The Dying Time by Esther Nelson


At the end of Anita Diamant’s novel, THE RED TENT, Dinah—the same young woman who is only briefly mentioned in the biblical account (Genesis 34)—dies after a long and full life.  The biblical text tells us that Dinah “went out to visit the women of the region” and that “Schechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her…seized her and lay with her by force” (vss. 1-2).  The passage is often titled “The Rape of Dinah.”

In Diamant’s version of the story, Dinah and King Hamor’s son engage in consensual sex.  In keeping with the biblical account, the king then attempts to negotiate a bride price with Jacob (Dinah’s father), but Jacob and his sons are reluctant to agree to the marriage.  They demand soon thereafter that all the men in Hamor’s kingdom undergo circumcision as a bride price.  On the third day after surgery, the sons steal into the city and kill the men.

After just a mere mention of Dinah’s “rape” in Genesis 34, she disappears from the story.  In THE RED TENT, Diamant not only gives Dinah a powerful voice, she also weaves a wonderful tale of mothers, daughters, heartache, betrayal, loss, love, and joy.  Dinah gives birth to her lover’s son in Egypt, develops a strong bond and working relationship with the midwife, Meryt, and eventually falls in love with Benia, a master carpenter.

As Dinah lies on her death bed, she notes: “Benia held me even tighter and sobbed.  He thought that I suffered, but I felt nothing but excitement at the lessons that death held out to me.  In the moment before I crossed over, I knew that the priests and magicians of Egypt were fools and charlatans for promising to prolong the beauties of life beyond the world we are given.  Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art” (p. 320).

In the spirit of Dinah’s last thoughts before her death, I’ve taken some photos from around the outside of my Virginia home that reflect the theme of dying.  I’ve written a haiku to go with each photo.  It seems particularly appropriate to consider the “passing away” of things at this time of the year when the natural world transforms itself through the process of death and decay.

Faded, wilted bloom

Sparsely clothed, yet regal still

In purple splendor

 

Hanging by a thread

The praying mantis dangles

Losing piece by piece

 

A black slate marker

Planted on top my cat’s grave

The mound now flattened

 

Huddled and cornered

Dry and brittle fallen leaves

There is no escape

 

Gauzy web—death trap

Patient insects awaiting

Their transformation

 

One season follows another.  After the dark, bare days of winter, spring and summer return.  The dying time of year gives way to new life.  And so it goes….

 

Tree’s gnarled trunk—green leaves

Provides canopy of shade

Earth catches its breath

 

 

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.



Categories: Aging, Ancestors, Art, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Although I have very little interest in stories from the Old Testament, I like how you distinguish between them and a modern novel that I enjoyed reading many years ago. Mostly, as I read this post, I really liked your photos and haikus. Thanks for a nice meditation on autumn. As I see it, most things in nature don’t really die, but enter a period of sleep. They begin to awaken in early February as spring begins.

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  2. Marvelous reflections and interesting how you moved from The Red Tent’s setting in the past (and I thoroughly enjoyed that book so many years ago) into poetry/imagery in the present. I’m most at ease during fall/winter and cherish every moment of these coming seasons of dying/transformation.

    My particular favorite from the above piece is:

    Huddled and cornered
    Dry and brittle fallen leaves
    There is no escape

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  3. Esther, thank you so much for the beauty and wisdom of your reflections, your photographs, and your haiku. So what I needed today as a beloved cats is dying. Here is a first verse of what may be a longer poem one day. Thank you again for the gift of this post.

    In October the heavenly blues bloom at last
    I don’t know when my sweet black cat will breathe her last
    I know I must risk loving all that cannot last

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    • Oh, Elizabeth, my heart goes out to you. It’s SO hard to watch a beloved pet get closer and closer to their transformation. I absolutely love the line in your poem (in progress)–“I know I must risk loving all that cannot last.” When all is said and done, I believe love is all there is.

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  4. I have read this novel “The Red Tent” many many years ago and remember that I was fascinated by it.

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  5. I love what you’ve done here, turning toward death when most of us are so eager to turn away from it. Stories and poems and images and our relationships with the natural world, all as guides and friends to help us stop running in fear, but rather seek for that which is below, above, and beyond the fear, that gift of freedom and peace. Beautiful.

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    • Thank you, Trelawney. My Taoist-Buddhist friend has often encouraged me to embrace things from which I ordinarily recoil. “Embrace it, it yours.” Am pretty sure that’s a good way to “…stop running in fear, but rather seek for that which is below, above, and beyond the fear, that gift of freedom and peace” as you so articulately point out!

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