(Ananya Malhotra ’20 wrote this paper for HUM 216-217.)

6 And Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 And Er his firstborn was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 And Judah said to Onan, “Come to bed with your brother’s wife and do your duty as brother-in-law for her and raise up seed for her.” 9 And Onan knew that the seed would not be his and so when he would come to bed with his brother’s wife, he would waste it on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother. 10 And what he did was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and He put him as well to death. 11 And Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Stay a widow in your father’s house until Shelah my son is grown up,” for he thought, Lest he, too, die like his brothers. And Tamar went and stayed in her father’s house.

12 And a long time passed and the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died, and after the mourning period Judah went up to his sheepshearers, he with Hirah the Adulamite his friend, to Timnah. 13 And Tamar was told, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to sheer his sheep.” 14 And she took off her widow’s garb and covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself and sat by the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah, for she saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as a wife. 15 And Judah saw her and he took her for a whore, for she had covered her face. 16 And he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, pray, let me come to bed with you,” for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, “What will you give me for coming to bed with me?” 17 And he said, “I personally will send a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give a pledge till you send it,” 18 And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said, “Your seal-and-cord, and the staff in your hand.” And he gave them to her and he came to bed with her and she conceived by him. 19 And she rose and went her way and took off the veil she was wearing and put on her widow’s garb. 20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adulamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, and he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place saying, “Where is the cult-harlot, the one at Enaim by the road?” And they said “There has been no cult-harlot here.” 22 And he returned to Judah and said, “I could not find her, and the men of the place said as well, “There has been no cult-harlot here.” 23 Then Judah said, “Let her take them, lest we be a laughingstock. Look, I sent this kid and you cannot find her.”

24 And it happened about three months later that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law has played the whore and what’s more, she’s conceived by her whoring.” And Judah said, “Take her out to be burned.” 25Out she was taken, when she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong I have conceived,” and she said, “Recognize, pray, whose are this seal-and-cord and this staff?” 26 And Judah recognized them and he said, “She is more in the right than I, for have I not failed to give her to Shelah, my son?” And he knew her again no more.

27 And it happened at the time she gave birth that, look, there were twins in her womb.

Genesis 38:6-27

Tamar’s story is an investigation into women’s agency, action, and identity. After having been defined by her relations with other men, stuck a “widow in her father’s house,” Tamar subverts her status as a passive object for sex by claiming the role of a prostitute (Gen. 38:11). At first reading, this narrative appears to malign Tamar’s prostitution, but upon closer look, it celebrates the force of her actions and critiques Judah’s foolishness. Through her own wit, Tamar inverts the power structures between men and women. She goes from being ordered around, acted upon, and shunted by her father-in-law, to stripping him of his own identity and redeeming herself. While these maneuvers take place under patriarchal rules, and perhaps to a patriarchal end, Tamar’s audacity and agency defines her story as an arguably feminist one.

Genesis 38 presents Judah and Onan as men who use women strictly for pleasure. Onan consciously decides when he “knew that the seed would not be his…and would waste it,” that nothing would come out of he and Tamar’s union but his own pleasure (7). Judah uses the veiled Tamar on the side of the road as a tool for sex, in order to relieve the built-up sexual tension of that long “mourning period” after his wife, Shua, dies (12). These relations establish Tamar’s status as an object, before reversing her role. By virtue of patriarchal law, she is reliant on men to define her status: on Judah, her unborn male children, her father, and on her brothers-in-law.

Though Judah is frightened of Tamar after his two elder sons are found dead, he still refuses to give her the agency to leave; he orders her to “stay a widow” — another descriptor of a woman which defines her in relation to a man – “in her father’s house” – a physical representation that she’s confined and defined by men (11). He thus strips her of any sexual mobility, or agency to remarry outside of his family, despite the fact that he fears that two of his sons have died specifically from sleeping with her. This puts her in an odd in-between place, as she is thus forced back to her former family in her father’s house, but is still ‘married into’ Judah’s house. She is neither single nor autonomous nor capable of looking to remarry, and yet, she cannot claim the social benefits of marriage without bearing male heirs from which to warrant Judah’s financial support. These patriarchal conditions which place her in a sort of limbo also provide the environment in which Tamar can seize her conditions and redefine herself.

When a woman has no societal identity or relevance except as defined by her relation to a man, she becomes a social nonentity in her own right; her essences become elusive and slippery. This social intangibility allows Tamar to gain her own agency, to “cover herself with a veil” and become whatever she wants to pursue her own ends (14). She elects to literally redefine herself as a prostitute. In doing so, she upends the society’s infliction of anonymity and invisibility onto a husbandless, childless woman in her father’s home, and uses it to her own advantage.

One must investigate Tamar’s choice to transform her warped and invisible identity into that of a prostitute. Prostitutes symbolically subvert the patriarchal assumption that women are tools meant for sex, by making men reliant on women, in that they are slaves to their own desire, and equipping women the bargaining power. This reversal of power is clearest when, as her face is covered and she sits by the road, Judah entreats her, “Here, pray, let me come to bed with you” (16). Once Tamar is no longer herself, she is in control; she makes demands. She, the woman he once banished away, now holds leverage over Judah; his desire puts him at a disadvantage in this bargain with his societal subordinate. By not accepting Judah at his word but rather demanding a pledge of his seal-and-cord and staff, she subverts the earlier power structure between them. In demanding more than his word to keep him accountable, she recalls and reverses the injustice that he once gave her his word that he would send Shelah to her, but never did.

Moreover, the “seal-and-cord,” as Alter states in his footnotes, represents a “signature,” or a symbol of identity, and the “staff” is a universal “symbol of authority” (18, Alter 221).  One of these, theoretically, would be enough to make sure Judah would keep his end of the bargain. But Tamar demands both, and Judah acquiesces. In doing so, Tamar reverses the largest power structure of all; before this encounter, she was a woman who lacked both an identity and authority within the patriarchal societal structure. By the end of this meeting with Judah, the head of a household is now symbolically stripped of his identity, his authority, and has left a nameless woman with his identity, authority, and his seed, guaranteeing her long term protection.

This central reversal is structurally framed by Tamar’s actions: through parallelism and a succinct collection of action, the passage reveals a careful narrative organization to these social reversals. Judah is the subject of almost every sentence until Tamar takes action halfway through. Tamar’s action is framed by two ‘tellings,’ during which either Tamar or Judah “was told” something crucial (13, 24). From the moment that Tamar “was told” that Judah was coming up to Timnah, the narrative becomes framed around a succinct, concentrated, symmetrical arc of her action, showing Tamar’s newfound agency (13). Gossip acts as the vehicle by which she can carefully orchestrate and execute her power; she, rather than Judah, becomes the subject of every sentence. Barring dialogue, the sentences detail her actions as follows: she “took off…covered herself…wrapped herself…sat…conceived…rose…went her way…took off…and put on” (14, 18, 19). She conducts this symmetrical circle of action as a professional would, with no hesitation, full of conviction. As Alter details in the footnotes of Verse 18, the rapidity with which “he gave them to her and came to bed with her and she conceived by him” connotes a certain businesslike severity which “Tamar gets exactly what she has aimed for” (Alter 221).

The second time the phrase “was told” appears, it directly follows Tamar’s course of action. Judah learns that his “daughter-in-law “played the whore and…conceived by her whoring” (Gen. 38:24). The matter-of-fact rapidity of Tamar’s prostitution, and her care to “cover herself with a veil” to conceal her identity, questions the means by which word could have possibly gotten out; no explanation is given (14). It is thus plausible that perhaps Tamar herself sent word out through the same channels by which she heard of Judah’s arrival, sending the line back in reverse to effect a conflict, so she could claim her reward from Judah. If interpreted as such, Tamar’s actions add another dimension of reversal, agency, and deliberation to her plot.

While the complexity of her narrative has proven Tamar’s brilliance, the reader may still question her motives, and the final end for her action. Only Verse 14 offers an explicit reason for her plot: “for she saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as wife”; the rest is left to the reader’s conjecture (14). To account for the whole chain of motives which ends with Tamar’s, the reader must go back to the first motive in the story amenable to reasonable inference, Judah’s command to Onan to impregnate Tamar. One wonders why Judah requests Onan to “raise up seed” for Tamar in his brother’s honor in the first place (8). In practice, it does not benefit Judah, and instead diffuses Onan’s inheritance, by siring a male heir which he cannot claim as his own. It seems that the only beneficiaries of Judah’s assignment are Tamar, who would receive a guarantee of financial support if she became pregnant, and her child.

Perhaps this could be one reason Tamar is so bent on bearing children, and why she pursues Judah himself. That she bore twins in itself could be significant, since technically, Judah himself fulfills what he assigned Onan to do: to carry on his firstborn’s line through a union with Tamar. Or, perhaps, she simply desires to assume her place as matriarch within an important line, one that would eventually include David and Jesus. Regardless, Tamar seeks to reverse her status as a social non-entity, and as a woman in between girlhood and marriage, has no social identity without having a male child. While this may be, in isolation, a patriarchal end, Tamar utilizes the tools of the patriarchy to perpetuate her own place within it, which, in principle, runs antithetically to a patriarchal narrative. Moreover, even looking past Tamar’s motive and action, the narrative’s conclusion overturns societal gender norms not only through Tamar’s wit and cunning, but also through its portrayal of patriarchal power, in the symbol of Judah.

Though Judah may be exonerated from incest, Genesis 38 reveals him as a hypocrite. He reduces Tamar’s worth to the ability to carry on his line, but fails to send his third son to do just that, out of fear. He attempts to burn Tamar for “playing the whore” while also purchasing the wares of a “cult-harlot” himself (24, 21). Ironically, in doing so, he almost kills the very person who carries on his line. Moreover, his seeming aversion to the crime of prostitution magnifies the irony that he tries so hard to honor his word to the prostitute, agreeing not only to send a kid but also to sign over his own identity and authority, while he fails to show nearly the same respect in an agreement with his own daughter-in-law. Even when he is forced to recognize his wrongdoing, he does not apologize; he merely says that she is “more right” than he is, thereby implying that he still has some degree of correctness (26). Nor does he free her from her father’s house, or offer her support, or send her his third son. He simply “knows her no more” (26).

Thus, these layers of Judah’s hypocrisy, and Tamar’s upheaval of his standards, expectations, and license to authority, together deliver Genesis 38’s single, subversive moral: those who are in power may not deserve the respect they get. Specifically, men in all their patriarchal authority often act blindly or foolishly, and women can and should be read as more dynamic characters not only with wombs, but with wits, ingenuity, and gall. Tamar commands her own sexual agency in a universe which tells women they have none, and in doing so, takes her place among the matriarchs. Though ancient Biblical texts often have been interpreted as regressive, especially concerning women’s place in society, perhaps modern interpretation can reveal them as even more transgressive and subversive than contemporary works themselves.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.


I pledge my honor that this paper represents my own work in accordance with university regulations.