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

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Jul 20 20:34:18 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,

er, yeah, but more explicitly: "And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked
in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him."  Doesn't say
why--maybe he hesitated too often.  Well, it does get the plot moving.

>  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.

And other cultures have similar practices (cf. niyoga:  in the Vedic
tradition, the doctrine allowing a woman whose husband is impotent,
sterile, or dead to form a temporary sexual union with another man),
but the levirate tradition has another motivation (below).

>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.

All true, but I argue in my paper that there's another motive that
explains why if Tamar couldn't get Omar to fulfill his obligation
under levirate (i.e. brother-in-law) law, it made sense for her to
seduce Judah rather than some random stranger who took her fancy (as
in the niyoga practice mentioned above).  That is, Onan's children
would have passed on (some of) the family DNA, given the genes he
shared with brother Er.  And absent that possibility, Tamar
(intuitively?) recognized that her next best bet for maintaining her
husband's line would then be via her father-in-law, Judah.  This then
connects to the "spitten image" as a marker of paternity, which is
why in the Deuteronomy version of the levirate law (Deut. 25: 7-10) a
man who opts out of his obligation a la Onan gets his face spat in by
his sister-in-law.  Note the reference to "perpetuating one's
brother's name in Israel".
And if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, then his
brother's wife shall go up to the elders, and say, 'My husband's
brother refuses to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel; he will
not perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.'  Then the elders
of his city shall call him, and speak to him:  and if he persists,
saying, 'I do not wish to take her,' then his brother's wife shall go
up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his
foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, 'So shall
it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.'
And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, The house of him
that had his sandal pulled off.

Well, it beats being slain by the Lord and becoming a namesake for
Dorothy Parker's parrot.


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