Tamar, Onan, Judah, Shelah (was: "Dress like whores")

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Jul 20 19:52:09 UTC 2002

     If I may just provide a few details:

    Judah (one of Jacob's sons) selected a wife for Er, his firstborn.
But Er died, leaving Tamar a widow. Judah then told Er's brother Onan
to marry Tamar and produce a child with her. Onan, practicing a bit
of estate planning, "spilled his seed" rather than produce an heir in
his brother's name. Big mistake. Exit Onan.

     Judah then told Tamar to wait until his youngest son Shelah was
grown, whereupon she would get to marry him. He grew up, but no
marriage occurred.
Tamar, knowing full well that she was being cheated out of the
opportunity for motherhood, played the role of a harlot and fooled
Judah into impregnating her.

     This was a bit unconventional, but even Judah later realized he
had acted incorrectly and Tamar was justified in what she had done.

     The custom of having a brother marry his deceased brother's wife
made very good sense to the ancient Hebrews. Producing children
played a key role in their culture, and it made no sense at all to
have a young woman of child-bearing age spending years unable to
produce children simply because she was widowed. Hence the order to
Onan to do his duty by his people and religion by marrying Tamar and
producing children.

     In my Etymology class I devote a lecture to understanding the
rationale behind various Hebrew names (e.g., Michael, Reuben, Joel,
Isaac, Joseph),
and part of the rationale is the great importance of fertility in
ancient times.
Tamar fits very well into this theme.

Gerald Cohen

>>       At 2:34 PM -0400 7/20/02, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>"[she] covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herselof, and sat in the
>>entrance of Enaim [i.e. at a crossroads]...When Judah saw her, he thought her
>>to be a harlot; for she had covered her face."
>Hey, I recognize this--it's part of the Onan story, which somehow
>made it onto the handout for my "spitten image" talk a couple of ADS
>annual meetings ago.  (Genesis 38, if anyone wants to track it down.)
>The lady in question, Tamar, wasn't really working as a harlot, she
>just wanted to have her brother-in-law's baby according to levirate
>law, but Onan wouldn't oblige (spilling his seed on the ground, like
>Dorothy Parker's parrot of the same name, and getting slain by the
>Lord for his impertinence), so she had to settle for her
>father-in-law's baby instead.  Not really her fault, just following
>the law as best she could.

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