In the Book of Genesis, Tamar (//; Hebrew: תָּמָר, Modern Tamar Tiberian Tāmār ; date palm, pronounced [ˈtamar]) was the daughter-in-law of Judah (twice), as well as the mother of two of his children: the twins Perez and Zerah.
In Genesis chapter 38, Tamar is first described as marrying Judah's eldest son, Er. Because of his wickedness, Er was killed by God. By way of a Levirate union, Judah asked his second son, Onan, to provide offspring for Tamar so that the family line might continue. Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains that this could have substantial economic repercussions, with any son born deemed the heir of the deceased Er, and able to claim the firstborn's double share of inheritance. However, if Er was childless, Onan would inherit as the oldest surviving son.
Onan performed coitus interruptus. His actions were deemed wicked by God and so, like his older brother, he died prematurely. At this point, Judah is portrayed as viewing Tamar to be cursed, and is therefore reluctant to give his remaining and youngest son Shelah, to her. Rather, he told Tamar to wait for Shelah. However, even after he grew up, Judah did not give Tamar to Shelah in marriage. (Genesis 38:6-14)
Tamar and Judah
At the time Shelah grew up, Judah became a widower. After Judah mourned the death of his wife, he planned on going to Timnah to shear his sheep. Upon hearing this news, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and immediately went to Enaim which was en route to Judah's destination. Upon arriving at Enaim, Judah saw the woman but did not recognize her as Tamar because of the veil she wore over her face. Thinking she was a prostitute, he requested her services. Tamar's plan was to become pregnant by this ruse in order to bear a child in Judah's line, because Judah had not given her to his son Shelah. So she played the part of a prostitute and struck a deal with Judah for a goat with a security deposit of his staff, seal, and cord. When Judah was able to have a goat sent to Enaim, in order to collect his staff and seal, the woman was nowhere to be found and no one knew of any prostitute in Enaim. (Genesis 38:12-23)
Three months later, Tamar was accused of prostitution on account of her pregnancy. Upon hearing this news, Judah ordered that she be burned to death. Tamar sent the staff, seal, and cord to Judah with a message declaring that the owner of these items was the man who had made her pregnant. Upon recognizing his security deposit, Judah released Tamar from her sentence. Tamar’s place in the family and Judah’s posterity secured, she gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Their birth is reminiscent of the birth of Rebekah’s twin sons. The midwife marks Zerah’s hand with a scarlet cord when it emerges from the womb first, but Perez is born first. Perez is said to be the ancestor of King David. The Genesis narrative also makes a note that Judah did not have further sexual relations with Tamar. (Genesis 38:24-30)
Literary critics have focused on the relationship between the Judah story in chapter 38, and the Joseph story in chapters 37 and 39. Victor Hamilton notes some “intentional literary parallels” between the chapters, such as the exhortation to “identify” (38:25-26 and 37:32-33). John Emerton regards the connections as evidence for including chapter 38 in the J corpus, and suggests that the J writer dovetailed the Joseph and Judah traditions. Derek Kidner points out that the insertion of chapter 38 “creates suspense for the reader ,” but Robert Alter goes further and suggests it is a result of the “brilliant splicing of sources by a literary artist.” He notes that the same verb “identify” will play “a crucial thematic role in the dénouement of the Joseph story when he confronts his brothers in Egypt, he recognizing them, they failing to recognize him."
J. A. Emerton also suggests that the Judah and Tamar narrative contains “aetiological motifs concerned with the eponymous ancestors of the clans of Judah.” Emerton notes that Dillman and Noth considered the account of the deaths of Er and Onan to “reflect the dying out of two clans of Judah bearing their names, or at least of their failure to maintain a separate existence.” However, this view was “trenchantly criticized” by Thomas L. Thompson.
According to the Talmud, Judah's confession of guilt itself atoned for some of his prior faults, and resulted in his being divinely rewarded by a share in the future world. The Talmud also suggests that Tamar's actions were for the purpose of avoiding Judah's humiliation, although the Genesis Rabbah portrays her as boastful and unashamed in regard to the pregnancy itself.
Frymer-Kensky finds Tamar’s traits of assertiveness in action, willingness to be unconventional, and deep loyalty to family, qualities that distinguish her descendant, King David.
Together with the brief preceding narrative of the birth of Er, Onan, and Shelah, and the subsequent narrative of the birth of Perez's children, the passage is often regarded as presenting a significant chronological issue, since it is surrounded by a narrative concerning Joseph; before the passage occurs, Joseph is described as being 17 years old, and after the passage, Joseph is described as meeting up with Judah some 9 years after Joseph had reached 30 years in age.
The gap, a maximum of 22 years, is somewhat small to contain within it Judah's first marriage, the birth of Er and Onan, Er's marriage to Tamar, Tamar's subsequent pregnancy by Judah, and the birth of Judah's grandchildren/children (Judah was the father and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was the mother); the passage is also widely regarded as an abrupt change to the surrounding narrative Joseph story. According to some textual scholars, the reason for these features is that the passage derives from the Jahwist source, while the immediately surrounding narrative is from the Elohist, the two being spliced together at a later date.
Notes and citations
- Genesis 38:29-30
- Dancy, J. The Divine Drama: the Old Testament as Literature, ISBN 978-0-7188-2987-2, 2002, p. 92
- Deut 25:5-10
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Tamar: Bible", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 6, 2014)
- Kebra Negast, Ethiopian Book of the Kings' Glory, chapter 77.
- Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1995), 431-432.
- J. A. Emerton, "Some problems,” 349. Emerton also suggests (p. 360) that in J, this story “never stood anywhere but between the accounts of the selling of Joseph into slavery and the doings of Joseph in Egypt.”
- Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 2008 ), 187.
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), 10.
- J. A. Emerton, “Judah and Tamar,” Vetus Testamentum 29 , 405.
- Sotah 7b
- Berakot 43a
- Sotah 12b
- Genesis Rabbah 85:11
- Genesis Rabbah 85:9
- Sotah 10a
- Sotah 10b
- Genesis 37:2
- Genesis 41:53
- Genesis 45:6
- Genesis 41:46
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
Media related to Judah and Tamar at Wikimedia Commons
- John R. Huddlestun. Unveiling the Versions: The Tactics of Tamar in Genesis 38:15