Tamar, meaning date palm, is the protagonist of a strange story. After the death of her first and second husbands, she tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her. Yes, another story we did not hear about in Sunday school.
The story of Tamar and Judah celebrates Tamar for her courage in preserving a household from extinction. But for whose benefit? Judah’s or her own? Are we to relegate her story to the pile of irrelevant, sexist tales we are exposed to on an all-together too frequent basis? Is she a feminist role model or a pawn of patriarchy?
There is a strong tendency among scholars and lay readers to interpret Tamar’s behavior in a negative light for pretending to be a harlot and seducing her father-in-law. She is reviled for using deception and her “feminine wiles” to further her ends. Traditional commentators let Judah off the hook because Tamar deceived him. Rather than condemning his actions, they see him as being seduced and therefore not responsible for his misjudgments.
However, a careful reading of the narrative will find that Judah deceived himself and the story portrays Tamar in a positive light. As I’ve argued elsewhere, deception was not considered morally reprehensible in ancient Israel. In the highest possible praise possible, the Bible announces that King David descended from her. This is the text’s way of telling us that she is a force to be reckoned with. As contemporary readers we are challenged by this story of a woman who used methods that ran counter to patriarchal control to presumably achieve patriarchal priorities (Beach, p. 290).
Probably a Canaanite
“Judah turned aside from his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, ad he married her and cohabited with her. She conceived and bore a son, and he named him Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and named him Onan. Once again she bore a son and named him Shelah… Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar.” (Genesis 38:6)
In a clear demonstration of his cultural proclivities, Judah “turns aside” from his family to settled amongst the Canaanites and took a local woman to wife, the daughter of Shua. He held a close friendship with Hirah the Adullamite.
“Judging from the evidence of biblical narratives and genealogies, intermarriage was a common practice from the very beginning of Israelite history to the post-exilic period…Judah’s marriage with the daughter of the Canaanite Shua receives no explicit evaluation (Gen 38:2). Modern biblical commentators generally agree that this narrative’s portrayal of intermarriage accurately reflects the mixed ethnic identity of the southern tribe of Judah…His unceremonious selection of a Canaanite wife also contrasts sharply with the efforts earlier in the patriarchal narratives to insure that Isaac and Jacob did not marry local women” (Menn, pp.51, 53).
It appears that in many ways Judah shunned his Israelite background though it appears he is not condemn by the narrator for doing so.
Though the narrator did not provide us with Tamar’s ethnic or genealogical background, most commentators assume that Tamar was a Canaanite based on Judah’s close associations with the local non-Israelite population and since he did not return to his family to fetch a wife for his son(s). Early Jewish and Christian commentaries of the last four centuries BCE and the first century CE recognized that Tamar was not an Israelite (Emerton, Examination, pp.90-1).
Some commentators known as “revisionists” argue that we should regard Tamar as an Israelite because the text does not plainly state that Tamar is a Canaanite. According to their interpretation, we are to understand that the offspring from the union of Judah and the daughter of Shua, Judah’s three ‘half-breed’ sons “are doomed by the Almighty and unable to father any children. Only when Tamar is mated with Judah himself, a full-blooded Israelite, are healthy male offspring born. The ‘purity of Israelite blood’ is the whole point of Genesis 38, according to the revisionist reading” (Kirsch, p.130). However, most scholars conclude that in the early biblical period, ethnic purity was not a preoccupation. The fact that Tamar was an outsider didn’t seem to be the point of the story just as it seems that Abraham’s liaison with Hagar, the Egyptian, was legitimized, just as Jacob’s union with the slaves Bilhah and Zilpah didn’t raise an eyebrow, Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite presented no cause for critique.
The Law of the Levir
“But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law.'” (Genesis 38:7-8)
This is a very clear example of the law of the levir, also known as the custom of yibim. In levirate marriage, when a married man died without a male heir, it was the duty of his brother, usually, to impregnate the widow so that a genetically related son would be produced. The child born of this union was considered the legal heir of the deceased man. The son would then inherit the dead man’s estate and thereby provide financially for his mother for the rest of her life. The law of the levir was meant to protect young childless widows from financial and social abandonment.
“The protocol for the legal guardian [yibum] is an interesting example of the priority of the community over the individual in the world of the Bible…Although the individual father was dead, his legal right to land and children remained intact. And even though the individual guardian had land and children of his own, the household of another became his responsibility. One individual’s life span was extended, another’s was compromised for the good of the household” (Matthews/Benjaamin, p.120).
The Levirate responsibilities not only extended to the brothers-in-law but to the widow as well, Tamar in this instance. “Note how it is simply assumed that Tamar will participate in this union because her former husband’s memory is at stake. Her own feelings or desires are given no consideration…There is no provision that would allow her to decline the ‘honor’ of submitting to sexual intercourse with [her brother-in-law] solely for the purpose of producing a male child” (Maddox, p.15). She was not free to marry anyone other than her deceased husband’s brothers until Judah released her from this obligation.
However, cruelly, he did not and instead offered her his devious and immoral son, Onan. Eryl Davies suggests that Genesis 38, Deuteronomy 25, and the Book of Ruth represent three stages the levirate marriage custom. Genesis 38 describes the earliest stage when levirate marriage was required and the obligation fell not only on the brothers of the deceased but on the other male members of the family as well. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 represents the next stage when the levirate law was only required of the brothers of the deceased. By the time of the Book of Ruth, levirate marriage was no longer obligatory but could be performed by distant male relatives. In each of these instances, we find that men are generally not too excited about further diluting their inheritance to establish a legacy for their deceased brother. The custom of yibim seems to mainly benefit the widow by providing her with financial and social support. My question is, if men didn’t like the institution but women did, was it patriarchal in nature?
For further information about levirate marriage see Ephraim Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws with Special References to General Semitic Laws and Customs and Millar Burrows, “The Ancient Oriental Background of Hebrew Levirate Marriage,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 77 (1940) 2-15.
“Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.’ But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it spoil on the ground whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother.” Genesis 38:8-9
Onan was charged with continuing his deceased brother’s lineage. However, he had no intentions of carrying out his obligations. If Tamar remained childless, Onan and his brother Shelah would divide Judah’s inheritance two ways instead of three. Onan “publicly accepts the responsibility and then defrauds Tamar while continuing to enjoy the usufruct of her property…He is also denying his deceased brother his right to have his name or inheritance preserved” (Matthews/Benjamin, p.116). If Onan did impregnate Tamar, the son of that union would be considered the firstborn and be eligible for a double share of Judah’s inheritance, further diminishing Onan’s birthright.” Deut 21:15-17 indicates that the eldest son had the right to a double portion of his father’s property when the father died” (Smith, p.18). The only incentive Deuteronomy offered the levir was to avoid public humiliation if he refused the duty.
Rather than refusing the yabam duty and avoiding sexual relations with Tamar, Onan exploited her sexually by pretending that he would impregnate her. “He repeatedly goes to her, takes advantage of her sexually, reaches sexual climax, yet ‘whenever he came into his brother’s wife, he destroyed it (i.e., his semen) on the ground'” (Jeansonne, p.102). Judah did not tell Onan to marry Tamar, only to “go into your brother’s wife.” As the narrative develops, we learn that Judah did not give Tamar the next brother in line, Shelah, in marriage either.“Hence some interpreters conclude that the levirate obligation, at least in the time of the patriarchs, only mandated impregnating the brother-in-law’s widow, not necessarily marrying her” (Davidson, p.463). Later when Judah inadvertently fulfilled the yabam, the narrator made it clear that Judah did not lie with her again and presumably never married her either leaving her to society’s condemnation of her as an unwed mother.
Death of Judah’s Sons
“What he [Onan] was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law, Tamar, ‘Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’–for he thought, ‘He too might die like his brothers.'” Genesis 38:10-11.
Judah’s expression, “Lest he die also like his brothers,” eliminates the possibility that Judah thought his sons’ deaths were merely coincidences. Clearly Judah was ignorant of God’s judgment against his sons and wrongly blamed Tamar. As readers, we have also been alerted to the fact that from the beginning Judah never intended to give his third son Shelah to Tamar because he suspected that she was a “man-killer.” Judah’s fear that Tamar’s sexuality caused death is ironic since he himself almost caused her death by ordering her to be burned later in the narrative (Friedman, p.29). Of course, without Tamar, Judah’s line would have died out.
“God cares so little for the patriarchal offspring that two of the sons are dispatched by the divine hand. Tone and content reflect the perspective of a dominated group, which for the sake of survival mocks the oppressor and gets the better of him. Gen 38 allows one to smile at the solemn face of patriarchy” (Bos, Out, p.49).
God clearly busts the myth of the “killer wife.” Yahweh’s point of view is that women are sources of life, not death. “The Torah here reconfirms that man by his own voluntary actions decides his fate. Death results from grave sins, not from diabolic forces attached to women” (Friedman, p.55).
Judah Sends Her Away – Wife of a Grave
“Dwell, widow [almanah], in the household of your father.” (Genesis 38:11)
The term almanah refers to a woman with no male support and no independent financial means. Conversely, widows such as Abigail and Bathsheba were not called almanah because they did have financial resources. Even Ruth and Naomi were not called almanot because Naomi held some of her deceased husband’s property and Ruth was partially supported by gleaning from Boaz’s field and therefore was nominally supported by a man (Cohen, p.77).
Therefore, when Tamar was called an almanah by Judah, he emphasized that she was destitute. A wife did not inherit from her husband generally, therefore, the patriarchal laws of marriage made it more urgent for Tamar to acquire a child than to find a husband. With children, Tamar could feel the security of knowing she would be looked after because the children would inherit their father’s estate.
“For Tamar, a Canaanite woman who has married into her husband’s tribe, the crisis of childlessness is even more dire. An outsider must bear children in order to earn a place in her husband’s family, and if she is widowed before she has produced a child, then she is likely to remain a stranger in the eyes of her husband’s clan. For that reason, Tamar finds herself in terrible peril. She could not inherit her husband’s property, she could not rely on the inheritance of her children, and she could not comfortably return to the house of her father, except perhaps as a lonely spinster to be shut away and ignored” (Kirsch, p.137).
Having married into another clan, even if rejected by her husband’s family, she would have no claim to an affiliation with her father’s clan (Aschkenasy, p.81). She would have had to hope that her father would take pity on her and support her. Ordinarily, a young widow could improve her lot in life by remarrying. However, Judah did not release her from the levirate marriage duty. “His command that she ‘live as a widow in your father’s house’ is a contradiction in terms, for the very definition of ‘widow’ is that she has no man controlling her and is, for better or worse, ‘free.’ But ‘widow’ Tamar is not free; she is back under her father’s supervision and in her father-in-law’s jurisdiction” (Frymer-Kensky, Reading, pp. 268). As long as her deceased husband’s brothers remained available, Tamar could never remarry.
“But maintaining the levirate condition while at the same time refusing the obligation of support is an offense against the fundamental right of the woman to a family and offspring, and thus to social position. Judah denies his daughter-in-law Tamar a fulfilled life by abandoning her to the fate of a childless widow while at the same time denying her the advantages of widowhood” (Fischer, pp.106-7).
Tamar’s father could not negotiate a new marriage for her because she was still attached to Judah’s house. She was neither married nor unmarried. “She is in ‘no man’s land’ in terms of identity, both belonging and not belonging to either family” (Sawyer, p.59). In contrast to Naomi who released her daughters-in-law from their affiliation with their deceased husband’s family so that they could build new lives for themselves, Judah did the opposite, thus demonstrating his lack of integrity.
Of theological interest, we find that God is missing at this point of the story. “YHWH is quick to punish the evil of Er and Onan but is slow to correct the injustice against Tamar. Instead, Tamar must work out her own salvation” (Fewell/Gunn, p.89). We can view Yahweh with disfavor for abandoning Tamar, or we can applaud the deity for recognizing that Tamar was an autonomous agent capable of rescuing herself.
Tamar Forms a Plan
“A long time afterward, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died. When his period of mourning was over, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, together with his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And Tamar was told…” (Genesis 38:12-13)
When Tamar learned that Judah would be celebrating the sheepshearing in Timnah, she must have imagined that he would be in a merrymaking mood. In addition, he had just completed his mourning after the death of his wife, if he even mourned for her at all. Sheep-shearing festivals were known for their revelry so it was probably a good assumption on Tamar’s part that her father-in-law would be looking for a little sexual release. She knew what kind of things Judah had in mind indicating that she had been studying him and knew his habits. Judah showed no interest in Tamar after he expelled her from his home, but she made it her business to be informed about his every move. It appears that Tamar had informants in her father-in-law’s house, perhaps an information network she carefully cultivated. “We may imagine the scandalized, or at least disapproving, gossip that works its way quickly from Judah’s house to Tamar’s on the news of Judah’s unseemly trip to Timnah” (Gunn/Fewell, p.38).
Remarkably, Tamar targeted Judah instead of his third son Shelah to be her unwitting partner. “Perhaps Tamar’s choice of Judah indicates that she thinks his third son is no better than the first two…if she suspects that Judah has neglected her because he considers contact with her to be dangerous, the deception of her deceiver in order to engage him sexually has a special poetic justice” (Menn, p.47).
At the Opening of the Eyes
“She put off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself in it and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife… When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face.” Genesis 38:14-15.
After learning that her father-in-law was en route to Timnah, she sat at a placed called Enaim, literally, at the “Opening of the Eyes.” The opening of the eyes symbolizes Tamar’s realization of Judah’s deception. Finally aware that her rights had been violated, she understood that if she did not stand up for herself she would be doomed to stay a childless widow for the rest of her life.
At great risk to her life, Tamar overstepped the commands and authority of her father-in-law and ventured out as a lone woman into the public domain. Many traditional commentators condemn Tamar for deceiving her father-in-law by “dressing as a harlot.” However, the “language is deliberately opaque and suggestive. The narrator does not say that Tamar dressed as a harlot. That is the inference that Judah makes–and is intended to make–but the narrator leaves it to Judah to draw the conclusion” (Bird, Missing, p.203). If she had known the truth of Judah’s role in deceiving his father with the bloodying of Joseph’s cloak, I can imagine her savoring the irony of using deceptive clothing to lure him.
In the past, a great number of commentators assumed that a prostitute (zonah) must have worn a veil and that was how Judah misidentified Tamar as a harlot. However, ancient Near Eastern texts not only describe prostitutes as bareheaded, but in addition, proscribe capital punishment if a prostitute was found wearing a veil (Frymer-Kensky, Reading, p. 270). Therefore, the biblical text should be understood to mean that Judah didn’t know who she was because of the veil not that he thought she was a prostitute because she was wearing a veil. In fact, a “streetwalker” could hardly advertise her wares if she covered her face.
“The veil is not a mark of her profession, but a means of concealing her identity. So how does it occur to Judah to address her as a prostitute? It must be the place where he finds her. It is in the gate that the men gather, and through the gate that all the people go in and out. For a single woman to sit and wait at the gate must have seemed like a signal to him” (Fischer, p.108).
Perhaps Tamar adopted some kind of adornment to signify that she was available. Hosea may have been railing against such a practice when he said, “put away her harlotries from her face, and her adulteries from between her breasts” (Hos. 2:4). The Song of Songs may help us identify what lay between a prostitute’s breasts: “My beloved is unto me as a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts” (1:13). Regardless of how Judah may have mistaken her for a prostitute, Tamar had to mimic the gestures of a woman who sells her body. “To deceive Judah successfully, as she does, Tamar must have a strong understanding of how she is perceived by others, since only then can she skillfully conceal her true identity…Tamar must be a person in tune with herself, knowing herself as well as the persona she cuts to those around her” (Aschkenasy, p.89). Overall, her actions describe a woman with a positive self-image and a clever strategy for obtaining her rights.
“So he turned aside to her by the road and said, ‘Here, let me sleep with you’–for he did not know that she was his daughter-in- law. ‘What,’ she asked, ‘will you pay for sleeping with me?’ He replied, I will send a kid from my flock.’ But she said, “you must leave a pledge until you have sent it.’ And he said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.'” Genesis 38:16-18.
Acting the part of the prostitute, she conducted business in a firm and direct manner. Clearly Tamar was in control. “Judah’s desire makes him dependent on Tamar. She is the subject of the speech, the action and the focalization in this scene. In contrast to Judah she is acting on a correct analysis of the situation. She makes sure that Judah gives something” (van Dijk-Hemmes, p.150). In place of immediate payment, Tamar demanded that Judah give her his staff and signet, a cylinder seal on a cord worn around his neck. When rolled on wet clay the seal would create a unique design, the equivalent of Judah’s signature. Typically ancient staffs would have also been personalized as well. In effect, Tamar required that he leave all of his identity markers with her.
“Tamar clearly knows the man with whom she is dealing. She knows the promise of payment from Judah means nothing. After all, had he not promised to give her to his son Shelah?… That Tamar does not hesitate to name her pledge demonstrates that she has carefully thought this through” (Gunn/Fewell, pp.39-40).
In yet another indication of the writer’s subtlety as a storyteller, we find the person without rank turns the highly estemed patriarch into a person without visible status.
And He Went Into Her
“So he gave them to her and went into her and she conceived by him.” (Genesis 38:18)
In most of the biblical narratives containing the motif of the barren wife, God controls the reproductive powers of women. “Structurally, Tamar effectively replaces God in his role of facilitator of birth in narratives containing the barren wife motif, since she, not God, acts to continue an important lineage” (Menn, pp. 95-6). Picking up on this proactive, godlike behavior, Albright viewed Tamar as a “depotentized goddess” based on similarities between Genesis 38 and other texts from the ancient Near East. “But there is also some internal biblical basis for the attribution of an uncanny, almost superhuman power to Tamar, in that she performs the role reserved for God in the stories containing the barren wife motif” (Menn, p.96, n.184). Tamar did not stand alone in her unconventional and assertive actions in the pursuit of a lineage. She continued the work of Sarah who arranged the surrogacy of Hagar, Rebecca who disguised her son Jacob to fool his father for the purposes of his inheritance, and Leah who disguised herself to marry Jacob.
“Thus, the greatgrandmother, the grandmother, and the mother of Judah overcame vulnerability and powerlessness to give birth to and determine the success of the grandfather and father of Judah and of Judah himself. Tamar continues this pattern to the next generation. They all were prepared to risk scandal, humiliation, ostracism, or death to have children with their families. They all were assertive and proactive, and each of them engaged in unconventional sexual activity to accomplish their purpose…The characteristics of family loyalty, wits, determination, unconventionality, and aggressiveness that Tamar and Ruth brought into their family will characterize the Judean monarchy to which these women gave birth” (Frymer-Kensky, Reading, pp. 276-7).
One could say that gumption was a core characteristic of the matriarchs. Like Judah’s father Jacob, his “strong sexual appetite has dulled all his other senses” (Spina, p.46). Just as his father Judah spent the night with a woman not his wife, Judah also slept with a woman he would only recognize later. The author means for us to laugh at the great patriarch and enjoy the humor of the story at his expense.
Looking for Tamar
“Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to redeem the pledge from the woman; but he could not find her. He [Hirah] inquired of the people of that town, ‘Where is the qedesah, the one at Enaim, by the road?’ But they said, there has been no qedesah here.'” Genesis 38:20-21.
Traditionally qedesah is translated as “sacred prostitute,” a seemingly more dignified kind of harlot attached to a (non-Israelite) holy place. It has been argued that paying for sex with such a woman was a devotional practice and provided a donation to the local sanctuary. However, contemporary scholarship has demonstrated that there is no reason to believe that a qedesah provided any sexual services for hire. Ancient Near Eastern texts do not provide any record that men paid for the sexual services of the qedesah.
“A more cautious survey of Babylonian and Assyrian sources, however, reveals merely that the qadistu [Akkadian cognate of qedesah] filled important religious functions involving childbirth and perhaps nursing, and that she herself could marry, bear or adopt children, and inherit property. There is no evidence that this cult functionary participated in any form of ritual sexual activity, such as sacred prostitution or reenactment of a hieros gamos [sacred marriage]” (Menn, p.72).
Since this contravenes most reader’s expectations of what a qedesah is, I’m going to quote a few more sources to drive home this point. “‘Sacred prostitution’ is an amalgam of misconceptions, presuppositions, and inaccuracies” (Westenholz, p.263). “Tragically, scholarship suffered from scholars being unable to imagine any cultic role for women in antiquity that did not involve sexual intercourse” (Gruber, p. 134). The “whole idea of a sex cult– in Israel or in Canaan–is a chimera, the product of ancient and modern sexual fantasies” (Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake, p.199). I could go on, but I think you get the point.
So why do the prophets rail against “sacred prostitutes” with such vehemence and speak of their promiscuity? The Hebrew Bible’s bias against the worship of fertility deities, especially goddesses, led to the equation of their worship to sexual transgressions.
“The occasional appearance of these figures [qedeshot] in the Bible in close textual proximity to prostitutes and harlots (in, e.g., Deut. 23.17-18 and Hosea 4.14) is probably not an indication of their function but a product of the rhetorical association made in biblical literature between sexual promiscuity and forms of religious practice that were distasteful to the biblical writers” (Stone, p.60).
The religious polemic against the qedesah did not reflect actual practices of the surrounding cultures.
Returning to Tamar’s story, why did Judah assume Tamar was a common prostitute (zonah) and then when his friend Hirah went looking for her, he asked around town for a qedesah? How did he expect to be successful in finding the woman Judah had sex with by asking for the wrong kind of woman? Why is Tamar referred to first by one of these terms and then by the other?
Frymer-Kensky convincingly suggests that both types of women were the few who were recognized as performing roles outside of the family system and perhaps, in male eyes, were seen as approachable for sexual encounters because they were not protected by men. Judah’s friend obscured the distinction between a zonah and a qedesah to protect Judah’s reputation as an upright citizen who supposedly did not traffic with prostitutes.
“Hirah’s usage of this term might be euphemistic, intended to intimate that Judah’s relations with the unknown woman had a lofty religious purpose…If this were the case, then the usage of this term might serve an apologetic purpose….The implication that Judah engaged in sexual relations with a foreign cult functionary is not necessarily complimentary, however, given the biblical prohibitions against worship of other gods…” (Menn, p.71, n. 111).
By searching for a qedesah with the purpose of providing a “donation” of a goat, Hirah emphasized that Judah was not only blameless but also deeply committed to Canaanite religious practices. Hirah was letting everyone know that Judah was just like the locals and worshipped their gods. This seems to me to be a calculated political move on Judah’s part rather than an interest in fulfilling his financial promises. When Hirah returned to his friend with the report that he was unable to locate the qedesah, Judah did not correct him. It seems that to save face, he had lied to his friend, telling him that he met a sacred woman along the road, not that he bought the services of a prostitute. Meanwhile, Tamar vanished and controlled Judah from afar, unbeknownst to him.
“Lest We Be Laughed At”
“So he [Hirah] returned to Judah and said, ‘I could not find her’…Judah said, ‘Let her keep them [his staff and signet], lest we becomes a laughingstock. I did send her this kid, but you did not find her.'” Genesis 38:22-23.
Note that Judah is quick to blame his friend Hirah for not finding Tamar: “I sent this kid; you did not find her.” When Judah called off the search for Tamar, he also incorporated Hirah into his sense of shame: “let her take [the pledge] for herself, lest we be despised.”
Even though the use of the services of a zonah was not illegal, obviously Judah was embarrassed by his behavior. “But what might be the reason for contempt or ridicule? A sacred act of lovemaking with the hierodule or a Canaanite cult? Hardly, for the people of the place are understood to be Canaanites and would find no cause for contempt in that. Being outwitted, and more specifically ‘taken,’ by a common prostitute? Surely…” (Bird, Missing, p.207). In other words, the local Canaanites knew all along that Hirah was actually looking for a prostitute and saw through his ruse when he asked for a sacred woman instead. Perhaps they were already laughing behind Judah’s back despite his and Hirah’s best efforts to keep the tongues from wagging.
Bos finds Tamar’s story, despite the patriarchal social structure, to be a gynocentric tale. “The men in the story are wrongheaded irresponsible bunglers, who don’t see straight. They are shown up as such by Tamar, who notices correctly and who causes Judah such an ‘eye-opener’ that his view of reality is restored” (Bos, Out, p.48). Even early rabbinical commentaries seem to agree. “The Torah laughs at men” is Midrash Rabbah’s comment on this scene.
“About three months later, Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.’ ‘Bring her out,’ said Judah, ‘and let her be burned.'” Genesis 38:24
We can’t avoid noticing that Judah accused Tamar of acting like a prostitute while at the same time he enjoyed the favors of what he thought was a prostitute. In today’s parlance we would call Judah a control freak with deep psychological issues. “Judah prepares to kill Tamar by burning, so incensed is he by her apparent defiance of his right to regulate her sexual activities” (Ackerman, p.230). It seems Judah also acted impulsively.
“Judah took no time to deliberate…He might have checked the accuracy of the source, verified the charges with Tamar, discussed the issue with her father, consulted local officials, and sought proper redress… Without inquiry or consultation, he immediately accepted the charges, judged Tamar, and handed down his verdict” (Petersen, p.143).
To further compound the injustice, Judah made no attempt to locate the man who impregnated Tamar. According to levitical law codes, both parties would have been considered responsible for the illegal act (Maddox, p.16). Since prostitution was not punishable in Israel, if Judah felt the need to penalize her for acting like a harlot, that is by committing adultery, then the only case in which death would be legally permissible would be if he considered her to be married or betrothed to one of his sons. “Neither the Mesopotamian nor the biblical laws regulated the conduct of a single woman or a widow living in her father’s house,” (Astour, p.194). If Judah considered her betrothed, then the death penalty for an unfaithful wife was fitting.
However, he would be guilty of gross misconduct when he relinquished all responsibility for her and sent her home to her father’s house. On the other hand, if he thought he had washed his hands of Tamar and given over the legal and financial jurisdiction to her father, then “Judah’s claim of exclusive authority to pass sentence on Tamar after she had returned to her father’s home seems extralegal and highly questionable” (Peterson, p.143). Either way, Judah’s ethics don’t look so good. As Smith comments, “the story makes the point that those whom society has traditionally revered and respected are not necessarily worthy of reverence and respect” (p.17). At its core, this is the most subversive element of Tamar’s story.
The way in which Judah is negatively portrayed suggests that even though Tamar did commit the crime for which she was charged, the application of a law in an unfair manner was unacceptable. The spirit of the law was more important than the letter of the law (Smith, pp.18-19). Now regarding the punishment of death by burning: Judah was completely out of line by later legal standards. “The punishment for playing the harlot, as laid down in Deut 22:21, was not burning, but stoning. Burning is reserved for cultic offences” (Smith, p.27). Later when Israelite law was formalized, the penalty for adultery was stoning, not burning (Lev. 20:10). “The only case where public burning is prescribed is that of a priest’s daughter who commits adultery, because of the special sacredness attached to the priesthood (Lev 2:1-9). It is interesting that Judah places himself and his sons in a category of sacredness which would later be reserved for the priestly class.” (Maddox, p.16). Is this a case of hubris on Judah’s part?
Just as before “it was told” to Tamar that Judah was on his way to the sheep-shearing festival, so now “it is told” to Judah that Tamar is with child because she was a whore. Although it is possible these anonymous envoys thought any woman without a known husband was a whore, they could have just as easily used other words of disapproval. It’s almost as if they knew precisely in what way Tamar became pregnant. Did Tamar orchestrate the reversal of the gossip machine and inform her spies of her condition in order that she might bring events to a crisis and therefore find justice?
Tamar Redeems Herself
“As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, ‘I am with child by the man to whom these belong.’ And she added, ‘Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?'” (Genesis 38:25)
Tamar presented Judah’s staff, seal and cord with the words “Recognize!” the same words that Judah once spoke with his brothers when they sent Joseph’s blood-soaked robe to their father (38:25; cf. 37:32). It wasn’t just the sight of his personal items that jolted Judah. The accompanying words reminded of him of his former evil deeds. Abruptly he was faced with his moral depravity. “Thus, for the first time, Judah not only sees the surface of things, but comprehends their meaning…” (Aschkenasy, p.87). A variety of commentators identify this as the beginning of Judah’s transformation from fool to a true leader as exhibited in his willingness in Egypt to sacrifice himself for the sake of his brother, Benjamin.
Rabbinical sources site Tamar’s discretion in not revealing the name of her father-in-law as the scoundrel who impregnated her as an act of compassion and selfless courage. Tamar could have embarrassed Judah by publicly announcing that he was the father of her child. Tamar could also have privately let Judah know before hand that she was pregnant by him and thus could have avoided the “big scene.” But she knew better. In private he would have denied her claim and confiscated her evidence of the paternity for the unborn children in her womb. She understood that the only method of obtaining justice was to lure him into a public confession (Aschkenasy, p.89).
“Judah recognized them [his seal, staff and cord], and said, ‘ She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.'” Genesis 38:26
Judah did not apologize to Tamar. “He diverts attention away from the question of his own promiscuity on to the matter of levirate marriage: ‘she is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah’… he may expect that at least some of the men in his audience will deem this custom to be an unduly onerous one and will sympathize with his attempt to evade it. Along with this rhetorical move comes a gross overstatement, ‘she is more righteous than I’ — as if Judah has also been righteous” (Gunn/Fewell, p.43). If Judah had been given a wake-up call, he went back for his “beauty rest.” Many people wonder how Judah could speak of Tamar being righteous when she acted as a prostitute.
“This is because they usually think of being right/righteous in terms of single moral actions done by individuals and having their moral validity in themselves….The usage of s-d-q [righteous] is communal, specifically directed toward relationship with other people… Tamar has been more ‘righteous’ in her relationship to her dead husband, to herself, to Judah himself, and above all to posterity than Judah has been. The continuance of life takes precedence over one particular piece of conduct not usually regarded as right (Andrew, p.267).
What this text seems to be saying is that oppression was not sanctioned by God, even if it was perpetrated by a patriarch of an entire nation.
Tamar as Trickster
Carrying on the tradition of prior matriarchs, Tamar practiced subversive techniques any trickster would be proud of. Jackson argues that wherever we find a trickster in the biblical narratives, we are meant to find comedy, among other types of readings. The comic vision allows us to catch a glimpse of a transcendent vision, a liberating message which speaks out against oppression. The comic vision is flexible and pragmatic. It “is egalitarian rather than elitist, championing the underdog; it allows more sexual equality; it questions authority and tradition; if prefers situational ethics to rules” (Jackson, p.37). By setting her plan in motion at the “opening of the eyes,” the narrative emphasizes that Tamar sees that Judah has not fulfilled his promise to her.
We are meant to laugh at the description of Judah refusing to fulfill his obligation to his daughter-in-law in contrast to his efforts to fulfill his debt obligations to a prostitute. Imagine the scene of his friend Hirah tromping around the countryside in search of the wrong kind of woman, pulling a goat behind him. Any ancient audience would have been highly amused by Judah leaving behind his manhood (symbolized by his staff) and his seed in Tamar’s womb. Genesis 38 pokes fun at patriarchal hypocrisy and dares us to imagine of a world without oppression.
Comedy “breaks intrusively into ‘normal’, established everyday living situations and threatens to subvert the established order…tricksters, through their subversive nature, show readers a different reality and in so doing facilitate an ecstatic and cathartic experience” (Jackson, p.38).
In the wake of Tamar’s story, men would be foolish to think they were in control of everything and women should be valued, not just motherhood but also for their intelligence, courage and creativity. “It is possible, then, that the writers of the patriarchal narratives were, indeed, the first feminist theologians” (Jackson, p.46).
“And he did not know her again.” (Genesis 38:26)
Comically Judah does not know Tamar on the side of the road and then again at the end of the narrative he does not ever “know” her. Frankly, Judah never really knew Tamar at all. Some argue that if he really understood Tamar’s needs and how he had harmed her, he would have finally offered his son Shelah as a husband. Instead, there is no record that Judah ever released Tamar from his control so that she would have the opportunity to marry someone else. “Judah acknowledges his unfairness to her, but makes no effort to rectify the injustice” (Jeansonne, p. 106). If Judah acknowledged that Tamar had righteously pursued her rights to either be released from levirate duty or be given Judah’s third son, then why did Judah not explicitly fulfill those rights? (Coats, p.461). The point may have been moot. Tamar might not have been interested in having a husband after her experiences with men.
Birth of the Twins
“When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.” (Genesis 38:27-29)
Giving birth to twins was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. “Conception, in that ancient world, was a minor miracle. Bringing a child to full term was another miracle. Having two healthy twins who survived the birth to become adults was yet another” (Brenner, p.137). Furthermore, readers are meant to understand that God approved of Tamar’s behavior because one of her sons, Perez, became the ancestor of David (Ruth 4:12, 18-22) and eventually Jesus (Matt. 1:3). The highest compliment that could be paid to a woman was to be the ancestress of the royal house.
Some commentators have cast doubt on Tamar’s prominence in the narrative by noting that she did not name her own sons, rather a midwife did. Midwives were also involved in the naming of children of Rebecca and Ruth. That the naming ceremony involves a community of women does not lessen the significance of the mother; rather it indicates a longstanding tradition of a unique female ritual. According to ancient Near Eastern texts, healthcare was intertwined with theology. Several biblical stories indicate that midwives served in a religious capacity at the birthing. “Israelite women would share with Mesopotamian women the presence of a titled holy woman (the female prophet) who assisted at birth, performed any required rituals, and provided a prognosis” (Bowen, p.426).
In Tamar’s story, the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the one who put out his hand first to determine, for purposes of inheritance, which of the twins was the firstborn. Why was the color specifically mentioned? Red “was one of the common colors for cords used in the Mesopotamian pregnancy and birth rituals. Perhaps the biblical comment is an effort by the redactors to disguise the magical aspects of this act” (Bowen, p. 426). In Rebecca’s case, the red hand of Esau also caught the attention of the narrator. Could this be an oblique reference to the same birthing and naming ritual?
Another reference may be in Ezekiel 13:17-23, which describes women who sew magic charms on all their wrists (NIV). Mesopotamian literature is replete with references to tying and untying of knots in anti-witchcraft rituals, many of which involve incantations to stop excessive bleeding during labor.
“Threads of various colors of wool were twined together and then knotted. They may be bound on the woman’s hand or other body parts…The activities that Ezekiel ascribes to the female prophets thus share some of the same imagery as these various Mesopotamian incantations associated with childbirth” (Bowen, pp. 423-4).
Though Ezekiel describes these women as “witches,” there does not seem to be any phenomenological distinction between divinatory practices and prophecy. “Ezekiel’s oracle is as much an act of magic or divination as what the female prophets are engaged in” (Bowen, p.422).
Was it Incest?
Normally a union between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law would be considered incest. The taboo is clearly outlined in Lev. 18:15. Was this legal provision suspended in the case of a levirate union? First off, did Judah adhere to the rules of levirate practice?
“It is possible (but by no means certain) that in patriarchal times there was a custom that the levirate duty could be performed by the father-in-law as well as by the brother-in-law…A practice similar (but not identical) to the levirate marriage and carried out in other ANE societies (attested particularly in the Hittite laws) does allow the father-in-law to perform such service so that his daughter-in-law may have progeny. If this is also the understanding of the Genesis patriarchs, then from Judah’s perspective his relationship with Tamar would not have been considered incestuous” (Davidson, p.433).
Genesis 38 then would be an example of adherence to the levirate practice, in which case Judah’s behavior would have superceded the incest taboos. On the other hand, if the levirate practice did not allow for a father-in-law to fulfill the duty to impregnate the widow of his son, then where does this leave us vis-a-vis Judah? Some have suggested that Judah did not commit incest because technically Tamar was no longer considered Judah’s daughter-in-law after he sent her to her father’s house.
“But the repeated references to Judah as Tamar’s ‘father-in-law’… and to Tamar as Judah’s ‘daughter-in-law’… after the deaths of Er and Onan make such a position untenable. In addition, the authority which Judah exercises over Tamar, apparent in his dismissal of her to her father’s house until Shelah matures (Gen 38:11) and in his order for her death (Gen 38:24), indicates that their affinal relationship continues throughout the narrative” (Menn, pp.61-2).
The narrator seems uncomfortable with Judah’s behavior, indicating that incest had actually been committed. “Not once, but twice, he draws attention to Judah’s ignorance concerning his daughter-in-law’s identity before their sexual relations…The final note that Judah ‘never knew her again’ (Gen 38:26) similarly functions to assure the reader that he did not intentionally transgress the prohibitions against incest between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, although apparently such a transgression occurred” (Menn, pp.61-3). Niditch argues that the statement that Judah did not lay with Tamar again may have been an editorial comment