Just when the action was getting good, we switch over to Joseph’s brother, Judah, for a little story from his nook of the family.
Judah has an Adullamite friend named Hirah. While visiting him, he catches sight of a an unnamed Canaanite woman who was the daughter of Shua. The woman has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Pun very much intended!
Er marries Tamar. Unfortunately, God had a beef with Er, so he totally smote him. Because that’s the divine way of dealing with people you don’t like.
Incidentally, my study bible describes the murder of Er as: “a divine act, almost demonic in character.” I thought that was funny!
So Er died childless, which means that there won’t be anyone to carry on his name or his line. To solve this problem, Tamar was married to Onan, Er’s brother. Onan’s job was to impregnate Tamar in lieu of Er. Onan isn’t too happy with this charge so he dumps his… er, charge on the ground. Thus was born the sin of onanism, which for some reason refers to masturbation rather than pulling out. Go figure.
God gets upset with Onan, either for “spilling seed” or for disobeying Judah. Once again, God’s way of dealing with his negative feelings is to kill people, so Tamar loses her second husband.
Er still needs offspring and Tamar still needs a husband, so Judah agrees to marry her to his third son, Shelah, once he grows up. But this is all a trick because he thinks that Tamar is bad luck or something, so he sends her to wait indefinitely in her father’s house.
On trickery and disguises
Tamar waits and waits while time keeps on keeping on. Judah’s unnamed wife dies and Shelah grows up. Judah heads off to visit his friend Hirah again, as well as tend his sheep. Tamar hears of this and concocts a dastardly scheme.
She takes off her widow’s clothes and puts on a veil. Then she heads off to “accidentally” encounter Judah.
“When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face” (Gen. 38:15). Apparently, the veil was something worn by the sacred/temple prostitutes of the Canaanite goddess Asherah (Matthews, Manners & Customs, p.26). Though Matthews goes on to say that in Mesopotamian custom, a veil symbolised modesty instead – as exemplified by Rebekah in Genesis 24:65. I wonder if this story is found in the Quran as well, and where they fall on the veil detail.
Judah, encountering what he thinks is a prostitute, gets right down to business and says: “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen. 38:16). There’s no beating around the bush with this guy!
Tamar agrees in exchange for a kid (no, not that kind – although, well, yes, that kind). As a deposit, she asks for Judah’s signet, cord, and staff. Then Judah totally gets to “go into her.”
My study bible notes that Tamar would have been disguised as a “cult prostitute,” which was like a regular prostitute except that she was “connected with the worship of the nature gods of fertility.” So Judah not only marries a Canaanite (Isaac would have a cunniption) and frequents prostitutes, but he’s also fraternizing with adherents of other religions!
Payment for services rendered
Once Judah comes back out of her, he heads back to his friend Hirah and asks him to take a kid to the prostitute. Hirah goes, but can’t find any prostitutes in the area. When he asks around, he’s told that there never was a prostitute in that area. When Judah finds out, decides to just let the prostitute keep the deposit “lest we be laughed at” (Gen. 38:23).
All goes swimmingly for three months, and then someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, has been out prostituting herself and is now pregnant! Judah, taking his cue from God’s book, commands that she be brought out and burned.
Remember that – woman has sex, she gets burned to death.
But Tamar pulls a fast one on all these righteous dudes. She holds out the signet, cord, and staff and says: “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child” (Gen. 38:25).
Judah, to his credit, fesses up and even goes so far as to say that Tamar is “more righteous than I.” Is this because he’s just been exposed as a guy who visits prostitutes? Something that’s a burnable offence for the lady? Of course not! His crime was that he had promised her to Shelah, but hadn’t married them (Gen. 38:26).
So yeah, it’s totally okay now cause they kept it within the family… And Judah hanging out with prostitutes? That’s no big.
Just in case you were curious, Judah “did not lie with her again” (Gen. 38:26).
Tamar has twins. While she’s in labour, a fist sticks out and the midwife ties a red cord around his wrist so that everyone can know that he’s the first-born. But whoops, he retracts his fist and the other twin is born first! But the magic of the red cord can’t be retracted, so these twins are doomed to hate each other. Such is the life of a biblical twin.
It’s just like to point out that babies are pretty squished in there and the birthing process is a process. I’m pretty sure that they can’t just stick a hand out and pull it back in, and then have another kid pull ahead.
In any case, the first fully born is named Perez and the red cord kid is named Zerah.
Ebonmuse, over at Daylight Atheism, brings up the point that fetus-Perez and fetus-Zerah are not seen as persons in this story. Judah was perfectly willing to kill a pregnant woman for her crime (such as it was) without consideration for her babies. This is quite a bit different from the later policy in the west to delay the execution until the babies were born.
So according to this passage, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with abortion because fetuses are merely part of the woman’s body and not separate persons worthy of protection. Just a thought…