Genesis 38

The setting and story of this chapter contain details of practices that strike us as belonging far in the past (although some modern communities do apparently still follow the levirate marriage procedures hinted at here), but the relations between the characters in this tale are modern enough; or, rather, they are timeless. Since the narrative is some few steps away from the Joseph saga proper it is reasonable to think that it was once a separate entity altogether, placed in the broader context of Genesis by a later editor/redactor. Nevertheless it does “fit”, and interestingly enough the final portion on the births of the twins Perez and Zerah recalls the description of how Jacob and Esau came into the world (see 25.24-26). This is but one more example of the wonderful ways in which Genesis loops back onto itself even as it unfolds forwards.

Tamar the wronged widow teaches Judah – and each of us readers – a lesson on pursuing the right without being unnecessarily confrontational or aggressive about it. To modern eyes we may well find fault with her methods; after all, as the story goes, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her, perhaps with the intent of becoming pregnant (which she did, but surely she could not have taken such for granted) and thereby providing an heir for her first husband: Judah’s eldest son with his wife Shua, a son who passed away before he could have had his own child due apparently to moral failings (verse seven: “But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the LORD, and the LORD took his life.”). This duty owed Tamar and the deceased Er, as the text relates (verse eight), should have been accomplished by Judah’s second son, who was culturally tasked with giving his brother’s wife a child to receive his brother’s estate. However he did not: in an underhanded way he avoided this by “spilling his seed” (and hence giving us the English term “onanism”, taken from the character’s name); he too died early as a result of this unrighteousness (verse ten: “What he [Onan] did was displeasing to the LORD, and He [God/“God”] took his life also.”). With two sons gone Judah refused to give Tamar his third boy – which would have been the socio-historically appropriate thing to do – and thus Tamar, when she perceived her chance, engaged in her subterfuge.

Again, by contemporary standards much of this could seem abhorrent; but we cannot simply judge these tales by the same measures we use for those fables currently being produced. Taking a step back, what can we discover? Tamar knows what is due her, she knows what should have occurred but what did not, she knows that none of this is her fault, and she knows that by doing nothing no good will come of it and no wrongs will be righted. She therefore uses the tools at her disposal – quite craftily, we might add – and brings to fruition the end results that should have been. She moreover accomplishes this at great risk to herself, demonstrating an admirable strength of will and evidently a solidly grounded sense of justice. All of this, we note, she also achieved peacefully by herself, seeking neither recourse to the authorities (no boost from the “men in charge” for her) nor to violent means. She was almost executed for her plan (verse twenty-four), but that too she foresaw and had an extraordinarily intelligent response prepared and ready to be deployed (verse twenty-five). To his credit Judah acknowledges and admits his wrong, and thereafter does not repeat it (verse twenty-six), but it is clear that Tamar is the hero of this vignette. We readers do not need to deny that there is objectionable material in Genesis, but if we allow ourselves to focus on what at first blush appears to be hopelessly dated and out of touch with our present time we will miss the remarkable lessons that this text, first penned millennia ago, has yet to impart.

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