This post is part of a Christmas series on the female ancestors of Jesus as given by the Gospel of Matthew.
The story of Tamar is one of the most interesting in the Bible, told in the 38th chapter of Genesis. Judah was the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob. Tamar married Er, the oldest son of Judah. Er dies. Actually, Genesis says he "was wicked in the sight of the LORD and the LORD slew him." (Revised Standard Version)
According to the ancient tradition known as "levirate marriage," it was the obligation of Er's next-youngest brother Onan to marry the widow and produce a son for his brother. Yes, it's that Onan. Because the child would have been considered Er's, the text says, Onan "spilled the semen on the ground." So Yawheh "slew him also." (RSV)
Now, Onan is mainly known for the English word "onanism" (masturbation) derived from his name. But Jane Schaberg's reading is, "When he lies with Tamar, he practices coitus interruptus, for which he in turn is slain by Yahweh." It seems to me that a straightforward reading of this text doesn't indicate that Onan's sin was masturbation or coitus interruptus, but his failure to do his familial duty to Tamar and his late brother.
But now Judah balks at his familial duties. He promises Tamar that he would give her to his third son Shelah to conceive a child when he gets older. But, the story says, in reality he was afraid that Shelah would end up dead like Er and Onan if he sleeps with Tamar. Did he think Tamar was some sort of black widow? That she was cursed? Evidently, he thought something like that.
Tamar figures out eventually that Judah does not intend to send Shelah to her. So she comes up with an elaborate deception. She disguises herself as a prostitute, and Judah sees her beside the road and sleeps with her. Eugen Drewermann's reading he assumed she was a cult prostitute, a "pleasure nun" as Drewermann call it, who would have been in the service of a Canaanite goddess. Judah gives her his staff, his cord and his seal as a pledge for his promised payment of young goat for the sexual encounter.
Tamar becomes pregnant, and Judah becomes aware of it. Sohe demands that she be executed by burning. As she was being taken execution, she sent the staff and seal to Judah:
And she said, "Mark, I pray you, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff." Then Judah acknowledged them and said, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." (RSV)
Though Tamar's action borders on the criminal, she is not guilty and the line of Judah continues through her. As biblical scholar Brevard Childs wrote, "Judah demonstrated an unfaithfulness which threatened to destroy the promise of posterity, which was only restored by the faithfulness of a Canaanite wife."
Drewermann focuses on how Judah was forced to confront Tamar as a woman and a fellow human being in a way that he never had before. He looked at her one way when he thought the woman he was with was a prostitute in the service of a local goddess. And Drewermann reads it that he was ashamed of the sexual encounter afterwards and projected his own feelings of guilt onto her.
But now, where she stands as a woman, as an expectant mother, as a human being, because she is guilty in his eyes of a capital crime, and it is a true jus talionis, [law of the talon, i.e., an eye for an eye] it is the fire of passion itself that materializes in the fire of death to which the man sentences the woman.
The story of Tamar is inserted in the middle of the story of Joseph and his brothers. His older brothers have just sold him into slavery and taken their father Jacob his blood-spattered "coat of many colors," telling him that his favorite son Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Actually, the brothers had left him to die in a well. Judah was the one that persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery instead.
Tamar's story comes immediately following this section, and then in chapter 39, Joseph's story resumes with his adventures in Egypt. Eventually, due to his abilities as a dream interpreter, he rises to become Pharoah's chief administrator, a kind of autocratic prime minister, in our modern terms. Thanks to Joseph's inspired dream-interpretations, Pharoah has stored enough grain to get his people through a prolonged famine.
Eventually, Joseph's own brothers come to Egypt seeking food. They are brought in to see Joseph, but they don't recognize him as the brother they sold into slavery. He requires them to return to Israel and bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. Then he sets them up to look like they were stealing, and requires them to leave Benjamin with him in Egypt. In the dramatic high point of the Joseph story, Judah takes the initiative to plead with the Egyptian official they still do not recognize as their brother.
He declares that they cannot go back without Benjamin. He describes their father Jacob's sorrow at the loss of Joseph and describes the grief it would cause him to lose Benjamin. Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin.
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, "Make every one go out from me." ... And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph; is my father still alive?" (RSV, chapter 45)
The insertion of the story of Tamar in the middle of Joseph's story gives us a critical insight into how Judah was able to take this step, finally recognizing and taking responsibility for the wrong he and his brothers had done to Joseph. He has had three sons, and lost two of them. He now knows the pain of a father losing a child. His fear for the life of the third son led him to avoid his familial duties in relation to Tamar. So he now understands the pain that he and his brothers inflicted on Jacob by their treatment of Joseph, allowing him to think his son was dead.
But before his interceding with Joseph and recognizing that wrong, he first experienced having to recognize the wrong he had done to Tamar. "She is more righteous than I," he had confessed. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg describes the effect of Tamar's revelation to Judah this way, elaborating on the extrabiblical Jewish midrash stories and interpretations:
When she says, "Recognize these," she appeals for a kind of vision, a way of seeing her and their connection that is tantamount to spiritual recognition: "Recognize your Creator, and do not hide your eyes from me," she says in the midrashic narrative. For Judah had not been visually proficient, earlier int he story: "When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face" ([Genesis] 38:15).
The same midrash explains the logic of his blindness. It was not that the veil convinced him that she was a prostitute; rather, because she had constantly veiled herself in her father-in-law's house, he had never really seen her face, and was, therfore, easily duped. The fact that he did not recognize her, therfore, was rooted in their past relationship. He had never really seen her. On the one hand, this is praised as a proper modesty between father-in-law and daughter-in-law; but on the other, it is held up as an example of dangerous and even immoral blindness. ... [Tamar's] sense of purpose had informed a strong, empirical vision of her reality; and had led herto unconventional but necessary action.
Now, Judah responds to her plea for moral vision: for a complex sense of connection and responsibility: "Judah recognized them, and said, 'She is more in the right than I'" (38:26) Judah's public confession is praised in the same midrash as "sanctifying God's Name in public."
Tamar, by taking bold but unconventional action to defend her own rights within her society, gave Judah his moral vision.
The sources quoted in this post include:
Jane Schaberg, "Before Mary: the Ancestresses of Jesus" Bible Review Dec 2004
Eugen Drewermann, Das Matthäus-Evangelium: Bilder der Erfülling, Erster Teil (1992). The English translations are mine.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire (1995)