The Tree of Life /19

Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni.

The Value of Man and the Dignity of Every Woman.

19 Juda and Tamar

‘The journey was continued until they came to Ephrath, the place of Rachel’s sepulchre. Joseph hastened to his mother’s grave, and throwing himself across it, he groaned and cried, saying: “O mother, mother, that didst bear me, arise, come forth and see how thy son hath been sold into slavery, with none to take pity upon him … Arise, O mother, awake from thy sleep, see how my father is with me in his soul and in his spirit, and comfort him and ease his heavy heart.’ (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews. vol. 2).

The word profit (bèça’) makes its first appearance in the Bible when a brother is sold: ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother (…)?’ (37:26). So, after they had cast him in the pit, the brothers gave heed to Judah and ‘sold him … for twenty shekels of silver’ (37:28) to the merchants travelling through those parts.

It was the price of a slave or a pair of sandals, twenty times less than the price Abraham paid to the Hittites for the tomb for Sarah. Thus Joseph, the younger brother was sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites, descendants of the son of Abraham and Hagar, the boy who was also refused and expelled to the desert by Sarah. Money and profit are presented to us as closely related to death. They come into play as a means to avoid it, but in reality they continue to stay very close to it. The great civilizations knew very well that the territory of profit shares a border with love and life, but on the other side also with death and sin; and that the stakes are mobile with border crossings in both directions that are very easy and frequent. Our civilisation, however, is the first that has entirely forgotten the existence of the left side border of the land of profit; and so it has forgotten that ‘The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.’ (Proverbs, 10:16). There have always been – yesterday and today – merchants who buy and sell only ‘gum, balm, and myrrh’ (37:25); but there are others, often mingling on the same squares, that, apart from the goods also buy and sell “brothers”, for twenty shekels or less.

After the caravan of merchants of goods and children drove off in the direction of Egypt, the brothers ‘took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colours and brought it to their father … And he identified it and said, »It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.«‘ (37:31-33). We are reading one of the most intense passages of Genesis: ‘Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. …and (he) said, »I shall go down to Sheol (the kingdom of the dead) to my son, mourning.«‘ (37:34-35) They are verses of immense beauty and humanity that make this special kind of paternal pain eternal and sacred that make this, for which – unlike orphanage and widowhood – there is no specific word, perhaps because it is unspeakable. Heaven must exist, if only to do justice to these pains without a name, to return the immaculate long and colourful robes of our children.

Then Judah ‘went down from his brothers and turned aside’ (38:1), and – perhaps to get away from the coat and the blood – went into the land of Canaan, where, together with his daughter in law Tamar he becomes the protagonist of one of the most beautiful stories of Genesis. Tamar, the Canaanite woman, is widowed after marrying Er, the firstborn of Judah. According to the so-called levirate law, Judah asks his second son Onan to give offspring to Tamar. But Onan, too, after he refuses to fulfil his duty to Tamar, dies (38:6-9). At this point, the thought creeps in Judah’s mind that Tamar may be the cause of the death of his two sons (38:11) – it was common in many ancient cultures, and even today in some regions of India or Africa, to believe that widows bring bad luck and curses, and to discriminated against them and abuse them because of this. And so he says to her: ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up’ (38:11). Time passes, Shelah grows up, but Judah does not keep his word and does not respect the levirate law, and Tamar remains single and childless. At this point there comes a twist. Tamar hears that Judah is passing through her parts, away from his tribe. She removes the widow’s clothes (38:14), covers her face with a veil so as not to be recognized by her father in law, and waits for him at a crossroads. When Judah saw her, ‘he thought she was a prostitute’ (38:15), and as a price for her services he promises Tamar sending her a young goat. But in order to give in to Judah, the daughter in law wants a pledge: ‘Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.’ (38:18), the “identity card” of the lords of those parts. Tamar gets pregnant. And when three months later Judah learns that his daughter in law is expecting a baby (actually, she will be having twins: Perez and Zerah: 38:29-30), he sentences her to death. While they lead her out to the stake, Tamar brings her plan to completion: ‘By the man to whom these [the signet, the cord and the staff] belong, I am pregnant.’ (38:25). ‘Then Judah identified them and said, »She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.«‘ (38:26) With this last act of responsibility Judah also redeems himself: he could have exercised his power of a man and the head of the clan to deny Tamar, a helpless woman. But he did not, and, at least in this action, he was a righteous man.

So ends the story of Tamar. From its conclusion we understand whose side Genesis takes: it is on the side of Tamar, who is presented as a positive and righteous figure (‘She is more righteous than I’), with traits that are similar to the great women of the Bible (Judith, Ruth). And if we suspend the moralistic reading of these episodes (and we should always do if we hope to have a bit of “understanding of the scriptures”), we may discover many messages of life in the story of Tamar. First of all Genesis, by blaming Judah and praising Tamar, reminds us that there is a wrong type of caution and also a saving type of transgression. Fearing that he might also lose his third son (‘he feared that he would die, like his brothers’: 38:11), Judah does not serve life and denies descendents to his daughter in law and her family. This non-risking caution is often the enemy of life and the future; hence it is not a virtue but a vice and a sin. In the story of Judah and Tamar there is a strong counterpoint that returns and accompanies the entire biblical act: the predilection and the redemption of the last and the least. Only by putting together the “voice” of the patriarchs, kings and the Law with that of the exalted humble can the Bible resonate in all its beauty and salvation. A more fruitful and true reading of the Word of God then is one that makes us upturn orders and hierarchies of our human time, and exalts the humble and humbles the mighty, it is the one that shakes us and undermines our well-rooted ethical beliefs about what morality, sin, guilt or innocence is. A Bible without the presence of injured humanity and even that of the sinner would be a book that would not offer any benefit to real men and real women.

But in this episode of Genesis we can trace a hidden but not invisible additional message, too, aimed primarily at males and the powerful: the women you look for at the “cross-roads” and the women that, like Judas, you “mistake for prostitutes”, may be people from your own house. And they really are. You do not recognise them, you consider them strangers and faceless people, but Elohim can see through their veil, and the day will come when you have to render justice on behalf of the “signets” that you left in pledge with them.

We have to thank the author of these stories, and those who have kept them dearly over the millennia, for having had the courage to tell us about naked and wounded humanity, in an uncensored way and without shame. And if all of humanity is a gift, then every human being can find a life of redemption and salvation in these texts, yesterday, today and forever.

Only if we get into this “upturned” logic are we not amazed when we read in the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth: ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar (…)’ (Matthew 1:2). Yes, between Abraham and Jesus there is Tamar and there is Judah, too.

At the roadside at the spring, Tamar not only met his father in law; she did not know it, but the real meeting on that road was another one, one that has given an eternal place for her, like a rare gem, in the great history of salvation.

A brother is not to be sold to the merchants for twenty copper coins, you are not supposed to send the long and colourful coat of a son to his father dipped in the blood of a young goat, a widowed daughter in law should not be humiliated and abandoned. But as long as there are people who continue to commit these crimes and generate victims, there will be at least one “place” (the Bible) in the world to find an identity in, to feel guided, loved, comforted by, to be taken by the hand and raised back to our feet, even in the most dramatic and dark moments of our existence and that of others. And also to find the strength to start walking again, in order not to die, and in order not to let people die, to really hope in a promised land, a resurrection, in the paradise of Abel, Ishmael, Hagar, Dinah, Joseph and Tamar.

‘Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar (…) had bought him from the Ishmaelites (…)’ (39:1).

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 22/06/2014



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