Parashat Vayeshev: Tamar: A mother of the Messiah

We see, on one hand, Tamar reduced to the worst of misogynistic stereotypes. On the other hand, within those parameters Tamar is a strong woman with agency and a moral code.

 ‘RECOGNIZING THIS, the Talmud places Tamar on a pedestal.’ (photo credit: Vanessa Lai/Unsplash)
‘RECOGNIZING THIS, the Talmud places Tamar on a pedestal.’
(photo credit: Vanessa Lai/Unsplash)

The Joseph cycle commencing with this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, extends through the end of Genesis – 14 chapters (37-50), including four parshiyot.

Near the beginning of this long narrative, an entire chapter devoted to Tamar and Judah is inserted. Within the arc of the Joseph chronicles, Judah ascends as the leader of his siblings, surpassing Reuben, the firstborn.

That dynamic of passing over the firstborn is a constant theme within the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs – Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Judah over Reuben; Ephraim over Manasseh. The message, as Rabbi Annie Tucker points out, is that we “will ultimately be judged not on account of seniority or size, power or place in the family; we will ultimately be judged on the strength of our character and our deeds in this world.”

So what is it about Judah’s character, and why is the episode of Judah and Tamar placed within the Joseph cycle?

Commenting on the opening words of chapter 38, Rashi says Judah’s failure to prevent the sale of Joseph to merchants, at the end of the previous chapter, leading to Joseph’s servitude in Egypt, caused Judah’s rise as a leader to falter. Tamar, as we will see, was the protagonist, testing Judah to see if he was fully ready to take on the leadership mantle.

In our chapter, Judah married and had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but he died. As Robert Alter points out, the “widespread practice in the ancient Near East” was that “when a man died, leaving his wife childless, his closest brother in order of birth was obligated to become his proxy, ‘raising up seed’ for him by impregnating his widow.” This was known as levirate marriage. Therefore, Judah told Onan to have sexual relations with Tamar. He did, but knowing the child would not be his, he spilled his seed through coitus interruptus. God was angry; Onan was killed. Judah knew that his last son, Shelah, should sleep with Tamar but delayed this, “Lest he, too, die like his brothers” (Gen. 38:11).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Time passed, and Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She learned that Judah was on his way to visit a friend in Timnah. She stationed herself along the way, dressed as a prostitute, and covered her face. Judah saw her, not knowing she was his daughter-in-law, and said, “Let me come into you” (Gen. 38:16).

Tamar was no fool, knowing of the asymmetry in the balance of power between her – a woman, and one then identified as a whore – and Judah. Thereupon, she demanded collateral from Judah that could identify him: his seal, his cord and his staff.

Alter comments, “Tamar’s stipulated pledge, then, is an extravagant one: taking the instruments of Judah’s legal identity and social standing, something like taking a person’s driver’s license and credit cards in modern society.”

For her services rendered, she was to be paid “a goat kid from the flock” (Gen. 38: 17-18). Rachel Adelman points out the significance of the goat: “The promised payment – a kid (goat) (gedi izim) from the flock – evokes an association with the goat (se‘ir izim) (Gen. 37:31) slaughtered to stain the ornamented tunic in lieu of Joseph’s blood. Whereas the pledge here stands instead of the goat to reveal the truth, in the Joseph story the goat’s blood serves to conceal the truth as a cover story” when Judah and his brothers deceived Jacob and told him Joseph was dead.

Per her wish, the encounter left Tamar pregnant. “After almost three New Moons” Tamar’s pregnancy became public (Gen. 38:24). Judah’s response? “Let her be burned” (Gen. 38:24).

As she was brought out for an agonizing and painful execution (first she would be stoned to death, and then her body burned), Tamar remained calm, and sent Judah his collateral, along with a message: “By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. Pray recognize – whose seal and cords and staff are these?” (Gen. 38:25). Judah, checkmated, responded, “She is more right than I! After all, I did not give her Shelah, my son!” (Gen. 38:26).

WHAT AN extraordinary series of events with many insights and lessons.

We see, on one hand, Tamar reduced to the worst of misogynistic stereotypes – woman depicted and appreciated as vagina and womb; woman as harlot; and woman as master of deceit. On the other hand, within those parameters Tamar is a strong woman with agency and a moral code – remaining faithful to perpetuating the name of her deceased husband. With truth on her side, she did not confront Judah publicly to ridicule and embarrass him. Moreover, she did not accuse him of being the one who made her pregnant. Rather, she gave him the option to tell the truth; if not, the death sentence would have been carried out on her.

Recognizing this, the Talmud places Tamar on a pedestal: “It is more amenable for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace and not humiliate another in public. From where do we [derive this]? From Tamar, as she preferred to face death rather than humiliate Judah” (Sotah 10b).

We can now understand Judah’s response to Tamar more fully. It is not that Tamar is more righteous than Judah merely because of the truth revealed but that she chose the truth to surface without embarrassing him.

That moment sends us back to the Garden of Eden. When the serpent spoke with Eve, it let her know that if she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, “your eyes will be opened” (Gen. 3:5). One facet of knowing the difference between good and bad is the responsibility we must take for our actions. Shortly after the conversation between the serpent and Eve, both Adam and Eve pushed off their responsibility to others. If there is a “sin” in the Garden of Eden story, that is it. In essence, one way to understand the main thrust of the Torah is to see it as a guide for taking ownership of our behavior.

This brings us back to this week’s parasha. When Tamar met Judah on the way to Timnah, the place was called Petah Einayim, “the opening of eyes.” This name connects us to that incident in the Garden and its timeless message of human answerability for our actions. And at the end of the matter, Judah answered for his conduct through the masterful guidance of Tamar.

Tamar’s reward for this? The Messiah will emerge from the descendants of one of her twins, Peretz.

These events are certainly not the backstory we would think about when it comes to the messianic lineage. And perhaps that is the point: The Messiah will emerge from the messiness of being human.

That is reinforced generations later, when we are given further information on the genealogy of the Messiah through the story of Ruth and Boaz, a story that is also complicated, including a levirate marriage. When Boaz and Ruth married, the citizens of Bethlehem blessed them: “May your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12).

“May your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore to Judah”

Ruth 4:12

Tamar may not be a matriarch, but she is worthy of being a mother of the Messiah. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.