The Bible’s had a busy year in Hollywood—from Noah in February to Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings this December. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that this would be the year Lifetime chose to adapt The Red Tent, Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel about the Old Testament character of Dinah, into a TV miniseries.
When Hollywood ventures into sacred waters, Christians often aren’t excited about the result. Attempts to convey Biblical narratives many times result in strong reactions and critique: either the adaptations aren’t true to the source material, or the characters aren’t behaving like good Biblical characters should.
The Red Tent is no exception. Diamant, the book’s author, has faced accusations of blasphemy for her imaginative departure from the events of Genesis 34.
If you’re struggling to remember Dinah’s story, that’s likely because there’s not a lot there. It’s told in a single chapter. Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob and his first wife Leah, is violated by a city ruler, Shechem. His later request to marry her results in her brothers’ demands that the males of the entire city circumcise themselves. Driven by Shechem’s persuasions, the men agree to do so, and while they are physically recovering, Dinah’s brothers slaughter the city in revenge.
Although the episode is sometimes read as a rape, Diamant saw something else in the story. “[The prince] doesn’t act like a rapist. He submits to what was then a very humiliating request in order to marry Dinah,” she says. Diamant used that discrepancy as a departure, reimagining the event as a love story, in which Dinah and the prince fall in love and the destruction of the city is a tragic end to Dinah’s romance and her previous way of life.
The Red Tent grew in popularity largely through religious communities. Readership spread through word of mouth—synagogue and church-sponsored book clubs, rabbis and pastors speaking about the book to congregants. Lifetime is clearly hoping to tap into that same audience with the upcoming miniseries adaptation, which premieres December 7 and 8. At a recent screening hosted at the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, the story was introduced as “epic modern midrash,” referring to Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yet the label of religious commentary is one that Diamant has resisted. She wasn’t looking to add another chapter to the Bible, or even to stay faithful to the events as depicted in Genesis. “It’s not midrash. It’s a novel,” she replied later in response to questioning. “When it came out, there was lots of comparison to the Bible, and concerns about my corrupting the text. But I have freedom as a novelist . . . My responsibility is to tell a good story.”
Reader reviews of the book are divided between those who admire the tale and those who find its depiction of Biblical characters offensive. Jacob is arrogant. There’s too much sex. Rachel and Leah participate in pagan ceremonies and prefer their own idols to Jacob’s God. And all of this in vivid detail, which seems to condone the actions rather than reprove them.
It’s not that the Bible is without any of these things—arrogance, sex, and plenty of idol worship abound, both for those outside the Israelite community and those within it. But the words of Genesis are sparser, the language more removed. It’s easier to read Jacob and Judah and Rachel as respectable and noteworthy without all the graphic details of their betrayals and lusts and idol thievery depicted so thoroughly.