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3. Ethical Evaluation
If the Tamar-Judah event was possible because of the temple prostitution, how could we evaluate their behaviors?
Tamar’s fault is to deceive her father-in-law to have a child. But she did not have a choice to give birth. Her intention is clearly not for sexual pleasure but for fulfilling social obligations and her survival. So it would be inappropriate to criticize that she was sexually corrupt.
As Tamar’s case is understandable, Judah’s sex buying can also be excused. Judah has another, more fundamental problem, however. The fact that he is involved with temple prostitution is not something easily forgivable. According to Deuteronomy, God told Israel not to make any covenant with Canaanites, not to marry them, and even not to show them mercy, but to utterly destroy them. It is for keeping their religious purity (Deut 7:2-4). So Ezra, for instance, forced everyone who intermarried to divorce and expel the wives and children (Ezra 9-10). Solomon, though a great king, is also criticized for his intermarriage, which brought idols to Israel. Judah’s problem is similar. According to Gen 38:1-2, Judah left his family and settled in the land of a certain Adullamite. He married an Canaanite woman, and so do his sons. Judah became accustomed to Canaanite cultures and religions. Because Judah took temple prostitution as a trivial affair like any other Canaanites, he approached Tamar, disguised as a temple prostitute, and got her pregnant. The event occurred because he was affected by Canaanite cultures and religious practices, not because of his simple sexual desire, which, in ancient times, is easily excused.
4. Contradictory Evaluations in the Hebrew Bible
There is one more thing to consider: why does the text not criticize Judah’s religious impurity. The only criticism of Judah in Gen 38 is that he did not give Shelah to Tamar to let her produce a child, who should inherit Judah’s first son’s property. The text does not decounce his moving to the land of Abdullamite, his sons’ and his intermarriage, and his involvement with temple prostitution. But from the perspective of Deuteronomy, the fact that he peacefully got along with Canaanites and was accustomed to their cultures and religious practices is a very serious fault. Think about Joshua’s battles with Canaanites. His peaceful settlement is itself a problem. Though Judah lived long before the Torah, the duty of keeping religious purity is required before the Torah.
As a matter of fact, not only Judah but other patriarchs also lived peacefully with Canaanites. Take a look at the conversation between Hittites and Abraham in Gen 23. When Abraham purchased land from Hittites to bury his wife, Sarah, they showed respect and made a deal with each other without any hostility. When Abraham left Lot, he settled in the land of Mamre, and he made a covenant with him (Mamre). These are strictly prohibited according to Deuteronomy. Moreover, sometimes intermarriage is not a problem at all. Moses married a Midianite woman in the first place, and he also married a Cushite woman, but Miriam was punished for denouncing Moses.
The Hebrew Bible contains many contradictions, sometimes intertextually and some other times inner-textually too. Preachers often utilize biblical texts to justify their ideas; and it is ok. But they should know that the ideas, though supported by some bible passages of their choice can almost always be disputed by other biblical passages.
The Bible does not tell us correct and unchangeable, absolute answers to our life experiences. The Bible is instead for deconstructing “absolute answers” and letting the reader think further. The existence of contradictions in the Bible tells us that biblical authors and editors struggled with many life issues like we do instead of clearly knowing the answers about God, life, and the universe.