When ‘Sister Wives’ Met ‘The Red Tent’

TLC’s Sister Wives is sort of a real-life version of the late HBO hit Big Love: a man named Kody Brown adds a fourth wife to his polygamous marriage and copes with legal challenges to his family. This year, the Browns moved from Utah to the promised land of Las Vegas and announced that fourth wife Robyn is pregnant. But I can’t stop thinking about how the four wives of Kody remind me of the four wives of the Biblical Jacob – particularly the version of the wives as presented in Anita Diamant’s classic feminist novel The Red Tent.

LEAH: Janelle

Second wife Janelle is the most outspoken and confident. Along with Kody, she worked outside of the home and contributed her income to the communal family pot. Though her husband isn’t as affectionate with her as he is with the other wives, he clearly respects her and her intellect. Janelle is the mother of six of the sixteen children: not quite as many as Leah, but there’s time.


Newest wife Robyn is the youngest, and she’s considered by many to be the prettiest. Kody dotes on her even at the other wives’ detriment – he was kissing her while wife Christine was in labor, and she got a better honeymoon than any of the other wives (to be fair, the network probably paid for it). Unlike Rachel, Robyn was a divorcee and came into the plural marriage with three children. But now that she’s pregnant with her first child by Kody, her son could end up being the Joseph of the Brown family.

ZILPAH: Christine

Third wife Christine grew up in a polygamous community and said that she dreamed of being a third wife (not as much pressure) when she grew up. Like Zilpah, Christine is happy to tend the home fires and take care of her children and the other wives’ children alike.


Neither the Bible nor The Red Tent gives us much information about Bilhah, Rachel’s servant. Although Meri is Kody’s first – and legal – wife, she doesn’t have much screentime compared to other members of the family. Meri is often shy and withdrawn, but she clearly loves her family and stays close to them. While Bilhah only bore Jacob two children (Dan and Naphtali), Meri was only able to have one child, daughter Mariah. Just as Bilhah was a maidservant, Meri has the heart of a nurturer – she got a graduate degree in social work and worked with underprivileged children.

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  • Wow, as someone who re-read the Pentateuch during a recent internet fast…this is right on. I do see some of Rachel in Meri though. Particularly the struggle with infertility. My heart breaks for Meri the most when I’ve caught glimpses of the show (I no longer have cable and never watched it really before).