Parashat Vayeshev – Erev Shabbat 16 December 2022 (5783)
Torah portion: Gen.37:1-40:23 Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Theme: Power, Sex, and Deception.
Parashat Vayeishev (“he settled”) begins the so-called “Joseph story cycle” which goes on until the end of Genesis (p. 209). In the midst of the Joseph sagas, there is an interlude with an unexpected story of Tamar and Judah. This pair will be remembered when David becomes the great king and founder of Israel’s most well known dynasty (p. 215). Tamar was married to Er, the eldest son of Judah and Shua, “Er was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life” (Gen. 38:7). Thus according to levirate law [which was to carry on the inheritance of his brother’s name Deut. 25:5)], the second son, Onan, married his brother’s widow, Tamar, but refused to bear a child who would not be called his own. Onan “wasted his seed on the ground…and displeased the Lord”, so, the Lord took his life also” (Gen. 38:10). The third son, Shelah, was still young. Judah said to his daughter-in-law, Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until Shelah grows up,” for he thought, “Lest he too die like his brothers” (Gen. 38:11).
As a Canaanite woman who had lost two husbands and was childless, Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands rather than be pitied as a childless widow (p .93). Tamar heard that her father-in-law was going to Timnah to shear his sheep. She had been waiting for Shelah to be given to her in marriage; however hearing nothing from him, she dressed in a veil and wrapped herself up and waited on the way to Timnah. When Judah saw her and took her for a prostitute, he asked her to “couple” with him. She did so with getting him to give her his staff, seal, and cord as a pledge. Three months later, Judah learned Tamar was pregnant. Not waiting to discover the outcome of his own act of adultery, he became furious and said, “Take her out and burn her”(Gen. 38:24). Tamar went to some length to protect her “reputation” by saying that Judah did not recognize her because she wore her veil in modesty around the house when she was married to his sons (p.95). In her situation, she could have died rather than publicly humiliate Judah. Instead, when she shows the red cord she had received from him, he realized he was the father for her soon-to-be-born twins and exclaims, “hi tzad-kah mimeni” (she is more righteous than I) (p. 94). The same scarlet thread was used later by the midwife when Tamar gave birth to Perez and Zerah. Although Zerah was the elder, Perez burst forth from her womb first. Once again we see the youngest or most unexpected person, gifted with the birthright position of the eldest. King David is descended from the Perizites (Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chron. 2:5, 9-15). In Matthew’s Gospel (1:3) we find these flawed people who were used and blessed by God to be the ancestors of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Judah, Perez and Tamar are included in that Gospel lineage.
For Reflection and Discussion: Have you ever had an experience of being “thrust” to the head of the line or given responsibilities unexpectedly? How did you cope or recognize this new opportunity in your life? What does this passage from Genesis say to you about the way God enters into our daily experiences? What does it say about God’s justice?
Bibliography: Raphael, Geela-Rayzel. “Vayeshev.” The Women’s Torah Commentary. Jewish Lights, 2000, pp. 89-98; Brenner, Athalya. “Vayeishev.” The Torah, A Women’s Commentary. URJ Press, 2008, pp. 209-219.
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mary Louise Chesley-Cora, Delaware, USA, Bat Kol Alumna 2001