1. What Happened
In Gen 38, we find an incestuous event between Tamar and Judah. Tamar, the first daughter-in-law of Judah, disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce Judah and had an illegitimate relationship. To modern readers’ eyes, it is hard to believe that such things can really happen to one of the great ancestors of Israel. It is too abominable! If you consider ancient cultures, however, It is possible to happen.
2. How Could It Happen?
It is not that Tamar’s constant and unquenched sexual desire led her to moral decay after her husband’s death. She, as a married woman, was obliged to bear children to inherit her husband’s property and survive through it. In the stories of barren women in the Hebrew Bible, one can easily find how important it was for married women in the Ancient Near East to produce children in the stories. They all suffer because they are barren, and most of them tried to have babies through surrogate mothers. Sarah, Rachel, and Leah, all three of them, forced their servants to have children for themselves. Only the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was different. But when she prayed out of her great anxiety and vexation, she looked like a drunken person to the priest Eli. Being barren was such an immense pain to the married women in ancient Israel.
But why was producing children so essential in ancient times? If Tamar remarried an outsider or just sold her husband’s property to outsiders because of her poverty, the property that once belonged to Judah’s house might have been lost to the outsider. In other words, to protect the property of Judah’s house and to survive through it, Tamar should have had children through men from Judah’s house.
Ruth’s case is almost the same. Ruth conspired with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to seduce Boaz, who was a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s husband. She was ready to have sex with any man of the house of Elimelech to produce a child, and she actually executed the plan very boldly. Such behavior is much condemnable in our times, but the text does not describe her conduct as moral decay. Instead, the text lauds her as an exemplar of a good woman who does what she is obliged to do, however difficult it is.
Moreover, even Judah blames himself for not giving her his third son (Shelah) to Tamar, saying, “She is more in the right than I.” (Gen 38:26). What is more, God put Onan, Judah’s second son, to death because he only had sex with Tamar but intentionally did not give Tamar his seed. Onan’s death implies how important it was for married women to give birth to children. Maybe Tamar is not guiltless since she deceived her father-in-law and had sex with him. However, considering the cultural context of the text, Tamar seems to have no choice; it is instead Judah’s fault, or Tamar’s mistake can be forgivable.
Even though it is understandable that Tamar seduced Judah, it is still difficult to understand how Judah could have slept with his daughter-in-law. But it is also understandable if we consider the cultures of the Ancient Near East.
Banality of Sex Buying
Ancient documents, including the Bible, talk about whores quite often. The descriptions are always based on an androcentric perspective. For example, when Shechem raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah, her brothers killed all men and plundered the city as an act of revenge. The brother’s excuse for their atrocity was that Shechem treated Dinah like a “whore.” This account reveals that ancient people regarded women who had experiences of sex before marriage as whores; they thought it to be great dishonor on their families. (Of course, Dinah was a rape victim, but her brothers called Dinah a “whore”). Ironically, however, ancient texts rarely criticize male sex buyers.
The Hebrew Bible compares Israel’s idolatry with “becoming a whore.” The book of Proverbs equates foolishness with women (the so-called “loose women”) who act like whores, and urges the reader to keep distance from her to become wise. This frequent use of the whore-metaphor out of their rich symbolic expressions in various contexts implies that buying sex was very common at that time. So the author of Gen 38 does not seem to be very embarrassed to talk about Judah’s buying sex while Tamar’s “prostitution” deserves burning to death. According to the text, Judah’s fault is not that he bought sex but that he did not give her his third son Shelah to let her get pregnant. So the twin sons whom Tamar bore to Judah were registered as Judah’s rightful sons in his genealogy (Gen 46:12).
Veiling Culture and Special Outfit of Widows
Judah failed to recognize his daughter-in-law and approached her for sexual pleasure. How could this happen? In the Ancient Near East, women normally veiled their faces. According to Gen 24:65, Rebekah veiled her face as soon as she saw Isaac from a distance for the first time.
There were special outfits for widows though we do not know the specifics. Genesis 38:14 indicates that Tamar “put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up” to attract Judah. That is, she hid every hint of her being a widow and disguised herself as a common woman. Judah, of course, must have thought that Tamar was in her widow’s outfits, and he did not seem to suspect the “prostitute” to be his daughter-in-law. So it was possible for Tamar to deceive Judah.
Banality of Temple Prostitution
What is more problematic is how Judah recognized a ‘common’ woman as a prostitute. We do not know the correct answers, but there is a convincing theory. In Gen 38:15, Judah thought Tamar is a zonah, that is, a “prostitute.” But when he tried to pay her, Tamar is described as a qedesha, a “temple prostitution.”
Herodotus reveals that in ancient Babylon, there existed women in temples for sacred prostitution. He even tells us that every woman once in their lifetime had to become a temple prostitute (see Marten Stol, “Temple Prostitution” in Women in the Ancient Near East). Though interpretations about the records of temple prostitution in the Ancient Near East vary, records do exist, and lots of scholars believe that it was a widely practiced custom not only in Babylon but also in the Ancient Near East in general. If that is the case, Judah should have thought that disguised Tamar must have been an ordinary woman (or even a high-class woman who does not want to reveal her identity) discharging a religious obligation.
Not Seeing Faces/Being Unable to See Faces
It still is hard to believe that Judah could not recognize Tamar’s face while having sex. This means that Judah did not see her face in the entire course of the event. How could this happen? In the Ancient Near East, it was strangely possible. For example, Jacob thought that he married Rachel; but later, the next morning, he realized that the woman he spent the night was Leah, not Rachel. This event intimates that a couple in the Ancient Near East could have spent a night without seeing each other’a faces all night or in a condition where they could not see each other at all. Then we can assume that it is not entirely impossible for Judah to sleep with Tamar without seeing her face in ancient Canaan cultural contexts.