Thursday, December 14, 2006

The story of Tamar

UPDATE: I thought this post responded to a claim made by the DH, but I've since been brought up sharply. Oh well, I did open by admitting to a general unfamiliarity with the specifics of the DH. I'm leaving the post up because (in DH terms) it shows how J and E form one narrative whole, and because (in Torah true terms) it explains the relvance of the Tamar story and helps bring into focus why God, the divine author, chose to tell the story in the way in which its presented in the Torah, and not in some other way.

I've never really studied the DH (that's Documentary Hypothesis, not Dear Husband. DovBear is straght.) but I seem to recall reading or being told that the story we all skipped in grade school does not belong to the same literary tradition as the rest of the rest of the Joseph story. And its true that Tamar's tale doesn't seem to belong to the story arc: We've just been told about Joseph's betrayal, and the next several chapters follow his adventure. Why interrupt the narrative to tell us about Yehuda's dalliance with the whore who turned out to be his daughter in law?

Here's one answer: In the fullness of time, both Joseph and Yehuda go on to become family leaders. In the short term, Joseph will become viceroy of Egypt, and the second-most powerful person in the world; later he receives the firstborn's double portion. In the long term, the kings of Israel descend from Yehuda, and he demonstrates maturity and establishes himself as the leader of the brothers by offering to take responsibility for brother Benjamin. In brief, Joseph and Judah are both destined to become the big cheeses of the family.

Having just introduced Joseph to us as a spoiled, somewhat narcisstic teenager, the Torah shows us Yehuda, his counterpart, was also once flawed. Joseph was a punk kid, but Judah ran with prostitutes and badly mistreated his own daughter-in-law. In fact, Yehuda's tryst with the whore -including his ludicrously irresponsible decision to leave with her his ring and stick, the credit card and driver's license of antiquity - should be seen as straight parallel to Joseph's adolescent bragging and tattling. Yehuda and Joseph will both share the rights of the firstborn, and win other distinctions; but first both had degrees of immaturity to overcome. Showing us this side of Judah and connecting it to similar traits in Yosef seems to be the purpose of the Tamar story. To my mind, this defeats the notion that it doesn't belong.

Another argument for the story belonging to the rest of the book is the fact that it contains a network of allusions to other parts of Genesis. Some of them include:

(1) The Tamar story begins with the words "And Judah went down from his brothers"; the very next chapter picks up the Joseph story with the words "And Joseph was brought down to Egypt"

(2) Jacob deceives his father with a kid, and the brother use a kid's blood to stain Joseph's coat; in our story Judah sends Tamar a kid after she uses her own deception to take something that is rightfully hers.

(3) The material element in the deception carried out by Jacob, and later in the deception carried out by his ten sons is a garment; Tamar also uses a garment - the dress and veil - to deceive her father in-law

(4) After the brother have lost Joseph, they send his blood-stained coat to Jacob with the message "Haker nah" recognize this; when Tamar is about to be burnt she sends Judah his signet-ring and staff with the same message. Like his father, Yehuda is compelled to recognize what he has been sent.

(5) Lavan is away shearing his sheep when Jacob escapes; Judah is in Timnah performing the same task when he meets Tamar in disguise

(6) Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe meet their wives at a well; Judah and Tamar meet at Enaim, which seems to mean "Two Wells"

(7) Tamar's twin sons recall Yakov and Esua and the whole chain of brothers struggling over the rights of the firstborn. Peretz wrestles himself ahead, like Yaakov, and Zerah, by way of the red bracelet tied to his wrist, is linked with Esau-the Red, another twin who was displaced from his initial position as firstborn.

(8) Peretz and Zerah also recall Menashe and Ephrain, the sons of Joseph, Judah's counterpart. Like Peretz and Jacob, Ephraim, too, pushes ahead of his older brother.

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