Ear­li­er this week, Michal Lem­berg­er wrote about turn­ing King David into a vil­lain and Lot’s wife and the oth­er name­less women of the Bible. She is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished book After Abel and Oth­er Sto­ries and has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

When I began writ­ing the sto­ries that make up my col­lec­tion, After Abel and Oth­er Sto­ries, I wasn’t think­ing about oth­er fic­tion writ­ers who had reimag­ined bib­li­cal tales. I had been steeped in bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship for so many years that my mind was filled with it as I sat down to write. With­in months, though, I got word of an upcom­ing minis­eries based on Ani­ta Diamant’s beloved nov­el, The Red Tent. That was soon fol­lowed by adver­tise­ments, and then, of course, the movie itself. 

I read the nov­el — about Jacob, his four wives, and in the cen­tral role, his daugh­ter, Dinah — when it first came out, but hadn’t revis­it­ed it since. The arrival of the film adap­ta­tion seemed per­fect, almost like a sign that my tim­ing was right — that I was respond­ing to some­thing larg­er hap­pen­ing in the realm of sto­ries about the Bible. It also gave me a chance to reread the book, to see how the peo­ple at the Life­time Chan­nel had adapt­ed it, and to reflect on why these kinds of sto­ries still speak to us and why they remain important.

Back in 1997, some read­ers were scan­dal­ized by what they saw as the book’s impi­ety and its frank sex­u­al depic­tions, but over the years, The Red Tent has lost its shock val­ue. Still, I was sur­prised by how lit­tle about The Red Tent the minis­eries left intact and what the film­mak­ers chose to keep.

Diamant’s book attempt­ed to give more full­ness to the expe­ri­ence of women than the Torah affords them. What drew read­ers by the mil­lions is how she filled in the lives of Rachel, Leah, Dinah, and the oth­er women with whom they lived and died. She gave each woman a dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ty: Leah became force­ful and com­pe­tent; Rachel is beau­ti­ful (as she is in the Torah) but a bit self-involved; and Dinah emerges as a watch­ful younger child in a large fam­i­ly, a beloved daugh­ter who is nonethe­less expect­ed to fol­low the rules of her mother’s home. Notably, the women prac­tice their old­er pagan-inspired rites along­side Jacob’s belief in his father’s God. In what is per­haps the most impor­tant point made by the nov­el, these belief sys­tems peace­ful­ly coexist. 

The prob­lem with the Life­time ver­sion is how the novel’s nuance is flattened.

Dinah is some­what pas­sive in the nov­el, which allows her to be the reader’s stand-in, watch­ing every­thing unfold around her. But in what pass­es for a strong female char­ac­ter in so many movies, she becomes a brash hero­ine in the miniseries. 

Lifetime’s Rachel remains moony-eyed from start to fin­ish, fill­ing Dinah’s head with decid­ed­ly mod­ern notions of romance, espe­cial­ly that tired trope of all-encom­pass­ing love at first sight. And, not for noth­ing, the women’s syn­cretis­tic belief sys­tem is now set against Jacob’s rigid, even angry, monothe­ism. All that’s left of Diamant’s orig­i­nal is the title and cast of characters.

The upshot is that we’re giv­en a sto­ry we’ve seen so many times before, one in which there is only one plot­line for women to fol­low — that of roman­tic love. Despite the bloody end­ing to Dinah’s romance, she is set on the same path as every oth­er boyfriend-seek­ing hero­ine of recent rom-coms. 

It’s been sev­en­teen years since The Red Tent was pub­lished. Diamant’s vision no longer rais­es eye­brows. It has become nat­u­ral­ized and accept­ed. It’s too bad that Life­time scrapped it, because she man­aged to give the sto­ry, its female char­ac­ters, and fam­i­ly life a sense of com­plex­i­ty that it was miss­ing before, and that has been stripped away again.

Female char­ac­ters and expe­ri­ence can be reduced in any num­ber of ways: Dinah becomes smug­ly vir­tu­ous and head­strong, which may be hack­neyed, but at least has some redeem­ing val­ue. But in truth, she’s one-dimen­sion­al, her stub­born­ness put to use only to snag the heart of a prince.

The search for roman­tic love is a uni­ver­sal theme in sto­ries of all sorts — nov­els, movies, songs. It’s pow­er­ful. We do crave love. Expe­ri­enc­ing love is reward­ing. But women’s lives are so much rich­er — and sad­der, hard­er, more com­pli­cat­ed, or con­flict­ed — than many of the most endur­ing and pop­u­lar nar­ra­tives would have us believe. We need­ed The Red Tent sev­en­teen years ago. We still need to give women the tex­ture and vari­ety that the sto­ries of their lives deserve.

Michal Lemberger’s non­fic­tion and jour­nal­ism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and her poet­ry has been pub­lished in a num­ber of print and online jour­nals. She holds a BA in Eng­lish and reli­gion from Barnard Col­lege and a MA and PhD in Eng­lish from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as lit­er­a­ture at UCLA and the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty. Michal lives in Los Ange­les with her hus­band and daugh­ters. Learn more atmichallem​berg​er​.com.

Relat­ed Content:

Michal Lem­berg­er holds a BA in Eng­lish and Reli­gion from Barnard Col­lege and a MA and PhD in Eng­lish from UCLA. Her non­fic­tion and jour­nal­ism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, Lilith Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers; her poet­ry has been pub­lished in a num­ber of print and online jour­nals, includ­ing The Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review and The Rat­tling Wall.