ESSAY
Genesis 38 from Multiple Angles (Part 2)
POSTED
October 22, 2019

Summary:  The Bible is a multi-faceted text.  As a result, it can fruitfully be analyzed in many ways.  Pace, context, flow, imagery:  all of these aspects of the Biblical text are significant and instructive.  Here, by way of illustration, I analyze Gen. 38 in a range of different ways, and show how each method of analysis contributes to a unified theme, namely the continuation of Abraham’s “line of promise.”

In Part I of the present note, we analyse our text’s placement within the book of Genesis, chronology, and flow, all of which are highly significant.  They draw our attention to the threat posed to Judah’s line by the Canaanites, the apparently fragile thread on which its survival hangs, and the (often dubious) motives of those involved in it.  Here in Part II, we analyse our text in three further ways--viz. in terms of its imagery, inner-Biblical resonances, and onomastic content--, and then seek to draw its various threads together.

Symbolism

A number of actions in our text are rich with symbolic import, which shed further light on certain events.  First, Tamar’s removal of “the clothes of her widowhood.”  Tamar removes the clothes associated with her husband’s death for largely pragmatic reasons.  (She plans to disguise herself as a prostitute.)  Her actions also, however, have symbolic import.  What Tamar is about to do will indeed “remove her widowhood.” 

Second, Tamar’s receipt of Judah’s seal.  Judah’s seal is a symbol of his identity, and, in the course of ch. 38’s events, Tamar (in a sense) receives Judah’s identity.  When Tamar leaves Enaim, she does so with Judah’s identity “imprinted” on her, since has been impregnated with Judah’s seed. 

Third, Tamar’s receipt of Judah’s staff.  Insofar as Tamar becomes part of the Messianic line, she receives a share in Judah’s authority, for she will ultimately bring forth a child from whose hands “the sceptre will never depart” (49.10 cp. Rev. 12).

The particular attire put on by Tamar in v. 14 may also be significant.  The text of v. 14 employs a form of the verb ʕ-L-P.  In the context of v. 14, the verb ʕ-L-P is traditionally rendered as “wrapped up,” but seems a slightly unusual choice of verb, since it is not otherwise attested in BH with the sense “to wrap,” and does not add a great deal to the narrative, since Tamar is already said to have “covered” herself.  (As a result, many translations leave the verb ʕ-L-P untranslated.) 

It is possible, however, to render the verb ʕ-L-P in light of the Arabic verb galafa = “to perfume oneself” and/or the Ugaritic noun ġlp = “a sea snail, from which scarlet dye and/or perfume is obtained.”  Might Tamar, therefore, have applied a kind of scarlet cosmetic to herself?  If so, it would fit the context of v. 14 remarkably well.  Red and scarlet are associated with prostitution in a wide range of different societies, as they are in Rahab’s case.  (When the spies tell Rahab to tie a scarlet cord in her window, they refer to “that scarlet cord,” as if to suggest a scarlet cord was already present in Rahab’s house.)  And a mention of “scarlet” would resonate with what takes place at the end of our text when a scarlet cord is tied around Zerah’s hand.

Either way, many of the actions described in ch. 38 are symbolically significant, and add richness to our narrative.  They also emphasize exactly what is at stake in the survival of Judah’s line.  Judah’s line is not simply a family heirloom which would be nice to preserve;  it is the one line on earth to which God has assigned power and authority, and by means of which God will redeem his fallen creation.

Wider Biblical resonances

As we’ve seen, the text of Gen. 38 has an important role to play in the book of Genesis, but it can also be analysed in a broader context, namely the canon of Scripture. 

Of course, Gen. 38 resonates with all sorts of other texts, but its points of resonance with Samson’s story strike me as particularly noteworthy.[i]  In both cases, we have a man who goes down to Timnah (a town otherwise not mentioned much in Scripture), a marriage to a foreign woman, a threat of death (by means of fire), an unclaimed gift of a kid goat (gedi-‘izzim), and the unexplained presence of an otherwise barely-mentioned “friend” (38.12, Judg. 14.20). 

We also have a woman who turns the tables on the text’s main character:  just as Tamar entices Judah into the exposure/revelation of his identity, so Delilah entices Samson into the exposure/revelation of his identity as a Nazirite.  As such, Judah’s and Samson’s experiences resonate with one another in a number of ways, yet the manner in which they are put together is quite different, as is shown below:

  • Samson seeks to marry a woman in Timnah, but (much to his surprise) is unable to do so.  Meanwhile, Judah chooses not to commit himself to the woman he meets in Timnah, but (much to his surprise) finds himself inextricably tied to her.
  • Samson brings his “wife” a goat in order to (try to) reconnect with her.  Meanwhile, Judah sends Tamar a goat in order to (try to) sever his ties with her.
  • Samson’s “wife” is ultimately burnt with fire, while Judah’s wife is ultimately saved from the fire.
  • And Delilah’s exposure of Samson’s secret leads to death, while Tamar’s exposure of Judah’s leads to life.

These differences are noteworthy.  Judah’s line is a permanent one, while Samson belongs to a merely temporary order.  More specifically, Samson is the last of Israel’s judges.  By the end of his 20-year tenure, Samson’s time has come to an end, and God therefore allows Samson—who shows little remorse for his lifestyle—to self-destruct. 

Judah’s case, however, is different.  Judah represents the start of a line of promise—indeed, the line from which the Messiah will arise—, and God must therefore preserve the line of Judah (who does demonstrate remorse) at all costs.  Despite Judah’s best attempts, then, Judah’s line does not fizzle out.  Although Matt. 1’s genealogy goes through many dark times in Israel’s history, it eventually emerges triumphant in the form of one who will have to undergo dark times himself, namely Jesus, the lion of Judah.

Onomastics

A further way in which Gen. 38’s narrative can be explored is by a consideration of its names.  Judah’s son Shelah is said to be born in (the region/village of) “Chezib,” which resonates with the root K-Z-B = “to deceive.”[ii]  These same three consonants can also have the sense “to fail, dry up, abate,”[iii] hence many Aramaic translations of Gen. 38.5 emend the name “Chezib” to “Paskat” (from the root P-S-Q = “to come to an end”).

Both senses of K-Z-B (namely “to deceive” and “to dry up”) happen to be relevant to ch. 38’s events, since ch. 38’s events involve various acts of deception, which threaten to “dry up” the line of Judah.  And, as it happens, both senses of K-Z-B resonate with the name “Shelah,” since “Shelah” can be connected with both the notions of “deception” and “cessation.”[iv]  As such, the first verses of ch. 38 set the scene for what is to come, at which point the names of Judah’s sons and their wives take up the story.

The name “Er” is most likely an abbreviated form of the Hebrew ‘aro‘er = “tamarisk,”[v] which makes it a well attested type of name in the ANE, and one typically associated with fertility.  Meanwhile, “Tamar” refers to a “date palm,” which embodies similar connotations.  On both covenantal and onomastic grounds, then, Er and Tamar should have been fruitful.  But, sadly, Er does not live up to his name.  Rather than bear fruit, he engages in ra = “evil” (an anagram of “Er”), which brings Onan to the stage.

The root of “Onan” (ʔ-W-N) has to do with “strength” and, in particular, the kind of strength one is supposed to pass on to one’s seed (cp. Gen. 49.3, Deut. 21.17, Psa. 78.51, etc.).  Like Er, then, Onan should have raised up seed for Tamar.  But, rather than pass his strength on to others, Onan follows in Er’s footsteps and commits “evil” (38.10).  He does not sow in ʔ-W-N = “strength,” but in “iniquity” (an anagram of ʔ-W-N).  As such, neither Er nor Onan live up to their names, and nor does Judah (whose name concerns either “praise” or “confession”).

The close of ch. 38, however, describes a reversal of the above situation.  Judah “confesses” his sin, and Tamar gives birth to a son named “Perez,” which is yet another significant name.  When names are explicitly interpreted for us in Scripture (here as “breach” from P-R-Ṣ), they typically have a resonance besides that stated in the text, which appears to be the case in the present instance, since the Arabic equivalent of P-R-Ṣ6 designates not only “a breach,” but also “the fruit of a date palm.”  And, given the significance of the name “Tamar,” that fact seems unlikely to be a coincidence.  With the birth of Perez, Tamar finally becomes fruitful.

A remark on Gen. 38’s historicity

As we have seen, Gen. 38 is full of literary finesse and artistry.  But, as exegetes of Scripture, we are not forced to choose between a text’s literary artistry and its historicity.  God, after all, is an artist, and history is his masterpiece.  And, as it happens, the text and events of Gen. 38 fit well with (what we know of) their historical context. 

For instance:  Levirate marriage is referred to in 2nd millenial Hittite and Middle Assyrian laws.  The personal names attested in Gen. 38 are consistent with the onomastic trends of the day.[vi]  And the geographical names attested in Gen. 38 make sense given what we know of ancient Israel’s geography.[vii]

Final thoughts

In summary, then, the text of Gen. 38 can profitably be analysed in many different ways.  None of these methods of analysis provides a unique key to unlock our text.  Instead, all of them jointly help us to understand it, as well as to appreciate the intricacy of God’s world and word. 

Our text’s placement within Genesis highlights the dangers of Canaan compared to the refuge afforded by Egypt;  its chronology highlights the abandonment of responsibility inherent in its events;  its flow highlights the remarkable way in which God navigates a way through Canaan’s dangers;  its symbolism highlights the threat to and extraordinary significance of Judah’s line;  its resonance with the Samson story highlights God’s great patience and persistence with the line of Judah;  and its onomastic content highlights the way in which Judah’s sons fail to live up to their names and hence to God’s call on their lives.  And none of these issues are dealt with in anywhere near a comprehensive manner in the present article.

As can be seen, then, God has made Scripture a far bigger entity than any one man is able to master, and than any one book or series of books is able to exhaust.  Consequently, as the Church, we depend on one another in order to increase our comprehension of Scripture’s riches, which is why it is important for us to read Scripture as part of—and within—a community. 

But, of course, if we are dependent upon one another as Christians, then we also bear responsibilities to one another as Christians, which we must remain mindful of.  We must be people who can be trusted to present our claims in a transparent and diligent manner, and who are honest about what we do and do not know.

Credits

Thanks to Brett Lunn for suggestions, corrections, etc., and to Peter Leithart for the opportunity to post on Theopolis.


James Bejon attends a church in Romford, London, where he fellowships, is taught, and teaches.  He presently works at Tyndale House in Cambridge (https://academic.tyndalehouse.com), whose aim is to make high-quality biblical scholarship available as widely as possible.


[i] Here I am indebted to the observations of Scott Fairbanks and Alastair Roberts.  Alastair shares some thoughts on the matter here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRihTZXCeew, accessed 2019.

[ii] As is the case not only in Biblical Hebrew, but also in Aramaic, Arabic, Akkadian, and other languages.

[iii] As is the case in Mishnaic Hebrew and Arabic.

[iv] Per Hebrew Sh-L-W/Y = “to err, go astray” and Syriac Sh-L-Y = “to cease movement.”  Note:  The interchangeability of Sh-L-W/Y and K-Z-B is neatly demonstrated in 2 Kgs. 4, where the Shunammite paraphrases her initial statement “Do not deceive (K-Z-B) me!” via the phrase “Do not mislead (Sh-L-W/Y) me!” (cp. 2 Kgs. 4.16 w. 28).

[v] Per Egyptian and Ugaritic ‘r = “tamarisk.”

[vi] Likely equivalents for at least five of the names attested in Gen. 38 (viz. “Hira,” “Shua,” “Er,” “Onan,” and “Tamar”) can be found simply by recourse to a standard Ugaritic dictionary, while equivalents cannot (as far as I’m aware) be found in the names attested among later archeological remains in Israel.

[vii] For details, see my note on the matter at https://www.academia.edu/39953895/, accessed 2019.

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