Judah and Tamar Genesis 38:1-30 (In Historical and Cultural Context)

Judah And Tamar Genesis 38:1-30 (In Historical and Cultural Context)

Introduction

This passage has been constantly laden with questions because the passage seems to be obscure in nature. Obscure because it seems to disrupt the flow of Joseph’s narrative account in 37:1-36 and 39:1ff. A further indication of its obscurity is the scandalous acts imbedded in the text and narrative that simply pique a sense of embarrassment for the modern reader. An example of this irony is further justified, taking note of a paper written by Prof. Yairah Amit where he states that;

“When the story of Joseph is studied, chapter 38 is skipped for three reasons. Firstly, because of the whiff of the erotic; secondly, because it is not an integral part of the plot of Joseph story; and thirdly, because this way teachers do not have to confront the problematic levirate law. In other words, skipping this chapter serves conservative or orthodox interests.”[1]

Although the quotation above depicts Jewish ways of encountering the text, Christians on the other hand have mangled Chapter 38 reading it from a New Testament lens. For example, treating the passage on grounds of sexual sins. This further minimizes the intended meaning of the text.

One particular problem to understanding the text has to deal with the reader’s knowledge of the historical and cultural context. Good knowledge of this might curb some of the misunderstanding as well as misguided readings of the text. This paper therefore wants to concentrate on giving some description on the historical and cultural context of Judah and Tamar’s story.

Based on Genesis chapter 38 there are three historical and cultural areas that will be discussed. They are (1) Marriage customs, which will be dealt on three areas that will be explained later, (2) the significance of the pledge which Tamar required from Judah and (3) prostitution. Shedding light on these particular historical and cultural data would eventually give a more proper understanding of how one will read and understand the message of the text.

1. Marriage Customs

Marriage practices and customs in ancient times vary on a stark contrast with modern ways and practices. Because of this texts such as that of Genesis 38 if read with modern lenses would deter meaning from what the text wants to convey. So because of that it is good for us to know something concerning marriage customs during that time. There are three aspects on marriage that will be discussed here namely (a) the Levirate Law, (b) women and their treatment and (c) widowhood.

a. Levirate law

For one not familiar to the historical context of marriage in the OT times the thought of Onan (being directed by his father, Judah) having sexual relations with his deceased brother’s wife sounds repulsively disgusting. The practice is not something that our present culture understands. In ancient times such a practice is known as levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is a further development of the practice spelled out for the Israelites. Levirate law is explained as,

“The law states that if brothers live together, and if one of them is married and dies without children, one of the surviving brothers is to marry or take her as his wife and father a child with her. The child born of this levirate relationship (levir is Latin for “brother-in-law”) carries on the name of his deceased father and eventually inherits the family estate.”[2]

Adding to the explanation above, Bruce K. Walkey’s explanation graphically notes that the seed springing from the levirate practice was to “give the deceased social immortality” and such practice was “continued into the time of Jesus (Matt. 22:23-30; Mark 12:18-25; Luke 20:27-35).”[3] The purpose of Levirate marriage as explained above has to do with continuing the line of the deceased brother where as implied here is that the name of the deceased “may not be blotted out of Israel.”[4]

b. Women and their treatment

The next area that we need to look at is on widowhood in historical context. But before we can move to that let us look at how women were treated during that time and specifically in the context of marriage.

The domain of the home was generally “entrusted” [5] to wives where they were to “to uphold the honor of the household through their chaste behavior and correctness.”[6] But in areas of property and social issues such as testifying in court their influence was neglected[7].It is further explained that that the rights of the woman is “further clarified”[8] only until the marriage is consummated. Without consummation,

“…her rights to compensation in the event of divorce, her right to property as a widow and, for that matter, the right to marry the man with whom she had originally been contracted were not officially set until intercourse had taken place. By consummating the marriage, both parties fulfilled the oral arrangements and legal technicalities that had been set by their representatives. They had therefore changed their legal status and their social standing within the community. In addition, the wife now lived under her husband’s name and benefitted from his protection and social standing.”[9]

Thus, on the onset above, marriage was seen as vital as well as a virtue, not unlike how our present society sees it. Another striking note of how marriage is perceived in ancient times is to understand what was deemed important to people of that day. One of the primary purposes of marriage in biblical times was for propagation or in other words to “produce an heir.”[10]Because of the importance placed on inheritance, without an heir, there is seen a “disruption in the generational inheritance pattern that left no one to care for the couple in their old age.”[11] With this in mind it gives the reader of Genesis 38 valuable insights on the situation that Tamar was going through without a husband.

c. Widowhood

Now we arrive at the discussion on widowhood. Taking the case of Tamar in Chapter 38, an undeniable fact lays for our contention; Tamar is left a widow because of Er death and in looking at the historical context during that time widows were facing difficult living conditions because of this.

One of the “major cause of female insecurity,” contends Daniel I Block was “widowhood”[12] 71. Several factors contribute to this as Block observes. Woman “tended to outlive their husbands”[13] and this situation is heightened by the reality of war. Second, due to the nature of family life in OT times where “marriages were patrilocal”[14], the husband’s death threatened her standing amidst the household, and on this onset, the levirate law which was actually “designed to give the widow with a second husband” was more concerned for the “need to preserve the male line and the patrimonial estate.”[15]

Widows were supposedly cared by the family of the deceased husband. In the case of Tamar, when her husband died she was therefore under their authority “since marriage for women in that day meant being passed from the control of their fathers and brothers of their husbands and father-in-laws”[16] But if ties with his family were not on good terms the widow would face severe consequences. Block explains this

“If these kinship ties were lacking, or if the men of her husband’s clan refused to support her, without the economic and physical protection of her husband she was vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and sometimes even murder.”[17]

Such were the conditions face by a widow, so in the case of Tamar she was put in a difficult position when her husband died and thus the further treatment of her by Er’s family.

2. What is the Significance of pledges? (Gen 38:17)

The pledge was common practice in Israel but as Hamilton notes, a “pledge to a prostitute is unique to Gen 38:17-18”[18] With that case in mind we shall see the significance of pledges as well as seek to understand the what was consisted of the materials found in this passage.

First, let us seek some explanation concerning the seal. Seals were “made of metal and stone” and was often “worn on a cord around the neck”[19]. Waltkey explains its usage, that when “it is rolled across soft clay, such as the legitimating clay seal on a document”[20] serves as an impression designating who the owner is. Skilled craftsmanship might be deployed to create such detailed work as references in Exod. 28:11, 21, 36; 39:6, 14, 30 suggests.[21]

Secondly let us seek some explanation concerning the staff. According to scholars, staffs belonging to persons during that time were deeply personal as they bear the “mark of ownership”[22] or as a means of “identification”[23] of the owner. Names were found “incised” on the scepter head “throughout the ancient Near East.”[24]

Knowing how deeply personal these belongings had, the implications thus becomes clear upon the purposes of why Tamar held on these things. It was not in accordance to their value but it was value in whom they belonged to because “the pledge…because it bound Judah quite personally”[25] to Tamar.

3. Prostitution

To tackle the task of understanding prostitution during that time there are two specific areas which we will thus explore following some of the verses in Judah and Tamar’s narrative. The two areas will be dress codes ascribed to prostitutes and punishment. The term verb for the words prostitution of harlotry in the Hebrew “refers to all forms of illicit sex between a man and a woman”[26] whether professional in nature, marital unfaithfulness or sex offered freely outside marriage[27]. In the Pentateuch harlotry is a “term of contempt”[28]. Following Canaanite culture there was close connection between fertility of the land and cult prostitution. The practice is explained as;

“Devotees of the mother goddess Ishtar or Anat would reside at or near shrines and would dress in a veil, as the symbolic bride of the god Baal or El. Men would visit the shrine and use the services of the cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons such as shearing or the period of lambing.”[29]

The men’s act of sexual relation with the prostitute in paying homage to the gods in reenactment is to “insure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.”[30]

On prostitutes dressing with particular interest especially where it mentions that Tamar “covered herself with a veil” in verse 14, some commentators have argued that Tamar was not dressing intending to show herself as a prostitute. The idea of ascribing prostitution with the mere notion of one veiling herself which Hamilton in his commentary goes into detail in explaining this, but as for the purpose of this paper we will not go in detail. Hamilton states that “there is little evidence that prostitutes in Canaan wore veils”[31]. This designation follows suit because according to the text Tamar is assumed by Judah to be a normal prostitute and not a shrine prostitute as verse 21. Hamilton and Waltkey come to the same conclusions on the purpose of veiling in the case of Tamar was not to dress the part but for the fact to hide her identity[32]. But with that in mind I the best way to explain these views in coherence is what Waltkey states here that whether “dressed as a shrine prostitute or not, she is playing the part of the whore.”[33]

Focusing now on punishment accorded to prostitution it is explained that the practice was “generally punished by stoning to death”[34] and this is taken from Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Taking into consideration Tamar’s case in which the sentence pronounced by Judah on her “death by fire is exceptional”[35]. That particular sentence is found in the instance where “a daughter of a priest engages in harlotry and in cases of incest (Lev 20:14).”[36] This sentence might be due to “reflect Tamar’s alleged display of unbridled sexual passion”[37] but also on the onset it might well reflect Judah’s spur of the moment indignation on what he heard and not to the actual “juridical enforcement for sin relating to sexual behavior.” [38]

Conclusion

After exploring the historical and cultural leanings of Genesis 38 and deciphering meaning from them one gets a good platform to begin proper understanding from the text to inform correct understanding that one can abstract from the pages. As seen from the discoveries above, historical and cultural investigation dispels the interpreter from raising baseless issues from the text and in that sense frees him or her to see what the text has to say and convey.



[1]Amit, Yairah, The Case of Judah and Tamar in the Contemporary Israeli Context: Relevant Interpolation. http://74.125.153.132/search?q=cache:8MMcil9lW5YJ:home.medewerker.uva.nl/a.brenner/bestanden/Amit.doc+judah+and+tamar+historical+background&cd=74&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=my. (Accessed September 2009)

[2] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) pg 439

[3] Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) pg 510

[4] Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50: A Commentary. (Minneaolis: Augburg, 1982, 1986) pg 52

[5] Alexander, T. Desmond; Baker, David W. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) pg 294

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid pg 295

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Campbell, Ken M (Ed.). Marriage and Family in the Biblical World.(Downers Grove: IVP, 2003)  pg 71

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Garland, David E; Garland, Diana R. Flawed Families of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Brazo Press, 2007) pg 111

[17] Campbell, Ken M (Ed.). Marriage and Family in the Biblical World. Pg 71

[18] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg 444

[19] Ibid

[20] Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. pg 513

[21] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg 444

[22] Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. pg 513

[23] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg444

[24] Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. Pg 513

[25] Rad, Gerhad Von. Genesis: A Commentary. (Bloomsbury Street: SCM, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1970) pg 355

[26] Alexander, T. Desmond; Baker, David W. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IVP. 2003) pg 749

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) c2000.

[30] Ibid

[31] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg 441

[32] See Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. pg 512; Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg 442-443

[33] Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. pg 512

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) c2000.

[37] Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. pg 449

[38] Ibid pg 449

Bibliography:

Alexander, T. Desmond; Baker, David W. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IVP. 2003)

Campbell, Ken M. Marriage and Family in the Biblical World.(Downers Grove, IVP. 2003)

Garland, David E; Garland, Diana R. Flawed Families of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, Brazo Press 2007)

Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on The Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 1995)

Rad, Gerhad Von. Genesis: A Commentary. (Bloomsbury Street: SCM 1961, 1963, 1966, 1970)

Waltkey, Bruce K; Fredricks, Cathi J. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan. 2001)

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 37-50: A Commentary. (Minneaolis, Augburg. 1982, 1986)

Electronic Resources:

Walton, John H.; Matthews, Victor H.; Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP. c2000.) CD-ROM

Amit, Yairah, The Case of Judah and Tamar in the Contemporary Israeli Context: Relevant Interpolation. http://74.125.153.132/search?q=cache:8MMcil9lW5YJ:home.medewerker.uva.nl/a.brenner/bestanden/Amit.doc+judah+and+tamar+historical+background&cd=74&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=my. (Accessed September 2009)

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