Hazel McHaffie

A Biblical tale retold

Famous historical characters like Thomas Cromwell and the wives of Henry VIII lend themselves to becoming the stars of fiction. We already know so much about them and their place in history; we’re curious about their backstory, fascinated by their peccadilloes. Indeed Hilary Mantell is currently writing the fourth in her series of encyclopaedic tomes about Cromwell – her first and second having both won the Man Booker prize. Who dosn’t know about him from history lessons, games, films, plays? And I’ve lost count of the novelists, the film-makers, the dramatists, who’ve recreated the six famous wives of the Tudor king.

But who’s ever heard of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, patriarch in Israel during Old Testament times? Very few, I suspect. Her more famous brother, Joseph – he of multi-coloured coat fame? – yes. The twelve tribes of Israel? – maybe. But Dinah? Her story fills a mere 31 verses in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 34, so hats off to an author who saw the potential here.

Essentially, Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob and his first wife Leah. She has twelve brothers, three stepmothers. They are a rough shepherd tribe living in close proximity in tents, but Jacob has flourished since branching out on his own away from a difficult father-in-law.

One day Dinah goes visiting some Canaanite women, and catches the eye of a chieftain’s son, Shechem, a Hivite. He desires her, takes her and rapes her. But his lust turns to love and he demands that his father gets Dinah for him as his wife.

The chief himself goes to plead his son’s cause, offering extravagant rewards and dowries if Jacob consents to the marriage. Jacob, however, is shocked to hear his virgin daughter has been defiled, and discusses the situation at length with his sons, her brothers. What should they do? The younger men are enraged at this insult and dream up a cunning plot. OK, they will consent to the liaison, they say, but it would be a disgrace and a grave dishonour for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. The bride-price must also include the circumcision of every male in the groom’s family.

The young man is so besotted, and his father so bent on this marriage, that they waste no time in having the deed done, along with every male citizen of their city. Three days later when every man jack of them is still sore and feeling fragile, (and remember, this wasn’t delicate surgery under anaesthetic with four hourly pain relief thereafter!) two of Dinah’s brothers steal into the city and slaughter all the men, loot and plunder their goods, and take all the women and children (including Dinah), everything of value, away. When he hears of their murderous revenge, Jacob is horrified – now he’ll be hated by everyone around him, but the killers insist they absolutely could not allow their sister to be treated like a common prostitute.

In the hands of Anita Diamant, this ‘oldest love story never told‘ comes to vivid life. The title, The Red Tent, is derived from the name given to the exclusively female place where the women go to menstruate and recover from childbirth. Diamant, a Jewish journalist-cum-novelist, has subtly altered certain aspects of the story, and colourfully embellished it, but the result is a beautifully told tale of love and betrayal, of grief and family honour. It challenges the reader to consider the role of women at that time, the meaning of loyalty, the belief systems and complexities for a tribe worshipping a faceless, invisible God of Israel, alongside those who are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that surround gods they can see and touch and stroke and involve in their ceremonies and major life events.

A gripping and full-bodied tale revolving around the community and continuity of women, woven from an almost-throwaway incident in the age-old story of the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Or as one reviewer put it: A remarkable combination of historical research, biblical story, and sheer talent. Indeed. A fantastic read.

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