Men Got the Whole Bible, and All Women Got Was This Red Tent

Lifetime has made the story of Jacob's wives and daughters into a two-part mini-series. Retelling the Old Testament through the eyes of women is noble—but fraught.


The men of The Bible are many: Adam, Cain, Abel, and Noah; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb; Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job. There are Jesus's 12 male apostles, and the writers of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—let alone the people on the endless lists of lineages that make the Book of Numbers truly drone on.

But the women, the ones important enough to call by name and have their own stories, they're fewer—much fewer. Beyond a handful of starring roles for matriarchs in the early days of Canaan, the ladies of the Bible are often afterthoughts, supporting characters in the drama of young Judaism.

One of these supporting characters is Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. In 1997, the author Anita Diamant published a fictional account of Dinah's story, called The Red Tent. The book was a bestseller; and now, 17 years later, Lifetime has adapted the novel into a two-part mini-series, which airs on December 6 and 7.

In theory, The Red Tent is a noble project, an attempt to give women a voice in the narratives of history from which they have historically been omitted. Art often reimagines the past as a way of saying: Did you really see this for what it was? When you recount the binding of Isaac and the 12 tribes of Jacob and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, are you really remembering the story in its full form?

Rewriting Biblical history as a chick flick, though, is more of an insult than a feminist coup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is exactly what Lifetime has done.

The basic plot of The Red Tent is this: Dinah meets Shalem (who's called Shechem in the Bible), a Hivvite and a prince. As in all true love stories, they become deeply devoted to each other during an bout of shy glances exchanged from several yards apart in a crowded marketplace. After knowing each other for 24 hours, they make sweet love, aided by a score of sweeping orchestral music. They decide to get married, but since Shalem didn't ask Dinah's father, Jacob, for permission before having sex with Dinah, he has to make a deal: Get circumcised, Jacob says, and have all the men in your city circumcised, or you cannot marry my daughter. In a show of what's supposed to be truly romantic sacrifice, Shalem agrees.

Pause there for a moment. In the book of Genesis, all of this actually happens, with one key difference: Shechem rapes Dinah. "And Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw [Dinah], and he took her, lay with her, and violated her," the text says.

It's impossible to know whether this means Dinah was forced to have sex against her will, or whether she was "violated" in the sense of not having her father's blessing. It is silly to ask this question, because it misses the point: In no sense did Dinah have control over her sexuality. She couldn't "give consent," because consent wasn't considered hers to give; her body, and her betrothal, were objects to be haggled over for a bride price. Even in the alter-world scenario of The Red Tent, Jacob and his sons debate with Shalem and his father, Hamor, about the cost of marrying Dinah; how romantic, we're supposed to think, that Shalem is willing to give his flesh to own Dinah as his wife.

As the Hivvite men are recovering from being circumcised, two of Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, go to the city and murder all of them. Specifically, as it's phrased in the book of Genesis, "they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male."

In the Biblical version of this story, Simeon and Levi are defending their sister's honor, so to speak: "Shall he make our sister look like a harlot?" they say to Jacob in response to his rage at their actions. In the Red Tent version, this is portrayed as a machismo rampage, revenge for the audacity of having sex with their sister. "We decided to give them a second cut, a little higher and deeper than the first," one brother sneers.

In this retelling, Dinah is given a voice—one she's never afforded in the Bible, a book in which Dinah gets no lines. She criticizes Jacob for his hypocrisy in not condemning Simeon and Levi.

"What would you have me do?" Jacob asks her. "They're my sons."

"And I am only a daughter, which means I am nothing more than a piece of property," she replies.

Theoretically, this is a solid meta-dig at the patriarchal structure of the society Dinah lived in. It's a right feminist criticism for a fictionalized Biblical woman to make, but the context is all wrong: It's solely motivated by her dedication to a man she just met, and her desire to marry him.

That's not to say that Lifetime's version of the book of Genesis should be all power suits and Sheryl Sandberg haircuts. And strong women can certainly want love and marriage, both now and in Biblical times. But the implicit promise of The Red Tent is to deliver a woman's story, to subvert a narrative told through the eyes of men. Instead, it delivers a bundle of modern stereotypes about femininity, how women act, and love, packaged in cliches.

Just to list a few: Dinah falls madly in love with a man as soon as she sets eyes on him. She and this man have a perfect first kiss and perfect first sex, Biblical norms of marriage and chastity be damned, because love conquers all. Once that man is dead, Dinah is rescued by her Egyptian mother-in-law, who turns out to be the stereotype of an evil mother-in-law who steals Dinah's son and eventually banishes her. Dinah makes one friend, who is basically there to raise her eyebrows suggestively when a muscled woodworker shows interest in pursuing Dinah.

"I'm broken, you don't want this," Dinah says through tears before having sex with this new man, a very Grey's Anatomy moment.

There are many other plot twists—for example, late in the second segment, Dinah is reunited with Joseph, her seemingly one non-evil brother, and her long-lost son, Ramos. After all this time, Dinah's message to Ramos is: "You are your father, and he was the bravest man I've ever known." It is Shalem, the man Dinah knew for a brief 48 hours nearly two decades earlier, who Ramos should aspire to be like, not Dinah.

This posture is present throughout: The women of The Red Tent live for the men in their lives. The actual red tent, where Dinah and the four wives of Jacob would go during their periods and childbirth, is a place for laughing about the follies of men while still being subjugated to their will; for plotting who among them will lay with Jacob that night when he is agitated; for claiming the one sphere given to women, child birth, something they go through again and again to give sons to Jacob, and which eventually kills Dinah's aunt, Rachel.

This cannot be helped; this is how life was, and still is, for many women in history. But for bearing this pain, the women of the Bible and the women of today deserve—and should want—more than a melodramatic love story and conspiratorial dialogue about the mysteries of womanhood. Patriarchy is almost more painful as a chick flick—if only they had true love, The Red Tent suggests, perhaps women wouldn't notice they were being oppressed.