Judah Meets Tamar “On the Road to Timnah”
Tucked into the middle of the Joseph story, between his abandonment or sale by his brothers and his purchase in Egypt, is the independent story of Tamar and Judah (Gen 38). The story opens with:
בראשית לח:א וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו וַיֵּט עַד אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה.
Gen 38:1 About that time Judah left (lit. “went down from”) his brothers and camped (נ.ט.ה/י) near (lit. “as far as”) a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.
The geographical settings are key to the story, and yet—whether intentionally or not—geographical movement is only obscurely and imprecisely described here as relative motion “down,” and later, we will see, “up” (v. 12). This opening verse presents us with a location not yet mentioned in the previous stories: Adullam, a town south of Beth Shemesh overlooking the Elah Valley, also referred to in vv. 12 and 20.
Given the pastoral-nomadic context of the whole story, it’s unclear whether Judah actually settles in Adullam itself; all the story suggests is that he was in the region of Adullam, where he meets his wife:
בראשית לח:ב וַיַּרְא שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ.
Gen 38:2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and lay with her.
The couple has three sons (vv. 3–5), Er, Onan, and Shelah, and when the oldest is of age, Judah finds him a wife:
בראשית לח:ו וַיִּקַּח יְהוּדָה אִשָּׁה לְעֵר בְּכוֹרוֹ וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר.
Gen 38:6 Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar.
Unlike his friend Hirah, or Shua and his daughter, Tamar’s origins have no geographic context, and the text never directly states she is Canaanite, though she likely was. Her origins and group affiliation are opaque; they do not seem to matter.
Er dies soon after, killed by YHWH for some undisclosed “wickedness” (v. 7). Tamar is then married to the next brother, Onan, who refuses to help her become pregnant, so YHWH kills him as well (vv. 8–10).
Tamar on the Road to Timnah
The reader knows that the brothers are to blame for their own deaths, but Judah believes Tamar is to blame, a “fatal woman” (אשה קטלנית) somehow for the men. He therefore sends her back to her father’s house (wherever that is) ostensibly until his third child is grown, though in reality he has no intention of allowing the marriage to proceed (v. 11).
When she realizes that he is lying to her, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She covers her face to be unrecognizable and sits down on the side of road that Judah will be taking. Covered with a veil, Judah believes his daughter-in-law is a prostitute and asks to sleep with her; she agrees, providing Judah leave his seal, cord, and staff as pledges for payment. Tamar’s plan, it seems, is to become pregnant, thus forcing Judah to fulfill the levirate duties in place of his son Shelah.
Judah only realizes this later, when he is about to have his daughter-in-law executed (for adultery, apparently!), and she pulls out the seal, cord, and staff that he left with her, forcing Judah to declare in the end that צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי “[Tamar] is more in the right than I” or literally “more righteous than I” (v. 26), likely making more of a legal claim about Tamar’s “righteousness” than a moral one. The story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins, Zerah and Peretz, both of whom become the eponymous fathers of Judahite clans; later texts claim that King David was descended from the line of Peretz.
Unlike other narratives in Genesis (such as Rebecca’s complaint in Genesis 27:46, or the Dinah story in Genesis 34), this narrative betrays no concern about marrying locals, starting with Judah marrying the daughter of a Canaanite, and moving on to Tamar’s likely outsider status.
Instead, the narrative elevates Tamar as an essential link in the continuation of Judah’s line. If Judah stands for the tribe of Judah or the southern geographical region of Israel, then Tamar stands for something uncertain and ambiguous but non-threatening. This point is highlighted in the historical-geographic setting of their sexual encounter: Timnah.
Interwoven Geography and Identity in Genesis 38
Tucked into the middle of this story is Timnah. It’s a place that’s easy to miss when we’re focused on the narrative action, but the city, mentioned three times in three verses, plays a key role in the story’s imagery and narrative logic; it is essential for creating the space for Tamar and Judah to come together (literally and figuratively) for their fateful encounter:
בראשית לח:יב וַיִּרְבּוּ הַיָּמִים וַתָּמָת בַּת שׁוּעַ אֵשֶׁת יְהוּדָה וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוּדָה וַיַּעַל עַל גֹּזֲזֵי צֹאנוֹ הוּא וְחִירָה רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי תִּמְנָתָה. לח:יג וַיֻּגַּד לְתָמָר לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה חָמִיךְ עֹלֶה תִמְנָתָה לָגֹז צֹאנוֹ. לח:יד וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם אֲשֶׁר עַל דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה כִּי רָאֲתָה כִּי גָדַל שֵׁלָה וְהִוא לֹא נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. לח:טו וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה כִּי כִסְּתָה פָּנֶיהָ. לח:טז וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל הַדֶּרֶךְ...
Gen 38:12 A long time afterward, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died. When his period of mourning was over, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, together with his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 38:13 And Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing.” 38:14 So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as a wife. 38:15 When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. 38:16 So he turned aside to her by the road…
Judah goes “up” to Timnah from wherever he resides (note the importance of topographical movement based on simple designations of “up” and “down,” as opposed to geographical directions like north and south, as noted at the outset of this article). He does not, however, come upon Tamar in the city itself but rather while he is travelling towards Timnah, as attested by the locative or directional heh suffix on Timnah (the text three times says timnathah, toward Timnah, instead of timnah); in fact, nine out of twelve biblical attestations to Timnah contain this directional focus. In some cases, this appears to be a frozen form, but the overall impression here is that Timnah is a space to head toward—yonder—one that remains somewhere “over there” relative to the location of the writer.
In contrast to Judah, who is coming up from Adullam, we have no sense of where Tamar is coming from when she travels towards Timnah; we are never told where she is from or where her father’s house is. In relation to Judah, Tamar, too, is somewhere “over there.” In coming together somewhere around Timnah, they leave the confines of their worlds momentarily to meet somewhere betwixt and between.
Timnah’s placement within the narrative is intentional, its setting essential for these two characters to intermingle outside of the appropriate social boundaries and structures. It is somewhere around Timnah where questionable sexual and cross-cultural activity can occur momentarily.
Entangled Relationships: Tamar and the Unnamed Woman in Judges 14–15
Timnah serves a similar function in the story of Samson (Judg 14–15), as a place where Israelites, non-Israelites, and non-descript locals can meet and interact:
שופטים יד:ה וַיֵּרֶד שִׁמְשׁוֹן וְאָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ תִּמְנָתָה וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד כַּרְמֵי תִמְנָתָה... יד:ז וַיֵּרֶד וַיְדַבֵּר לָאִשָּׁה וַתִּישַׁר בְּעֵינֵי שִׁמְשׁוֹן. יד:ח וַיָּשָׁב מִיָּמִים לְקַחְתָּהּ...
Judg 14:5 Samson and his father and mother went down to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah… 14:7 Then he went down and spoke to a woman, and she pleased Samson. 14:8 Returning the following year to marry her…
The characters then converge upon this location for a seven-day wedding feast that leads to a series of disputes between Samson and the locals that eventually precipitates his battle against the Philistines.
In both Genesis 38 and Judges 14–15, Timnah becomes the locus of strange engagements between different groups. In both contexts, a woman stands at the center of these interactions. The women’s identity is, like that of Tamar, indeterminate and vague. She has no name and never quite fits into any social world.
The Archaeological Discussion (Very Briefly)
Why would scribes use Timnah to reflect indeterminate spaces and the entanglement of people? Perhaps because Timnah, and the Shephelah more broadly, were remembered as indeterminate or mixed in terms of people and social groups in the Iron Age.
This is supported by archaeological evidence regarding the Shephelah, which was an entangled area in terms of its social composition throughout this time. People whom the Bible labels simply Philistine, Canaanite, and/or Israelite appear to have interacted and coexisted, and identities were more fluid than we might imagine.
For example, places like Beth-Shemesh and Lachish appeared to thrive as western Judahite towns from the tenth through mid-eighth centuries B.C.E. But evidence from sites slightly further west and running along the base of the hills, during the same period, is much more debatable, including places like Tel Zayit and Timnah.
Politically, these sites may see-saw over time from Philistine to Judahite control. Yet political control is not the same thing as social composition: in other words, someone's identity does not shift simply because external political control shifts. Therein lies the uncertainty.
Timnah: Philistine or Philistine Dominated?
Since the 1960s, Timnah has been identified with Tel Batash in the southeast Shephelah, between the eastern hill country of Judah and the coastal plain (home of the so-called Philistines). Amichai Mazar, the site director, has proposed that evidence from the late 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. points to “Philistine dominance,” yet he has also stated that the question of the extent to which the town was actually inhabited by these coastal people is “hard to answer.”
Determining the ethnic and political affiliation of Timanh in later periods is difficult as well. Thus, Mazar and others are conflicted about the material evidence from the short-lived 10th or early 9th century town, as well as from the last stratum prior to Sennacherib’s campaign (Stratum III, 8th century), both of which reveal a combination of coastal (Philistine) and inland elements. And even after the area’s political reconfiguration toward the coast in 701 B.C.E., Mazar states that the question of Timnah’s social makeup cannot be answered definitively. Tel Batash was destroyed by fire sometime in the late seventh to early sixth centuries B.C.E., and subsequent remains into the Persian period are insignificant.
Iron Age Entanglements
The literary portrayals of Timnah in biblical narratives may be historically useful, pointing to a social landscape from the Iron Age that is confusing and uncertain from the outside scribal perspective. The ambiguity of Timnah and the characters linked with the site may reflect the confusion and entanglement of the region throughout the Iron Age.
It becomes the space for key interactions in biblical narrative that might not otherwise occur, or that perhaps make its writers and readers uncomfortable; Timnah is both the space and the embodiment of somewhere neither here nor there, politically and socially, in between known worlds.
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Dr. Mahri Leonard-Fleckman is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Religious Studies Department at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA). She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies from New York University's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (2014), and is the author of The House of David: Between Political Formation and Literary Revision (Fortress Press, 2016), and co-author of The Book of Ruth (Wisdom Commentary Series, Liturgical Press, 2017). She is currently working on a project on entanglements of identity in the Iron Age Shephelah.
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