Zilpah notices a growing attraction between Jacob and Leah. The most spiritual of the sisters, Zilpah tends to dislike men. After noticing Leah’s suffering at Jacobs’s attentions toward his bride-to-be, Rachel, Zilpah devises a plan. She suspects that Rachel has fears about her wedding night and actively promotes those fears. She mentions that she has heard that Jacob is enormously well endowed and encourages Rachel’s terror.
On the day of the wedding, Rachel panics about her wedding night, but Zilpah plants the idea that Leah could take her place under the veil. Rachel gladly runs to Leah, who refuses to comply. Initially Leah worries that their height difference will be obvious and that Jacob will snub her. However, in her heart, Leah feels that Jacob will not reject her, so she agrees to the plan. Zilpah and Rachel prepare Leah for the wedding ceremony, rubbing henna on her hands and feet. She hides under the veil throughout the ceremony, breathless that she might be discovered. After the ceremony and dinner, Jacob leads the still veiled Leah to the bridal tent. Jacob removes the veil but does not show any surprise when he sees Leah under it. He undresses her and beds her gently. They spend the next seven days in the tent making love and sleeping, developing a deep intimacy as a result. Toward the end of the week, they devise a plan regarding what to do about Rachel.
While exiting the tent, Jacob tells Laban that he has been duped. He claims that he has spent his seven days and nights with Leah out of duty, but he will not consider her to be his wife until he receives a separate dowry in her name. He also insists on having Rachel, as originally promised. He requests Zilpah as Leah’s dowry, as well as another tenth of Laban’s herd. In exchange, he offers to work another seven months for Leah’s bride-price, and Laban has no choice but to agree.
Rachel becomes furious that her wedding‑night jitters made her lose position as first wife. She has heard the sounds of pleasure from the wedding tent and realizes that she has been a fool. Jacob comforts her and tells her that she is his true first wife and that he feels merely duty toward Leah. She agrees to the marriage. One month later, they are wed. In the meantime, Laban takes a new wife, Ruti, whom he treats as little more than a slave. Leah quickly realizes she is pregnant but says nothing so that Rachel may enjoy her newlywed time. Rachel accuses Leah of plotting to shame her in order to assume her role as first wife and they quarrel. Rachel calls Leah a brood cow and Leah slaps her face. They do not speak for months. Rachel becomes pregnant, but as Leah’s belly begins to swell, Rachel suffers a miscarriage. Leah tries to comfort her sister but is pushed away. Inna, the local midwife, befriends Rachel and promises to help her conceive. With Inna’s assistance, Leah gives birth on the midwife’s bricks to a healthy baby boy, Reuben.
According to the customs of Jacob’s family, the baby must be circumcised. Jacob performs the circumcision himself, despite Leah’s aversion to the idea. A period of prosperity begins for the family. Jacob’s skill with the flocks increases their holdings. Bilhah enters the red menstrual tent. Leah gives birth to another son, Simon, then to another, Levi, and, finally, to a fourth, Judah. Laban’s wife, Ruti, gives birth to a son, Kemuel. Rachel miscarries several times, trying every possible trick and potion to carry a baby to term. She begins to work as an apprentice to the midwife Inna and becomes the family’s link to the rest of the world, as she travels into nearby towns to deliver babies. Leah takes a short break from childbearing before bearing a fifth son, Zebulun.
Though men drive the action of the biblical narratives that inspired The Red Tent, women drive the action in Diamant’s novel. In the biblical story, Laban switches Leah under the veil and weds her to Jacob secretly. He tries to trick Jacob by unloading his “deformed” daughter. By casting Zilpah as the mastermind with Leah, acting out of love, in total compliance, Diamant makes the women into decision‑makers who control their destinies. Rather than acting passively as pawns, these women play active roles in their lives. Leah knows that her actions will have consequences, but her love and desire for Jacob overrule her logic. Rachel succumbs to her fears about the wedding night and curses herself afterward, vowing not to lose to Leah again. Tensions increase as Leah gives birth to five healthy sons, while Rachel fails to carry even one baby to term. Jacob must act as peacemaker between his two wives, which creates a power play between the two women. The wives invert the traditional husband-and-wife relationship from the biblical narratives by controlling Jacob.
Diamant relays the trials of childbirth with gruesome reality and, in doing so, pushes the strength and power of women to the forefront. She describes the trials of the women in labor in the red tent, where, surrounded by their sisters and sometimes the midwife, they suffer through a drug‑free labor that might last up to four or five days. Very often women did not survive childbirth or lost two to three babies for every one that lived. Despite this risk, the women must perform the duty of bearing children—particularly to birth sons to bring pride to their husbands—so they must return to the tent time and time again. Leah is revered as first wife and mother of five sons, while Rachel must label herself a failure as a wife for being unable to birth even one healthy child. She chooses to apprentice as a midwife, learning as much as she can about childbearing as a replacement for her inability to have children. In this way, rather than simply accepting her situation, she takes control and finds a way to define herself as something other than mother.
Zilpah represents the women of the time who cared more for their sisters and their gods than for performing the roles of wife and mother. Though Zilpah plays a minor part throughout much of the novel, she fulfills a necessary voice in the chorus of female characters. She is Dinah’s spiritual guide and a source of strength to her sisters. However, after her interference in Jacob’s wedding plans and the birth of her twin sons, she is quickly pushed to side, as the relationship between Leah and Rachel takes center stage in the narrative. Diamant never fully explains why Zilpah interferes, though she does mention several times her strong dislike for men and her disinterest in sleeping with Jacob, possibly suggesting that Zilpah is a lesbian. It is even mentioned that Zilpah did not much care for her own sons once they grew beards. It could be assumed that lesbians living at the time would have lived much like Zilpah, as a man’s lesser wife who bears several children but resides mostly on the fringes of the family. Her bond with her niece and with her female goddesses is strong, and she influences the females of the family with her faith and storytelling abilities. Zilpah provides a necessary contrast to the devoted wife figures, Leah and Rachel.