Tamar's Tragedy

Parashat Vayeshev introduced us to one of the most famous women in the Bible.

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The Role of the Foreigner

Had Tamar been kin, mention of her lineage would be expected; thus it seems that she was foreign. Yet this matters little to Judah: he resents Tamar because he associates her with the loss of his sons, not because of her ethnic identity. Judah had himself been married to a Canaanite, and it is he who arranged Er's marriage with Tamar in the first place (38:6). Moreover, in Tamar's time, no conversion rite, as such, existed; she makes her affiliation clear by aligning herself with the destiny of Judah's household-and thus with the destiny of Israel.

Non-Israelite origin connects Tamar to the story of Potiphar's wife that follows in Genesis 39. Placing the story of a good woman next to that of a bad woman clarifies, from a biblical standpoint, the meaning of both goodness and badness in women. This juxtaposition of good and bad models, known to literary structuralists as "binary opposition," is found again in the case of the widow of Zarephath (in Phoenicia), who aids Elijah in I Kings 17 and is in counterpoint to that other Phoenician woman, Jezebel, who hounds Elijah.

Women are not the only foreign exemplars: the good Kenites are repeatedly balanced with the hated Amalekites (Exodus 17-18; Judges 4; and 1 Samuel 15:6. Such stories provide examples of how a foreigner or foreign people should behave, and less edifying one of how they often did behave. In the context of the Bible, such passages represent ethnic tensions of the past and highlight the uncertainty of trusting outsiders. For the modern world they serve as a reminder for us to judge individuals by their actions and attitudes, rather than by labels and assumptions.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Carol Selkin Wise is a professor of Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.