Thursday, September 15, 2011

Judah and Tamar, Huh?

The Story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 has to be one of the strangest narratives in the Bible.  Strange for so many reasons.  First, the racy story it tells in and of itself is odd.

Let me try and summarize.  Judah, son of Jacob, and namesake of his own tribe of Israel, had three sons.  Son #1, Er, married Tamar, but was "wicked" and therefore God killed him.  According to the custom of Levirate marriage, the closest male relative was required to fulfill the duty of the dead husband and provide Tamar with a child in the name of the dead husband.  Therefore, this duty fell to son #2, Onan. Onan, knowing that this child would not be his, but would carry the name of his brother, whenever he slept with Tamar, "spilled his semen on the ground."  Because of this wickedness, God killed Onan. Contrary to much evangelical interpretation, Onan was not engaging in masturbation. Rather, his wickedness was not fulfilling his duty to provide his dead brother with a son. Finally, Tamar pushes Judah to give her Son #3, Shelah to fulfill his duty.  Judah procrastinates in this matter.  I mean, can you blame him.  He has lost 2 sons already over this matter.

Tamar takes matters into her own hands.  She disguises herself as a prostitute and places herself in Judah's path.  Judah takes the bait and sleeps with her, but not before giving her a pledge of his signet and staff, a sign that he will send payment for her services.  As is wont to happen after such affairs, Tamar becomes pregnant.  When Judah finds out the Tamar is pregnant, he is indignant that his daughter in law has been "playing the whore" and he commands that she be burned.  Tamar on the other hand, produces Judah's signet and staff, proving herself righteous and Judah as the wrongdoer.

OK, so strange story right?  But, that is only the beginning of the strangeness.  Right before this story we get the introduction to the story of Joseph, Son of Jacob.  Genesis 37 begins the Joseph narrative which runs unbroken through the rest of Genesis, save for the Judah and Tamar story.  One could read from the last verse of Genesis 37 right on to the first verse of Genesis 39, skipping 38 alltoghether, and would miss not a thing.

Genesis 37:36 in the NIV reads:
 36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. 
And Genesis 39:1 in the NIV reads:
 1 Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.
Yet, sandwiched in between is the story of Judah and Tamar.  Why is it there?  Come back tomorrow to see my take.

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