Tamar's Extraordinary Risk: A Narrative—not a Law—of Yibbum
Introduction: Levirate Marriage in Law and Narrative
The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 describes the triumph of justice against tremendous odds. At the start of the story, Judah arranges for his son Er to marry Tamar. After he dies, Judah instructs his son Onan to take Tamar in marriage so that Er might have an heir, but Onan refuses to impregnate Tamar, and God strikes him down. After Onan dies, Judah promises Tamar that Shelah, his youngest son, will take her in a “levirate marriage” (from the Latin word levir, meaning “husband’s brother”) when he comes of age. As time goes on, Judah regrets his promise because he grows fearful that Shelah will also die like his brothers (vv. 1–11). This leaves Tamar stuck, unable to marry and have children.
The Law of Levirate
The marital arrangements made for Tamar in this story clearly bear some relationship to the law of levirate, found in Deuteronomy 25:5–10:
דברים כה:ה כִּי יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ לֹא תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה לְאִישׁ זָר יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ׃ כה:ו וְהָיָה הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד יָקוּם עַל שֵׁם אָחִיו הַמֵּת וְלֹא יִמָּחֶה שְׁמוֹ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל׃
Deut 25:5 When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: he shall take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty. 25:6 The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.
According to this law, if a woman’s husband dies and leaves no son to carry on his name, his brother is to attempt to produce a son by his widow, who will carry on the name of the deceased.
Narrative vs. Law
The story of Tamar and Judah also involves a case of a deceased brother and the desire—in this case of the father, Judah, and the widow—for a surviving brother to produce an heir for the deceased. Yet instead of following the straightforward procedure found in Deuteronomy’s law, the narrative takes the reader in a very different direction ending with the production of twins by the deceased’s father, not brother.
Although the story is in conversation with the practice of yibbum, it is not a legal text. It is not attempting to legitimize father-in-law yibbum or prostitution as a solution, nor is it necessarily evidence of a historical stage in the development of the legal institution of yibbum: rather, the story is exploring the issue of justice and power dynamics as they play out in levirate marriage. In cases such as this, in which a narrative seems to be in tension with a law (only brothers can perform yibbum according to Deut 25), an awareness of how narrative shapes legal matters for the sake of larger narrative goals is crucial.
Narratives and laws have different goals. Whereas laws strive for justice by mandating appropriate procedures for addressing wrongs, narratives may strive for justice by exposing the truth and revealing the complexity of circumstances. In this case, the narrative emphasizes the extraordinary injustice done to Tamar and her efforts to redress that injustice, at great risk to herself.
The Marriage of Tamar: Docility Versus Initiative
From the start of the narrative until Judah’s decision to withhold Shelah, the text describes Tamar as passive. She takes no initiative in her first marriage, and the text records no reaction on her part to Onan’s refusal to impregnate her. Further on, when Judah asks her to return to her father’s house and wait for his youngest son to grow up, she complies. The narrative again omits any response from her.
Tamar’s extreme submissiveness reflects the limited options available to women in such circumstances. She is at the mercy of others. But her initial docility serves as a sharp contrast to the drastic action she must undertake to achieve justice. Only an act that puts her in extreme peril can bring about her vindication.
The narrative is shaped by retarding elements, intensifying the darkness of the back-story to Tamar’s desperate act. From the beginning of the story, husband after husband dies, and Tamar’s father-in-law Judah’s delay in bringing her and his youngest son together lasts so long that his own wife dies in the meantime. Tamar is sent back to her father’s home, and she waits patiently for little Shelah to grow up. The length of the delay compels a hitherto passive Tamar to take action in order to finally become pregnant.
Tamar’s solution is unconventional. She decides to seduce her father-in-law (as opposed to her brother-in-law). To do so, she takes advantage of Judah’s trip to sheer his sheep. She catches his attention standing by the roadside in a veil, leading him to mistake her for a prostitute. She requests his staff, seal, and cord as collateral and sleeps with him, after which she becomes pregnant (vv. 12–18).
Tamar’s union with Judah is depicted as justified by Judah’s inaction, but her vindication is still not at hand. Neither Judah nor the community knows who impregnated her, and Judah, believing her guilty of fornication, condemns her to death (v. 24).
Judah is portrayed as capable of acting rightly: he does try to pay the supposed prostitute (vv. 20–23). But when he condemns Tamar, she offers no justification or defense, and the tension builds. Only when she is literally brought out to be burned for her supposed crime does she send Judah his staff, seal, and cord as a private hint that he is the father. Even then, the reader does not know what Judah will do with this information: will he deny his action, or will he acknowledge it? Tamar’s vindication is postponed to the last possible moment, and this delay creates an intense indictment of Judah. It also creates a powerful vindication for Tamar. Animated by fury and emotional agony, she seeks relief by humiliating Judah in the most extreme way:
בראשית כח:כה הִוא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה׃
Gen 28:25 As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”
The correctness of Tamar’s act is affirmed by Judah’s speedy confirmation that she is in the right:
בראשית כח:כו וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי.
Gen 28:26 Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Judah is depicted as publicly and without hesitation acknowledging his fault.
Judah Caught Between Authority and Duty
Tamar is not the only one who has suffered. Judah has endured calamity as well. The narrative portrays in short order the demise of Judah’s older sons, followed by the death of his wife, intensifying the portrayal of Judah’s loss. Judah has met with severe grief, and his ill behavior toward Tamar receives a measure of justification.
Although Judah is the pater familias, his power and authority are limited. He complies with the law of levirate and sends a son to Tamar. When he defers dispatching a second son, his youngest, he feels the need to provide the justification that his youngest son is still a boy and not ready for marriage. When Tamar shows him his staff, seal, and cord, Judah formally recognizes the validity of her claim without hesitation.
The limited power of Judah as pater familias is no different from that of other patriarchs. A patriarch may have the right to bestow blessings and curses, yet he is depicted as powerless when one son steals the birthright from the other (Gen 27). A patriarch may fulfill a divine command to offer even his son as a sacrifice, but whether a patriarch would perceive this as a voluntary act on his part is doubtful (Gen 22).
The condemnation of Tamar to death is not a reflection of Judah’s power as pater familias. Rather, Judah is the injured party seeking redress on behalf of his son Shelah. He demands her execution because it is his duty to protect his family’s interests. The narrative does not include a trial because Tamar’s pregnancy cannot be denied or contested.
Judah’s Power vs. Tamar’s Powerlessness
Despite the fact that Judah’s power is limited by the legal and religious norms to which he subscribes, Judah is a person of independent legal standing and can exercise his right in the legal arena, while Tamar, as a woman, cannot. She has to have recourse to extraordinary means to gain justice.
Why is there no male to act on Tamar’s behalf in this story? Is her father dead? Are her other male relatives deceased as well, so that she has to act on her own? Perhaps her father-in-law is her only living male relative, but this is problematic for her, since he himself is the offender.
Tamar is far from the only woman in the Genesis narratives to be childless, but her childlessness differs from the others.While the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are barren and in need of miraculous intervention, Tamar is not described as either barren or elderly. Tamar is a young wife when she becomes a childless widow and she is apparently fertile; the problem lies with the men. Her husbands, Er and Onan, die because they are sinful, and her intended third husband, Shelah, is held back from her unfairly by her father-in-law, Judah. Thus, Tamar’s childlessness is due to the failings of men and has nothing to do with her.
Three Unredeemed Men
The unredeemed villains in this narrative are Judah’s sons. His oldest son, Er, sins and dies as punishment. His second son, Onan, complies with the outward actions of levirate marriage and is even intimate with Tamar. But privately, he takes action to prevent him from impregnating her and producing an heir for his brother. The narrative does not depict the youngest son, Shelah, as having an interest in marrying Tamar, an attitude forgivable when he was still a child, but no longer once he is grown up.
A Redeemed Man and a Righteous Woman
The two protagonists in Genesis 38, Judah and Tamar, have suffered tragedy. Both Judah’s inaction and Tamar’s actions receive justification in the narrative. Judah’s delay is due to fear and is understandable. Tamar has no power in her society, and “her men” have failed her. Thus, to attain justice, she must use whatever power she has, which, in this case, is the power to seduce.
After her vindication, she gives birth to twins, and the birth of twins may be a reward. But it is debatable whether God is rewarding Tamar for her extreme deed or rewarding Judah for his truthfulness. Perhaps both.
A narrative offers a perspective on justice distinct from the way legal texts portray legal matters. It portrays the human drama, people’s incoherent and unpredictable behavior, the strength and fragility of the human spirit. While the law of levirate in Deuteronomy provides a straightforward technical solution to the problem of a man who dies without an heir, the story of Judah and Tamar presents the more complex reality of a woman’s role in a world where she is relatively powerless.
Tamar has been wronged by Judah, but he is far from being an unrepentant villain. He has also experienced profound sorrow. A powerless Tamar changes her fate by extreme action and is acclaimed by the very person she humiliated.
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December 9, 2016
March 11, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Pamela Barmash is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Yale University, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World, the co-editor of Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in the Jewish Experience, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law (forthcoming).
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