Genesis 38 – We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Biblical Narrative to Bring You SEX

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Today’s PassageGenesis 38

Having begun Joseph’s story in earnest, we now set it aside for yet another sidebar. And like many before it, this one is not for the flannelgraph; most retellings of Joseph’s adventures omit it for a reason (by which I mean specifically a reason other than Joseph’s complete absence from it). Genesis 38 tells the story of how Judah was tricked into having sex with his daughter-in-law Tamar.

And the whole thing is awash in cultural norms that may well strike us as certified bonkers. Much of the action predicates itself upon the presupposition that if your brother gets married but dies childless, you owe it to your dead brother to have a kid in his name, with his wife, thereby ensuring that his family line continues. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 codifies this practice, called “levirate marriage,” but this story predates the codification. Even without any system of commandments on the books, it presupposes that levirate marriage is what you do.

And it appears that God himself stands behind levirate marriage, at least in some fashion. He straight-up kills the second brother, Onan, for being a lousy brother. Here’s exactly what God was so displeased with: “When he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother” (9). Some have taken this incident to indicate a prohibition against masturbation, which is sometimes called “the sin of Onan” or “Onanism,” but technically, Onan had intercourse with Tamar; he simply made use of coitus interruptus to prevent conception.

What’s wrong with that? As I understand it, Onan attempted to give the appearance of compliance with his father Judah’s directive: “Perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother” (8). But he didn’t actually respect his brother or his brother’s widow; he didn’t want to give his dead brother a surrogate son. It might have looked like he gave it a good-faith effort, but God wasn’t fooled. (Tamar probably wasn’t either.) The lesson of Onan, it would seem, is: “If you’re going to do a levirate marriage, do a dang levirate marriage.” Those looking to find the Biblical position on masturbation will have to look elsewhere.

But Judah isn’t exactly honest with Tamar either. His youngest son, Shelah, isn’t old enough to get married, so he promises that Tamar can marry Shelah when the kid gets old enough. But Judah waits on his promise, and then Judah’s wife dies, so Tamar takes matters into her own hands. In a contrivance so elaborate that it must have inspired Shakespeare, Tamar disguises herself as a cult prostitute, entices Judah to have sex with her, demands a goat as her price, and takes Judah’s seal and cord and staff as collateral. Then, when it comes out that she’s pregnant, she declares: “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong. Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?” (25). It’s like something out of The Comedy of Errors. Or All’s Well That Ends Well. Or The Merchant of Venice.

Seriously, the business of conspiring to obtain an item as physical proof that you bedded a man is all over Shakespeare. It’s well-known that Shakespeare lifted plot elements from other sources, but little did we know that such plot elements dated back to literature from ancient Mesopotamia. How did I end up talking about Shakespeare? Well, if Genesis is allowed its diversions, then so are we.

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