There is so much wonderful meat for discussion in the Joseph story that it is easy to skip or skim the story of Judah and Tamar — or of Tamar and Judah — to get back to the next installment of Joseph in Egypt. Even when read with care, it is not an easy story. Briefly, Judah, fresh from telling Jacob that Joseph has been killed, marries a Canaanite woman and has three sons, the eldest of whom, Er, marries Tamar. Er is killed by God for some unstated fault. Tamar is then married as a levirate widow to Onan, the next eldest, who, is killed by God because he, well, commits onanism to keep Tamar from having a child who will be Er’s heir and who will then get the first born’s inheritance. Judah refuses to marry Tamar to Shelah, the youngest, for fear she is bad luck. Tamar is sent to her father’s house on the excuse that Shelah is not yet old enough to marry.
As the years pass, Tamar concludes that she must take things into her own hands. She disguises herself as a zonah (a prostitute) or a i (a cult / sacred prostitute) when she learns Judah will be coming to town. After they have sex, Judah is unable to locate Tamar to retrieve the staff, ring, and seal he had given hear as security for the payment of a goat. Three months later when he learns she is pregnant, Tamar produces these items and tells Judah they belong to the father of her child. Children, as it turns, out. One of the twins will be Peretz and thus King David’s ancestor. Judah recognizes that Tamar was in the right to act as she had.
So, why does this odd tale deserve to break into the Joseph story, a story so tender it’s hard to read it without brushing away a tear? First, it helps to ask who is Judah and who is Tamar outside and inside this story.
Judah is Leah’s fourth son and the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery. When he next appears in the Joseph story, Judah will have become a strong and compassionate leader, careful of his father’s feelings and repentant for his bad actions toward Joseph. Of Tamar, we know nothing more than we have in this chapter. It may be there was more, for King David had a daughter named Tamar. But, in truth, all we can know must be found within this story.
Judah, unknown to himself, tried to lose his role in history as the ancestor of King David. Joseph wandered into his place in history because “a man” intervened to tell him that his brothers had gone to Dothan. But Tamar actively gives herself a role in history when she stands alone and disguised in the road. She plays the role of a kedeishah – sacred prostitute – and, in fact, she has a sacred role to perform. When all is revealed, Judah’s eyes are opened, and he says: “Tzadakah mimeini.” – “She is correct – it (the child) is from me” or, perhaps, “She is more righteous than I am.”
Tamar’s intervention also seems to have been critical in changing Judah from a man with no moral compass, as evidenced by his treatment of Joseph, Tamar, and Er, into one who is eloquent, self-sacrificing, and compassionate when we next see him. Tamar’s actions and Judah’s reactions to them turned Judah to a right path as he became the man who recognized: Tzadakah mimeini – she is more righteous than I.
In a sense, Judah had lost his true self. His having given his seal, staff, and ring to Tamar as collateral was only a physical acting out of that reality. He is as cavalier as was Esau in giving his very identity to a veiled kadeishah. However, he is luckier in that the person he gave them to was Tamar and not Jacob. Jacob stole Esau’s inheritance, but Tamar gave Judah his real identity. She forced him to grow up and readied him for his encounters with Joseph and to be the preserver of the Jewish people.
And then Tamar wanders out of the spotlight. We can imagine that she suffered and was an outcast. She could not know that by taking on the responsibilities cast on her, she was to play a key role in history. She, like Ruth, seems to have been an outsider. She acted the parallel role of Lot’s oldest daughter who produced the child who would become Ruth’s ancestor by having sex with her father Lot. In Ruth and Boaz (the descendent of Peretz), Lot and Abraham are reunited. And all this loss and outsider status flowed into the blood of King David.