Given our development of narrative and dialogue in hermeneutics, we can use these tools to navigate conflicting interpretations of Genesis 38, as well as attempt to place these interpretations into dialogue. What questions are asked of readers, and what questions do readers ask of the text? How do disparate elements get integrated by the plot? Some narrative and historical background first will provide common reference points before turning to each interpretation.
The story of Genesis 38 focuses exclusively on Judah, the fourth son of Jacob’s first wife Leah, and Judah’s eldest son’s wife Tamar. Their interaction leads to the birth of Perez (38:29), whose only other role in the Hebrew Bible is within Ruth’s genealogy of David (Ruth 4:18). What strikes many readers as unusual about the passage is that it seems to interrupt the narrative flow of Joseph’s story, where Joseph is favored by his father (Gen. 30:24), is attacked and sold off by his brothers (37:28), is enslaved in Egypt (39:1), rises to the Pharaoh’s court (41:45), and eventually reconciles with and cares for his family (47:11). Yet Genesis 38 does not mention Joseph at all. In overview, the story starts with Judah’s separation from his brothers and he starts a family, having three sons. Once his oldest son Er comes of age, he selects Tamar for his wife, but Er dies. Judah appoints Onan to impregnate Tamar on Er’s behalf, but Onan refuses and prevents her getting pregnant by ejaculating outside her—presumably to prevent reducing his share of inheritance from Judah now that Er is out of the picture. Onan also dies. Instead of giving his youngest son Shelah to Tamar, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s home. When later on she hears about Judah’s attending a festival after he has mourned the death of his wife, she disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces him. She requires his staff as a promise for payment. Later when he finds out she is pregnant, Judah condemns her, but she brings forward his staff and he confesses that, “She is more in the right than I…” (Gen. 38:26). Tamar then gives birth to twins, one of whom is Perez.
There is some scholarly consensus that the Judah and Tamar story belongs to the J source (Goldin 1977, p. 39
; Clifford 2004, p. 520
). This is primarily due to the use of the god’s personal name, YHWH, instead of the generic Elohim. However, as Ho underscores, this is more likely the result of later Deuteronomistic intervention (Ho 1999, pp. 524–25
). Identifying the source matters to the degree that it might provide explanation for an apparent interruption in the Joseph story. As Goldin explains, however, interpretation—not explanation—should attempt to understand the meaning of it as the redactor presents it, that they must have been guided by a sound literary principle for its placement (Goldin 1977, p. 29
). One crucial factor to note is that the story’s timeframe spans roughly 22 years, although Genesis 46:12 states that Judah went to Egypt with his sons Shelah and Perez, as well as Perez’s sons, suggesting that it is probably 40 years (see Clifford 2004, pp. 526–27
). This means that Judah and Tamar’s narrative spans nearly the same length as the Joseph narrative, but receives only this one condensed interjection.
Goldin suggests that one theme is the repeated argument against consecrating the first-born as the obvious inheritor of leadership, just as with Jacob’s assumption over Esau (Goldin 1977, pp. 32–37
). Moses is the youngest. David is the youngest. Judah is, after all, the youngest son of Jacob and Leah’s first set of sons. For both Adelman and Claassesns, the story involves a lesson about levirate law. According to levirate law, a suspension of the prohibition about incest, a brother is responsible to a widowed sister-in-law to provide children (especially a son) to maintain them within the communal-family fold (Adelman 2012, p. 92
; Claassens 2012, p. 663
). Emerton elaborates on ways that the story is an eponymous fiction that illustrates inherited tribal politics and the question of Canaanite inclusion (Emerton 1979
). Leuchter discusses textual allusions to both the Jacob and Rebekah story, as well as the David and Bathsheba episode, where the story functions as a criticism of David through the criticism of Judah (Leuchter 2013
All these approaches illustrate a multitude of avenues for interpreting and examining Genesis 38. In Hayes’s comprehensive study of midrashim
about Genesis 38, he shows that there are two predominant veins of interpretation reflecting the narrative’s intrinsic ambiguity—one where Judah’s character is exonerated and one where Tamar demonstrates moral superiority to Judah’s character (Hayes 1995a
). We seek to develop these two seemingly contrasting interpretations. On the one hand, a feminist approach can develop Tamar as a courageous hero in impossible circumstances, strategizing to overturn Judah’s patriarchal naïveté. On the other hand, Judah seems to be able to be read as a tragic hero, seeking to save Tamar. These readings challenge one another, where either Tamar’s or Judah’s autonomy is undermined.
3.1. A Feminist Informed Reading Centering Tamar
Tamar is vulnerable and is not treated as an equal subject whose needs matter. As Claassens underscores, Tamar is widowed twice over in a society where male providers determine a woman’s worth (Claassens 2012, p. 662
). While other wives of patriarchs such as Sarah and Rebekah experience barrenness as a result of their bodies, Judah puts Tamar in a situation of enforced barrenness. This could have been the end of her story, but instead Tamar takes control. When she learns Judah will be in Timnah, she devises a plan. Donning a disguise, she plants herself in a place she is sure to attract her father-in-law’s attention as he is en route to Timnah.
Tamar subverts patriarchal norms of her society through, as Adelman describes, an audacious act “of seduction for the sake of continuity” (Adelman 2012, p. 88
). Judah takes the bait. The death of Judah’s wife gives him, as Ho writes, “an opportunity for sexual laxity—which also becomes an opportunity for Tamar’s retaliatory action—‘You refuse me the semen of your Shelah, I’ll get yours!’” (Ho 1999, p. 528
). Convinced she is a local temple prostitute, Judah engages in intercourse with Tamar. It is possible that this is a tremendous risk because, being promised to Shelah, her having intercourse with another person would be equal to adultery. However, she cleverly requests two items as collateral that she knows will make Judah’s role in the paternity of her future offspring indisputable. Her possession of Judah’s signet and cord insulate her from the consequences of these charges.
While the narrator does not pass explicit judgment on Judah’s visiting a prostitute, the judgment seems to be that he acts foolish by giving her his staff, cord, and seal—the symbols of his legal and social standing (see Clifford 2004, p. 526
). The staff, cord, and seal serve as collateral in the absence of immediate payment. The narrator seems to judge Judah for leaving these behind. Judah honors the contract he has made because he sends the baby goat, the agreed upon payment. Judah is assisted in his corrupt acts at Tamar’s expense by Hirah the Adullamite (see Brown 2017
). In many cases of sexual misconduct, both perpetrators and complicit partners promote forgetting. If that fails, as Brown points out, they then attack the credibility of victims (Brown 2017, p. 78
). When Judah wants his staff back, he merely sends Hirah, who seems to put his own reputation in question by asking around for a prostitute. Both of them appear shameless, casually going about their affairs.
When word reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, he denies Tamar basic human dignity by threatening to execute her (Claassens 2012, p. 664
). Tamar has prepared for this. It is at this moment when Tamar reveals her possession of his signet and cord, and the depth of Tamar’s planning becomes clear to the reader. Judah recognizes his hypocrisy and guilt, which overwhelms him. As Claassens writes, “Tamar uses cunning, deception, and a change of clothes to gain what is rightfully hers, thereby transforming her situation of death into a situation of life” (Claassens 2012, p. 666
). Judah’s offensiveness seems clear given the god’s apparent approval of Tamar’s extreme strategies (see Clifford 2004, p. 526
By the end, however, Judah responds to Tamar’s challenge and is transformed by it (see Adelman 2012, p. 95
). She does this without shaming him. Where he once betrayed Joseph and Jacob’s trust by selling Joseph into slavery, he later acts as a guarantor for Benjamin (Gen. 43:9; 44:32). Judah is transformed from putting others on the line to putting his own life on the line for the sake of others (see Adelman 2012, p. 94
). As Hayes writes, “there is no doubt in the reader’s mind who of the pair has indeed acted more righteously, and it is gratifying to read of Judah’s eventual recognition of Tamar’s righteousness and his own wrongdoing” (Hayes 1995a, p. 65
). Only through admitting his own guilt for how he has treated Tamar, only at the end does he, as Leuchter writes, “end his victimization of Tamar” (Leuchter 2013, p. 225
Yet it is left ambiguous how far Judah goes after this. Does he make any effort at restitution? Does he give Shelah to be her husband (see Claassens 2012, p. 668
)? For the majority of the story, Judah is corrupt, as can be seen by his choosing to marry a Canaanite woman, where Abraham’s descendants hold a rule against exogamy. The narrator seems to go out of their way to identify the daughter of Shua as a Canaanite. Thus, to many interpreters, the deaths of his sons imply that the god curses Judah’s marriage (see Clifford 2004, p. 525
). He visits a prostitute. He impulsively orders that his daughter-in-law be burned (Clifford 2004, p. 524
). Moreover, as Adelman writes, “he treats his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, unconscionably” (Adelman 2012, p. 92
). Judah acts impulsively, perhaps from grief, seeking comfort and gratification at the annual sheep-shearing festival—an event notorious in Near East materials as a time of irreverent debauchery (see Adelman 2012, p. 93
; Hayes 1995a, p. 69
; Leuchter 2013, p. 220
Chapter 38 seems to only make sense in light of this dramatic irony. Judah must be transformed before he meets Joseph again so that he knows that the god can “transform the brothers and their sin” (Clifford 2004, p. 527
). Tamar is the primary agent causing Judah’s change. Without readers recognizing this dramatic reversal of character, the chapter will seem out of place.
3.2. A Reading Centering Judah as Worthy in Impossible Circumstances
In early midrashim
about Genesis 38, Judah is interpreted as blameless from beginning to end, and the chapter’s function is to establish Judah’s anointment as Jacob’s true inheritor despite Judah not being Jacob’s eldest son (see Goldin 1977
; Hayes 1995a
). As Clifford explains, there are many scholars who see Genesis 38 as belonging to a source tradition where none of Judah’s actions are blameworthy; the narrator expresses no embarrassment about Judah joining with a Canaanite or marrying the daughter of one (Clifford 2004, p. 523
). This story must have emerged at a time when no one perceived it as scandalous. Later interpreters develop a tradition of translating “Canaanite” as “merchant” to avoid any hint of the patriarch’s possible wrongdoing (see Clifford 2004, p. 525
). Moreover, the narrator shows no condemnation of judgment toward Judah for sleeping with a prostitute during the sheep-shearing festival. Springtime festivals were well-known times of “drunkenness and sexual activity, and the release of debts and settling of scores…” (Leuchter 2013, p. 220
). This in part explains how Tamar could predict that Judah would engage in sex.
While the presence of Genesis 38 may appear odd on a surface skim, it is necessary, as Goldin explains, for establishing Judah as the fitting heir to Jacob (Goldin 1977
). It cannot be Reuben (the oldest) because, in his seeing Jacob show preferential love to Joseph, he takes a premature attitude of “now or never” and sleeps with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden (Gen. 35:22). In this act, Reuben attempts to take charge of the community, like Absalom taking David’s concubines in his attempt to dethrone David (2 Sam 16:21). It cannot fall to Simeon and Levi (the next oldest sons) because of their murderous rampage of revenge on an entire city of men, in an attempt to meet out justice for Shechem’s rape of their sister, Dinah (Gen. 35). And Joseph—as a result of Judah’s intervention to prevent his brothers from murdering Joseph—is out of the picture enslaved in Egypt (Gen. 37: 26). Judah, then, is the next in line—the youngest of Leah’s first set of four sons.
Genesis 38, then, is like a vitae promoting Judah to the status of patriarch. It checks off many major motifs associated with the previous three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—with new ironic twists (see Clifford 2004, p. 528
). These include the prohibition of exogamy, the barren wife who experiences difficulty in having children, mothers naming the sons, younger sons strategizing or fighting for birthright status, the divine demand for a father to give up or lose his son(s), the meeting of one’s future wife at a spring, and the disguising of the wife as a sister to sleep with a pharaoh or tribal lord. There are also allusions to David, such as David’s encounters with Bathsheba alluding to Judah’s wife Bath Shua and paralleling Judah’s sexual liaise with Tamar (see Ho 1999, p. 515
; Clifford 2004, p. 529
). Perhaps more significant in this regard is Judah’s friend, Hirah the Adullamite. Adullum, a city in Judea, provided refuge for David when he was under attack (1 Sam. 22:1; 2 Sam. 23:13; Brown 2017, p. 81). These are the sorts of people willing to put their lives on the line for you!
Judah’s separation from his brothers, then, is not a descent into sinfulness, but a turn from the brutal likes of Simeon and Levi to the noble Adullamite. A number of traditions emphasize this, such as Midrash Tanhuma
17, and Bereshit Rabbatti
49:9, both of which view as heroic and noble Judah’s effort in Genesis 37:26 to sell Joseph, thus saving him from his murderous brothers (see Hayes 1995b, p. 179
). Reuben, the oldest, expressed desperation to save Joseph, in all likelihood to win back the favor of Jacob for his impulsive indiscretion with Bilhah (Goldin 1977, p. 40
). Of course Simeon and Levi would ignore Reuben, and perhaps would be fine to kill other brothers along with Joseph. Judah, on the other hand, shrewdly suggests not killing but selling Joseph—perhaps the only way to save Joseph (and other brothers) from certain death. As Goldin puts words in Judah’s mouth, “We are not Cains!” (Goldin 1977, p. 42
). These traditions attribute Jacob’s speech honoring Judah (Gen. 49:8–12) in part to this act.
If Judah is already honorable and shrewd like Jacob, why does he seem to fall into this situation with Tamar? In this interpretation, it is not as punishment for selling out Joseph. Moreover, as already noted, it is not for marrying a Canaanite or merchant. The question falls on why he resists giving Shelah, his youngest son, to Tamar. There are two crucial factors necessary for explaining this. First, given the levirate code, a man who dies without a son needs a son provided to him by a relative, usually a brother (see Adelman 2012, p. 92
). A son, an heir to tend the land on which one is buried, is necessary to rest in peace in Sheol. Hence, Onan not only wrongs Tamar by not preserving her status in the family, Onan also wrongs Er who needs an heir. Note that both Er and Onan are said to die not because Judah is being punished for selling Joseph, but simply that they themselves were displeasing to the god (see Friedman 1990, pp. 29–30
). Second, once two sons die after having sex with Tamar, the natural explanation is that she is causing it in some way. This appears to be Judah’s assumption, and—in the Talmud—Rava explains that their deaths result from sexual contact with her (Friedman 1990, p. 45
). She must have a sexually transmitted infection. If Judah gives Shelah to Tamar, then not only will Shelah also die, but also none of Judah’s sons will be able to rest in peace. Moreover, he
will not be able to rest in peace. This perspective is sometimes attributed to Bath Shua, instead, such as in the Book of Jubilees or in the Testament of Judah (Hayes 1995a, pp. 68–69
). In fact, she is construed as too controlling and the one who really puts Judah in this impossible situation.
Given this, what should Judah do in such an impossible situation? Is it really possible that Judah had no idea with whom he had sex or settled the contract? As Kim writes, “It is highly inconceivable to me that Judah did not recognize Tamar, the daughter-in-law he had married to both his dead sons, if not in the disguise, at least when they spoke to make the contract. Judah may have known he had slept with his daughter-in-law and that is why he sent Hirah to find her and did not go himself” (Kim 2012, p. 556
). Maybe Judah did not recognize her at first, but surely in discussion of the contract and especially in the act itself Judah would have to be someone extremely clueless to not know who it is. In this case, the issue is not why did Tamar disguise herself from Judah, but why did Judah go along with this ruse? Who is the ruse really for? Bath Shua’s family? His brothers full of rage looking to knock him out of leadership? Note that, if he believes she has an STD, he is willing to risk his own life. Note, too, that he does not sleep with her again. As many traditions spin his confession, it is not that he is saying he is more morally wrong than Tamar due to some sexual indiscretion, but merely that he is indeed the father (see Hayes 1995a, p. 72
Chapter 38 seems to only make sense in light of this promotion of Judah. Judah must be shrewd like Jacob to inherit leadership. Tamar is reduced to a vehicle for Judah carrying on the family line. Without readers recognizing this establishment of noble character, the chapter will seem out of place.
3.3. Toward a Critical Hermeneutic Rereading of Genesis 38
These two interpretative narrations of Genesis 38 stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, Tamar is the hero and Judah is the “mediocre” idiot who, by the end, seems willing to take responsibility for his misdeeds. On the other hand, Judah is the hero, and Tamar is reduced to a vehicle for carrying on his line. Is there a way to bridge these conflicting interpretations, developing one where neither Tamar nor Judah is dehumanized? Recall, as Claassens explains, “to be human means, first, to resist those forces that seek to violate or obscure one’s dignity, and, second, to be able to see or recognize the plight of another” (Claassens 2012, p. 660
). How might the Judah and Tamar narrative be reread to preserve both of their dignity? The goal is not merely to “join” the two interpretations together. They cannot be combined. They create an exclusive dichotomy, when focused on the narrative alone. However, we propose turning away from the narrative content alone and toward the reader, away from story to discourse. This story is about the kind of readers we are, readers with identities and biases constituted by intersecting social conditions. As Smith explains, “all biblical interpretation… is political, seeking to expose oppressive ideologies in texts, contexts, and in ancient and contemporary readers and readings. This political agenda includes the debunking of respectability politics, which claims that people of color and poor people will always be treated with dignity, justice, and respect in a racialized, patriarchal, and class-conscious society [only] when they exhibit acceptable behaviors
” (Smith 2017, p. 65
; emphasis added). How are Tamar and Judah disrupting respectable or appropriate norms? How are these norms established and defined in contemporary society? Respectability politics demand people submit to norms of white patriarchal capitalism. Deviations from these norms will be punished brutally or even eliminated. As Smith writes, “Unacceptable behaviors, according to a politics of respectability, like responding to injustice or resisting and protesting systemic racism, sexism, and violence from authority figures, should result in negative, harmful outcomes, particularly when the actors are persons of color” (Smith 2017, p. 65
). Intersecting privileges and marginalizations shape all readers’ identities and views. These shape readers’ orientations for dialogue with the text. This ongoing dialogue must be inclusive of a multiplicity of perspectives, with particular attention paid to the voices of the oppressed.
A helpful way to reframe this narrative to move toward readers is to start with the question: from whom is Tamar really disguising herself, and who is Judah really deceiving? Consider how packed the puns are in the very words of the narrative. As Leuchter writes, “The author of Genesis 38 packs the narrative with metaphorical implications, relying on the devices of double entendre and homonymy with several personal and geographic names in the story” (Leuchter 2013, p. 220
). Shelah literally means “hers” (Leuchter 2013, p. 221
). Therefore, the traditions emphasizing Bath Shua as preventing Shelah from being married to Tamar are not without textual support. Moreover, Shua connotes promising or pledge (Leuchter 2013, p. 220
). What promise or pledge does Judah make to Shua and his community? Tamar’s name connotes the palm tree, known for yielding an abundance of fruit (Leuchter 2013, p. 222
). Thus, Tamar is fitting for Judah’s progeny. Chezib, the city where Judah is for the birth of Shelah, connotes “deceit”, “lying”, or even “illusion” (see Elitzur 2004
). That is, as with Jacob and Rebekah to Isaac (and Esau), someone is having the wool pulled over their eyes. Perhaps it is the wild brothers Simeon and Levi who, like Esau, cannot be trusted to control their tempers and appetites.
Rather than staying on the level of story content and characters, it is worthwhile to move to the level of discourse, where the narrator is communicating with a reading audience (Barthes and Duisit 1975
). Recall the rabbinic imperative: build a fence around the Torah (Pirke Avot
1:1). The Torah is an explosive book and, thus, its truths and laws should be protected from casual use and superficial interpretation. Just as Joseph needs protection from his brothers, so does the Torah need protection from some readers—readers who are on the ready as Simeon and Levi to condemn, to vent their frustrations on others, readers who are on the ready to dehumanize biblical characters. Jonah, for example, is made into a cartoon, when the book’s themes of suicide and justice and genocide are among the most challenging and horrifying experiences people face. In the case of many readers, they vent on characters, seduced by the possibility of condemning characters, placating their own egos in the feeling of superiority. These are the types of readers who might say to themselves: “What a fool Judah is! What a slut Tamar is! What an idiot Isaac is! What a liar Jacob is!” Alternatively, these readers might find the actions of the characters disappointing relative to the readers’ standards or expectations of what Patriarchs or Biblical women should do in these circumstances. This implies that a reader is not really engaged with an understanding the text. Recall that the story configures parts into a whole, but the discourse engages a reader’s self-understanding and—if successful—transforms the reader. An engaged reader takes hold of that hinge between the story and the refiguration of their life, where readers’ horizons are transformed.
Is the narrator reliable or deliberately ambiguous to deceive some readers, to build a fence around the truth of the Torah (see Sternberg 1992
)? The narrators’ radically abbreviated method requires more of readers than just collecting information. It demands that readers themselves resist dehumanization and fill in the blanks. For example, rather than seeing Genesis 38 as an interruption of Joseph’s story-arc, readers should instead see the fanciful and flashy (“technicolor dream coat”) story-arc as a red herring to throw readers off the scent of the main story: Tamar and Judah and their line to David. Moreover, the narrator names the crossroads Enaim
, a word that connotes an opening of the eyes (Adelman 2012, p. 93
; Leuchter 2013, p. 221
). Whose eyes need to be opened? The readers’?
One way that readers can respect the dignity of both Tamar and Judah is to see both of them as in on the actions. They are equals, rooting their actions in mutual respect under conditions of persecution not only by Judah’s brothers but also some readers. Some people cannot handle the truth. How does Tamar know to be at the exact spot where Judah will pass during the festival—a gathering of hundreds of people? We are not told who tells Tamar that Judah will be there. Perhaps it is Hirah, someone on whom Judah can rely. Perhaps Judah is not so dumb as to not even know with whom he is having sex, let alone not so foolish as to leave his staff with a prostitute. Research has shown that the next in line after Onan dies is not necessarily Shelah. There are some Near Eastern sources suggesting that the father-in-law could perform the role of the levir (see Adelman 2012, p. 92
). Yet both Judah and Tamar need to prevent the collective disapproval of both the community of brothers and the community of judgmental readers from pouncing on them. What would you do in such an impossible situation?
In this light, Chapter 38 seems to be a radical statement of irony, exposing readers for the type of person they are. Such explosive irony has repercussions in different directions in the broader narrative. Consider Jacob and Rebekah “fooling” Isaac with wool; perhaps Isaac is in on it, especially since he lives 30 more years after this. Alternatively, consider David and Bathsheba’s encounter; perhaps Bathsheba is in on it. How might other passages be reread in such a way to recognize the dignity of characters rather than readers seeking to placate themselves in superiority? In this approach, neither Tamar nor Judah is subordinated to the other. Their story makes different sense.