"Her Name Was Tamar": Invasive, Destructive, Redemptive
As the fourth of seven Sabbath readings, the story of Tamar—Genesis 38—comes smack in the middle of Parashat Vayeshev, a fitting configuration for the story itself in Israel’s narrative history. The episode of Tamar—the recalcitrant, prostituting, incestuous savior of Judah and his line—comes as a self-contained interlude in the story of Joseph and the J narrative history.
Modern readers might find the values and ideals upheld in this story a challenge to expectations of the stories one finds in Torah. Sure, racy stories—especially those found in the biblical texts—captivate audiences and expose enduring truths of human relationships. But the idea that the redemption of Judah comes in the form of a woman breaking all the rules of the patriarchy—no less enshrined in the narrative history of the people of Israel and their god—must strike even the most open-minded reader as curious.
So who is this Tamar character? How does she show up in the broader narrative, seemingly out of nowhere, to shatter norms and reader expectations? A look at other “Tamar” stories in the biblical literary tradition will show us that this character does not, in fact, come out of nowhere. Her character draws upon a rich botanical image—the tamar, the date palm—to evoke a recurring trope of female family members whose beauty and presence have the power to destroy or save the family.
How Names and Naming Shape the Narrative
The story opens with Judah starting his family. He marries a woman—named only for her father, as bat Shua, the “daughter of Shua”—and she gives birth to three sons. The story is precise in its details; every word here is saturated with significance—not a kind of spiritual or scriptural significance, but an aesthetic significance.
The narration is exceedingly sparse in its telling here, which heightens whatever details we do encounter. For example, we learn nothing of Judah’s wedding to the daughter of Shua, or their relationship, or anything of the relationship between the brothers. Each detail significantly advances the plot while simultaneously bearing the burden of working out the story’s message. And in such compact storytelling, names and naming can take on double duty as both the identification of characters and shaping ideas. I will soon make such a case for the character of Tamar.
This strategy—shaping the narrative through names and naming characters—begins with the curious absence of the name of Judah’s wife in the story, and continues with the naming of Judah’s sons. According to the Masoretic version, the firstborn, Er, is named by Judah himself and only the second and third sons, Onan and Shelah, are named by Judah’s unnamed wife. This detail may seem insignificant but in fact it is central. This is because ultimately, the story is about the survival of Judah’s family line. And this family line is symbolically represented by the name.
But names are not only literary devices in service of the plot. Names also function in the broader ancient Near Eastern literary tradition as extensions of the self. For example, the many Iron Age Levantine memorial inscriptions name the memorialized individual and warn gravely against the erasure of one’s name from the inscription. One’s name is one’s memory and reputation, in life and in death—one need only see how Qohelet takes such an idea to its absurd end when he says in Eccl 7:1:
טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב
וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.
Better is (one’s) name than fine oil,
And (better) is the day of (one’s) death than (one’s) birth.
As the patriarch, Judah’s name—to be succeeded by his firstborn, Er’s name—functions as a placeholder for the authority he wields on behalf of his dead ancestors and future patriarchs who will follow. The names of the second and third sons are given by the mother whose own name is absent save the name of her own father. These sons, at least in the story, are merely instruments to the survival of the name of the firstborn, and by extension, his rights, obligations, and procreative potential.
Judah then acquires a wife for his firstborn, Er. And now, for the first time in the story, a woman’s name is made known. Her name is Tamar.
וַיִּקַּח יְהוּדָה אִשָּׁה לְעֵר בְּכוֹרוֹ וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר.
Judah acquired a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
Tamar, Daughter of David
Genesis 38 is not the only time a woman’s name, Tamar, enters a narrative, seemingly out of nowhere. There are significant and informing parallels between Judah’s Tamar in Genesis 38 and Tamar, daughter of King David, in 2 Samuel 13. As in Genesis 38, we had never known of this figure, Tamar, until this episode. And, as in Genesis 38, the Tamar of 2 Samuel 13 never appears as a character again. The story in 2 Samuel 13, in which a daughter of David is raped by one of his sons also opens by drawing attention to Tamar’s name (v. 1):
וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן וּלְאַבְשָׁלוֹם בֶּן דָּוִד אָחוֹת יָפָה וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ אַמְנוֹן בֶּן דָּוִד.
And it was sometime afterwards that Absalom, son of David, had a beautiful sister, and her name was Tamar. Amnon, (also) son of David fell in love with her.
Certainly, the opening of the story in 2 Sam 13 brings the problem of Tamar, as kin, front and center. But for now I want to focus on the naming of Tamar. Here, the naming of the tragic Tamar at the beginning of the episode might appear to be minor, but consider a third Tamar character that shows up in the Hebrew Bible: the description of Absalom’s daughter in 2 Samuel 14:27.
After the narrator describes Absalom’s surpassing beauty, it is noted that Absalom has three sons—unnamed!—and a beautiful daughter named Tamar.
וַיִּוָּלְדוּ לְאַבְשָׁלוֹם שְׁלוֹשָׁה בָנִים וּבַת אַחַת וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר הִיא הָיְתָה אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה.
Absalom had three sons and a daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman.
While nothing in this very brief mention of Absalom’s three unnamed sons and beautiful daughter Tamar indicates anything of the incestuous rape of Tamar and murderous scandal of David’s sons Amnon and Absalom, or of Tamar and Judah’s three sons (and himself) in Genesis 38, the passage in 2 Sam 14:27 draws attention to Tamar—not the sons. Tamar is named, and she is beautiful.
Tamar the Black Widow
Returning to the story in Genesis 38, we learn that the marriage between Tamar and Judah’s eldest, Er, was short-lived (v. 7).
וַיְהִי עֵר בְּכוֹר יְהוּדָה רַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה וַיְמִתֵהוּ יְ-הוָה.
But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to YHWH, and YHWH took his life.
Er was “displeasing” to the deity, that is, he died before his time, and no further explanation offered. Er’s death, after all, serves as a plot device for the upheavals that are to transform Judah’s family and prospects for the future. Judah commands Onan, the second son, to marry Er’s wife for the express purpose of producing a son in Er’s name. But Onan engages in the withdrawal method for the express purpose of avoiding a son who would be in his brother’s name—coining here for English readers of the Bible the term onanism. This too displeases the deity, and Onan dies.
Like the spider who leaves its mates for dead, Tamar is a black widow. She is sent back to her father’s house, presumably to await a time that Judah’s third and last son would be ready for marriage. But the narrator tells us that Judah has other designs, that he does not intend to put his last son at risk of death.
Here is where the racy part of the story begins. And by racy, I do not mean merely risqué but the fact that Tamar’s character breaks with the patriarchy—albeit, of course, ultimately, to save it. Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, has died. The readers can deduce from this that Shelah, Judah’s third son, is indeed Judah’s final son. There will be no others who might continue Er’s name through levirate marriage—through a union with Tamar, Er’s widow.
But Tamar knows that sufficient time has passed that she should have been married to Shelah. Judah has broken faith with her. Not only does Judah keep Tamar in her father’s house without the possibility of remarriage, he forecloses any possibility of the continuation of Er’s line—and ultimately Judah’s own line—by denying Tamar marriage to Er’s brother. Tamar takes matters into her own hands, and on Judah’s journey to Timnah for sheep-shearing, she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits for Judah to pass on the road.
Judah avails himself of the prostitute’s services, not knowing who she is, and promises to send her payment later. Tamar takes Judah’s seal, cord, and staff as insurance—like holding someone’s driver’s license—and to Judah’s chagrin, disappears with them. These items will soon save her life.
Three months later it comes to Judah’s attention that his daughter-in-law, who is supposed to be waiting on marriage to Judah’s last living son Shelah, is pregnant. It seems that in ancient Israel, this kind of behavior was punishable by death—by stoning in Deut 22:21—but here Judah says he will have her brought out and burned.
The denoument of the story comes here, through Tamar’s own voice. She brings forward the staff and cord and sends a message to Judah (v. 25):
לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה
I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong
הַכֶּר נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה.
Identify: to whom do these—the seal, cord, and staff—belong?
Judah then utters a judgment, “She is more right than I” (צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי), since he broke faith with her when he did not give her in marriage to Shelah, and she will bear a child ultimately from the source of Er’s name, Judah himself.
Connecting the Two Tamar-Tales
The Tamar of Genesis 38 is, in some sense, the Tamar of 2 Samuel 13 through the looking glass. Judah’s Tamar, rendered powerless, uses Judah’s sexual desire to right his wrong—at precisely the moment he leaves for sheep-shearing. Amnon’s Tamar is likewise rendered powerless, but in contrast, it is Amnon’s sexual desire that renders her powerless.
In 2 Samuel 13, Amnon lusts after his half-sister Tamar. With the help of his friend Jonadab, Amnon devises a plan to be alone with Tamar. He feigns illness and asks her to wait on him in his chamber, and seizes her. Tamar protests her devaluation in such a detestable manner, and explains to Amnon that the king would allow them to marry. But Amnon rapes her in any case, and having done so, is immediately relieved of his lust, and banishes Tamar from his presence.
Robbed of all agency and her value diminished, Tamar goes about wailing, performing ritual acts of mourning—placing dust on her head and tearing her garment. Through these performances her brother Absalom comes to understand what has happened to her and awaits the time of the sheep-shearing to avenge his sister’s rape and to take his half-brother Amnon’s life in return.
These Tamar stories share a number of elements, but one element is more significant than the rest. Both stories are, in some way, about incest. In 2 Samuel 13, the incest is dangerous, sets two brothers against each other, and serves as a catalyst for the undoing of David’s family. In 2 Samuel 13, the story of Tamar’s diminishment through sex, and the subsequent downfall of David’s house functions as a kind of poetic justice for David’s destruction of the family of Uriah the Hittite and his wife Batsheva. In Genesis 38, in contrast, the incest is redemptive, and prevents Judah from mortal oblivion through the continuation of his name.
Tamar, the Date Palm
How does the use of a character named Tamar connect these stories? This connection, I believe, is not simply the appearance of a character named Tamar, named after the date palm. Rather, the connection can be found in a Tamar character who behaves like the date palm. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, would have littered the landscape of ancient Israel and Judah—as it still does today. Scholars have noted the presence of this botanical motif in iconography and stylized in Iron Age architectural features like columns. But the date palm may not have only functioned as a botanical motif in iconography. As we will see shortly, this motif seems to extend to the construction of legendary characters as well. Yes, the tamar, on the surface, is beautiful, stately, desirable. Readers may have failed to consider the tamar beneath the surface—that is, how the unique root system of the date palm functions in this botanical motif.
Beneath the ground, her roots spread out widely—some say as far out as the fronds above. While some trees will have roots that widen as the roots deepen, the date palm will always have wide roots, no matter how deep these roots may go. The roots therefore take up more space as young trees than other types, and can be invasive if not given sufficient space. The internet is full of forums with advice to gardeners and homeowners on how to prevent damage to ones piping systems or decking from invading palm roots. One can imagine, if the roots of date palms are sufficiently invasive to cause damage to metal pipes and decking, they can also pose a threat to the root systems of nearby trees. And we know this is not simply a connection imposed upon by this creative modern reader. Early interpreters seemed to have thought similarly.
Sarai and the Date Palm in the Genesis Apocryphon
An Aramaic text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which scholars named the Genesis Apocryphon, retells some material from Genesis in the voice of the legendary protagonists. In this text, the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt in Genesis 12 is retold in the voice of Abram. In the biblical account, Abram’s strategy to avoid death at the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh was to pretend that he and Sarai were brother and sister. That way, Abram would not be killed so that Pharaoh could have the beautiful Sarai for himself. Instead, Abram, as Sarai’s brother, would be paid a handsome bride-price.
But in the Genesis Apocryphon, this strategy—that Abram and Sarai should pretend to be brother and sister—comes to Abram in the form of a dream. Abram dreams that Sarai is a tamar, a date palm, and that Abram is a cedar. In the dream, Sarai-as-Tamar wraps her invasive roots around Abram’s, thereby saving him. As mentioned previously, the roots are so wide that they can invade surrounding flora. The Tamar character is, in all these stories, a woman whose presence is invasive, disruptive, sometimes destructive. What the story of Tamar in Genesis 38 does so beautifully—as does the story in Genesis Apocryphon—is to show how the disruption of norms can often save them at a higher order.
Breaking with Patriarchy to Save it
The episode in Genesis 38 is ultimately not about Tamar, but about Judah and his line. Judah is the son of Jacob and the eponymous ancestor of the tribe and kingdom of Judah. But with this fact, one cannot simply dismiss this racy and perhaps troubling episode as somehow marginal to the story of Israel. This is the story of the survival of Judah’s line, as we learn in the birth of Perez that concludes the story, and certainly as early interpreters would have understood it: the genealogy concluding the book of Ruth picks up where Genesis 38 leaves off.
וַיְהִי כְּמֵשִׁיב יָדוֹ וְהִנֵּה יָצָא אָחִיו וַתֹּאמֶר מַה פָּרַצְתָּ עָלֶיךָ פָּרֶץ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פָּרֶץ.
But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez.
יח וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדוֹת פָּרֶץ פֶּרֶץ הוֹלִיד אֶת חֶצְרוֹן. יטוְחֶצְרוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת רָם וְרָם הוֹלִיד אֶת עַמִּינָדָב. כוְעַמִּינָדָב הוֹלִיד אֶת נַחְשׁוֹן וְנַחְשׁוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת שַׂלְמָה.כא וְשַׂלְמוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת בֹּעַז וּבֹעַז הוֹלִיד אֶת עוֹבֵד. כבוְעֹבֵד הוֹלִיד אֶת יִשָׁי וְיִשַׁי הוֹלִיד אֶת דָּוִד.
18 This is the line of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, 19 Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, 20 Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, 21 Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, 22 Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.
Not only is King David a descendent of Ruth, a Moabite who saves an important lineage. David’s line goes all the way back to a much more brazen woman, to Tamar, who upends all cherished norms in Israel to ensure the survival of Judah.
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December 3, 2017
January 19, 2021
Dr. Jacqueline Vayntrub is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. She holds a Ph.D. in Northwest Semitic Philology from the University of Chicago and she is the author of Beyond Orality, part of Routledge’s Ancient World series (forthcoming).
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