This week, I am going to breathe life into the myth of Judah and Tamar, as told in Genesis. Kant, in our other reading for this week, attempts to examine what the early chapters of the Genesis story have to tell us about our past, and about what is valuable in humanity. In the same spirit, I want to examine this tale from Chapter 38.
We are told in Chapter 38 of Genesis a short story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. She is wed to Judah’s first-born son, Er, who promptly dies. (Being a first-born in Genesis carries its own unique risks worthy of a blog post devoted only to that topic, but I digress.) After Er dies, Judah weds Tamar to his next son, Onan, who also dies. Judah has, at this point, only one son left, Shelah. But Shelah is not yet of marriageable age. So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house, promising to wed her to Shelah when Shelah is old enough. This is a promise that, apparently, Judah fails to keep. We are told that Tamar “saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)
Tamar is in a disgraced position. She has been widowed twice, has no children, and has now been sent back to her father’s house. Our translation of the text comments on this disgrace in a footnote, and speculates that this may be, in part, due to Tamar’s own silence. She does not protest Judah’s decision to send her back to her father’s and she does not speak of the ways in which Onan incurred God’s wrath and may have been responsible for his own death. Indeed in this story the first instance in which Tamar speaks is after she has been sent to her father’s. Then, upon seeing Shelah achieve manhood and still be denied to her as a husband, Tamar not only speak but also acts.
She removes her widow’s clothing and dresses like a prostitute. Judah, happening upon Tamar at a crossroads, takes her for a prostitute and asks to lie with her. She agrees, but only if he will pay her a kid from his flock. Obviously he does not have his flock on hand, and so in lieu of payment he gives her his seal and cord (essentially his legal identification). Tamar conceives a child from this encounter, and then discards the prostitute costume and dresses as a widow again.
It comes to Judah’s attention that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He is incensed that she would become pregnant when she is promised to Shelah and in mourning for his other two sons. He commands that she be burned to death and “out she was taken” (presumably for the sentence to be carried out). (Genesis 38:25). But Tamar produces the seal, and Judah realizes that the child is his. His response to this unveiling of the prostitute’s identity is intriguing. Upon realizing that he paid to lay with his daughter-in-law, and that the child she carries is his, Judah says “She is more right than I, for have I not failed to give her Shelah, my son?” (Genesis 38:26)
I find this interesting, because Tamar gains recognition as an individual (rather than just being a pawn passed from son to son, and from Judah’s house to her father’s house) by acting outside of the laws and norms laid out by the story. Judah gives her to first one son, and then another. But it is when she gives herself in payment for coin that Tamar gains recognition. If her silence does condemn her to disgrace, oddly her disgraceful act of concealing her identity and having sex with her father-in-law raises her up again.
It seems the more Tamar goes along with the plan that others have for her life, the more disgrace befalls her. However, once she speaks and acts, she gains recognition. But I’m curious to investigate how she speaks and acts. Because she does so explicitly by breaking societal norms (as evident by Judah’s quick decision to condemn her to death). Why doesn’t she simply confront Judah and ask him to wed her to his third son (if that’s what she wants) or explain that the death of his second son was Onan’s own doing?
We aren’t told why Tamar chooses to act as she does. So allow me to speculate. I’m not a religious studies scholar, and certainly no scholar of the Bible. So what I offer is a tentative suggestion. Perhaps Tamar cannot gain recognition within the social structure before her. Perhaps she remains silent because there is no space within the norms for Tamar to speak. There is no apporpriate avenue for her to gain recognition from her father-in-law. She is, then, finally driven to speak and act in ways that are non-normative, since the normative ways leave her no recourse.
In this way, Tamar could be a symbol for the struggles we might all face as we attempt to speak and seek recognition from those in power, especially when the norms of our society deny us a voice. She stands for a hopeful tale whereby acting outside of the norms of society (when there is no other way to have one’s voice heard) is rewarded rather than punished. But, as with many stories in Genesis we are left unsure of what the reward will be. We know that Judah recognizes Tamar (perhaps for the first time) as a human being with feelings, and rights, who has been hurt, shamed and wronged by his actions. He acknowledges this, and withdraws his harsh punishment as a result. But we are left to imagine what follows. Does he mend his ways? Or does he view his decision to cancel her death sentence as sufficient to make amends? How long does this recognition last?