. This is a story about THE family. About Jacob and his parents and his sons. This is a story about Israel. This is a story about these men who dared to believe in one God (whom the author calls El) when surrounded by a world that believed in the pantheon. This is a story about people who became more than a family. They became a nation. A culture. A faith.

But it wasn't.

Oh, it captured perfectly how a family becomes a nation and a culture. But a faith?

Nope. It wasn't there. We get a few glimpses of the power of El. Jacob does wrestle with him. Joseph is forever changed after visiting the place where that happened.

But the other gods and goddesses have just as much power, if not more. Dinah herself has the power to curse and bless. The women never worship El, they continue to worship their own goddesses, and Jacob's totally cool with that.

I'm not.

I wanted to see the idol worship, yes. It was not just part of the culture of the day, it was the culture of the day, and when the author painted that so vividly, I fully approved. But knowing the author is Jewish, I was assuming she believed her God to be more powerful than these stone figures, so I thought we'd get a glimpse of why a whole nation abandoned their other gods to follow Him. I wanted to see God triumphing over the other gods.

I didn't.

Instead, the opposite. I saw a god called El who demanded but never repaid. I saw a god of men but not of women. I saw followers of this "strange and mysterious" god who were awful, dirty, mean, cruel, distant, abusive, murderous, cowardly, whining, greedy, selfish...

There were no good men from the line of Jacob. None. Not a single one. At first we like Joseph okay, but by the end, even he is painted as lucky, not blessed. Self-centered. Cruel. And with an eye for the handsome young men in his employ. He comes to Dinah to whine to her, but their childhood sibling love is pretty much forgotten.

See, I'm totally cool with painting the patriarchs as real men. Men who made mistakes. Men who sinned. Men who stumbled. But in my opinion, Diamant went way too far and painted them as men who did nothing else. Oh, we see some affection between Jacob and his wives (which was awesome) and we see him through their eyes to know why they loved him. But the older he gets, the more we lose sight of any of those good qualities.

It's like she had to systematically dash our respect of EVERY biblical figure we grew up respecting. Abraham. Isaac. Rebekkah. Jacob. Joseph. I left the book despising all of them (as she painted them). I left the book wondering why anyone in the world would have followed their way instead of the more-powerful Egyptian river god. I left the book hugely disappointed.

I admit it's largely because I have expectations. These are personal expectations. Not everyone (or even most) share them, and I don't try to make them. But to the me, the beauty of a novel set in biblical times is painting the culture and then showing the power of God shining through it. Emerging victorious. Showing us why He became a God whose name is to be feared.

Personally, I left The Red Tent feeling like a great opportunity was lost. This was a beautifully written, amazing book that could have shown a generation the God of Israel. Instead, it showed a generation how savage and cruel the patriarchs could have been, and how their savagery and cruelty forced even their own daughters into idol worship.

I always thought one of the coolest things about God in the Old Testament was that He, unlike every other god, wasn't just a god of one thing, one people. He is Lord of sun and rain. Of harvest and childbirth. Of the river and the sky. Of the earth and the heavens. He is Lord of all. Of men AND women.

Dinah didn't agree. She wanted nothing to do with the God of her father, and given the evidence presented, the reader doesn't blame her in the least. That makes me so, so sad.

So my final pronouncement--it's a good book. It's well written and easy to read and has some really great qualities. As pure fiction, it does a fabulous job of telling a story. But I left the book feeling as though it missed the point. I left the book quite disappointed...and more than a little disturbed.

My final judgement--if you want a look at the Dinah story that doesn't exalt idols (but includes their prevalence in the culture), take a look at Mesu Andrews's Love Amid the Ashes instead!


  1. This was exactly my take on the book. I found so many things interesting and it was so well written... but it was so far off at the same time. I loved seeing all my feelings on it put into words.

  2. Me too, Roseanna. I felt the same way.

  3. I've had several people email to say the same too! Obviously a common take on this book, among a certain cross-section of us, anyway. =)