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Dinah begins the novel by explaining that she feels compelled to share her story in order to elaborate on the brief but violent footnote devoted to her in the Old Testament. She declares the vital importance of memory and remembering, and she laments that the stories of many women have been lost through the years. She alludes to the tragedy of her own story and her surprise that any mother would ever choose to name her child Dinah again. She closes with a Jewish blessing.
As the narrative begins, Dinah describes how her mothers first met her father Jacob. The four sisters, born to their father, Laban, by four different women, are barely adolescents who still live with their father, a hard-drinking, unpleasant man. Jacob, Laban’s nephew by his sister Rebecca, is banished from his home in Canaan for stealing his twin brother’s birthright, and he offers his shepherding services to his uncle’s family. Jacob meets Rachel, the second youngest sister, outside their camp and is immediately struck by her beauty. Rachel feels the same about Jacob, and he tells her that he will marry her. She runs home immediately to share the news with her sisters and receives mixed reactions. Rachel is not yet marriageable, since she has not yet menstruated. The eldest sister, Leah, feels jealous of Rachel, because she is older and is sill unwed.
When Jacob arrives in their camp, Leah finds that she is also attracted to him. Cursed at birth with one blue eye and one green eye, she has become accustomed to the way the ignorant boys in town scoff at her abnormality. In contrast, the tall, handsome Jacob stares her squarely in the face and likes what he sees. Though she is only a girl of fourteen, she is the most capable of the sisters, brewing beer, baking bread, and managing the entire camp competently. An attraction grows between Jacob and Leah, which the shrewd sister Zilpah notices.
Months pass, and, under Jacob’s care, Laban’s herd flourishes. As they wait for Rachel to reach maturity, Jacob bargains with Laban for his daughter. After much discussion, Jacob agrees to one year’s service on Laban’s farm and accepts the youngest sister Bilhah, the kindest and quietest of the girls, as Rachel’s handmaid. This arrangement gives Rachel status as a wife with a dowry and Jacob the possibility of a concubine, even though Bilhah is still a child. Jacob further insists on one tenth of the lambs and kids born to Laban’s flocks while he tends them. Finally, nine months after Jacob’s arrival, Rachel begins to bleed and is welcomed into the red tent with an elaborate ceremony. The rend tent is a place reserved for women while they menstruate or bear children. Rachel’s sisters and surrogate mother Adah, who is Leah’s birth mother, sing a special song announcing her entry into the world of women. They paint her hands and feet with henna while she rests in the red tent. Adah rubs Rachel’s body all over with scented oils and they feed her special sweets. She drinks wine and wears an embroidered veil. When she emerges from the tent after several days, she insists that her wedding to Jacob be set for the customary seven months from her first blood.
Though Diamant takes liberties with the biblical sources of The Red Tent, she richly illustrates the world of Laban’s family and the community of women formed by his daughters. Her language is poetic and her sentences perfectly paced, as if the narrator were in the room reciting the story directly to the reader. The noise and smells of the family’s camp are vivid and intense, as are the physical descriptions of each of the four sisters. Rachel’s beauty and natural scent of fresh water give the story a sense of fantasy, as does the configuration of several sisters of almost marriageable age interested in the same man. To many, Leah and Rachel are familiar characters from the Bible. Diamant takes great liberties with their original descriptions, turning Leah’s “ruined eyes” to simply mismatched ones. Rachel is presented as more of a spoiled child than a beautiful and deserving wife-to-be. By opening with the scenes of each sister meeting Jacob, we see the beginning of the web of complex female relationships into which Dinah is born.
The introduction of the red tent as a figurative device creates a clear separation between the worlds of male and female characters. Although the women of the Bible did not use a red tent, menstruation and childbearing tents were a common feature in pre-modern cultures around the world—from Native American to African. Many women’s rituals, especially pagan rituals, such as Rachel’s first menstruation, involved bodily functions that women would have taken care to hide from the men. As no man would dare enter a menstruation tent, anything that the women do and say within the tent remains private. While the fields and pastures are clearly the domain of Jacob and his sons, as the places where adolescent boys are educated to become men, mothers school their daughters in the ways of women in the red tent. The device also provides Diamant an opportunity to contrast how the women act in front of the men with how they behave alone with one another. Leah, the bold and brash leader of the sisters when they are alone, appears humbled in the company of men, embarrassed by her eyes. Rachel too behaves differently in the privacy of her sisters, willing to show the spiteful and jealous side of her nature that she does not reveal in front of the men.
Nobody can change their customs fast. These two grew up as polytheists, so it is improbable that they would have been, at least during the time frame of the story, monotheists. That is why in Genesis 35:2, Jacob needs to say: "Remove the foreign gods which are in your midst..."
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