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Tamar’s veil

The tale of Tamar’s adventure, in chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis, appears at first to be a series of enigmatic scenes until we begin to unravel the plot. If we are to follow the logic of this story’s development we must linger over the very odd behaviour of Judah which inspired it. We read in Scripture: “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shu’a; he married her and went in to her”. Then springs to mind the bitterness of Isaac and Rebecca and Isaac’s advice to Jacob, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women”. Thus Judah took to wife a woman who did not belong to his tribe, who came from a Canaanite clan outside the lineage of Abraham. (Gen 28:1). But what did it mean for Judah to separate himself from his brothers when he allied himself with a Canaanite clan?

Francesco Hayez, “Tamar” (1847, detail)

Here you find the trait of a priest: the man who separates himself from his brothers to dedicate himself to God. Moses was to say to Levi that he should detach himself in order to exercise the functions of worship: anyone “who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers […]. They […] observed your word and kept your Covenant” (Dt 33:9). God was to separate Israel, the chosen people, from the other nations (cf. Lev 20:26). Judah must thus have separated himself from his brothers for religious reasons. He must have united himself with a family of Canaanite priests, the only priests in the circle of the children of Israel before Moses. Let us remember that the leaders of the tribe, Joseph and Moses, both married the daughters of priests. Obviously, this was before there were priests in the descendence of Abraham. It was not expected of these two Jews that they would plan to marry women from outside their clans and, in addition, the daughters of priests. Joseph, son of Jacob, was to receive as wife from the hands of the Pharoah Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. By her he had children of whom Jacob was to say: “In them let my name be perpetuated and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac”(Gen 48:16). Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of Reuel, known as Jethro, the priest of Midian. The sons she gave Moses were to take charge of the tribe of Levi for the service of the temple which God was to build through her. The sons of Abraham had preserved the record of the relationship that existed between the Patriarch and Melchizedek, King of Salem (the ancient Jerusalem in Canaan) and a priest of God Most High (cf. Gn 14:18-19). Abraham had given Melchizedek a tenth part of all, since he was his priestly father desired by God. Thus he justified his ministry, but he did so only once, as if to testify that his mission was approaching its end: for God had made a Covenant with him, Abraham, and the country of Canaan had been given to him as his everlasting inheritance (cf. Gn 13:15; 17:8). Among the twelve tribes, Judah, singled out from his brothers as one who aspires to the vocation of the priesthood, was to receive the prophecy of a royal priesthood which could not but recall that of Melchizedek. Jacob, the Patriarch, laid on Judah’s head the blessing of the descendent who was to exercise sovereign power in the fulfilment of a royal and priestly mission. “To him shall be the obedience of the peoples [...] he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes”. It was a long awaited expiation for the vineyard that God planted, in Salem and in Sion. Because of this descendent and, “until he comes to whom it belongs”, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Gen 49:10-12). Let us return to the text where we see how attentive Judah is to obtaining the genealogical fruits of what he has undertaken. His wife conceives and gives birth to Er, Onan and Shelah (cf. Gen 38:1-5). Judah gives Tamar as wife to Er, his first-born son, but Er dies. “Then Judah said to Onan, [his second son]: “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother’. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his […]; he spilled the semen on the ground [...]. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also” (Gen 38:8-10). “Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law: ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up’ – for he feared that ‘he would die like his brothers’. So Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house” (Gen 38:11). Judah was afraid that Shelah might be equally hostile to his duty as a brother-in-law. It is surprising that Judah had observed the duty of the levirate marriage that was to be codified among the Jews, the offspring of Shem, only after the exodus from Egypt, that is, several generations later. But here God himself punishes the brother who wished to evade this law. Let us note that Abraham was to declare of his wife, Sarah, “She is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not of my mother” (Gen20:12), which does not surprise his Canaanite partner in conversation. Thus is an indication that Abraham’s father, Terah, his mother’s husband, had married in addition to his mother the leviratic widow of his brother who had died childless and by whom he had had one daughter, Sarah. Thus when Abraham took Sarah to be his wife, she was both his sister and his wife. But then in the Garden of Eden, when the man receives the woman created from his rib, that wife of his own flesh is also his sister. The figure of the sister-wife therefore already exists. One understands that the consequence of this particular circumstance was the creation of a complex genealogical order. To remedy the dispersion of the patrimony, a man had to take a wife from within the clan. Further, in the case of an heir dying without leaving progeny, his brother was required to perpetuate his name by marrying the widow, of the same flesh, with whom he would create a descendence. It was very important for Abraham to pass on within the clan his prophetic inheritance, particularly Noah’s prophecy in favour of Abraham’s ancestor Shem and to the detriment of Canaan (cf. Gen 9:29). Let us continue to read the tale. Much time elapsed. Shelah grew up but Tamar realized that her father-in-law had no intention of offering her as wife to his third-born son. It was then that she intervened with a dramatic turn of events. She found the opportunity to weave a plot and to obtain the longed for conception from a seed of the lineage of Judah. Then her sister-in-law, the daughter of Judah’s wife Shu’a, died. When Judah was comforted, having gone though the period of mourning he went to the feast for the shearing of his flock. Tamar had been informed. “Then Tamar put off her widow’s garments, and put on a veil, wrapping herself up” (38:14), and sat on the road Judah was to take, certainly thinking that he would be drunk. “Judah saw her and thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face [...]. He said to her: ‘Come, let me come in to you!’. Indeed, he did not know she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’. He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock’ (38:17). As a precaution Tamar asked him for a pledge: “‘Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand’. So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood” (38:19). Knowing what she was about to do, Tamar requested the pledge, which in a certain sense was Judah’s signature, as a symbolic expression of the royal vocation of the one whose ruler’s staff shall not be taken from between his feet. Courteously receiving this pledge from Judah’s hands, Tamar could interpret the gesture as an encouragement of God, a secret prophecy. And perhaps without this pledge she would not have dared to go to all the way. “When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he could not find her. And he asked the men of the place, ‘Where is the harlot who was […] by the wayside?’. And they said, ‘No harlot has been here’ […]. About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has played the harlot; and moreover she is with child by harlotry’” – it was certainly Tamar who saw that the information reached his ears – “and Judah said: ‘Bring her out, and let her be burnt’” (38:20-24). Tamar then had the objects given in pledge examined, and Judah, embarrassed, said, “‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah’. And he did not lie with her again” (Gen 38:26). It should be remembered here that Judah, in learning of about Tamar’s harlotry, wanted to have her burnt. This is what the law says: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire” (Lev 21:9). That this law may be applied to Tamar because she prostituted herself is an indication that she is the daughter of a Canaanite priest. Moreover, the fact that Judah could punish her publicly, that is, legitimately, is in turn an indication that before Moses the priests of Canaan had the duty, as did their daughters, to observe this law. Tamar’s attitude showed that she shared with Judah the same understanding of the faith. As the daughter of a Canaanite priest she was attentive to the promises made to the patriarchs. Expelled from the clan of Judah, she managed to expose herself, risking ignominy and death. However Tamar seems to have perceived a blessing hidden in the nature of the payment for her harlotry: not money but a kid, a sacrificial animal of Judah’s flock. This reveals Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, as a symbol of her nation in its prostitutions. It is however in full justice that she conceived with her father-in-law, and Judah himself recognizes her to be more righteous than him. If such was Judah’s testimony, 

what can be said of God who permits the unexpected epilogue of this adventure, despite the nerve of Tamar in having recourse to means contrary to the religious morality of the pious man, Canaanite or Jew? God thus granted the request of the daughter of the Canaanite priest who longed with her whole soul for the alliance with the clan of Judah, son of Abraham. If Tamar had been condemned for harlotry, she would have been burned alive. Judah had to give a lamb, a head of his flock, in exchange for the pledge received. But since Tamar is justified as the daughter-in-law of Judah who bears his heirs in her womb, that animal of the little flock promised to Tamar in the end must be restored to the clan of Judah. That lamb was not then for Judah simply an animal from his flock, but rather the prediction of the new sacrificial victims that he was awaiting because God made a Covenant with Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3). Judah deserved the prophecy of the new high priest whom God wanted to have born in the descendence of the patriarchs, but this would not have happened without the pressing request of the Canaanite woman, daughter of the Canaanite priest.

Marie Besançon

The author

Born in 1932 and baptized on Easter Day 1975, the Biblicist Marie Goldstyn in Besançon sought refuge in the High Pyrenees during the Second World War. Among her books we recall “L’affaire de David et Bethsabée et la généalogie du Christ” (1997), “Le Fils de l’homme et l’épouse: la figure nuptiale du Cantique des Cantiques” (2003), “Le péché originel et la vocation d’Adam l’homme sacerdotal” (2007), “Marie l’Immaculée conception” (2011), “Si Dieu est bon, pourquoi la mort? Quand l’intelligence cherche la foi” (2014).

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