Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The goddesses of Dinah’s mothers are represented by the teraphim and symbolize the difference between the religion practiced by Jacob’s wives and the religion practiced by Jacob. Jacob has received the word of the One God from his father and grandfather, and his religion recognizes only the one deity, with animal sacrifices and practices, such as the circumcision of baby boys. This new religion does not fit the lives of his wives, who have practiced their rituals for their goddesses under the moon for many years. They fulfill their religious duties to his god to his face, but under the cover of the red tent they consider holy only their teraphim and secret rites. They take care not to offend Jacob with their practice, keeping it out of sight, knowing that he cannot condone such practices by his wives. When he learns of Dinah’s initiation into womanhood, he smashes the teraphim, in essence forcing his wives to end their practices and convert entirely to his religion. The loss of her beloved goddesses is too much, and Zilpah dies.
As its title indicates, the red tent is one of the most important and recurring images of the novel and symbolizes the private and magical world of women. It is the red tent in which each of the children in Dinah’s family are born, and it is the red tent where each girl becomes a woman. But it is more than just a place of birth and maturity; it is also a sacred gathering place for women. In the red tent, the women sequester themselves for several days each month, taking time out from their daily duties as mothers and wives to spoil themselves with cakes and rest upon the straw. It is in the tent that they forge, break, and rebuild their bonds to one another, as occurs between Leah and Rachel. Outside of the tent, men rule society and the families. But inside the tent there are only women, and therefore women make the rules. They share special songs and rites that only the sisters of the tent are privy to. In a story that uncovers the bonds between women, it is fitting that so much of the action occurs in the red tent.
The midwives’ bricks, which women stand on as they are giving birth, represent the strength and endurance exhibited by women of ancient times while in labor. In Dinah’s world, women were not attended to by physicians during childbirth and would consider themselves lucky to have a skilled midwife. Without epidurals, antibiotics, or antiseptics, as many babies died as lived, often taking their mothers with them. Leah, Bilhah, and Rachel all lose babies to miscarriage and stillbirth, despite having the benefits of Inna’s midwifing skills. In each birthing scene, as the women prepare to push, they mount the bricks for support and positioning, symbolizing the gathering of their courage as they prepare to stare death in the face. Diamant chillingly details the strength of these women, portraying how they were able to consistently return to the red tent and stand on the bricks, not knowing if they would walk out.