Couched between the Jacob and Joseph narratives the story of Judah and Tamar, found in Genesis 38, is presented amidst the sordid fray of poor and destructive decision making where an unexpected heroine here arises. Somehow she manages to persevere against great odds in spite of the abusive masculine roles employed against her.
Tamar is purchased by Judah as a bride for his eldest son, Er (Gen 38:6). Any woman sold into a different clan was obliged to adopt that clan’s culture, practice and religion. Furthermore, as the wife of a firstborn son, great pressure was placed upon her to fruitfully produce an heir to the line of descent. This indeed encompassed the most important function of women within such patriarchal societies.
Er performs some unnamed evil in the sight of the Lord, offensive enough to incur divine execution. In such situations where the firstborn son died, the duty of continuing the patriarchal line fell to that of the next eldest son. Custom decreed that this only be achieved through copulation with the eldest widow of the deceased firstborn, in this case Tamar. It also meant that any children born to the second eldest son and provisional heir, would bear the name of the original firstborn and not his own. To this end, Onan, Judah’s second eldest, decides he is not suited.
“But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went into his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother,” (NRSV Gen 38:8). Everything concerning Onan’s approach to this situation readily portrays his abuse of the masculine role within such society. By deceptively refusing to impregnate Tamar, Onan shifts the blame. To the public eye fault would naturally be placed on the woman unable to conceive. Onan’s protests are of a malicious and self-centered nature, thwarting the line of descent and using Tamar as nothing more than a sexual object at the same time.
Onan is consequently smitten by God like his brother (Gen 38:10). This may be the narrator’s way of expressing just how heinous an act Onan committed. To be sure, the main thrust of this tale is to show the consequence of an endeavored destruction of patriarchal descent, but it is the invective manner by which such attempted annihilation occurs and the way in which Tamar is abused that any audience is expected to acknowledge.
At this point in the story an even more complex twist occurs. Judah, now obviously dismayed at the death of his two eldest sons, finds himself reluctant to marry Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah, for fear of some similar outcome and so banishes her to widowhood (Gen 38:12). The plight of the widow and her ostracization from society being evident we are expected to imagine then what weighted shame Tamar must have felt in being sent back to her father’s house when Judah still had a son to continue his family line. Even though Judah had expressed that he would marry Tamar to Shelah, we soon find out the untruth of this statement. Judah’s blindness to the wickedness of his sons, and the flippant way in which he condemns his daughter in law to a dishonorable existence are just the beginning of his unabashed missteps.
Time passes, Judah’s wife dies, and as soon as his mourning is over he sets off to Timnah to have his sheep sheared. At such festivals wine flowed and merriment abounded. To an Israelite audience it would have been presumed that a certain licentious appetite may have manifested itself in the attendees of such festive occasions. Tamar certainly sees this as an opportunity to secure the progeny wrongfully denied her by Judah. She has noticed that her marriage right has been forgotten, as Shelah is now well of age, and so dressing as a prostitute she awaits Judah’s passing at the gate of Enaim.
Here of course, the moral lines get somewhat hazy, but to understand Tamar’s recourse is to realize her desperation. She is far more concerned with the continuation of Judah’s line than he is. Within the major thrust of this story, this is undoubtedly the most heroic inclination. She has, however, no rights within patriarchal society to speak out against Judah. She is also by his hand a shamed widow, and a bane to her own family’s name. Her opinion is inconsequential, and she knows it. Thus the only viable option in her mind, though undesirable, is the one she ends up pursuing, that of faithful fecundity. By lying with the disguised Tamar, Judah unwittingly fulfills the duty of genealogical descent. The narrator is careful to note that it is only Tamar who loyally commits to her role in this jaded patriarchal society. She does so amidst abusive masculinity and at the risk of her own life.
Securing Judah’s signet and staff as a pledge for payment Tamar returns to her life of widowhood. Three months later Judah hears that, “Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom,” (Gen 38:24). Without a second thought Judah demands that she be brought out and burned. The intricacies of such conclusive condemnation should not escape us. Where it is evident that Judah has completely disregarded the continuation of the genial line, he is now suddenly reinvested in this duty because Tamar has supposedly tainted the line of descent. Amidst his vitriol he gives no consideration to the hypocrisy of his actions, and merely seeks to appear righteous in exacting justice upon the destroyer of his name when his own complacency would have achieved just the same. There is certainly no clemency in his actions either, for the widowed daughter in law he banished, or for the unborn child in her belly. Here is a man who is only concerned with his role as a patriarchal leader when it suits him to be so.
As she is being brought out for execution Tamar sends to Judah his signet, staff, and cord and relates to him that it is the owner of these items who made her pregnant. This is the climactic reveal and Judah, immediately humbled, must acknowledge his fault (Gen 38:26). We can certainly wonder at the extent of Judah’s new found humility, for his recognition of shame does not directly extend to his sleeping with a prostitute or that he tried to murder his daughter in law.
Genesis 38 has a great deal to tell us about the abuse of the masculine role. As a counter point we are obliged to notice that an unconventional feminine approach proves to be the most honorable. There is certainly within this tale a strong narrative critique of a powerful patriarchy so defunct that it forces its already subjugated women to pursue methods highly dangerous and demeaning in order to secure that which was most ‘naturally’ important. Of all the biblical heroines Tamar may certainly be the most obscure and she is without doubt the most ill-treated but it is because of this that she should stand as a shining example of what it meant to fight for recognition, survival, and honor within a heavily male-centric society.