The story of Judah and Tamar is told in Genesis 38, directly after Judah and his brothers sell Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37) and before the history of Joseph in Egypt (Ch. 39). The story begins with the statement that about that time, Judah went down from his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah (38:1). We are not told why he left his family at just this time. Only two verses before this, Judah and his brothers had falsely told Jacob that Joseph was dead, presumably killed by a wild beast, and the grief-stricken father had cried "I shall go down to Sheol [the underworld] mourning my son (37:35). Now Judah "goes down," not to Sheol but to dwell among strangers. Was he, perhaps, moved by feelings of guilt? Did he, perhaps, separate himself from his brothers because they did not seem to share his feelings of guilt? Or alternatively did his brothers blame him for having suggested that Joseph be told (Rashi on 38:1)? Could Judah have convinced his brothers to return Joseph?
The placement of this story within the Joseph cycle is to recognize that there is a connection between Joseph and Judah. Is it intended as a coincidence that Judah and Joseph went down ‘yarad’ (37:32) to a place where a Hebrew did not belong. When Tamar asks Judah ‘Haker na ha’hotemet’ (is this your seal) (38:25) did he remember that his father was asked ‘Haker na ha’kutonet’ (is this your tunic) (37:32)?
In his new milieu, Judah saw and married a woman identified as the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua. (Isaac and Jacob had taken their wives from among Abraham's kindred in Haran. Esau, to the distress of his parents, had married a Canaanite woman.) By this marriage, Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The last son was been born in a place called Ke’ziv (38:5), which can mean "deceitful or disappoint," and be taken as a sign of things to come.
Er,1 the oldest son marries Tamar is killed by God for some undefined offense. Onan, the second son, then marries Tamar, which accords with the later Jewish law on Levirate marriage; that it is his duty to marry his brother’s childless widow and beget a son to carry on the brother's line. But Onan "spilled his seed on the ground" whenever he cohabited with Tamar, to avoid providing offspring for his brother (38:9).2 This was a deliberate dereliction of familial duty, for which he is punished by death. If Tamar understood why Onan was struck dead, and perhaps also the reason for the death of Er, she did not reveal anything to Judah. Thus, she allows him to think that the deaths of his sons might have been through some fault of hers rather than faults of their own.
The duty of marrying Tamar should then devolve on Shelah, the third and last son, but Judah fears the connection between marriage to Tamar and the deaths of his two sons. Therefore, he tells her that Shelah is too young for marriage, and she must wait until he is mature. In the meantime, she is to return to her father's house and dwell there. He instructs her to live as a widow (38:11). The word in Hebrew ‘shav’ may also mean stay as well as return. Since as will see Judah condemns her to death she apparently stayed under Judah’s control and not under her Father’s. She unlike widows in their Father’s home was not free to marry again and have children, for she is bound to Shelah.
A long time went by, and Judah still did not send Shelah to marry Tamar, even after he had grown to manhood (38:12,14). It may have seemed to Tamar that Judah that did not intend to fulfill his obligation to provide her with a husband of his line, and give her a chance to bear the grandchildren who would continue his line. Did Tamar accept the prospect of remaining a barren woman in a patriarchal society? She did not! She takes active control of her destiny.
When she heard that Judah and his friend Hirah the Adullamite were going to Timnah for the sheepshearing, she changed out of her widow's garb and, with her face covered by a veil, sat by the road to Timnah waiting for Judah to pass by in a place called ‘petach enaim’ which can mean ‘opening of the eyes’. As she intended, he took her for a harlot. And since he was now a widower, who had recently completed the period of mourning for his wife (38:12), he may have been all the more susceptible to the lure of this strange (Ha’Kadasha – 38:21) woman.
Judah offered to pay a fee of one kid from his flocks. (The blood of a kid had been used by Judah and his brothers to stain Joseph's garment and deceive their father.) He also agreed to her demand that as collateral he leave with her his signet-seal and his cord and staff. Gunn and Fewell note the wordplays in the Hebrew text here: "hotam [signet-seal]" resembles "hatan [father-in-law, bridegroom]", "petil [cord}" resembles "peti [simpleton]" and "matteh [staff]," that in many languages a sexual euphemism.4 Judah later sent his friend Hirah to deliver the kid and redeem the signet-seal, cord and staff, but the woman had disappeared.
After three months, it is noticed that Tamar is pregnant. Judah himself then condemns her to death for harlotry. Tamar, being led forth to her execution, sent a message to her father-in-law: 'I am with child by the man to whom these belong. . . . Examine these: Whose seal and cord and staff are these?' (38. 25). (Her words here could recall to Judah the words of the brothers to Jacob: 'Please examine it; is this your son's tunic or not?' (37:32). By putting her challenge in the form a question, she refrains from publicly revealing that he himself is the father and so protects his honor.
Judah with great courage states: 'She has been more right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah’ (38:26).5 In recognizing and admitting that he had been unjust, is he reminded of the injustice he and his brothers had done to Joseph and to Jacob? This time, he makes amends. He saves Tamar and he marries her. But the text tells us that Judah did not know her again (38:26); that is, he never had connubial relations with her. According to the later laws of Leviticus (18:6,15) that relationship would have been incestuous. Tamar had made him take responsibility for his sons, and in the future he was to go on to taking responsibility for his brothers.
The Midrash says that a bat kol [heavenly voice] sounded out and acquitted both Judah and Tamar, stating "From Me [God] were these things" (Midrash Rabba Genesis 85:12). Whether this was intended to refer to the statement by Judah ‘that she was more righteous than me’ (‘tzed’ka mi’meni’) (38:26) meaning that Judah failed in sending Shelah to her, or the entire story including Judah’s marrying a Canaanite is not quite clear.
Targum Onqelos and Targum Neophyti translate the verse as ‘She is righteous; she is pregnant from me.’ Several ancient traditions suggest Tamar was not a Canaanite but an Aramenian; and thus she is righteous as compared to Judah who married a Canaanite (Jubilees 41:1; Testament of Judah 10:1). If she was an ‘Aramenian’ like Laban, did she meet Jacob her father-in-law?
Thomas Mann in his 1200 page historical novel ‘Joseph and His Brothers’ created a ‘midrash’ in which Tamar met Jacob. Tamar after meeting Jacob and seeing his nobility ‘wanted to be of the family, to shove herself and her womb into the course of history, which led, through time, to salvation’.(6) Did she go South with Jacob and his family from Aramenia? Judah goes to Canaan after the incident of Joseph being sold to the Egyptians and Judah’s leaves the family complex, perhaps out of guilt. Did she go South following Judah to marry Judah or when that failed to marry his sons? Mann may have been aware of a midrash that stated that Tamar had a divine inspiration that she would be the ancestor of the David. (7)
Regardless of this ‘midrash’ it seems likely that Tamar would have heard of one of the two deceptions and disguises that ran through this family: One where Rebekah and Jacob used disguises to deceive Isaac about Esau and the blessing and secondly Laban deceiving Jacob about his wives – Leah and Rachel.
Tamar twin sons were to replace the two sons of Judah who had died. Like the sons of Rebekah, they struggle in the womb to be firstborn. The hand of one emerges from the womb and the midwife ties a scarlet thread on his wrist, an identification reminiscent of Esau's red hair. But his brother struggles to be born first and, unlike Jacob, he succeeds. He is named Peretz [from "to burst forth") and the other is named Zerach. Towards the end of the Book of Ruth ‘May God make the women [Ruth] about to enter your family be like Rachel and Leah who together built up the House f Israel. . . . And through the Children of God will give you by this young women, may your family be like the family of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Judah (Ruth 4:11-12). Peretz was the great grandfather of David, the messianic model (Ruth 4:22). (8)
An intriguing symbiosis exists between Judah and Naomi. Judah is both Tamar’s father-in-law, her husband and the father of their twins. Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law yet the text notes that Naomi nursed Ruth’s child and women cried, There is a son born to Naomi (4:16-17). (9)
This David, the model of Kingship and the Messiah has two foremothers who were not Hebrews: Tamar and Ruth, both of whom used feminine guile to secure their places in the ancestral line. Both were very strong women, who decided they must join the Hebrew people. Tamar is the more explicit in her sexual pursuit, and through her actions she succeeded in founding the line of Judah, that was to become the foremost of the tribes of Israel and give his name to the Jewish people. Ruth's story is told in an entire book of the Tanakh, read in the synagogue on Shavuot. For Tamar we have only this short story.
1. Er is an odd Hebrew name. A reversal of the letters produces "re [evil]". See, Van Dijk-Hemner, "Tamar," in M. Bal, Anti-Covenant, Journal for the Study of The Old Testament, Vol. 81 (Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1985) p. 141.
2. In English, "onanism" means masturbation.
3. Ruth marries Boaz in a Levirate marriage, but their son is never counted as the issue of her late husband Machlon.
4. David Gunn & D.N. Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 40.
5. An alternative meaning of the Hebrew is "she has been more right, I am he," meaning "I am the father of the child."
6. Thomas Mann included his imaginative midrash on Tamar in his Joseph and His Brother (Knopf, N.Y., 1963) pg. 1030.
7. Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1967-1969), Vol. II, pg.33.
8. According to Midrash Zutta, p. 55, Boaz died after impregnating Ruth. Tamar becomes figuratively a widow, and Ruth literally a widow for the second time.
9. Published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly July 2007.