December 06, 2006

Genesis 38-40: More crafty women

Today's reading is Genesis 38-40 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the story of Judah, his sons, and his daughter-in-law; Joseph in the house of Potiphar and his imprisonment; and Joseph's interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh's imprisoned butler and baker.

In these readings, as in so many previous occasions in Genesis, we have examples of women being sneaky, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships. Today, we are faced with two wily women who, when snubbed, decide to get even rather than get mad.

First, we have Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law. Judah, we recall, is Joseph's brother and Jacob's son. In chapter 38, he has gone away from his brothers, married a Canaanite, and begun to raise a family. He has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah, this last one a fair amount younger than the other two.

Judah finds a woman named Tamar to marry Er, and for a time all is well. But Er "was wicked in the sight of the lord" (Gen. 38:7), so God killed him. Judah, not wanting to waste the situation, marries Tamar to his next son, Onan. However, due to certain indiscretions, God killed Onan as well.

Here, Judah pauses. He knows a pattern when he sees one, and consequently tells Tamar to return home to her father as a widow until his youngest son, Shelah, is old enough to be married. The day never comes. Shelah grows up, but Tamar remains an unmarried widow. Here, she hatches her plan:

Tamar dresses as a prostitute and intercepts Judah when he's in the field. He, not recognizing her, asks to sleep with her. She agrees, at the price of one goat from Judah's flock. However, as a pledge that he will give her the goat, he lends her his signet ring, his bracelets, and his staff. They sleep together, and he departs. When he sends his friend Adullamite to find her, she is nowhere to be found. Judah shrugs and returns to his business.

In fact, Tamar has returned to her father's house and re-doned her widow's clothing. Time passes, and it turns out she is pregnant. Judah is enraged that his daughter-in-law played the prostitute and orders her to be burned. Instead, she produces the ring, bracelets, and staff. Judah acknowledges his indiscretion and sin in not allowing Shelah to marry her. Tamar goes on to give birth to twins, Pharez and Zarah.

Let us consider this episode. Tamar is a woman slighted: she knows that Judah will never give her his son to marry. Furthermore, she knows that as a widow, she is not nearly as valuable to marry as a virgin wife. Finally, she knows that her father-in-law is a rich man from a wealthy family, who presumably is not giving her a fair share of the family fortune. She is a woman who knows what she wants.

We might see Tamar as brave. After all, even though Judah didn't recognize her, she certainly knew who he was when she slept with him. It was, after all, the point. Furthermore, she was probably hoping to become pregnant, so that she could expose Judah before his men. If she were not pregnant, no one would accuse her, and she would not be able to present her evidence. Her own sacrifice allowed her to make the slight against her public.

A final note: we do not know whether Tamar ever married Shelah. We know she had twins by Judah, but we do not know what happened to her after. Judah never slept with her again (Gen. 38:26), so presumably he did not marry her. But we don't know whether she married anyone else or merely lived the rest of her days as a widow.

The second "hell hath no fury" episode takes place in the next chapter, Gen. 39:7-20. Joseph had been living as a servant in the house of Potiphar, Pharah's captain of the guard. In fact, he had done very well for himself, earning the trust of his master and rising in rank until he was second-in-command of the entire household. Such power naturally attracted Potiphar's wife, and she asked to sleep with Joseph. He, the dutiful servant, refused. No matter how often she asked, his answer was always "no."

Here, Potiphar's wife (whose name we never know) put her own plot into motion. One day, when none of the men were home, she went to Joseph and asked him to sleep with her. Again, as usual, he refused, and fled her presence. But this time, she managed to grab some of his clothes.

She called to the men of the household and accused Joseph, the Hebrew slave, of trying to rape her. She claimed that she shouted, and he fled without taking his clothing. They believed her. When her husband came home, she told her story again. He believed her, and had Joseph thrown into prison.

Some of us might consider Joseph a dupe. After all, he had a powerful woman asking to sleep with him, and refused. In his defence, it is certainly possible that if he had slept with her, she might have exposed the affair to her husband, and he may have found himself in prison regardless. To continue the hellish metaphor, "damned if you do, damned if you don't." She, on the other hand, played her cards masterfully and managed to punish the man who snubbed her.

It is interesting to note the actions that got Joseph and his brother Judah in trouble. Judah's initial mistake was that he did not marry Shelah to Tamar. His second mistake was to sleep with a woman he believed was a prostitute. Joseph, on the other hand, erred in not sleeping with someone, his master's wife. What message are these stories, so close after one another, trying to tell us about sexuality? Judah had sex outside marriage and was punished; Joseph didn't and was likewise punished.

Many Bible-thumpers would likely say that Joseph was in the right. Judah's behaviour, sleeping with a prostitute (his own daughter-in-law, no less!), is clearly not the sort of thing we want to condone in moral, right-wing society. They would therefore need to give a reason for Joseph, the morally upright man, to be punished. Some people might say that Joseph's imprisonment was for the greater good. After all, it was indirectly because of his time in jail that he rose so high in the ranks of Pharaoh's hierarchy.

I disagree. Joseph had no reason to know his time in jail would bring anything but misery. And we will never know if Joseph could have risen equally high in the ranks of Pharaoh's men without the time of imprisonment.

Perhaps the only conclusion we can draw from these instances is that Judah's way is more fun, so long as you don't get caught. Or perhaps the moral is, don't mess with smart women.


Heather said...

in the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" file: if no matter what happens you're in trouble, you might as well get something out of it that you can relish from your hell.
i was recently in such a situation and came to this realization. i still relish having been able to come to a decision instead of passively letting myself be damned. hehe.

Tobin said...

Hey, my name is Tobin...I was doing some reasearch for a class I am teaching about Genesis and I came across your blog. So I would may I fit into your definition of a "Bible Thumper", but then again.....I have never "thumped" a bible.(-:

I really liked your analysis of the story of Genesis 38-40 and the previous one you wrote in late November. I agree that women can be quite crafty I was reading that at least 10% of the people in the world have been "fathered" by men who are not their dads. As a guy that make me cringe a little... alot.

I don't think Joesph would have been as successful if he had slept with Potiphar's wife. I think God allows things to happen in our lives to show us weakness in our characters. If Joesph could control his penis he wouldn't be able to control a country. Look how many political leaders have been taken out by sexual indiscretion.

Julie said...

Hi Tobin,

Welcome to my blog. If I may ask, where do you teach Genesis, and to what age level?

In response to your comment, "I don't think Joesph would have been as successful if he had slept with Potiphar's wife." While I appreciate your arguments for this statement, I think the whole point is that we'll never know. For every political leader who's been brought down by sexual indiscretion, there's another who hasn't been caught or hasn't been compromised by the same acts. I thiink it very much depends on the person and the circumstances.

In any case, welcome again! Please do keep reading.


Anonymous said...

Er...Onan...etc. is either about the fate of some tribes (the tribes being Er, Onam - note M - and Shelah) or Levirate marriage (marrying the wife of a dead brother (Er) for the purpose of heirs - the characters representing not just doing it for the sex (Onan), not avoiding it (Shelah), and using more distant male relatives if necessary (Judah)), or both.


Did you notice the homoerotic undertones to the Joseph + Potiphar story? Joseph and Potiphar get on, with Potiphar finding Joseph "pleasing", but Joseph is petrified of the wife's sexual advances.... just how a gay man would react.