I heard a lot about this book in the last year.  It seemed it was on many peoples' lips and keyboards.  I was reminded of it recently and since the Valiant Femmes and I have been getting close to the story of Jacob's children I thought I'd give it a try.  It would certainly make for interesting reading in the wake of Orson Scott Card's "Rachel and Leah."

I was a little nervous about reading "The Red Tent."  My previous experiences with biblical retellings other than Card's had been distressing and disappointing.  Even if the author doesn't accept the scripture stories as truth, why can't they write as if the characters did?  Feminist retellings were the worst, always portraying everything as designed specifically to crush the heroine.  Reading the back, I discovered that "Red Tent's" author had also written several books on Judaism, including a conversion guide for friends and family.  I hoped that a writer who was also a believer would do more a faithful job. (I mean that both ways.)

It was interesting to see where this book and Card's take did intersect– they both used the idea that Leah married Jacob first because Rachel was scared stiff of the wedding night and refused.  That's the only similiarity.

I had always thought that the Torah and the Old Testament were pretty much the same.  Either she was using a very, very different text or I was wrong.  It's not just that names are different– forgive me for my naivete but I had rather assumed that a practicing Jewish writer wouldn't do something strange, like portray Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah as Asherah worshipers.  For a book about one of the Patriarchs, there are a surprising number of gods invoked.  Worse still, to my mind, the god who should be most involved is barely present.  Jacob does wrestle with something that is assumed to be "El" to the point of dislocating his thigh but other key happenings, like the name change, are twisted.  In this tale, Jacob gives himself the name Isra'El to try to hide from the anger of the people of the country side when Simon and Levi slaughter the men of Shechem– a slaughter in which he was if not guilty at least complicit.

I like to think the best of people, or at least not assume the worst.  Why do so many biblical novelizations follow the assumption that the people of the scriptures were horribly flawed?  More puzzling still, why does this one, written by an apparently practicing Jew, follow the same pattern?  There are a total of four men in the entire book who are actually likable and honorable.  None of them are Jewish.

On the other hand, no one at all seems Jewish.  Not even Jacob.  On the whole it was a strange and disappointing book.

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