An Exegetical Glimpse of Genesis 38:
The Story of Judah and Tamar
 
 
 
Matthew Ropp
 
 
OT501, Pentateuch
Dr. James Butler, Winter 1997
Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Theology
 
 
 

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Introduction
Limits of the Passage
Text and Language
Socio-cultural Background of the Text
Levirate Marriage
Prostitution
Seal, Cord, and Staff
Literary Questions
Purpose and Theological Implications
Unanswered Questions
References Cited

Introduction

    The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is an interesting one. It deals with themes of love, justice, prostitution, paternal anxiety, and honor, to name a few. For this short paper five English translations have been studied and compared and two commentaries, one article, and a Bible/Hebrew dictionary on CD-ROM called upon as resources.

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Limits of the Passage

    The pericope of the Judah and Tamar narrative is quite easily defined. Genesis chapter 38, verses 1 to 30, is one complete story about Judah, his offspring, and their interactions. Set on both sides of the story are parts of the larger Joseph narrative. This passage is thus an interlude in that story. Genesis 38 could possibly be broken down into smaller components, with verses 12 to 26 comprising the main story, but the beginning and end of the chapter are necessary for background and resolution of the major conflict in the passage, respectively.

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Text and Language

    In studying the text of the passage and comparing various English translations, several words/phrases were of interest. Upon closer study and analysis of the Hebrew, the differences in translation of some words are not really important as they do not change the meaning of the passage. They are, nonetheless, interesting and do bear explanation:     Other differing phrases and words have more significance for interpretation of the passage: (return to Table of Contents)
 

Socio-cultural Background of the Text

    Understanding the socio-cultural background of various institutions in the text is essential. This background enables the modern reader to better understand the narrative in its original context.
 

Levirate Marriage

    "Tamar has been widowed while still young and has no children. Judah, who had given her as wife to his son, is now responsible for her, i.e., for the continuation of the family of the prematurely deceased. The custom of the levirate marriage meets this situation." (Westermann, 51,2)

    Levirate "marriage" is the custom whereby, if childless, the brother (or other male relative) of a deceased man is required to marry or father a child with the deceased's wife. A son begotten by the brother is then considered son and heir of the deceased. Otherwise, as a widow, the wife would return to her father's family (Von Rad, 358). This custom is an emergency measure with a stamp of family law, found not only inside Israel and Canaan, but also outside in similar circumstances (Westermann, 52). In the Old Testament, this family law custom is found only three times: Genesis 38, Ruth, and Deuteronomy 25:5-10. The duty of levirate (as shown in Ruth) is not binding only on the brother-in-law, but also other male relatives (Von Rad, 359).

    The meaning of the custom is explained in Deu. 25:6: "that his name may not be blotted out of Israel." Secondary economic factors are also present. The widow cannot inherit her husband's property. Only her children can, so she is reliant on them (Niditch, 145). If she has a child by the levirate custom, the property of the deceased then passes on to that child. (Westermann, 52).

    Susan Niditch sees the levirate custom as playing a very important societal role. According to her argument, women in ancient Near Eastern society gained their status from males to whom they were attached. Women not in the category of daughter, wife, or mother are without patriarchal protection and "in a sense are misfits in the social structure." Through levirate duty, the male relative helps society to avoid one sociological misfit, the young childless widow. In a sense, the levirate duty reaffirms the young widow's place in the home of her husband's people (Niditch, 145,6).

    In the narrative in question, Judah following custom requires Onan to sleep with Tamar, but Onan rejects his obligation toward his dead brother. Judah should have given Tamar to his youngest son according to the regulation and paternal obligation (Von Rad, 358). He does do not do so, however, and Tamar seizes initiative - she will procure for herself her right to have a son from husband's family. It is Genesis 38 which shows that originally the widow had right only to a descendent, not marriage. Tamar doesn't marry Onan, nor is that her intent with Judah (Westermann, 52). When Tamar's pregnancy is discovered and Judah shown to be the father, this unusual adherence to the levirate law takes precedence over an incest law (Niditch, 148). While the commentators sometimes speak of the levirate custom as "law", it should be noted that this time period was long before the formal giving of the law at Sinai.

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Prostitution

    "Religious prostitution had played a role among the peoples of the Near East from ancient times." (Westermann, 54) It is unknown exactly what the widow's costume was like, but they were apparently unveiled, while married and unmarried women were veiled in public (Von Rad, 359). In the ancient Near East, it was customary in many places for married women to give themselves to strangers because of some kind of religious oath. This is slightly different than ordinary prostitution. Both types were strictly forbidden by Israelite law (again, not formally given until after this time) however (Von Rad, 359). Prostitutes seem to have an accepted, outcast place in society. A prostitute belongs to a special class of women who can "play the harlot" without being condemned. You could fall between the proper categories of society and survive, because that in-between status had itself become institutionalized. "Once a girl is not seen in the role of daughter, virgin, and nubile woman, she is, in effect, outside the rules." (Niditch, 147)

    "Judah saw her and thought her to be a harlot because she covered her face." (38:15) Tamar stands dressed as a prostitute by the road where Judah will pass (Westermann, 53). It is twice emphasized that Judah believes Tamar to be a prostitute (vv. 15 and 16). The appearance on the road of a "temple prostitute" was obviously not surprising. Tamar is not pretending to be a prostitute in the modern sense of the word, but rather a married woman indulging this practice of cult prostitution. Judah also sees her in this way. The text uses the expression "devoted one," q'desa of Tamar (Von Rad, 359,60). There would, however, have been no clear distinction between a normal prostitute and a cult prostitute in the rural setting of this narrative (Westermann, 54).

    A clear deduction from the Tamar story is that all harlots were not destroyed in the Israelite society described (Niditch, 147). The narrative is straightforward. Only the bare facts are given and prostitution is taken as normal, with no moral judgment passed (Westermann, 53). The situation up until the disclosure appears as an everyday occurrence. Tamar, disguised as an ordinary prostitute, is not condemned or threatened and the narrator does not regard Judah going to a prostitute as disreputable (Westermann, 53,4) (Niditch, 147).

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Seal, Cord, and Staff

    Three insignia are often found in Ugaritic literature. The seal, cord, and staff are the insignia of a prominent man in Babylon as well as Canaan and Israel. "The signet ring or cylinder seal is used to sign contracts; the staff has markings carved on it which are particular to the owner." (Westermann, 53) The seal was carried on a cord around the neck and used by rolling it over a soft clay document (Von Rad, 360). The insignia are very valuable to their owner (Westermann, 54).

    Tamar requires a pledge of Judah because he is a stranger. With his signet ring or seal and staff, it is possible for her to identify with certainty the father of her child (Westermann, 53). While probably having little objective value, the pledge is invaluable to her in this sense (Von Rad, 360). Verses 20 to 23 function to explain how the three insignia remain in Tamar's possession as she had intended (Westermann, 53). When the recognition of his tokens reveal Tamar to be the prostitute, Judah acknowledges her as the mother of his offspring (which will be in his son's name). " her position in society is regularized. She now becomes a true member of the patriarchal clan." (Niditch, 148) She must wait until the last moment, however, and as is obvious from the narrative takes great personal risk.

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Literary Questions

    The text is largely in a narrative form with genealogical portions at the beginning and the end. Commentators suggest that these have been added by a redactor or when the story was written down for the first time (Westermann, 49). They are necessary for both background and resolution of the story which takes place in-between.

    The opening genealogical section is very repetitive. The lineage of Judah establishes the characters of the narrative and Tamar's situation. This section is similar to the introduction in the book of Ruth. It also establishes the setting in the Judean-Philistine hill country southwest of Jerusalem (Von Rad, 358).

    The narrative portion is masterful storytelling with the conflict of Tamar's desire to have a son, her risk in posing as a prostitute, building to a climax as she is brought out to be executed, and then resolution when Tamar sends Judah his insignia and she is vindicated by his acknowledgment. The transition to this portion begins skillfully with Judah's action, making him appear to be the actor, while that role is actually Tamar's (Westermann, 53). There is an element of mystery in the story, as Tamar disappears with Judah's pledge after conceiving a child by him.

    The narrative gives way into genealogy again in the close of the passage, reporting the birth of Tamar's twins and their naming. That Tamar gives birth to a son (actually two!) is necessary to report as that was her chief quest throughout the account. This passage parallels Genesis 25:21-25, which also deals with the birth of twins and a question over which child had precedence. Westermann considers it clear that this was once an independent genealogical note because the precedence dispute has no connection with the main section (Westermann, 55).

    Within its larger contexts, the text is inserted first of all into the Joseph narrative, which is itself part of several descriptions of the exploits of Jacob's sons. It is commonly said that this narrative's position, breaking up the story of Joseph, provides a needed break in that story after the loss of Joseph by his father. G. Von Rad points out that an unevenness also results, however. Judah having grandchildren is "incompatible with the chronology of the Joseph story." (Von Rad, 357)

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Purpose and Theological Implications

    What then is the purpose of the Judah and Tamar narrative? And what theology does it imply? Part of its purpose is to simply report on one of the sons of Jacob. One important aspect of the passage is that is establishes the line of Judah (described later in Ruth) which then leads to David and eventually to Christ. It is remarkable that the line of Christ includes such a colorful story!

    One of the major themes of the story is prostitution, an institution that is later condemned in Israel, as has been shown above. Is prostitution accepted herein? Was not Tamar's sexual relationship with Judah also incestuous? As for the issue of incest, it is clear from the above statements regarding levirate marriage that male relatives other than the brother were bound by the custom, and this would include Judah. Tamar's prostitution also seems to be justified in this case, but not in general, because she was pursuing her rights according to levirate custom which Judah had denied her by withholding his youngest son. The narrator certainly paints Tamar in a favorable light and Judah explicitly states that she is righteous. If Tamar had not been excused by her extenuating circumstances, though, she would have been burned to death for her prostitution.

    What of God killing Er and Onan? On the one hand this shows God's justice in dealing with those who are wicked and/or disobey His laws. Er's sin is left unnamed - it is only stated that he was wicked. Onan on the other hand is punished as a direct result of his refusal to honor his dead brother and sister-in-law. It can be suggested that the narrative only concludes that Yahweh was displeased with the brothers because of their early deaths (Von Rad, 358), but the text if taken literally clearly describes Yahweh's anger as the cause of their deaths. In Israel's later history intermarriage with Canaanites is forbidden, leading to the question of whether the evil of Judah's sons is due to his marriage (and Er's) to a foreign woman. No antagonism of this nature is present in the text however.

    What does this passage imply for Christians today? This is the difficult question. Levirate marriage is not practiced today, at least in Western culture. Certainly this text cannot legitimately be used to condone prostitution. Two implications do arise from the story. One is that, on one hand, God punishes injustice and wickedness while rewarding those who, on the other hand, do their best to live under His laws. The second is that in many cases it is not the person in the position of authority (Judah, the patriarch and son of Israel) but someone quite unexpected (Tamar, a widow and a foreigner) who is found to be righteous. A label of righteousness is earned and preserved by being such, not given because of social status.

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Unanswered Questions

    Some questions arising from scrutiny of the story are not addressed either by the passage itself or the commentaries and articles considered. They include: Why did Judah leave his father's house and his brothers? Does Onan masturbate in verse 9 and, if so, is this the cause of the Lord's anger? Are there no moral implications for Judah seeking out a prostitute so soon after the death of his wife? On a related note, how long was the mourning period which had just ended?

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References Cited

Niditch, Susan
  1979    "The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38." Harvard Theological Review 72(1):143-149.

Von Rad, Gerhard
  1995    Genesis. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster.

The Family Bible Companion
  1995    White Harvest Software, Inc.

The Holy Bible
  Authorized Version
  Darby
  New American Standard
  New International Version
  Revised Standard Version

Westermann, Claus
  1986    Genesis 37-50. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

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