I thought this, based on the excellent novel by Anita Diamant, was great. I believe there was some controversy when it was shown in America, because the Bible Brigade didn’t like the idea of a Bible story being soap-opera-ised, but the Bible lends itself brilliantly to soap-opera-isation. It’s absolutely full of affairs and family feuds! They should be glad that someone’s showing that the Bible is actually very entertaining and isn’t full of boring people in black coats preaching that the end of the world is nigh or whatever. Oh, and apparently some people also take issue with a dramatisation of a Bible story which shows violence. Excuse me? The Bible is full of violence. It’s barely kicked off before a bloke’s been murdered by his own brother! We’re talking wars, mass slaughter of babies, people being thrown into lions’ dens and fiery furnaces, etc etc. Even the heroic bits are violent. I mean, I don’t suppose Goliath’s family and friends were very happy when he got killed by David. Then there were all those Philistines who got squashed when Samson brought the roof down. What do people think everyone does in the Bible? Sits around drinking cups of tea?!
Anyway. So, Bible stories can make for very good TV viewing! The idea of The Red Tent was for it to seem real, and for it to tell the story of one part of the Bible from a female point of view. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden wouldn’t really work in terms of seeming real (unless you’re a creationist, presumably, but let’s not go there). Nor would Noah’s Ark. It’d make a great cartoon, but not a TV programme for adults. So that brings us to the patriarchs – and that’s part of the problem, that people talk about “the patriarchs” rather than “the patriarchs and the matriarchs”.
First up, Abraham. Originally Abram. Married to Sarah. Originally Sarai. Sarah couldn’t have kids, so Abraham had a son by her handmaiden. Then Sarah eventually did have a kid, Isaac. And Abraham was going to make a human sacrifice of him. I want to say that he was going to sacrifice him on the Stone Table, but that’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Was it a wooden altar with Isaac? Anyway, whatever, the sacrifice didn’t happen, but poor Isaac probably had severe PTSD for the rest of his life. Isaac then married Rebecca, and they had twins, Esau and Jacob – and this where we get towards the story told in The Red Tent.
Esau, who’d been hard at work all day (whilst Jacob appears to have been doing very little), came in, and joked that he was so hungry that he’d sell his birthright for a mess of pottage – his birthright being the blessing to which he, as the eldest son, was entitled. It was a joke. Everyone says “I’m so hungry that …”. But Jacob, egged on and assisted by Rebecca, literally used it to steal his brother’s birthright. And, as if conning their brother and son wasn’t bad enough, they did so by taking advantage of the fact that Isaac, by this time an elderly man, had lost his eyesight. And no-one did anything about it. It is so out of order! Isaac was like, soz, can’t do anything about it now, and so Jacob and Rebecca just got away with it. Poor Esau! From then on, he faded into the background, and Jacob and his descendants got to play the starring roles in the rest of the Book of Genesis.
Esau was, quite rightly, thoroughly pissed off, so Jacob did a runner because he knew Esau’d make mincemeat of him if it came to a fight. Off he went to stay with his uncle, Rebecca’s brother Laban. He wanted to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel, but her elder sister Leah turned up to the wedding instead, and Jacob claimed he didn’t realise he’d got the wrong girl because he couldn’t tell the difference as she was wearing a veil. Right. Then he married Rachel as well. But Rachel couldn’t have kids, so, channelling Abraham and Hagar, he married Rachel’s handmaiden too. Leah realised that this was a good way of having a break from childbearing, so she got Jacob to marry her handmaiden as well! Eventually, between them, the four woman produced twelve sons – Rachel eventually having two, Joseph and Benjamin.
You would think that, after all the business with Esau and then marrying sisters, Jacob would have realised that sibling rivalry could cause all sorts of problems, and try to steer his kids clear of it. Oh no. He had to stir it all up by blatantly favouring Joseph and giving him an amazing technicolour dreamcoat (the Bible words it slightly differently). So the other sons sold Joseph into slavery. But he worked his way to the top, becoming a senior minister in Egypt. Very 20th century. Then nearly lost his job due to a false allegation of sexual assault. Very 21st century. Then his brothers turned up, and he set them up by planting stolen goods on them. Very soap opera-ish. And it all got sorted.
Twelve sons. And one daughter. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. She went to visit the women of Shechem, the place to which they’d all moved, and was abducted and raped by a local prince. He then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. Her brothers Simeon and Levi said that they’d agree if all the men of the prince’s tribe were circumcised. The prince agreed. Whilst the men were suffering with their sore bits, Simeon and Levi killed them all.
There’s some confusion over what’s supposed to have happened to Dinah after that. Strangely, her name resurfaced in the antebellum southern states of America as a generic name for female slaves. But, other than that, she’s largely been ignored by … well, by cultures that involve the Bible. It’s hard to know what term to use. The TV series is definitely “set in the past”, but we really have no way of knowing how much, if anything, of what’s in the Bible actually happened, and there’s not really much point worrying about it. Although pointing out that there’s no way of proving it is a pretty good way of getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses when they knock on your door.
The Red Tent changes quite a few things from the original story. Crucially, Dinah is not raped. She falls in love with the prince of Shechem and goes off with him willingly. We’re also shown Dinah, and her child by the prince, making a new life for themselves in Egypt. Jacob is well aware that he’s marrying Leah rather than Rachel, and just pretends to be narked so that Laban will agree to a better dowry. He also asks for the handmaidens right from the start. Rachel does not die in childbirth when Benjamin is born, as she does in the Bible. There’s also quite a bit about Laban being violent and mistreating his second wife, a character invented by Anita Diamant; and the bit in the Bible in which Laban chases after them all after Rachel steals his household gods is missing. So quite a bit is changed. Maybe that’s partly what narked the Bible Brigade?
And then there’s “The Red Tent”. The title of the book refers to the menstrual huts/tents used in some cultures – still used today in some places, apparently. There’s no mention in the Bible of menstrual tents. But the tent is the place where the women come together – and there we get the theme of a network of women, all supporting one another. It’s a very common theme in books, whether we’re talking Girls’ Own books where schoolgirls or groups of female friends and relatives form strong networks, or stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Steel Magnolias where women rely on the support of their female friends, or the many books about the relationships between sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and other female relatives and friends. It’s a very powerful theme, and one which the Bible doesn’t really deal with.
It’s been said about the book (The Red Tent, not the Bible!) that it appeals to women who feel that females are left out of the Bible. Are females left out of the Bible? There are some very important female characters in the Bible. I would say Eve, but that opens up the whole can of worms about women getting the blame for all the troubles of mankind (personkind?). But … well, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Miriam (the sister of Moses), Mary, Mary Magdalene. And, of course, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Jezebel! The Queen of Sheba. Hmm. Pretty short list compared to the list of important male character. Some women, like Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife, don’t even get their own names mentioned. And there’s virtually nothing about relationships between female friends and relatives, other than Ruth and Naomi. You can certainly see where Anita Diamant’s coming from.
And it’s a bloody good story! She tells it really well, in the book. And this TV adaptation tells it really well too. Rebecca Ferguson, who played Elizabeth Woodville in the TV adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s books, does a great job as Dinah, but the real star is Minnie Driver as Leah. She is superb! And so is the character of Leah. She knows that Jacob will never love her as much as he loves Rachel, but she’s the matriarch. She’s the leader of this network of women. My one gripe is that the actual red tent itself hasn’t been shown very much: most of the action has taken place outdoors, and a lot of the talk between the women’s been missed. So has Dinah’s childhood: we pretty much went straight to her being a young woman. But a four hour TV adaptation can’t show a whole book, so it’s not really fair to moan about that. And the first part, shown last night, really was very, very good. Very watchable. Forget whether you’re into religion or into the Bible: it doesn’t matter when it comes to watching this. This is a wonderful story.