The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

By James L. Kugel | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
JUDAH AND THE TRIAL OF TAMAR

Judah is certainly a positive figure in the Bible, the one who offers himself in place of his younger brother Benjamin in the story of Joseph (Gen. 44:33) and the son to whom, as we have seen, Jacob in his dying words grants the hereditary kingship in Israel (Gen. 49:10). Yet, according to chapter 38 of Genesis, Judah's personal life was not exactly above reproach. He married a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua— clearly an unacceptable choice for a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Gen. 24:4, 27:46–28:1). Later, when their son Er was ready to marry, Judah arranged a bride for him, Tamar, but then Er died. Judah promised Tamar that she could be the bride of one of his other sons, but, after his second son died as well, Judah delayed and delayed while Tamar waited on the sidelines, unmarried. Finally, the daughter-in-law decided to take things into her own hands. She dressed up as a prostitute, her face heavily veiled, and sat at the entrance to Eynayim, where her father-inlaw was to pass by. Sure enough, when Judah saw her, he availed himself of her services, leaving behind three personal items—his signet, cord, and staff—as security until he could bring her proper payment. As soon as he had gone, however, Tamar pocketed these personal items and disappeared. Three months later, Tamar began to show the first signs of pregnancy; her father-in-law, outraged at this evidence of indiscretion, said she ought to be killed. Tamar then produced the signet, cord, and staff and said: “The one to whom these belong is the man who made me pregnant.” Judah

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