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Genesis: The Story of Tamar

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

We've no sooner begun the Joseph story than there's an interval that takes up a whole chapter – Chapter 38 – which recounts an incident relating to Judah, Jacob's fourth son by his wife Leah. Judah has married a Canaanite woman called Shua. She has produced three sons – Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for Er called Tamar but Er we are told was for some undivulged reason deemed "wicked in the sight of the Lord" and the Lord kills him. Judah now orders his son Onan to marry Tamar so that he will "raise up or preserve seed" for his brother – a quaint phrase. This is a type of marriage known as levirate, whereby a surviving brother is required to marry his dead brother's widow, so that the son would bear the dead man's name. That was raise up or preserve means here. The custom also provided some degree of protection for the widow. However, Onan refuses to play ball, so to speak, and instead "spills his seed on the ground", as Genesis puts it. In other words, he practises coitus interruptus. This displeases the Lord so much that he kills Onan. Judah at this point in the story thinks that Tamar is bad news. He's perhaps concluded that she's some kind of demon. He's lost two sons by her and he doesn't want to lose the third. So he tells her to return to her father's house until Shelah grows up and is old enough to marry, perhaps suggesting that he would give her to him in due course. That's just an excuse, however. He wants Tamar out of the way for good. He has no intention of her marrying Shelah.

Years pass. Shelah grows up and Tamar knows she's been left out in the cold. She is, however, a very determined woman. She's determined by hook or by crook to produce an heir by someone in Judah's family. Or perhaps she simply concludes that there's no other path for her to produce any children. Who would marry her, being twice widowed?

When Judah's wife Shua dies she sees her opportunity. She finds out that Judah is heading to a place called Timnah to get his sheep sheared. She casts off her widow's garments – as a family member of his she was required to go into mourning for Judah's wife – dresses up as a temple prostitute, puts a veil over her face so she can't be recognised, and waits by the side of the road for Judah to come by. Temple prostitutes were common in the ancient world and the payment for their services would have been given to the deity whom they served.

When Judah arrives, he assumes she's a prostitute and tells the disguised Tamar that he wants to sleep with her. She asks him what he will give her in return. I'll give you a kid, a young goat, he says. OK, she says, but you're going to have to provide some security. What kind of security, he asks? Your signet, your cord and your staff, she replies. "Signet" gives us our word "signature". It was usually a cylinder with a sign stamped on it that was exclusive to one person only. It was used to sign documents when sealing wax was applied. You'd have thought Judah's signet would have been a sufficient security but Tamar isn't taking any chances. She wants other personal items of his that will prove without doubt he's the father of any child she may conceive because that's her plan. He enters her, to use the biblical phrase, and as a result she conceives.

Later Judah sends a friend back with the kid in payment but the prostitute is nowhere to be seen and no one has any knowledge of her. Let her keep the stuff, he says, and thinks no more of it. When, three months later, he's told that Tamar is pregnant, he goes ballistic. He denounces his daughter-in-law as a whore and demands that she be burnt – a punishment reserved for the worst type of criminals. She then produces the signet, the cord and the staff to prove he's the father of her child – or the father of two children as it turns out. Judah acknowledges the boys are his and says, "She's more in the right because I didn't give her to my son Shelah."

Genesis doesn't explicitly tell us what we should think of Tamar but it's clear that she's fulfilling God's will by being resourceful in becoming pregnant. And the fact that she produces twins is a sign of the Lord's favour. As we've seen throughout Genesis, anxiety about childbearing runs high and to produce twins was a considerable accomplishment.

But it isn't just the fact that Tamar gives birth that's important. It's also to whom she gives birth that matters. That's because this story, like so many in Genesis, has an important follow-up that we don't learn about until much later, till the Book of Numbers in fact, the fourth book of the Torah. A child who will be named Zerah is just about to emerge from Tamar's womb when somehow his twin brother Perez forces his way out first instead. Zerah and Perez become patriarchs of rival clans, their rivalry explained in the Tamar story by the violent circumstances of their birth. Once again we have an example of rivalry between brothers. Perez's forcefulness pays off because his line of descent leads directly to King David, and, if we carry it further, to Joseph and therefore to Jesus. So Tamar in both Jewish and Christian religion is, we might say, a very big deal. By her determination to become a mother at all costs she plays a key role in history. And that in turn means that Judah has an importance he would not otherwise have had – but for her intervention.

There are other points to note. Though no judgement is passed on Judah explicitly, the age-old double standard is exposed. Judah has no hesitation in sleeping with a prostitute but when it comes to a widow, whom he has in effect condemned to a life of social isolation and invisibility having sex, well, that's a very different matter altogether in his eyes. What's more, he would have had her burned – a slow and particularly agonising death. What, we may ask, would Tamar's life have consisted of if she hadn't become pregnant? It would have amounted to nothing. Like so many women back then and indeed living today in some parts of the world, perhaps even on our own, she would have been a nonentity.

Yet another very important consequence of the story is that Judah acknowledges his guilt and becomes a better human being. This, too, is thanks to the role that Tamar plays in his life. And that fact becomes important in how the Joseph story turns out later: the reformed Judah will play a leading role at a critical moment, as we'll see later.

Back now to the Joseph story, which resumes in Chapter 39. Initially Joseph prospers in Potiphar's house because, as we're told, "the Lord was with him." Potiphar sees he's favoured by the Lord and gives him the number one spot as his overseer. However, his good looks attract the eye of Potiphar's wife – her name isn't given – and she makes the moves on him. Joseph goes into a long explanation as to why this isn't a good idea but one day she grabs hold of him. He resists, runs off, but she hangs onto the garment that he's wearing, so poor Joseph has to flee naked. It's the second time he's been deprived of a valuable item of clothing. And once again an item of clothing is used to falsify evidence. Potiphar's wife shows her husband his garment and tells him that Joseph tried to rape her, so the captain throws him into prison. Once again, Joseph has drawn attention to himself, and once again he's in trouble, and he's back in the pit, so to speak.

In the next lesson we'll see how he emerges from it.

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Written by

Robert Garland