Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Genesis 38

Genesis 38: Judah and Tamar


Another strange chapter. The Old Testament is not as dry as some might believe it to be.

In this chapter, Judah marries and has three sons, Er, Orian, and Shelah. Judah found a wife for Er, named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was wicked in the LORD’s sight”, and therefore “the LORD put him to death” (verse 7). The Bible doesn’t tell us how He put Er to death, it just says that He did. This left Tamar childless, and also meant that Er had no descendants. In this situation, the custom at the time was for the next brother in line—Orian, in this case—to marry the widow, and have children with her. Any children they produced would be counted as belonging to the previous husband, and therefore carry on his line.

So Orian married Tamar, but he wasn’t happy about it, because he knew that any children he had wouldn’t be counted as his. So whenever he lay with her, he spilled his semen on the ground, to keep her from becoming pregnant (verse 9).

What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also. (verse 10)
So Judah tells Tamar to come and live with him, and when Shelah is old enough, she can marry him. Unfortunately, when Shelah does grow up, Judah still does not give him to Tamar in marriage.

Tamar lives in Judah’s house for “a long time” (verse 12), and eventually Judah’s wife dies. He decides to take a trip to where his sheep are being sheared, and Tamar hears about it. She disguises herself as a prostitute, and sits herself by the roadside, where he will pass by. When he sees her, believing she’s a prostitute—and not realizing that she’s Tamar, since prostitutes in those days wore veils—he asks her to sleep with him:

Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.

(verses 16–18)

I find Tamar asking Judah for his cloak and his staff to be especially clever, because… well, you’ll see why in a second.

After they sleep together, Tamar gets rid of her disguise and puts back on her widow’s clothes. Judah tries to send a young goat to the “prostitute”, via a friend, and get his things back, but of course the friend can’t find the prostitute. (Judah decides to let the matter rest, for fear of becoming a “laughingstock” (verse 23).)

Now, here’s where the story gets even more interesting: A few months later, someone tells Judah that Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and that she has become pregnant by her prostitution. Judah commands that she be brought out and burned to death, as punishment. However…
As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” (verse 25)
When Judah sees his personal belongings, and realizes what has happened, he realizes that he has wronged Tamar. “She is more righteous than I,” he says in verse 26, “since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”

So she is not put to death, and when the time comes for her to give birth, she has twins. She gives birth to Perez and Zerah.


Not that it’s related to anything, but I like the name Tamar. I think it means “date palm” but I’m not completely sure. (The Wikipedia article seems to indicate that, but doesn’t clearly say “Tamar means ‘date palm’”.

A lot of people read this chapter and condemn Tamar for her actions, but Judah had the right idea: she was more righteous than he was. It was Judah’s obligation to give Tamar his son Shelah, so that she could have children through him. I’m not even sure if she did anything wrong, under the circumstances; at the time, neither she nor Judah was married, so it wasn’t “adultery” per se; it was sex outside of marriage, but when you take into account the norms of that society, in regards to concubines and servants, I’m not even sure if she committed any sin. Except lying, I suppose.

Anyway, my point isn’t to exonerate her completely—she may have committed some sins. The point is simply that I don’t want people to vilify her, either. People act as if she was the crafty one, and Judah was her victim, but that’s really just our own sexism coming to the forefront. (Those same people often don’t judge Judah nearly as harshly for sleeping with the prostitute as they judge Tamar for pretending to be a prostitute.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's Onan instead of Orian