Many members of the three Religions of the Book use the Bible as a source of guidance for matters of character formation and decision-making. Employment of biblical passages for ethical purposes is not without its complications, however. One such complication occurs in Genesis 38, in the story of Judah’s seduction by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
Judah’s misconduct is part of a larger picture of good and bad behavior in Jacob’s family. Reuben’s dalliance with his father’s concubine results in a rebuke (Gen 49:3-4). Joseph’s fidelity to his employer initially leads to a temporary setback. (Readers might wonder, however, if Potiphar really believes his wife’s tale since he has Joseph jailed instead of executed.) In the end, Joseph’s incarceration is but a stepping stone to better things (Genesis 39). These stories cohere reasonably well with contemporary sexual ethics since continence is rewarded and incontinence is punished. Judah’s tale, however, is a bit more complicated.
Tamar was married to Judah’s two older sons, both of whom died before they fathered children. Judah declined to give Tamar to his third son, fearing that the boy might meet the same fate as his brothers. When Tamar discovered Judah’s failure to meet his obligation to her, and that his wife had died, she disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah while he was traveling. When her pregnancy was reported to Judah he initially ordered her death. However, after she presented strong evidence of his paternity he backed down and admitted her superior moral standing by saying “She is more right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:26).
So far, so good! Judah’s sexual incontinence has cost him a good deal of “face” in front of his clan and company. But what about Tamar? How will God punish her? Ahhhh….here’s the fly in the ointment, then. Rather than punishment, Tamar is rewarded by the birth of twin sons (Gen 38:27). As these things go, Tamar is one very, very fortunate woman!
(I can tell you for a fact that this story does not always go over well with nineteen year old students, who do not always appreciate moral ambiguity.)
So what to make of all this? I think this story warns us to go a bit more slowly and carefully when using the Bible for ethical purposes. We live in a society where sexual sin has little public tolerance but this has not always been the case. Judah’s evaluation of his own failure mentions his responsibilities to his clan, that is, that he should have given Tamar to Shelah, not his personal sexual morality. Likewise, Joseph’s protestations indicate that his concern is with Potiphar’s wife as Potiphar’s property, not sexual purity. In both cases the interest is in honoring commitments but the commitments in question are not directed solely toward personal chastity.
And Tamar? Tamar is simply one of those shrewd characters like Ehud or Jonathan who are much admired for their courage and wit, and who are very hard to dislike precisely because of what they’re willing and able to do. But I don’t expect to see her extolled as a role model for the YW anytime soon, even if I’d do it in a heartbeat!
(Yes, I know this comes from Lesson 11 and everybody but me is on Lesson 12. I’ll do a another piece tomorrow…)