by Kari H. Tuling
Tamar marries one of Judah’s sons, and the son dies; she marries a second son and the second son dies. By the logic of the biblical culture in which she lives, she should then marry the third son, who would impregnate her and provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She also needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage,’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.
But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so: perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.
Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir.
Stuck, Judah does nothing: he condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.
But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks Judah into impregnating her unknowingly by wearing a veil and pretending to be a prostitute. She takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.
Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy by another man during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.
But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father. At that point, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”
Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity with regard to the prostitution.
But in context, the real infidelity here is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern, and he has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. She understands this situation better than he does. She also realizes that Judah is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.
And here we see how much has changed since the time of the Bible: she had indeed operated within the bounds of the biblical law, despite her ruse and despite her prostitution.
The narration then bestows upon her the highest honor available to the biblical woman: she gives birth to twin sons. And that line, in turn, becomes the lineage of the house of David. Even beyond Judah’s declaration that she is more righteous than he is, she is also greatly rewarded for her efforts.
I mention this story for a couple of reasons. The first is to highlight how biblical assumptions are much different than our own; we would condemn her willingness to resort to trickery, her intention to seduce her father-in-law, and her decision to play the harlot. But her reward – and Judah’s response to her pregnancy – each demonstrate that our first impressions would be wrong. We should note here (and note well!) that the biblical concept of marriage is very different than our own institution in its current form. That’s a theme I intend to return to later.
But what prompted this retelling of the story is a different issue entirely.
Much of the narrative invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’
Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of her as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.
It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.
The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?
But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, freeing her.
The story of Tamar offers the genuine hope that the dominant authority (in this case, the patriarchy), might suddenly give way, having gained that flash of insight as to how his actions have contributed to her plight.
But what we should pray for – and what we should work toward – is the gift of insight, the gift that we might immediately ‘see’ those around us who are hiding. Who among us must remain veiled? Who among us are not able to be visible at ‘the opening of the eyes?’ Who among us have been oppressed by our assumptions?
Kari H. Tuling is the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh, New York and is in the process of completing a PhD in Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College. She lives with her family, two cats, and a piano. This post was drawn from her experience teaching ‘Women in the Bible’ as adjunct instructor for the Judaic Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati, using texts from Aschkenasy and Frymer-Kensky.