Midstream and in local publica-
WILLIAM I. ROSENBLUM
Women named Tamar appear three times in the Bible. The first two are
in biblical history – or is she something more? Is she a poignant reminder of
the second Tamar? Is she a reference to past events that would have been
immediately recognized by all who had heard and remembered the oral histo-
ry that must have been repeated for generations by the bards and sages who
preceded the times of final codification and writing of the Israelite saga?
If so, then the third Tamar was and is a reminder that female sexuality is an
important actor on the biblical stage. This actor has two faces: the face of
woman as heroine and the face of woman as victim. The first Tamar is surely
heroine. In fact, without that Tamar biblical history might have come to a
The tale of the first Tamar is told in Genesis 38. She was a childless widow,
whose husband and his two brothers were the sons of Judah. Judah was a son
of Leah and the patriarch Jacob, a half-brother of Joseph and the eponym of
one of the 12 tribes of Israel. According to ancient Israelite law, a surviving
son of Judah must take Tamar, his brother's widow, as his bride. The proba-
ble reasons for this law of Levirate Marriage (Deut. 25:5-6)
were to assure
widow the continued protection of a husband and of the family into which
she had first married. Moreover, the intent was that the new marriage would
result in children. However, Tamar's second husband, Onan, spilt his seed
and died, perhaps as punishment for refusing his duty to
propagate the family line. Judah, perhaps fearing that Tamar was a bringer of
death, the ultimate bad luck, to his children, failed in his promise to present
his one remaining son to Tamar as a new husband.
This first Tamar is desperate for a family. Judah himself is a widower, and
hence an available man within the family of Jacob. So, Tamar devises a plan
JEWISH BIBLE QUARTERLY
whereby she will seduce her father-in-law. She masquerades as a veiled pros-
tute is of great interest. In the biblical text, two different words for prostitute
are used in the narrative. The second of these words (Gen. 38:21) contains
within it the Hebrew root for "holy." Many translations now accept the impli-
cation of this word and describe Tamar's guise as that of a "holy prostitute,"
or a temple or cult prostitute. In other words, Tamar is masquerading not
merely as a woman of the street but as a figure well known in the pagan
world; a prostitute with whom intercourse becomes part of pagan worship.
Thus, for Judah to lie with her is much more than a sin of lust. It is represent-
ative of the greatest sin an Israelite could perform; consorting not merely
with a pagan but in a way that implies worship of pagan gods. No wonder
many earlier translators failed to describe Tamar as other than "prostitute."
Even the Talmud, which recognizes
the disturbing nature of this tale of se-
scribe Tamar's disguise.
Judah promises Tamar a kid for her services. But the kid must be sent to
her afterwards, so Tamar demands that Judah leave with her, as a guarantee
of his pledge, his personal seal and his staff. In accordance with her plan,
Tamar becomes pregnant as a result of this encounter. Judah's emissary tries
to bring her the promised kid and regain the tokens of his pledge, but the
prostitute has disappeared from the neighborhood. Tamar, undisguised, is still
present and found to be pregnant. Her swelling belly brings the charge of
unlawful intercourse and she is brought to a trial whose verdict may be death.
At the trial, Judah demands her death, for he does not recognize her as the
veiled prostitute and sees her only as a defiled daughter-in-law. Tamar now
puts the rest of her plan into action. She presents Judah's seal and staff and
challenges him to remember their assignation. He recognizes his own guilt,
and absolves her of all culpability. He acknowledges his failure to provide
her with the husband to which she was entitled. She retires to wait the birth of
Tamar's brother-in-law and father-in-law had disobeyed the law that offered
her the chance to secure a family and the protections which that implied. Ta-
mar outwitted them. She used her sexual attractions to obtain that family. The
rabbis of the Talmud, perhaps by avoiding acknowledgment of the pagan
Vol. 30, No. 2, 2002
aspect of Judah's seduction, provide her with an excuse for her behavior.
to performing a required good act – a mitzvah – if while doing the latter one
has a bad intention in mind; for example, the intention of garnering the admi-
ration of others rather than of performing the act for its own sake.
All this notwithstanding, what makes the clever Tamar a heroine of Ju-
daism? She is a heroine because from her union with Judah comes her son
Perez, and from the line of Perez comes King David (I Chron. 2:4-16; Ruth
4:17-21) and the founding of the Kingdom of Israel that for a brief while was
to encompass all 12 tribes. It is David who establishes Jerusalem as the capi-
tal of the new nation and it is David's son Solomon who builds the first Tem-
ple within Jerusalem's walls. The importance of Tamar is thereby established
Unlike the first Tamar, the second Tamar is not a heroine. She is a victim.
But curiously, and perhaps to create a deliberate resonance with her name-
sake and the resultant Davidic line, this second Tamar appears in the middle
of the story of David, in II Samuel 13. She is a daughter of King David and,
among his many other children, Absalom is her full brother and Amnon is her
half-brother. Amnon finds his beautiful sister irresistible. She, like the first
Tamar, is the object of male lust, but in this instance it is not a lust that she
encourages. When Amnon approaches her, she does not refuse him outright
but she does refuse him the immediate gratification that he demands. She
tells him to wait and to approach their father David instead. Surely, she says,
he will give me to you. This peculiar description of sexual mores – brother-
and-sister marriage in the Davidic court – led the rabbis of the Talmud to
discuss the case of the second Tamar, just as irregular sexual behavior led
them to discuss the case of the first Tamar. The rabbis tell us that the second
Tamar was not the child of a legitimate marriage, but rather the child of one
of David's concubines.
For some of the rabbis, marriage between children of
of whom was not a legitimate wife.
In any case, Amnon refuses Tamar's request. He cannot wait. He cannot
contain himself. He rapes her. In the story, Tamar then assumes a sort of state
of mourning and disappears from the biblical stage.
But Amnon's half-brother Absalom, the most beloved of David’s sons, was
lust; the love of a brother for a favorite sister. He cannot bear the thought of
the crime which his brother Amnon has committed. So Absalom seeks re-
venge and has his brother murdered. Absalom himself is ultimately killed as
the result of a power struggle with his father; killed against David's wishes by
those whose job it is to protect the King even from his own progeny. Some
commentators consider the loss of his beloved son Absalom as a punishment
for David's past sin of causing the death of Bathsheba's husband in order to
have her for himself.
But was not Absalom also deserving of punishment for
moral and physical unraveling of the Davidic line, and clearly this was cata-
lyzed by the victimization of the second Tamar.
But what of the third Tamar? She is so inconsequential that the Talmud
makes no mention of her. Have the rabbis missed the point of her inclusion in
the Bible? I think so, because she is none other than a child of that very Ab-
salom who so violently avenged the rape of her namesake (II Sam. 14:27). Is
this repetition of the name merely a coincidence? We will never know. But
for me her name represents the attempt of Absalom to preserve the memory
of his ruined sister and to remember her as a pure child. As such, the last Ta-
mar may have served as a reminder, to those who knew their oral history so
well, of the Tamar stories that preceded her. For them, the last Tamar must
have rekindled all the memories associated with the stories of both her name-
sakes. For us, the last Tamar, through her name, serves as a reminder of the
two faces of woman, represented in the Tanakh by her two predecessors;
woman as heroine and woman as victim.
2. Talmud Bavli Nazir 23b; saying of R. Nahman b. Isaac.
3. Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 21a, comments of R. Judah.
4. Talmud Bavli Yoma 22b.