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Abstract This paper seeks to interpret Genesis 38, specifically its ideas on the power structure within the family through the religious and social practices in a Jewish society as demonstrated by the author. Moreover, the paper seeks to discuss the various theories on why Genesis 38 was written. Among the most prominent of these however was the purpose of writing the selection in order to demonstrate God’s love and justice. Introduction The 38th chapter of the Book of Genesis relates the story of how Judah begets his three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah, and how the death of the first two leads to his maltreatment of Er’s bereaved wife, Tamar.
The events further lead to a betrayal of trust when Judah does not marry Tamar with Shelah, which Judah himself promised. Tamar carries out an elaborate plan of revenge where Judah ends up regretting that he has not fulfilled his promise of marrying Shelah to her. This chapter is in fact a depiction of Jewish religious and social practices at the time of its writing. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayed immorality, the theme still centers on God’s justice.
Power Structure within a Family, and Religious and Social Practices Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis contains a number of religious and social practices that the author felt his audience would accept at the time that he was writing it. These religious and social practices may in fact be centered around the idea of a power structure within a Jewish family at the time Genesis 38 was written. One of the social practices that the author may have wanted to instill in his audience is “adherence to the clan theory” (Mathewson, 1989, p. 387).
This means that the author may have wanted to emphasize that it is important for any ordinary Jewish married couple to perpetuate their lineage for “every Jew occupies a unique place in the People and his/her mission are so important that its incompletion jeopardizes the life of the whole system” (“Theory of Clans,” 2008). The author definitely had the belief that as God’s chosen people, the Jews, rather had an obligation to live and perpetuate the Jewish population. Perhaps the more Jews there were to please God and serve him, the more pleased God would be. There is therefore a necessity to produce offspring for the glory of God.
In Chapter 38, Judah was definitely obedient to this unwritten Jewish rule for upon the death of his first son, instead of leaving his daughter-in-law Tamar untouched, Judah commanded his second son Onan to “Lie with [her] and fulfill [his] duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for [his] brother. ” (New International Version Holy Bible, Gen. 38:8) Another social and religious practice that the author may have perhaps emphasized in Genesis Chapter 38 was that “the narrative…[impresses] the duty of marriage with a deceased brother’s wife” (Mathewson, 1989, p. 388).
This may also perhaps be translated to a discrimination against women in general in the ancient Jewish setting, and that perhaps this discrimination is more intense against women who cannot seem to bear a child or those whose husbands die without leaving them any offspring, giving these women a reputation of evil. It is neither mentioned in the 38th chapter of Genesis that Tamar is an evil woman nor that such an evil may have perhaps led to the deaths of Er and Onan. However, her evil nature is implied in her decision to “[cover] herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim” (Gen. 38:14).
Although it was Judah himself who “thought she was a prostitute” (Gen. 38:15), still Tamar was thought of as such “for she had [deliberately] covered her face” (Gen. 38:15). Moreover, this simple act of pretense plus the fact that she herself consented to sleeping with her father-in-law Judah all speak of the evil of Tamar. Nevertheless, it may have all been just purely revenge on Tamar’s part that has perhaps led her to do the immoral things she has done. Another social practice presented by the author in Genesis 38 is the harsh punishment for adulterers, perhaps especially those whose reputation was marred by the sin of prostitution.
This social practice was evident when Judah has learned of the fact that Tamar was a prostitute and was pregnant, he does not think twice before saying, “Bring her out and have her burned to death! ” (Gen. 38:24). Nevertheless, Judah may have only spoken these harsh words on impulse because, just like any other Jew of his time, he himself values obedience, especially that of a widow to the father of her husband. In short, when he tells Tamar to “live as a widow in [her] father’s house until [his] son Shelah grows up” (Gen.
38:11), Judah expected nothing of her but obedience. Judah may have also said those harsh words for he must have valued the sanctity of marriage or the solemnity of a promise. And speaking of promises, although Judah may not have fulfilled his promise to Tamar to marry her with Shelah when the latter grows up, he may have only done it to protect his son’s life. The proof of Judah’s belief in the solemnity of a promise is perhaps the fact that he fulfilled his promise of bringing the young goat to the harlot Tamar although she was nowhere to be found.
No man in his right mind or of a high position would even bother fulfilling his promise to a prostitute especially after he has gotten what he wanted. The Alleged Purpose of Genesis 38 Perhaps aside from the purpose of emphasizing adherence to the theory of clans and the duty of marriage, the major purpose of the 38th chapter of the Book of Genesis is either to present a simple act of injustice and elicit sympathy for the plight of Tamar, or to somehow emphasize the fact that, although late, God delivers complete justice in the end, even to harlots like Tamar.
One purpose of Genesis 38 may perhaps be “to influence in some way the ‘moral fabric of society’” (Menn, 1997, p. 293). The author may perhaps have thought that there was no bigger audience for a story of a helpless harlot who heard the verdict of a judge who had the power of life and death. One angle to this purpose was maybe to show the audience a piece of bitter irony: the purity of a prostitute’s intentions and the immorality of judges.
Tamar’s decision to become a prostitute may have just been triggered by revenge for it seems that the reason why she disguised herself was because “she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife” (Gen. 38:14). Judah, on the other hand, although an older man and one of a high position, sinned by not fulfilling his promise to marry Shelah with Tamar, and by sleeping with a prostitute. He therefore deserves punishment.
This leads us to perhaps one good and practical purpose of Genesis 38 which is to demonstrate “the sovereignty of Yahweh in His establishment of a nation through which to bless ALL the peoples of the world [without any exception]” (Mathewson, 1989, p. 389). Tamar is a prostitute but Genesis 38 portrays her as the victor in the end as when Judah himself mentions “”She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26), which means that she too is deserving of God’s love and justice. Moreover, Brueggemann argues that:
“…the narrative…has an identifiable and singular intention [which is to show that] the purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnoticed ways…[yet these ways] are nonetheless reliable and will come to fruition” (cited in Mathewson, 1989, p. 390). This means that God’s justice, although it is delivered late, will certainly be delivered after the moment of suffering. Tamar suffered much by being subjected to Jewish law of sleeping with her husband’s brothers, by being refused Shelah in her middle age, and most of all, by sacrificing her dignity and purity just to become the prostitute who would deliver justice to Judah.
Nevertheless, she triumphed in the end, and she was blessed to give birth to Perez, an ancestor of Jesus Christ. Conclusion Genesis 38 may appear on its first reading a mere story of immorality, harsh Jewish customs and power structure within a family. However, it may in fact be an account of how one woman triumphed amidst the rigorous customs, suffering and condemnation for being a prostitute. More than anything else, Genesis 38 reflects the goodness and justice of God – that God protects those who suffer unjustly and punishes those who oppress brutally.