The Red Tent, written by Anita Diamant, is a feminist reinterpretation of the Genesis story of Dinah. In Genesis, Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter (by Leah) was kidnapped and raped by the son of the nearby King; the King then sent negotiators to Jacob, and Dinah’s brothers, to gain consent to marry her, and more generally for their peoples to intermarry and sign a free trade agreement. The brothers agree on the condition that the other people’s males get circumcised. The circumcision makes them vulnerable when the brothers launch a surprise attack, wiping out all males in the other tribe.
Diamant has Dinah tell us “My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust….The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote…”
Well, it’s true that Genesis doesn’t tell us what Dinah was thinking. Genesis rarely tells us directly what anyone is thinking. “God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. So Abraham brought Isaac to the mountain. Isaac said ‘aren’t we forgetting something…I know, the animal!’ Abraham said ‘the Lord will provide the animal.’ Abraham took Isaac up the hill, tied him up, and raised his knife.” How does Isaac feel about this? Is he for it, against it, ambivalent? What about Abraham? One can only speculate. Genesis tells us what people said and did. Dinah wasn’t really in position to act, so she’s a minor character.
But Diamant’s critique would imply that women in the Old Testament generally are voiceless, which is very far from being true. Apart from early Exodus, Esther and Ruth, look at Genesis for crying out loud. I doubt that Diamant likes the story of Eve and the apple very much, but one can’t deny that Eve is the main human character. Hagar and Sarah certainly have voice and agency.
Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, is the Abraham of her generaion, leaving her people on an act of faith to join this new God and his Covenant. (It’s really a shame to miss this sort of thing while looking for a sexism critique!) Abraham’s servant goes in search of a wife for Isaace. Evidence persuades him that Rebekah is God’s choice. Laban, Rebekah’s brother, a Jacob-like calculator, finds the matter to be beyond rational calculations; he (and Rebekah’s father, Bethuel) say “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go…”
Laban does not withhold his consent, but only because he feels unable to make a decision of any kind on the matter. He certainly isn’t taking an act of faith, embracing the Covenant himself; rather, he seeks to avoid responsibility for a decision. He asks Rebekah if she will go with this man; it falls to Rebekah to say “I will go.” She leaves her people to marry a man she has never met, to help found a new people based on a new God.
She gets Jacob out from under the thumb of Esau, and prevents Esau’s killing Jacob, prodding a reluctant Jacob and outmaneuvering Isaac and Esau, thereby insuring that Jacob has the ability to carry on this vulnerable new heritage, as God has told her he is destined to do. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is really the God of Abraham, Rebekah, Isaac and Jacob. Isaac was heir to what Abraham started, but there needed to be an Abraham-like woman in the second generation, choosing rather than inheriting the new faith.
Nevertheless, if the male authors of Genesis don’t leave women voiceless, is it nevertheless true that they “have no way of understanding” women, as Diamant has Dinah tell us? I think the gap Genesis closes between us and ancient nomadic men and women is far, far greater than the differences in thinking between men and women of a given generation. Men and women in any generation have to have a pretty decent working understanding of each other’s goals and motives, and they share common cultural assumptions. Even in matters that are seen as relating to gender politics this is true. I’ve seen polls of rural India or somewhere that show the majority of both women and men believe a husband can be justified in beating his wife, whereas in the West, presumably, both men and women overwhelmingly believe this is wrong. And within the West, there are countless millions of pro-life women and pro-choice men.
I thus believe that Genesis gives me a much better understanding of what women of the time thought about the situations they faced than does Diamant’s book. Consider for instance the Genesis story of Sarah and Hagar. Socially speaking, Ishmael is Sarah’s son, at least at first, but each woman’s more natural feelings end up dominating the situation. The story helps us greatly in understanding the people and society in question, and specifically the perspective of its women. Then there’s Leah and Rachel; how do they feel about the fact that their father traded them to their husband? As they make clear when Jacob urges them to agree to a flight from Laban, they rather resent their father’s selling them; all their loyalty is now with Jacob, the man who worked 14 years to win them- a credible commitment if ever there was one.
What one gets from Diamant, on the other hand, is modern attitudes imposed on an Old Testament setting and society. Leah and Rachel, along with Bilhah and Zilpah, the servant girls they give to Jacob to have children on their behalf, are all an intimate sisterhood, like the polygamous wives on “Sister Brides,” and are all Mommies to all the children. To both Jacob and Leah she gives a modern squeamishness about circumcision. She has Joseph complain about Jacob treating him as his favorite son. And so on.
Diamant also subtly ruins Jacob’s character.
In the Bible, Jacob and Laban are more or less moral equivalents, crafty schemers. Diamant turns Laban into a monster, a worthless drunk whom Jacob has to save from his incompetence, an incestuous brute who engages in bestiality on the side. Jacob she makes into a gently, sensitive guy, a model man (until he regresses morally and becomes brutal himself.)
However, she actually diminishes him. She has Jacob haggle Laban down to one year of service in return for Rachel, downplaying her worth the way you would in negotiation with a used car dealer, and complaining that he or she might be dead at the end of the seven years. The real Jacob would NEVER do this (again, that’s why he wins Rachel over.) For Jacob, everything (even God- Jacob is no Abraham or Rebekah) is subject to cautious, rational calculation. Everything, that is, except his love for Rachel. Far from thinking seven years are a long time and he might be dead, the time seems to him like “but a few days.”
Diamant also has Jacob’s sons preparing to fight in his anticipated battle with Esau’s camp, ready with their daggers when Jacob goes out to meet his brother. But in Genesis, Jacob’s encounter, in his anticipation, is clearly highly personal (if the rest of the text doesn’t make this clear enough, consider his wrestling match with the angel.) Why does he go alone to meet him in the first place? He clearly has in mind single combat, if Esau should mean him any harm and a fight cannot be avoided. Are we really to think he values his life so much that he is willing to let his tribe- his sons- be exterminated trying to protect him?
When it comes to the story of Dinah, Diamant treats the Biblical claim that she was raped as a cover for her brothers’ actions. These actions were really taken out of a warped, possessive understanding of her honor; male history suppressed her true story in which she loved the King’s son and went with him willingly.
But suppose the King’s son really did rape her, and suppose her brothers had agreed to sweep it under the rug and let him marry her (perhaps out of a different conception of protecting her honor.) In that case, we would still have a male version of history prevailing, and suppressing Dinah’s true story. Diamant’s story could just as easily as the Biblical story be a “male cover-up” of what really happened.
Let us now consider Jacob’s role in the Genesis Dinah story. He’s rather quiet. (Is he as “marginalized” in the story as she is?) Genesis says that when he learned Dinah had been taken, Jacob waited for her brothers to get home. Before he has a chance to discuss the matter with him, though, they make an agreement with the other tribe to marry off Dinah. Jacob apparently has no knowledge of their plans to double-cross and massacre the other group, because he expresses dismay when they do so. As far as we can tell, he saw their agreement with the other group as genuine; we don’t know for sure what he thought about it, but he probably saw it as a done deal in any case.
The deal to marry off Dinah had as its corollary a free trade agreement and alliance. In addition, by requiring circumcision, the deal insured that the Israelites’ partners in the alliance would be the ones being culturally absorbed. Or so it would have appeared at the time. Actually, of course, all this negotiation was just misdirection, deliberately encouraging a misunderstanding of the Israelites’ motives (or those of their decisive actors). The brothers’ motives are far more visceral than the other tribe expects; their sister has been raped, and the man who did it isn’t going to marry her, consequences be damned.
What does Jacob think about all this? Jacob has all his life been a wheeler-dealer, getting ahead by cunning while shrinking from violence. Now he is an old man with a limp. And or course, alliance with the other side is the sort of deal Jacob would normally like, promising wealth and security and the continued rise of his tribe and the Covenant it bears.
On the other hand, his daughter has just been raped. Is he really going to throw her under the bus for the sake of a beneficial alliance? I don’t think so. Yet taking her back by force goes against his whole temperamental inclination. He is ambivalent, a bit paralyzed, I think; that is why he waits for Dinah’s brothers rather than taking the lead or forming a plan. They are far more suited for this sort of thing. If they themselves (it appears at the time) feel they have no choice but to make the best of things, agreeing to a deal that at least makes Dinah a King’s wife rather than a captive, and that keeps her offspring within the Covenant, and that allows the Israelites to avoid dying in a futile war, is he in any position to disagree?
Once the brothers massacre the other tribe, Jacob rebukes his sons, worrying that the other peoples of the region will be alarmed that the rising Israelite power they have been watching closely is becoming quite warlike, and will band together and exterminate them. The brothers reframe the question away from Israel’s geopolitical interests, asking “should he have treated our sister as a prostitute?” For them, this visceral issue is the only one that matters. No consequences matter.
Jacob is the leader of a family that is also a tribe, a political entity. He feels great responsibility to ensure its survival, to say nothing of the survival of God’s Covenant. The brothers who take a lead role in the episode are the sons of Dinah’s mother, Leah. They aren’t just members of the same tribe, sons of the same father by one of four women. I would guess that they felt a connection with her more like those in a modern nuclear family than a tribal or clan-like connection. When it comes time to defend her, they don’t care about their own personal survival, much less the survival of the tribe. For Jacob, on the other hand, the tribe and the Covenant are in the end all he can have to show for his life.
But did the brothers really have to slaughter all the inhabitants of the town? Of course, there was a good chance of revenge if they had not done so. The brothers might have concluded that if they needed to fight ruthlessly or not at all; leaving the other tribe alive might get them wiped out later.
But if you’re going to preemptively kill people because they might kill you, you just have to kill everybody you meet- we’re in the Hobbesian state of nature. And even in this time period, that wasn’t the norm. There’s a kind of international law in operation, as Jacob points out; the tribe you’ve wiped out is no longer a threat, but others are.
So the brothers are presenting a false dilemma when they ask Jacob “should he have treated our sister as a prostitute,” as though that is the only consideration. They could have taken back Dinah without massacring every male. Jacob may object to their over-the-top bloodshed rather than their decision to retake Dinah per se.
While Jacob in the immediate aftermath raises only pragmatic objections to the brothers’ actions, on his death bed he treats at as a morally serious matter: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. May I never come into their concil; may I not be joined to their company- for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.”
So while it is tempting to be all tough-minded and say “that’s just how the world was back then, it’s kill or be killed, no need to be queasy,” Genesis makes clear that even back then there was a kind of international law in operation, and that Jacob was able to see bloodshed as a moral problem.
This is especially striking given the wanton slaughter the Israelites committed during the time of Joshua, for instance. Dinah’s brothers act in response to severe provocation and, even then, kill only the men, acting out of some possible sense of self-preservation. There is none of the eliminationist zeal of the later Old Testament.
We look back on the past and see it as unrelenting horror to begin with, eventually giving way to gradual, linear moral progress. Part of the story, though, I would suggest, is cyclical; civilizations long ago achieved at least a rudimentary level of moral understanding, but will also experience moral decay and spasms of barbarism. Moreover, these spasms of barbarism continue- the cycle is still with us. Both barbarism and societies with some degree of moral norms must have been with us for a long time, or else why would we be wired to respond to both? My understanding is that babies learn from a young age whether they are loved, meaning they learn something about their moral and social environment, and adapt accordingly.
As I’ve already suggested, Genesis 34 implies competing approaches to geopolitics. The other tribe assumes that the Israelites will act in their interests as a polity, with interests understood in terms of wealth, power, etc. Jacob’s criticism of Dinah’s brothers reflects this assumption that a political entity has goals that are in some sense calculable and quantifiable, and should calculate how other actors will respond to their actions and whether they will end up benefiting overall. Obviously, the brothers are pursuing something else entirely, honor. In today’s world, diplomats and governing elites often want to pursue national interests, and will give in when the costs of applying power exceed the benefits, while public opinion is often more concerned with national pride in some form. In the U.S., the focus on national pride is part of the political tendency labeled Jacksonianism, while I suppose the national interests approach would be Hamiltonian (the old Federalists gave us Jay’s Treaty and opposed the 1812 War.) Also like Dinah’s brothers, American Jacksonians believe that if we’re going to war, we should be in to win, and don’t care much about international law or opinion.
Something like this Jacksonian-Hamiltonian tension seems to exist most of the time in every country, and I suppose in every political entity. A third idea, foreign policy idealism (Wilsonianism, in America), comes up implicitly in Genesis 34; the demand that the other tribe get circumcised is the equivalent of American democracy promotion, or Alexander the Great’s spreading Greek civilization to the Persian Empire, or Napoleon’s exporting French Revolutionary ideas. Obviously, the brothers are only pretending that this is their concern, but the idea is there as a possibility.
But we can break down further the concept of honor. Often, people see honor as a superficial thing, a matter of saving face. In this case, the other tribe offers the Israelites everything they could want as a matter of appearance. Getting married after having sex is historically a classic face-saving device, so in terms of superficial honor, marrying her rapist might have been considered the best thing for Dinah’s honor- certainly that’s our stereotypical view of how backward cultures work. Yet Dinah’s brothers’ view of honor is far more concrete than this- in a sense, they are acting on a far more primitive, less socialized impulse.