Sunday, September 14, 2014
Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38
A. Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38.
Another factor that complicates biblical plots is the frequency with which narratives are constructed from a number of seemingly separate plots. … In terms of the final form … these plots usually function as subplots or episodes within a larger plot. Thus the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12), Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21), or the wooing of Rebekah (Genesis 24) are all episodes within the larger story of promised land and nationhood. In the family story of Jacob (see Genesis 37:2) the story of Judah and Tamar becomes a subplot within a larger plot which deals primarily with Joseph but in which, in the fraternal struggle for ascendancy, Judah also plays a prominent role. (AYBD 4:1024 [Hebrew Narrative"]).
It is a matter of controversy whether Gen 38 fits neatly in the surrounding context of the Joseph story or not. Elements of continuity exist: Judah figures prominently in both ch. 37 and in the later parts of the Joseph story. But those of discontinuity should not be ignored: aside from Judah himself, none of the many characters appearing in Gen 38 appear again in the narratives that follow until the end of Genesis, and neither Jacob himself nor any of his other sons is mentioned by name in Gen 38.
“The two late insertions, chs. 38 and 49, are not additions to the Joseph story but belong to the conclusion of the Jacob story. Thus understood they are more meaningful and comprehensible” (Westermann, Gen 37-50: 22).
Tamar's achievement, like Ruth's long afterward, is to use levirate marriage as a vehicle to preserve part of the line of Judah down to David. That is a theme totally absent in the Joseph story, where kingship only figures in Joseph's dream of his own, and in the pharaoh's. The theme reappears, however, in the oracle of Judah in Jacob's final blessings (Gen 49:10, see p. ? ). But contrary to what is claimed by some, her action was not necessary to ensure the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham, for that could have been fulfilled by Shelah's descendants—the Bible tells us that he had sons and a populous line of descendants (Num 26:20; 1 Chron 4:21)—and those of all the other sons of Jacob.
It would appear that the most we can saw about the continuity and the function of Gen 38 within the context of the Joseph story is that provides a hinge or turning point for the development of a positive character in Judah. In ch. 37 he was venial, proposing sale rather than murder of his brother. Here he is fearful and selfish, and must be rescued from these failings by a Canaanite woman who is his daughter-in-law. But in the end he nobly confesses that she was in the right and he in the wrong. This prepares us for the nobler actions of Judah in Gen 44 (p. ? ).
38:1–5 Judah Builds a Family
Judah leaves Hebron parting from his brothers—who may also have dispersed from Jacob's home—and travels northward to Adullam, where he associates himself with a man Canaanite man named Hirah. The meaning of Hirah's Canaanite name is unclear, but possibly it means "(the god who is) my brother is great." In v. 12 the two men hold a common sheep-shearing, which suggests that they had gone into business together, raising sheep and goats. While living there among the Canaanites, Judah became acquainted with a man named Shua and arranged to marry his daughter, whose name is not given here. The couple had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The idea of intermarrying with Canaanites gives to many the impression that Judah was endangering the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. The negative attitude toward intermarriage with Canaanites is based upon the later injunctions in the Bible, primarily in Ezra and Nehemiah. Abraham and Rebekah sought a bride for Isaac in Aram-Naharaim (24:3), and the same was done by Isaac and Rebekah, for they disliked the Canaanite women. But nowhere are we told in those passages that God commanded them to do this. Unless Jacob's sons married their own half-sisters incestuously or went to Egypt, Phoenicia or Assyria for brides, who also would have been pagans, who were they to marry? In Egypt, Joseph will marry the daughter of an Egyptian priest of the Sun-god Re, and no negative comment is made in the text. Rahab the Canaanite harlot marries into Israel, and Ruth the Moabitess too. These women are celebrated for their faith and wisdom, and are rewarded by inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar is included also. There was nothing wrong per se in Judah's actions here. We are not told that his Canaanite partner Hirah involved him in idolatry or immoral behavior. What he does wrong is described later in the chapter and has nothing to do with Hirah's Canaanite influence.
This section is all about Judah getting started building his family and providing for its continuity for generations to come.
38:6–11 Judah's Sons Die
All was well with Judah's plans until disaster struck in the death of his oldest son and chief heir. This man, Er, is described as "wicked in the sight of Yahweh," but without any details. The text is non-specific as to Er’s wickedness. The topic being what it is in this chapter, he may have refused to sire a son to continue his father’s line. Since we aren't told that Er died in a way that made it obvious that God was judging him, it is only we the readers who are let in on this secret: Judah is not said to understand this. Since we aren't told that Er died in a way that made it obvious that God was judging him, it is only we the readers who are let in on this secret: Judah is not said to understand this.
What Judah does next was to apply the widespread custom—which later became a part of the Law of Moses—of marrying a son-less widow to her deceased husband's nearest male relative. This custom was practiced also by the Hittites and Assyrians, with minor variations. In at least three ways the practice in the Patriarchal period seems to have differed from the later centuries in Israel.
(1) In the present story there seems to be no way that the brother-in-law next in line can refuse legally to perform this duty, whereas in Deut 25:5-10 he can do so, after having his sandal (naʿal) removed and being spat in the face publicly by his brother's widow. In Ruth 4:1-12 Boaz secures in court the official forfeiture of the levirate right from a man who is more closely related to Ruth's husband Mahlon than he. The man who forfeits is not humiliated, but he does hand over his sandal as a symbol of forfeiting his right.
(2) In Gen 38 Judah has intercourse with Tamar only once in order to fulfill the duty, but does not continue to live with her sexually afterwards (v. 26), perhaps because this would be regarded as incestuous. But Boaz performs this duty on Ruth and nothing is said to indicate that he ceases thereafter to have sexual intercourse with her as a wife.
(3) In Deut 25 the first son to be born in a levirate 'marriage' is attributed to the woman's deceased husband. Yet in both the Ruth 4 and Mat 1 genealogies Ruth's firstborn son Perez is called the son of Boaz, not Mahlon (Ru 1:1-5; 4:10-12, 17-22). And in 1 Chron 2:4 the twin sons of Tamar Perez and Zerah—together with Judah's earlier born sons Er, Onan and Shelah—are all reckoned to Judah; the twins are not reckoned to Er. And Judah's son Shelah has sons of his own; so that Judah did not need the twin sons from the levirate in order to continue his line. Mat 1:3 also skips Er entirely, attributing Perez directly to Judah as his father. Apparently, the concern then was not to preserve descendants for Er, but additional sons for Judah.
Usually the first in line to perform the duty of siring a son by the widow was her deceased husband's brother. The brother chosen was not always unmarried, since marriages with multiple wives existed, and there is some indication that after the first son was born the levir no longer cohabited with the widow—see Gen 38:26 which states the matter clearly of Judah. The new husband provided the widow with support and protection, while he provided her and her first husband with an heir. Thus the first husband's inheritance would not be merged with that of his brothers.
Tamar was now married to Er's younger brother Onan. Onan, however, was greedy for Er's inheritance portion, and refused to inseminate Tamar. He refused secretly, since no one but Tamar would know that he withdrew from her before ejaculating. To his father it would appear that Tamar was barren. His sin wasn't practicing birth control: it was covert refusal to perform the legal duty of providing a male heir for his older brother. This action angered God, who put him to death as well.
The logical next step would have been for Judah to give Tamar to his youngest son Shelah. But, not knowing what Onan did in secret, Judah may also have falsely suspected Tamar was barren. And after two sons had died while married to this woman, Judah may have also feared some sort of curse was on her. Fearing the loss of his last son, who had not yet had a son by another wife, he used a delaying tactic to avoid giving her to Shelah. Tamar was told to wait until Shelah was old enough. Tamar was wise enough to see through this tactic. In Assyrian law this duty could be assigned to any son, 10 years of age or older. She bided her time.
38:12–19 Tamar Disguised
In the course of time Judah lost his wife and himself became a widower. Tamar observed that Shelah was now full grown and she was still not given to him in marriage. So now so far as she knew the customary law, Judah himself was now eligible. Although in this case Judah himself was now a widower, legally it wasn't necessary for Judah to be unmarried for Tamar to claim him as the next in line to perform the duty of the Kinsman-Redeemer for Er. In Hittite law (Hoffner in Roth, §193; loclnk 236 ; Critical Edition loclnk [152, 225-26]) the duty falls first to brothers (ŠEŠ-ŠU), but then goes to deceased man's father (ABU-ŠU), and then either his father's brother or the son of his father's brother.
Since this kind of marriage was contracted in Assyria and among the Hittites, it is clear that it did not originate among the Israelites, and there was no occasion for us to see if Abraham or Isaac or Jacob knew of it.
When the period of mourning his wife was over, Judah resumed his business activities with his friend and partner Hirah. They had flocks that needed to be sheared.
Tamar made her plan, made preparations for it, and carried it out with great skill. She was as skilled a deceiver as Rebekah, Jacob, Laban, and Jacob sons had been. Knowing that men away from their wives and families at sheep-shearing were given to celebrating the successful shearing by banqueting, drinking, and seeking sex with prostitutes, she dressed herself as one. Again we see the motif of the change of attire: she removes her widow's garments and donned those of a cult prostitute.
When Judah came to her and negotiated sex, she demanded a pledge to guarantee his sending her the payment later. What she required was his signet, the one item of his attire that would identify him without any doubt. Nothing else that he wore or had on him to give her would do that. Judah suspected nothing; so he gave it to her.
38:20-23 Tamar Disappears
When he returned home and sent the promised goat kid to the prostitute in the neighborhood where he had met her, his messengers were told that there was no one like that in the area. Judah was perplexed, but thought nothing further of the "mystery woman."
38:24–26 Tamar Vindicated: Judah Guilty
Prostitutes used birth control methods. But Tamar deliberately did not. So when her pregnancy became apparent to the family, Judah was told, and she was brought up to face charges of indecency and perhaps "adultery," since she was legally a daughter-in-law of Judah's, even if she did not presently have a husband. For the death penalty (not specifically by burning) in such cases see Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22. So Tamar was "brought out" (to the city gate) to face trial. But Tamar was ready to spring her surprise. She produced Judah's signet to prove him the father! The use of Judah's signet ring to prove (truly!) his paternity parallels the use of Joseph's bloodstained garment to prove (falsely!) his death (see 37:32–35).
Judah, to his credit, when confronted with the incontrovertible evidence, realizes that Tamar acted in desperation because of his unwillingness to give her his son Selah. He pronounces her innocent of all charges and himself guilty of failing to perform his duty to her as her husband's father. That is the meaning of "She is more righteous than I," which should actually be translated "She is in the right, and I not." What she did was in accordance with her levirate rights. The term "righteous" here means that her actions accorded with the law, while Judah's did not. What Judah did in refusing Shelah to her and forcing her to this alternate course was in violation of his obligation, which he here concedes. The Aramaic translation of Genesis, dating from the time of Jesus, renders Judah's words: "She is in the right. It (i.e., the pregnancy) is from me." If one accepts this, it adds a statement by Judah of recognition of the child to be born as his.
His subsequent refusal to have sex with Tamar is not a sign of his distaste or hatred of her: on the contrary, his duty was fulfilled by providing her with the required male heir. He would continue to give her a home and food and clothes. But it was not necessary and perhaps even not appropriate for him to continue to have sexual relations with her as a real, permanent husband. He had served his duty as surrogate for his oldest son Er.
38:27–30 Birth of Tamar's Twins
The story ends happily with the birth of twin sons to Tamar. Judah now has twin grandsons, one of whom—Perez—will become the ancestor of King David and eventually of the messiah Jesus.
Gen 38 and Judah
We said above that Gen 38 fits into the context of the Joseph story—and indeed, into the story of Jacob's family—by its contribution to the development of the picture of Judah as a man. Like Jacob and later Joseph, Judah's character develops over time. In order of age, Judah is fourth oldest among Jacob's sons. Reuben disappointed his father by sleeping with Bilhah, and sought to make it up to him by rescuing Joseph in Gen 37. Simeon and Levi disappointed Jacob by slaughtering the helpless citizens of Shechem because of Shechem's violating their sister Dinah. Judah was next in line. In Gen 37 he had seconded his brothers' plan to get rid of Joseph, and only suggested that they make some money out of it by selling him as a slave. We will see that later in the Joseph story, Judah acts nobly. There needed to be some intervening event that showed the turning point when he began to reflect on his own lack of justice. This event provides that: he admits publicly that Tamar was right and he wrong. This begins his rehabilitation.
His marriage to a Canaanite (as we commented above) was not necessarily wrong. But his patronizing a prostitute, although not illegal, and perhaps understandable for a recent widower, was morally wrong. She was not his wife, and he had no right to intercourse with her unless they were husband and wife. But Gen 38 is not intended to portray Judah as sinless or righteous in all that he did, merely to show him repentant and willing to admit his need to turn his life around. When he declared of Tamar "She is in the right, it is I who was in the wrong," it must have reminded him of his part in selling innocent Joseph into slavery. In a style very typical of the narrator, he only lets us know several chapters later in 42:21, from the mouth of the brothers themselves what they heard from Joseph in his fear and agony in the pit. “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw his anguish (צָּרָ֖ה) he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this anguish (צָּרָ֖ה) has come upon us.”