After Joseph’s brothers successfully convinced Jacob that he had been killed by wild beasts, Judah decided to go hang out with his buddy Hirah in Adullam.
While Judah was on sabbatical in Adullam he found a nameless woman whose only identity was “Daughter of Shua” and “Canaanite”. He married her and they had three sons. The first was named Er, the second Onan and the third who she had while she was visiting her best friend in Chezib was named Shelah.
Once his oldest came of age Judah found him a nice girl to marry named Tamar. Er somehow managed to piss God off though, probably by sacrificing wheat. Or he just had no interest in the woman his dad picked for him and couldn’t be bothered to get her pregnant. So God killed him.
Judah decided the best thing to do was follow tradition and have his son Onan have sex with his sister in law and raise the resulting baby as his brother’s son. Onan, like practically all men in this situation, was having none of this bullshit. He had sex with Tamar as told, but pulled out before he was done so as not to impregnate her.
God, not being a fan of the pull out method, but totally a fan of Levirate marriage, killed Onan for his trouble.
Judah, in a singular case of brilliance and functional pattern recognition, sent Tamar to live with her father until Shelah was grown and could perform his duty as Er’s brother. Realizing his youngest would probably be killed too, he had no intention of giving Tamar to him at all.
Some years later Judah’s unnamed wife died. After Judah was done grieving he decided to go up to Timnah. It was the time of year to shear the sheep and he wanted to see how his men there were doing.
Obviously, the news of a newly single, wealthy foreign man moving from one place to another reached Tamar, who was mad she didn’t get to have sex with the third, probably much younger brother.
So Tamar took off her widow costume and put on her sluttiest hooker wear, which she just happened to have laying around and also included a mask so she wouldn’t be identified. She went out to a crossroads on the way to Timnah and waited. When she saw Judah and his buddy coming up she took off her top and waited.
The sight of a pretty, half dressed prostitute on the side of the road caught Judah’s attention. It had been a while since his wife died, and he decided it was time to break his dry spell. He began soliciting the services of this woman on the side of the road, not realizing this was his daughter-in-law.
“Yo, bitch. Want some fuck?” He asked, elegantly.
“Sure, gotta get paid though,” Tamar replied.
“Ain’t got no money, but I’ll send you a baby goat for a quickie, that work?” He replied.
Tamar shrugged, “Sure, but I’ll need a deposit up front, I’ll return it to your boy there once I get my goat.”
“Works for me, what you want?”
“I’m going to need your signet and cord, and your staff,” Tamar said.
“Seems legit,” Judah replied, handing her his stuff.
So they went behind a nearby rock and vigorously rubbed their feet together. Judah left much relieved. Once he was gone Tamar put her widow gear back on and went back to her father’s house.
Once Judah arrived at Timnah he made good on his promise and had Hirah go back to the crossroads with a baby goat. Hirah looked around the nearby village a while trying to find the local prostitute, but no one had any idea who he was talking about.
Judah got a kick out of it, figuring the prostitute was just going to sell the signet, “It’s fine, let her keep it, I can make a new staff and I have more signets. Not a big deal.”
About three months later everyone noticed Tamar was pregnant, which caused all kinds of problems in town. Someone told Judah his daughter-in-law was a dirty slut and had gotten herself knocked up. Feeling immense relief that he wouldn’t have to make good on his promise and lose another son, Judah told everyone to bring her out and burn her at the stake.
Tamar boldly walked out into the town square with the men sent to fetch her, clutching Judah’s signet and staff. “I’m pregnant by the man who owns this stuff. I won’t name names,” she said, staring Judah dead in the eye. Then she waved the staff at him and coughed.
Judah rolled his eyes and said, “She’s a better person than I am. At least as far as I wasn’t going to give her my son. That’s my stuff. Don’t kill her. Sorry for the trouble folks. I was going through a dry spell, didn’t know it was her, shouldn’t have done that.”
And Judah never had anything to do with her again.
Six months later when Tamar was about to deliver the midwife discovered she had twins. The first baby stuck it’s hand out and the midwife immediately tied a scarlet thread to its wrist. The baby retracted its hand back into the womb and its brother was born before it. The brother who was born first was named Perez, and the one with the thread around his wrist was named Zerah.
And this is why most American boys are circumcised.
As always I used the RSV version of the Bible as reference for this story. You can read it for yourself in Genesis 38.
Tamar is one of the women mentioned at the end of Ruth that the elders were hopeful Ruth would be like for Boaz. I had not really paid much mind to that particular blessing at the end of Ruth until I rewrote it. I found it humorous that Tamar of all women in the Bible was mentioned in the blessing. Granted the blessing was more hopeful that Bo’az house would be like that of Perez, but still humorous.
This is the only other story besides that of Ruth where the practice of Levirate marriage comes up. Jesus discusses the practice in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it’s hardly mentioned anywhere else in the Old or New Testament.
In the research I’ve done on this type of marriage there seems to be two separate ideas of how it worked. One is that the brother would actually marry the widow, and the other is that he would simply produce a child with her. In either case it seems he’d have to raise the children as those of his brother, not as his own. See my notes in the post on Ruth for further opinions.
Onanism and Self Pollution
The part of this story that centers around Onan has been misinterpreted greatly through the years. At least during the 19th century “Onanism” was another word for “masturbation”. The idea being that Onan ‘spilled his seed on the ground’ by masturbating. This is a mistaken idea, whether on purpose or not. Onan is said to have employed the pull out method of pregnancy prevention. Meaning he did in fact have sex with Tamar, but pulled out. His refusal to impregnate Tamar was the wicked act, not so much how he did this.
I find it interesting that this is what people thought, as the ancients only real method of contraception was the pull out method. I speculate that this was a purposeful misinterpretation. Masturbation is still seen my many conservative Christian denominations as sinful. I can’t fathom many besides possibly the Catholic Church think that a husband pulling out of his wife before climax is a problem. So the verse was used to push a weird anti-masturbation agenda.
Some of the health food people in 19th century USA thought masturbation was the cause of a lot of mental and physical ills in people and recommended circumcision as a method of preventing boys from masturbating. People leave out that they also recommended putting carbolic acid on a baby girl’s clitoris to accomplish the same thing. Now American boys are circumcised for unclear reasons, mostly because their fathers were. Thankfully whoever thought chemically burning a girl’s clitoris was a good idea didn’t have their opinions taken mainstream.
Meaning and Conclusion
I think this story is about following tradition and doing what is right more than it is about following “God’s Commandments”. This all happened before Moses, and the story was likely penned long before Deuteronomy was written. There was no written law commanding Levirate marriage at that time. It was simply a tradition practiced by many cultures in the Middle East to continue a dead man’s name.
This is a good example of what is considered ‘right’ changing over time. As mentioned in the post on Ruth, practically no Jew practices Levirate marriage anymore, and most have outright banned it. Obviously acts like murder, theft, adultery, and guiding blind people off a road are considered universally evil and always will be. Who a widow has to have a child with is no longer considered very important.
The conclusion I draw is that ideas on morality shift over time. I do not think that Levirate marriage was commanded by God, nor do I think this actually happened. It’s a fictional story to scare ancient young men into a distasteful and unnecessary practice that has little relevance in a time when women can own property and pass it on to whomever they wish. It wasn’t good then, and it isn’t good now.