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B'resheet/Genesis 38:18-19 And he gave [them] to her, and he came into her and she conceived by him. And she arose, and she went, and she removed her veil and she put on her garments of widowhood.
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This rapid string of verbs marks the pivot point in the story of Judah and Tamar, which occupies the whole of this aliyah and chapter 38 of B'resheet. The 'them' implied at the start of the text is the seal or signet ring with its cord, and the staff of Judah, that Tamar - playing the calculated but risky role of a prostitute - demands as surety against the payment of a kid for her sexual services. This is roughly equivalent to the wallet, driving licence and credit cards of today - a substantial pledge - almost everything that identified a man: his identity and signs of authority. It is strongly reminiscent of 25:34 " and he ate and he drank, and he rose and he went" describing Esau's behaviour after selling his birthright for "a mess of potage". This is how, the text tells us, "Esau thus despised the birthright" (JPS). Robert Alter comments that "Esau's precipitous character is mirrored stylistically in the rapid chain of verbs that indicates the uncouth dispatch with which he 'spurned' or held in contempt, his birthright."1
The first two verbs, and , are both Qal prefix 3ms verbs in vav-conversive constructions: "and he gave" and "and he came".Ibn Ezra criticises Judah's behaviour: - "He was so overcome with lust that he handed Tamar three important objects as a pledge for something as insignificant as a kid". Alter again discerns character portrayal: "Judah takes the bait - his sexual appetite will not tolerate postponement"2. Notice that the verb used for the sexual act itself is , "to come or enter", a verb describing the mechanical process rather than the alternative most often used for husbands and wives , "to know", which at least supposes some relationship. The commercial transaction here is completely devoid of emotion or contact between the parties other than the physical; Tamar keeps her veil in place so that Judah cannot see her face or guess her identity, while he does not enquire. As verse 20 tells us, Judah does not even know her name so refers to her as "the woman". Hirah the Adullamite, who has taken the kid to pay her and redeem the pledge, can only ask for "the cult prostitute, the one at Enaim, by the road" (v.21, JPS). The last verb in verse 18 - - is then a Qal prefix 3fs verb, from root root , "to conceive or become pregnant". This is the last part of the transaction: Tamar gains her objective - her aim, perhaps, since her marriage to Judah's first-born son - she becomes pregnant by a man in Judah's family.
Four more terse verbs with almost no intervening words then describe what happens next. Desperate to avoid any more 'customers', , "and she arose or got up", , "and she went", , "and she removed", , "and she put on". As in the previous verse, four Qal prefix 3fs verbs all in the vav-conversive construction, indicating sequential past-tense action. Tamar runs away as quickly as she can and changes her clothes from "vivid bait"3 back to widow's rags, to put off the horror of what she has just done - cold-bloodedly sold herself to gain a future. She may have achieved her purpose, to be pregnant, but at a huge personal cost. But for the pledged items Judah has given and which she has kept against such an event, it nearly costs not only her own life but the lives of her unborn children.
Attempting to mitigate Tamar's behaviour, RabbiHirsch points out, "Although a widow of the deceased (Er and Onan) appears as still being engaged to the remaining members of the family, indeed, to such a degree, that her supposed unfaithfulness is considered to be adulterous. She is considered so much already married that the marriage to one of the nearest members of the family originally required no special ceremony to sanctify it, but could be just automatically continued; a relationship we may not leave unconsidered in valuing Tamar justly." Judah's neglect of Tamar over possibly many years and his failure to properly ensure her remarriage into his family leaves her taking unusual and risky steps to force his hand - Judah completes the Levirate marriage of his daughter-in-law, so despite the apparent misbehaviour, neither of them have actually committed adultery or sexual immorality.
In the story of Judah and Tamar we see a number of people behaving badly. The text portrays on the one hand how physical lust caused Judah to act in a precipitate and foolish manner. On the other hand, the text also shows the cost of taking matters into your own hands, both in the immediate action and in the risks that can follow. The wider context of the aliyah shows that the event described in the text was the result of the sin of Judah's two eldest sons, Er and Onan. Judah then fails to live up to his responsibilities and abandons his innocent daughter-in-law. Later on, Judah again acts in a thoughtless and intemperate way which nearly makes him the slayer of his own children. Sin appears to be the common thread that runs through the whole interlude. Yet, incredibly, it is one of these twin sons born to Judah by Tamar that continues the line of Judah down to King David: "This is the line of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David" (Ruth 4:18-22, JPS) and whose name is used as a blessing in Bethlehem when Boaz marries Ruth: "And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah - through the offspring which the L-RD will give you by this young woman" (4:12, JPS). Eventually, of course, this line ended up in the second branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), Yeshua the Messiah (Acts 13:22-23). Tamar's persistence in fighting for her rights paid off in the end.
Where was G-d in all of these so-human and flesh-driven events? He was keeping His promises, working in the background to bring about His plans despite the hasty and irrational behaviour of people. Some Jewish commentators suggest that G-d was actively working through the people involved in this story, for example, causing Tamar to take the action she did by revealing to her that her descendants would include King David and Messiah. This is entirely extra-biblical and does G-d no favours by involving Him in the making of messy human decisions, obscuring His amazing ways of working through, above, around and in spite of, all the crazy things that people do. G-d's thoughts and plans are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9) and He can be relied upon to accomplish His purposes in the best way for us as well as Him.
This story is also a powerful lesson in how quickly and thoughtlessly we engage with sin, and what a high price that engagement exacts from us. It shows us how little we value what we have and how little it values us. Sin gets us into trouble, rushes us into taking the wrong decisions in a hurry and then gets up and walks away leaving us to suffer the consequences. Even Rav Sha'ul writes, "For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Romans 7:18-19, ESV). "How do I get out if this?" he asks - then answers the question: "Therefore, there is no longer any condemnation awaiting those who are in union with the Messiah Yeshua. Why? Because the Torah of the Spirit, which produces this life in union with Messiah Yeshua, has set me free from the 'Torah' of sin and death" (8:1-2, CJB). In Yeshua, we are no longer subject to the kingdom of this world, but a part of the kingdom of G-d. The Spirit gives us the power and the time to resist sin, to think the matter through and take righteous decisions: "No temptation has seized you beyond what people normally experience, and G-d can be trusted not to allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. On the contrary, along with the temptation He will also provide the way out, so that you will be able to endure" (1 Corinthians 10:13, CJB). So when the enemy comes knocking on your door, don't just give in, but "Submit to G-d. Moreover, take a stand against the Adversary, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7, CJB).
1. - Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books 1981, 0-465-00427-X, page 45
2. - ibid. page 8
3. - Martyn Joseph, S & C Henderson, Working Mother, Copyright Control 1992
Further Study: Ephesians 4:25-27; 1 Peter 5:8-9
Application: Do you give in to temptation too quickly, taking your own snap decisions rather than seeking G-d's advice? Then James' words are for you: ask for G-d's help, then tell the temptation where to go!
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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