Dinah, the narrator, opens The Red Tent by introducing herself and explaining that she is reciting the memories of her life and her mothers’ lives—because without a daughter to tell the story, a woman’s history does not live on. Dinah focuses initially on the stories of her mothers, the four wives of Jacob—Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah—and how they come to be married to the same man. Jacob is threatened with death by his twin brother, Esau, in their home of Canaan and goes to Haran to seek out his uncle Laban and marry one of his daughters. He meets Rachel and immediately loves her, for she is uncommonly beautiful. Leah, who is older, begins to love him. On Rachel and Jacob’s wedding day, Zilpah convinces Rachel (who is afraid of the wedding night) to let Leah wear the bridal veil and marry Jacob. She does, and Leah and Jacob spend a blissful honeymoon week together. Then Rachel realizes she has been tricked and marries Jacob herself several months later. By then, Leah is pregnant. Laban offers his two illegitimate daughters, Zilpah and Bilhah, as part of his other daughters’ dowries to serve as Jacob’s concubines. One by one, they all bear sons—Leah bears six sons, and Zilpah and Bilhah bear two each—except Rachel, who miscarries for years and eventually becomes a midwife. At last, Leah bears the only daughter, Dinah. Shortly thereafter, Rachel gives birth to two healthy sons, Benjamin and Joseph.
Dinah recounts her childhood growing up as the only girl among eleven brothers. She spends most of her time at her mothers’ knees, following them as they cook and run the family’s camp. While Dinah plays most often with Joseph, she is adored by her mothers and can frequently be found in one of their tents having her hair braided. Because of her special status as the only female child, she is allowed to enter the red tent each month with her mothers as they begin their menstrual cycles and celebrate the new moon. There Dinah learns to sing the songs of women, eats their special foods, and hears the stories of her grandmother and the goddesses of her people. She is content to be wherever her mothers are.
After many years on Laban’s lands, Jacob decides to return with his family to the land of his own people. They pack up their entire camp, and Jacob bargains with Laban for the flocks and possessions he sees as rightfully his, having been overseer of Laban’s flocks for many years. Rachel steals Laban’s household gods (which are icons or figurines), as they are hers by birthright (since she is the being youngest daughter). They set off for Canaan, and Dinah is awestruck by the excitement of travel: she sees slaves, jugglers, and strange animals. When they finally meet her uncle Esau and his family, the reunion is a happy one. Dinah meets her cousin Tabea, who is the first girl friend she makes of her own age. Esau offers to share his lands with Jacob, but he refuses, and the family moves on to find space enough to support Jacob’s many sons. They make camp at last, and some of his sons take wives.
Several years later, Jacob moves the family again, to just outside the city of Shechem. Dinah gets her first period and is received with ceremony inside the red tent by her mothers. She begins traveling with Rachel as a midwife’s apprentice and one day is called into Shechem to deliver the son of the king’s concubine. There, she meets Shalem, the prince, and falls instantly in love. The queen takes a liking to Dinah and requests her presence again several weeks later, scheming to get her together with the prince. They end up in bed together, and Shalem calls her his wife. The king goes to Jacob to offer a handsome bride-price but is refused. Jacob’s sons request that the entire city of Shechem be circumcised. The king agrees, and circumcisions are performed on all the men of Shechem. Several days later, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, slaughter all of these men in their sleep and carry Dinah back home. Dinah curses her father and brothers and leaves Jacob’s camp for the last time. She then flees to Egypt with her mother-in-law, Re-nefer.
In Egypt, Dinah gives birth to a son, Re-mose, who, against Dinah’s will, is brought up as Re-nefer’s son. Dinah lives in the gardens of Re-nefer’s brother’s home for many years, watching her son grow up and leave for school. She becomes good friends with the midwife Meryt and begins to practice midwifery again. One day at the market, she meets Benia, a master carpenter, and feels an instant attraction to him. Several months later, she and Meryt move to the Valley of the Kings to live with Meryt’s son, and she is reunited with Benia. They marry, and Dinah becomes a renowned midwife in the town. Years later, she is called by a messenger (her son, Re-mose, who has become a scribe) to deliver the son of his master, the vizier, who turns out to be her brother Joseph. The brother and sister are reunited, but when Re-mose learns the story of his father’s murder, he tries to kill his uncle Joseph. Dinah convinces him to go away for his own safety and never sees him again.
One day, Joseph calls on Dinah and asks her to accompany him to bid their dying father farewell. She and Benia go, and she learns that her father no longer remembers her. She does not see him. She talks to one of her nieces and learns that the story of her tragedy and her name is very much alive in the family history, and she is satisfied. Then her brother Judah speaks to her and gives her a token left to her by Leah: Rachel’s ring. She returns home, having accepted her past and feeling satisfied with her present. She spends the rest of her days happy in the company of Benia and Meryt. She dreams of her mothers and finds peace in the dream. She dies content.