TAMAR Gen 38
CONTEXT: The patriarchal nature of the Patriarchs was unquestioned but some of our best stories are about women determining events with historical outcomes. In fact, literary critic Harold Bloom, in his Book of J, offers: “. . . my primary surmise is that J was a woman, and that she wrote for her contemporaries as a woman, in friendly competition with her only strong rival among those contemporaries, the male author of the court history in 2 Samuel.” (p.9) The Tamar story is a short story reflecting on the nation of Judah and the royal dynasty of David. Without the work of this strong, smart woman the nation would be weak and there would be no King David. Protofeminism!
This chapter is an interlude, a dramatic discursion from the adventures of Yosef who has just been brought to Mitsrayim. We want to learn what happens to him there but the editor distracts us with another story, keeping us in suspense.
Y’hudah, fourth of the 12 brothers, in the preceding chapter meant to save Yosef. In this non sequitur chapter, while visiting his friend Chira in Adulam, he sees and takes a woman–unnamed but for a patronym, batShua. With her he has three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, and, provident father, secures a woman, Tamar, for the eldest, Er, who then dies as punishment for sin.
This death introduces the Levirite (brother-in-law) marriage episode. Levirite marriage is an aspect of polygyny, to preserve a married man’s name when he dies sonless. The brother-in-law is required to take and impregnate the widow, the issue to be considered the deceased’s. See Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
GLOSSARY: At verse 14, Tamar strikes a suggestive pose. The Hebrew verb, vatitalaf, ותתעלף, commonly means “faint, swoon.” In Arabic the root means “smear, cover,” and in Song of Songs it is used for “covered” with saphires.(5:14) In modern Hebrew the word came to mean “cover,” and this would be acceptable–but redundant–here as a synonym for the preceding phrase, “she covered herself with a veil.” The Targum renders it as “she placed herself.” The Septuagint has “she adorned herself.” Tamar has a plan that works. My guess is that she paid attention to detail.
“Hierodule”(v.21) is a sacral prostitute, an element of ancient fertility cults in Greece and in the Middle East. I learned the word from Julius Lewy, an Assyriologist who taught the Hosea course at HUC. The Hebrew is k’deshah, קדשה, also occurring in the masculine, the same root as “special,” “holy.” Nothing in the story suggests that Y’hudah had spiritual intentions in approaching Tamar. His friend the Adulami seems to use the term as less coarse than “whore,” zonah, זונה. In English “prostitute” is perhaps less pejorative than the word the narrator puts into the mind of Y’hudah, but it misses the fascinating religious flavor.
SIGNIFICANT NAMES: Perets (“breach” v.29) is named in at the end of the Book of Ruth as ancestor to David. Zerach (“shining” v.30) has upstanding descendents but also the miscreant, Achan, Joshua 7:1. The name Tamar, (“date palm”) occurs again a princess in David’s household, sister to Avshalom, raped by her half brother Amnon, 2 Samuel 13.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH
1It happened, at that time, that Y’hudah went down from his brothers turning aside to a man named Chira of Adulam. 2There he saw the daughter of a K’na’ani named Shua. He took her and came to her. 3She conceived and bore a son, and he called him Er. 4She conceived again and bore a son, and she named him Onan. 5Once again she conceived and bore a son, and she called him Shelah–he was in K’ziv when he was born.
6Y’hudah took a woman for Er, his firstborn. Her name was Tamar. 7Er, Y’hudah’s firstborn, was bad in Yahh’s eyes so Yahh killed him. 8Y’hudah said to Onan: “Come to your brother’s woman. Do brother-in-law duty and raise seed for your brother.”
9Onan knew that the seed would not be his and whenever he came to his brother’s wife he spoiled earthward so as not to give seed to his brother. 10What he did was bad in Yahh’s eyes so he killed him too.
11Y’hudah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Dwell as a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah grows up.” For he had said, “lest he too die, like his brothers.” Tamar went and lived at her father’s house.
12The days multiplied and Y’hudah’s wife batShua died. Y’hudah was comforted. Then he went with his sheep shearers, he and his friend the Adulami, up to Timnah.
13It was told to Tamar, “Look at that. Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his flock.” 14So she took off the clothing of her widowhood and covered herself with a veil. She struck a pose and sat at Petach Eynayim, which is on the way to Timnah. (This was because she saw that Shelah had grown up and she hadn’t been given to him as woman.)
15Y’hudah saw her and thought her a whore for she had covered her face. 16He turned aside to her, at the way, and said, “Please, permit that I come to you.” (For he didn’t know she was his daughter-in-law.)
Said she, “What will you give me that you come to me?”
17“I’ll send you a goat kid from the flock.”
“If you give me a security till you send it.
18“What’s the security I can give you?”
“Your seal and your cord, and the staff in your hand.”
So he gave it to her. He came to her. She conceived.
19She rose and went. She took off her veil and dressed in the clothing of her widowhood.
20Y’hudah sent the kid of the flock by the hand of his friend the Adulami. He was to take the security from the woman’s hand but he did not find her. 21He asked the men of her place, “Where is that hierodule at the way to Eynayim?” They said, “There hasn’t been a hierodule here.”
22He returned to Y’hudah and said, “I did not find her, and also the men of the place said, ‘There hasn’t been a hierodule here.’”
23Y’hudah said, “Let her take for herself, lest we become object of scorn. Indeed I sent her this kid and you, you did not find her.”
24It happened about three months later. It was told to Y’hudah, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law has whored. Furthermore she is pregnant by whorings.” “Take her out and let her be burnt,” said Y’hudah.
25She was taken out but she sent to her father-in-law, “By a man whose these are, I am pregnant. Recognize, please, to whom these belong, the seal, cord, and staff.”
26Y’hudah recognized, and said, “She is more just than I. It is because I did not give her to my son Shelah.” He never again knew her.
27It happened at the time of her birthing, that there were twins in her belly. 28And in the birthing it happened that one put out a hand. The midwife took a scarlet and tied it to his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29Then it happened that he returned his hand and his brother came out. She said, “How you have broken yourself a breach!” So he was named “Perets.” 30Afterwards, his brother on whose hand was the scarlet, came out and was named “Zerach.”
© Rabbi David L. Kline http://good-to-be-a-jew.blogspot.com/