Shabbat Vayeyshev: The female condition

December 7, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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This week, we have another narrative of a sexual nature concerning Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son Judah, the future leader of the Children of  Israel (Genesis Chapter 38).

After  Joseph is sold into slavery, Judah is blamed and goes into exile. There, he has three sons from a Canaanite wife, Shua. Er, Onan, and Shelah. He marries Er to another local woman called Tamar. But Er offends God and dies. Judah follows the ancient Middle Eastern custom of marrying the widow to the next son. This hints at the late Biblical command of Yibum, that when a brother dies childless, the next brother marries the widow to keep the name of the dead brother alive.

But Onan is not happy about it and refuses to consummate the marriage. So, he dies too. Tamar is sent home ( a humiliation ) to wait until the third son, Shelah, grows up.  But then Judah is reluctant to give her to Shelah following another ancient custom that a repeating widow was regarded as dangerous. Tamar waits at home expecting to be called.  But when she realizes that Judah does not intend to marry her to Shelah, she takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute and lies in wait for Judah at the crossroads she knows he will pass. Ironically the spot is called “ Eyes Wide Open.” Judah, coming home from a long, hard day of sheep shearing, sleeps with her. She demands payment, but he has nothing to give her and promises he will send something to her the next day.  She asks for his seal,  wallet, and staff as a pledge. The next day Judah sends his agent with a  nice goat to redeem his belongings, but Tamar has disappeared, and no one knows of any lady of the night in the area so he returns empty-handed.

A few months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and Judah hears and condemns her as an adulteress to death. At her trial, she produces the pledges and Judah realizes that he has betrayed her twice and has wronged her. He says, “ She is more righteous than me.” And he takes her back into his family not as a wife but as a respected daughter-in-law. Had it not been for Tamar’s determination and initiative, the whole story could have ended in tragedy. Happily, it did not.

I don’t think it is coincidental that there is another Biblical Tamar. The story of the rape of Tamar by  Amnon. Both of them were children of King David from different wives ( David had 19 sons named in the Bible. Probably a lot more). Amnon lusts after his half-sister Tamar. He is encouraged by his devious cousin Jonadab to pretend he is sick and ask his father King David to command his half-sister Tamar to come and nurse him. David who does not seem to have a very paternal close relationship with his children suspects nothing and tells Tamara to go and tend to her half-brother. When she arrives, Amnon overpowers her and rapes her. Then he is disgusted and throws her out.  In desperation, she goes to her brother Absalom ( not to her father, notice). who tells her to remain with him in his home and leave the matter to him to sort out.

For whatever reason David is not informed of the circumstances. But later, Absalom takes matters into his own hands. He tells his father that he wants all the brothers to come to a special festival he’s going to put on for his annual sheep shearing. Amnon, unsuspectingly turns up at that festival and Absalom kills him.

Not a very nice story altogether and one in which one can only feel so sorry for Tamar and at the same time upset that David, for whatever great qualities he may have had and however great a leader he may have been, either he had no time to discipline his family or was impervious to their goings on or he simply spoiled them rotten. This failure is reinforced by the two rebellions against him by his sons first of Absalom and then Adonijah. You can read the full story in the Bible (2 Samuel Chapter 13). Sibling rivalry and jockeying for power were a feature of our great Biblical kings!

Both these narratives illustrate the predicament of women in ancient times (and not so ancient). They seem to be pawns. And yet at the same time, there is another side to one of the the Tamar characters. Someone who can take matters into her own hands. I like to think the Torah is telling us that things don’t have to be the way they always were and there is potential for change.

And so it is with male dominance. The two men involved are very different. One refuses to take responsibility, the other does. Amnon and Jonadab are just evil. There is no record of Amnon repenting. Judah is thoughtless but not all bad. Capable of redemption. And indeed, his is the line we are descended from.

The very fact that Judah can say that Tamar was right and took responsibility emphasizes two different themes in the Torah. One is that people make mistakes but can atone.  The other is that ethical standards and laws are there to guide us and protect the vulnerable. Failure to protect the weak is a failure of us as human beings. A lesson as rel

Genesis 37-40:23

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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