The Red Tent: Biblical Rape Turned Harlequin Romance

A two-part television adaptation of Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel, to be aired next week, brings the Bible to life. Instead of history, herstory.

Joey L.

“For thousands of years I have been lost to the world. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. Only the names of my father and brothers are remembered – their tales celebrated in your holy texts. While mine is but a footnote, sad and violent, all but forgotten.”

So begins Dinah, the biblical patriarch Jacob’s only daughter, narrating her story in “The Red Tent,” a two-day mini-series on Lifetime Television (airing December 7-8). The three-hour drama brings to life author Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel, which was published in 1997 and spawned a whole genre of historical biblical fiction.

This is Dinah’s story in the Bible:

“And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her. And his soul did cleave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spoke comfortingly unto the damsel.” (Genesis 34:1-3)

Most Jewish scholars interpret this as rape. After Shechem asks Jacob to give her to him, Jacob demands that the men be circumcised – and while they’re recuperating, his sons, Simeon and Levi, led an army to slaughter them.

But in Diamant’s version Dinah and Shechem’s story is a romance – one that is played out to the hilt, Harlequin-style on “Lifetime,” with smoldering looks, passionate, pulsating love scenes and declarations of true love.

“I am not the first person in history to challenge that interpretation,” Diamant says regarding the rape of Dinah. (Thomas Mann also retold Dinah’s story and others in “Joseph and his Brothers,” a four-part novel published over 16 years, starting in 1926). When the book came out, Diamant says, “Some people were not happy with that they were worried about it, that it would have a fallout somehow, that it would be bad for the Jews.”

But that was farthest from the truth. The book was embraced: It became a New York Times bestseller and a favorite in book clubs everywhere.

Even if people were not happy with the liberties she took in the story, “I don’t take the Bible as history,” she says. The sex scenes in the book upset some people, she says, who will probably not be pleased with them in the film, too.

Not that Diamant had much to do with the adaptation. Although she’d been approached for rights when the book came out 17 years ago, the project went through the usual Hollywood disappointments and false starts. The interest from Lifetime – a cable network geared toward women – came three years ago, but Diamant had no interest in writing the script of her first novel. “I didn’t want to live with this for another few years – I knew they would change it and it wouldn’t be my book,” she says. “I have other fish to fry.”

David Appleby

She has written numerous books since, including some novels (“Good Harbor,” “The Last Days of Dogtown”) and Jewish nonfiction (“Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends,” “The New Jewish Wedding”), and is about to publish her latest novel, “The Boston Girl,” the story of a young Jewish woman growing up in early 20th-century Boston portraying immigrant life.

Women’s lives have always been important to her, and although the screen adaptation is different from “The Red Tent,” overall Diamant is pleased that the integrity of the theme remains. “I’m really happy with how they maintained the celebration of women’s ability and the importance of their relationships with each other,” she says.

Indeed, the eponymous red tent is a place where the women go during their unclean periods, away from men, to celebrate, gossip, bond, pamper themselves and engage in spiritual rituals – what Jacob later believes are pagan ones, destroying all the idols.

“I think we live in a world where women’s dignity is not celebrated, where women’s friendships are mocked, like ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘frenemies,’” she says, referring to the movie and concept of fighting females. “I think women’s friendships need to be liberated and told.”

“The Red Tent” is still relevant today. “I think it’s the same message: Women’s stories are not told or have not been told in the past. And that’s a loss for anybody. There’s dignity in lives lived outside of the traditional history – the kings and the generals,” she says. The women, the workers, the poor, they all have “amazing” stories to tell, untold stories.

Joey L.

Whether Lifetime’s version of “The Red Tent” is amazing might be debatable, but with the arid desert scenes, fulsome actors (Minnie Driver as the jealous Leah, Homeland’s Morena Baccarin as the beautiful Rachel, The Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen as a petulant Jacob) and melodramatic internecine conflicts (Esau vs. Jacob, Rachel vs. Leah, Rebecca vs. Dinah, Joseph vs. his brothers), it does bring the Bible to life.

“Biblical movies have a tendency to be unbelievably stuffy and preachy,” Diamant says, and she doesn’t see this adaptation as such. As a matter of fact, “I don’t see these people as Jews,” she says. “It’s a story from our shared ancient past.”