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Women in the Old Testament: Tamar

Monday, July 16, 2012
Readings: Genesis 38.

I imagine that when the rather racy story of Tamar and her three husbands appears as the First Reading at Mass, most preachers choose to focus on the gospel. Perhaps we can have some sympathy with the early Rabbis, who thought that some biblical texts were a bit too provocative to be read in family worship, and devised two lists of 'censored' texts: the first - a sort of ‘PG’ rating - contained texts that should be read aloud in Hebrew but not translated into the vernacular (such as the David and Bathsheba story), and a second - a sort of ‘X’ rated list - of those that should not be read aloud at all (including the incestuous relationship of Amnon and his half-sister). Tamar’s story, however, appears on neither of these lists. It is to be read aloud, and it is to be translated.

To modern readers, this seems a bit odd: both Tamar’s story and those of David and Amnon narrate irregular sexual behaviour, and if anything Tamar’s behaviour is more provocative even than Reuben’s liaison with his father’s concubine (which is also ‘listed’!). The answer, it seems, is that the Rabbis weren’t simply prudes, scandalised by any reference to sex, but recognised that sexual relations have the potential to either build up society, or to disrupt it. David’s adultery ends in the murder of Uriah, and Amnon’s incest with his half-sister leads to a bitter dispute between two families, and yet Tamar’s eventual marriage to Judah – bizarre as the behaviour that brought it about might be – actually leads to the healing of a social wound. Tamar, the victim of abuse and injustice, brings about her own restoration.

As a young childless widow, the law required the brother of Tamar's husband to take her in Levirate marriage as his own wife, so that she would continue to have a place and role within society, and would not be left abandoned. After her first husband’s perfunctory demise (‘he was a wicked man’) Tamar is duly taken as a wife by his brother Onan. Onan, however, abuses his responsibilities, seeing Tamar simply as an opportunity for sexual pleasure, distorting the purpose of marriage as instituted by God, using it instead as a means of fulfilling his own selfish desires. For this, he too is punished with death, and the third brother - Judah – is (perhaps understandably) reluctant to take Tamar as his wife, for fear that he too would have an early demise. Ultimately, he is duped into living up to his responsibilities by Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks him into providing proof that the child she bears is his. Ironically, it may well be the fact that the ruse succeeds, and thus that Judah ultimately fulfils his obligations under the law, that saves him from the punishment that befell his brothers. Tamar doesn’t just save herself, she brings about Judah’s conformity with the law.

The practice of Levirate marriages is part of the cultic dispensation that passed away with the coming of Christ, so we can’t take Tamar’s behaviour paradigmatically, nor can we use it as evidence that a moral end justifies an immoral means. Nonetheless, the story affirms our sexuality as a divine gift, and one that we are called to use for the up-building of the community of God’s people. Onan's sin (38:4) points to the fact that fertility lies at the heart of the purpose of marriage, a teaching which is not – as some suggest – an invention of the medieval casuists, but fundamental to the ancient teachings of God’s chosen people, reflecting the natural structure of marriage.

However, fertility is not simply reducible to ‘having children’. The story of Tamar reveals that the virtue of chastity (to which all are called) is not primarily about individual purity, but civic virtue, and the ways in which we contribute to the social fabric of our world. Sins against chastity not only impede our relationship with God, they distort our relationships to others. For this reason, the Church, with the Rabbis, recognises that sexual relations outside of their proper context in marriage can be corrosive and destructive. So too the authentic celibate vocation (whether lived as a professed religious or not) is not an individual’s choice made for themselves alone, but a self-offering in the service of community, especially for the building up of the Church, and – like marriage - exists for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Oliver James Keenan OP


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