Of all of sublime indications that “the Bible is literature, not journalism” the subtle threads exuding from this week’s Torah portion stand out.
Briefly, Judah marries the unnamed daughter of a Canaanite named Shu’a. Their elder son, Er, marries Tamar, of unknown origin. Er dies, and the second son Onan must take Tamar as his wife, according to the laws of levirate marriage. Onan refuses to impregnate Tamar – he also dies. Levitate marriage is still required, but Judah, worrying that his last son Shelah might die if he married Tamar, delays their union. Tamar takes the initiative, dresses up as a harlot, seduces Judah, and becomes impregnated by her unwitting father in law. She was determined to bear the seed of Judah, through his son or through him, personally.
Tamar and Judah produce twins, just like Judah’s grandmother, Rebecca. At birth, one of the twins extends his hand from the womb. The midwife, recalling the sad story of Jacob and Esau, immediately ties a crimson thread to that hand, saying, “this one came out first!” That baby retracts his hand, and his brother is born. The midwife exclaims, seemingly in admiration, “Mah paratzta!”. That exclamation is hard to translate – maybe something like “Wow, you really broke out of there!” Judah, taking the midwife’s cue, names him “Peretz”. We have the image of Peretz crawling over his brother to get fully out of the womb first.
So what became of Peretz, the breakout son of Judah and Tamar? We find out at the end of the book of Ruth. We are told: Peretz sired Hezron; Hezron sired Ram; Ram sired Amminadav, who sired Nachson, who sired Salmah, who sired Boaz (Ruth’s husband). Boaz and Ruth sired Oved, who sired Jesse, who sired David, the future king.
In short, the authors/editors of the Bible made sure that we know that the story of Tamar and Judah continues straight into the story of Ruth and Boaz. Ruth, the Moabitess, is the grandmother of King David.
Then what happens? David, of course, sires Solomon. Solomon marries Na’amah the Ammonitess (among other women); they bear Rehoboam, one of the many sons of Solomon to be the heir and next king.
I hope you are still reading, because here’s the gold: buried in these lineages is the Bible going at great lengths to tell us that the line of David, understood to be propelling into the future to bear the King Messiah, son of David, is the product of both a Moabitess and an Ammonitess.
Moab and Ammon are the sons produced by the daughters of Lot, who consorted with their father under the belief that humanity had been wiped with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They saw themselves as the new Eve, or the new wives of Noah, regenerating humanity.
At first glance, what a sordid mess. Sons die. Onanism gets its name. A daughter-in-law parading as a prostitute to have sex with her father in law. Capping all of this off are descendants of the products of incest marrying into the family.
Of course, the sordid nature of the story is reversed when we see that these woman are the ancestors of the Messiah, that intrepid Ruth is King David’s grandmother, and that fiercely devoted Tamar bears Peretz into the world, the young lad who broke out, to become the ancestor of David, of Solomon, and of King Messiah, down the road.
The Bible is literature, not journalism. We want to ask “what does this mean?” but that is a facile question to ask of great literature. The Bible is not Aesop’s fables.
What is clear is that something unclear is happening. Something strange. Jacob’s tricking his father and betraying his brother sets into motion further stories of masking, impersonating, and hiding.
I can only offer a thought based on the spiritual- psychological- philosophic- literary journey that I have been on lately.
We are thrown into life, into situations that we cannot understand and we barely know what is at stake. No law, ethical code or cultural tradition can prepare us for, or guide us through, moments of being stranded, times when we fine ourselves on the rocks and shoals upon which life can thrust us.
We have to find the answers within. Maybe someone else can tell us what to do, but we have to decide. The story of Tamar in search of Judah’s Seed in this week’s Torah portion is just one of the stories of courage and cunning we find in the book of Genesis. These stories tell us that to retreat into conformity betrays the truth of the moment. But we also know that to revel in nonconformity robs us of the existentialist experience of courage.
And these tales, exquisite literary products of deep and fine minds, evoke the tortured, miraculous and stunning contours of the journeys of our own souls.