Inserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.
Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.
Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.
But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)
What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.
Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.
What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.
The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.
After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.
The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.
Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.
Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being. Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.
She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future. Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her. Her action is eye opening.
Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered. Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.
Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his. Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.
The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened? These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?
Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.
Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions. There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.
The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this. But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?
One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line. But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.
Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile – there is much to connect these narratives. But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.
One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates. It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.