Friday, September 16, 2011

Judah and Tamar Part II

Yesterday I raise the question: Why is the story of Judah and Tamar present in Genesis chapter 38.  The story is very strange.  Moreover, it seems completely out of place. It breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative which runs from Genesis chapter 37 through the rest of the book in chapter 50. So, why is this odd story there?

First, there are no other stories about the other sons of Jacob, save for Joseph, and his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh.  The most the others get is a mention here and there.

Let's look at these mentions.

In Genesis 37, Joseph's brothers are seeking to kill the little brat Joseph.  Reuben and Judah are mentioned by name.  Reuben comes off the best, intervening in the brothers plan to kill Joseph.  Judah is mentioned and gets a neutral portrayal.  While he also argues against killing Joseph, he has a profit motive and suggests selling Joseph.  Reuben, who has apparently disappeared somewhere, is shocked to return and find Joseph gone, having been sold into slavery.

Jump ahead to Genesis 42.  Joseph is now second in command in all of Egypt.  His ten older brothers have come before him in Egypt to buy grain because of a famine in the land. They have left behind their youngest brother Benjamin in Canaan.  They do not recognize Joseph and he decides to have a little fun with them.  He tells them that they must return with Benjamin.  Reuben bewails their circumstances.  Simeon is held captive while the others return to get Benjamin. When they get back, Jacob refuses to let them go back with Benjamin, counting Simeon as good as dead and not wanting to lose his youngest and favorite son Benjamin.  Reuben pipes up guarantees Benjamin's safety.

In Chapter 43, it is Judah who guarantees the safety of Benjamin when they return to Egypt.  While in Egypt, Joseph continues the ruse and lets them sweat. Finally, after more trickeration, Joseph fulfills his brothers' worst nightmare and takes Benjamin captive for a theft he did not commit.  Judah now plays the hero, makes good on his promise to his father, tells Joseph the whole story, and offers to take Benjamin's place.

OK, so in the Joseph narrative, how are his Brother's portrayed?  Only four are mentioned by name.  The unnamed brothers look bad as they sought to kill Joseph.  Reuben looks good in chapter 37, intervening to save Joseph's life, and looks good again in 42, guaranteeing Benjamin's safety.  Simeon is mentioned a couple of times, but is neutral as his only role is to remain captive in Egypt.  Benjamin is mentioned but is completely passive.  That leaves Judah.  In 37, Judah appears neutral.  Like Reuben he intervenes to protect Joseph's life, but it is his idea to sell Joseph into slavery.  In chapters 44-45 Judah looks heroic, first guaranteeing Benjamin's safety, and then making good on this promise by offering to take Benjamin's punishment in Egypt.

So, overall, in the Joseph narrative, Reuben and Judah are portrayed positively overall, with Judah perhaps coming out as the most heroic of the brothers.

So again, I ask, why the story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38?  Especially such a bawdy story that portrays Judah so negatively.  Judah is the father who refuses to fulfill his duty and provide his son in fulfillment of Levirate marriage.  Judah is also seen as one who visits prostitutes.  Judah is not the shining hero that we see later in the Joseph narrative.

So, again, why this story?  Why Judah?  Why not a story of the other brothers?

I think one reason is that Judah had some very famous descendants.  First: David, the greatest king in Israel's history (according to some).  Also, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, although I doubt the birth and subsequent fame of Jesus had anything to do with the placement of this story in Genesis.

But, if one surmises that this story of Judah, and not one of his other brothers, is here in Genesis because of the subsequent notoriety of David, I think we are on solid ground.  This notoriety of David might also explain why Judah plays a larger role than his brothers in the Joseph narrative.

But, if this story is tied to David's fame, why is it so derogatory toward David's ancestor?  Could it be that this story was placed here, where it clearly does not belong and where it is clearly an interruption of the Joseph narrative, as an anti-davidic story?  Could this story be anti-davidic propaganda, or maybe even anti-monarchic propaganda?  I don't know the answers to these questions, and this is not my area of specialty at all.  But we do know that there were anti-davidic factions in Israel, and certainly there were anti-monarchic factions as evidenced by much of first Samuel.  Why this story is here is probably beyond our ability to know for certain, but I find the possibility that this story was a piece of anti-davidic or anti-monarchic propaganda fascinating.

1 comment:

  1. You are far more well read than me, but one of the most fascinating Judah and Tamar expositions was written by Robert Alter in "The Art of Biblical Narrative." He posits that the Judah and Tamar story is an intentional interweaving of literary and stylistic elements from Genesis 37-39 and is essential to the overall flow of the narrative.

    (The whole book is worth a read.)