As I have previously written, I am currently reading through the book of Genesis. I must admit, yet again, that a book I thought I knew so well has surprised me once more with something I had either overlooked or paid little attention to, especially since it's an odd story that is wedged in the beginning of the story of Joseph. In chapter 37 of Genesis, we are introduced to Jacob's sons, the youngest of whom is his favorite (always a great parenting decision to openly favor one child over the others). Joseph's jealous older brothers grow tired of his bragging about the dreams he's had where they, the elder brothers, bow down to their younger brother. So at first they plot to murder him and make it appear he's been killed by fierce animals. Reuben convinces them not to go through with this and to simply put their younger brother in a pit. While Reuben was gone, the others sell Joseph to some passing Ishamaelites for twenty shekels of silver. (Side note: it's interesting to me that the descendants of Abraham through Isaac are selling Joseph to the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael). They then return to their father Jacob, with the coat of many colored soaked in goat's blood, and lie to their father that his son has been torn to pieces by wild animals. Jacob goes into serious mourning and we find out that the traders sell Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
So ends that chapter with Joseph sold into slavery. All very familiar. Why? Because that story has been so often repeated in Sunday school lessons to children child. Or because Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote a musical about this tale called "Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Or because Dreamworks even made an animated film about Joseph. The story of Joseph has entered our collective unconscious so that many who've never even been to church or synagogue know it.
But wedged in between the selling of Joseph to Potiphar and the incident with Potiphar's wife is an abrupt cut from the story to one involving Judah and Tamar. If I were an editor, I would have told the author of Genesis to cut this story out since it doesn't further the plot of Joseph and actually breaks the flow of the narrative. Not to mention, this story is just bizarre. Yet, as I was reading it, I kept asking myself, "Why is this interruption in the storyline here? Why is it even included in Genesis at all?" I found that, long after I had closed my Bible, I kept wondering what is the context for this story being there and how did it connect within the narrative of Joseph redeeming his family from the famine. Certainly the story stands in stark contrast to the one of purity that comes after it with Joseph fleeing the sexual attentions of Potiphar's wife, but there had to be more than just a juxtaposition of morality.
So I decided to dig deeper and find out why does God even care to have this seemingly bizarre and morally perverse story in the Bible in the first place.
The story begins with Judah, son of Jacob, and who is the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery. He sees the daughter of a certain Canaanite so he took her and went in to her. The phrases "took her" and "went in to her" are exactly the same ones used to describe what Shechem did to Dinah (to read more about that go to my blog Dealing With Dinah). Both men were overcome by their lust for a woman's physical appearance and would make Judah's later actions reveal the baseness of his character.
Later, we learn, the woman conceived and bore a son named Er (which means awake). Shua would have two more sons, Onan (meaning "pain" or "iniquity") and Shelah (meaning "that breaks" or "that unties").
We then jump forward in time to learn that Judah finds a wife for Er named Tamar (meaning "date" or "palm tree"). Here comes the first twist in the storyline because we learn that Er was "wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death." How would you live to have that as your epitaph on your gravestone?
Now in the Old Testament, in which tribes had a strong clan structure, they had what were called "Levirate marriages." According to Levitical law, if a man died and left no male heirs, his widow was to then obliged to marry his brother and the brother was obliged to marry her. This was done for two reasons:
1. To continue the brother's lineage
2. To protect the widow by ensuring that she had a provider and protector. This was critical in a culture whereby the women had no rights and were regarded more as possessions than as people.
According to the Midrash, Judah was the first to introduce the practice.
Judah then tells his second son, Onan, to "go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother."
Onan understood that any males he had with Tamar would not be considered his, but his brothers. On top of that, this male heir would inherit a double portion (meaning the child would get his brother's inheritance - not Onan - and would also inherit Onan's wealth and property). So Onan disobeys both his father's wishes and the law, he dishonors his brother and the widow when he "spills his seed on the ground." I'll leave that passage alone other than to say that this was not a one-time event. Like his older brother, Onan is found wicked in the sight of the Lord, though this time we understand his wrongdoing, and the Lord kills him, too.
With his sons dropping off like characters in an episode of Game of Thrones, Judah is now afraid that Tamar is cursed. He is highly reluctant to let his youngest son, Shelah, marry Tamar. So he concocts his own scheme, he tells Tamar to wait until Shelah is older. Judah has no intention of letting his last son marry her and, Tamar, will later understand this and take things into her own hands.
After the death of his wife, Judah spends time in mourning. Once that time is up, we learn that he goes up to Timnah, a Philistine city in Canaan, to check on his sheepshearers. Tamar hears this devises a plan to take care of her future since it is obvious that her former father-in-law will not be keeping his end of the bargain by letting her marry Shelah. So here's where the plot really thickens and wigs out, as only the Old Testament can. Tamar changes out of her widow's garments and covers herself with a veil.
Tamar then waited by the entrance to Enaim, which was on the road to Timnah. Judah, upon noticing her, took her to be a kedeishah (a sacred woman or temple prostitute). Once again, driven by his lust, Judah tells her, "Come, let me come in to you." Clearly Tamar understood her former father-in-law very well and counted on his desiring to sleep with her. It also reveals that Judah was not the least bit shy in his approaching her, so, clearly, this was not the first time he'd ever solicited a prostitute. He begins to negotiate with her and gives her a "pledge" of his "signet" (which was used to bind contracts by stamping the signet into the sealing wax on the document signifying who the owner was) as well as Judah's "cord" and "staff" (all of which were one of a kind and would signify who the owner of them was). After giving her these items as a pledge for later payment, Judah goes in and sleeps with Tamar. We find out that from this encounter she became pregnant.
Once more, the story jumps forward in time and Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant by "immorality" as the text informs us. What Judah doesn't realize is that it's his own, so he demands that she be brought before him so that she can "be burned." One might think that he was simply acting according to the law at that time, but he wasn't. Even in that culture, his response was extreme and shows the amount of hypocritical indignation he felt at her fallenness. As Tamar was being brought out, she sent word to Judah that "By the man to whom these items belong I am pregnant." I can only imagine Judah's expression as she asked him to identify his very own "signet, cord and staff." She clearly made her point because Judah replied, "Tzadakah mimeini" or "She is more righteous than I . . ." (Meaning he admitted that he did not keep his promise to her), since I did not give her to my son Shelah." This sentence is followed by the peculiar one, "And he did not know her again." What does that mean, other than he did not have any more sexual relations with Tamar? Well, we know that Judah returned from this foreign land to the land with his father and brothers.
The story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins (Perez and Zerah) much like Rebecca (Esau and Jacob).
Like many stories in the Bible, this one has unexpected twists and consequences. But still, one wonders, "Why is it placed right there in the beginning of Joseph's story? Why is it there at all?"
It's a strange and immoral tale that hardly leaves one with any personal application.
One has to understand that from this story dripping with sinfulness comes the very line that would "begat" King David and, ultimately, Jesus. In the beginning of Joseph's story, which will become one of the redemption of his family and Israel, is a bizarre one that led to the ultimate redemption story with the birth of Christ. God used a lineage twist that none of us would written. Certainly, I would have had Jesus descended from the line of Joseph, the pure and righteous leader, rather than his immoral older brother Judah. Yet, once more, God's ways are not my ways.
Within this patriarchal culture, the only power a woman like Tamar had was her sexuality. Women during this period had no power or authority. They could not testify in court and had to be doubly veiled whenever they left their home. Unmarried women were not allowed to leave home without permission from her father. Married women had to have their husband's permission. A man could divorce his wife for whatever reason he wished to, even if she burned his dinner. Women were easily abused and misused, and were treated more like slaves or property. A man could freely sell his daughter, this could even go so far as to selling a daughter who was raped to her rapist. If a bride was found not to be a virgin before the wedding night, then she would be brought to her father's door and stoned to death.
That's why one cannot help but feel for Tamar within her culture and society. As a widow, she was nothing, insignificant and could easily suffer oppression and injustice without recourse. According to Professor Naomi Steinberg, during the time of the Old Testament, there were three types of widows:
1. The issa-almana (widow-wife) is a woman "who has redemption rights in her husband's ancestral estate which she exercises through her son" (an example of this is King Jeroboam's mother).
2. The eset-hammet (wife of the dead) is a woman "whose husband has died before fathering an heir to exercise the redemption rights to his ancestral holdings" This is where the Levirate law applies and this is where women like Tamar and Ruth fall.
3. Last is the almana. She is "the destitute widow, whose deceased husband has no ancestral land. This is the widow that is mentioned in correlation to the orphan throughout scripture.
Without a husband or son, widows were often without financial support, were taken advantage of because of their destitution, and found themselves becoming further and further disenfranchised in that culture. Most faced dire and bleak prospects. When analyzing what could have become of Tamar, one begins to understand the desperation of her decision to deceive Judah. And it's yet one of many biblical tale of deceptions. Yet this one tells of a woman who was of no importance in her time and culture but was important enough to God that her story was not only recorded for all of history, but that from her would come Israel's King (David) and its Messiah (Jesus). Her narrative mattered. Her story was important. One more, God is showing me how He can use even the most broken of people to help something beautiful unfold to His glory.