Forgiveness and righteousness

Tamar 's veil in Genesis 38
Bible study for the NSW Synod
October 04, 2001

Tapu ki he kelekele mo e kakai ‘o e fonua ni, pea mo kimoutolu kotoa! ’ I give respects to this land and its people, and to you all. ’ In Tongan, I give fakatapu, which is more than paying respects. ’ Fakatapu means ’to sanctify ’ also. ’ To faka-tapu is to recognize and enhance the tapu (sacredness) in others, which my three reflections aim to do.

While I was selecting the texts for these reflections, one of my friends at the Parklea prison (Ngahau Tu ‘ifua, on <st1:date Year=“2001” Day=“30” Month=“5”>May 30, 2001</st1:date>) told me that John 17:1 is a good text because it has to do with ‘forgiveness. ’ ’ John 17:1 reads, ‘After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you [ ‘] ’ (NRSV). ’ Somehow, I was not surprised that none of the commentaries I consulted finds ‘forgiveness ’ in John 17:1. ’ It was then that I decided on ‘forgiveness ’ as the controlling concern of my reflections! [1]

I choose to focus on forgiveness not because it has something to do with John 17:1, but because an inmate hears forgiveness in the plea to ‘[ ‘] glorify your son so that your son may glorify you. ’ ’ Forgiveness is not the right thing to say about John 17:1, but the right thing to say in societies where reconciliation is discussed but not often practiced. ’ Reconciliation is difficult not just within our shores, nor just between later settlers, earlier settlers, and the displaced indigenous people of this land, but in the world contexts also, especially in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the USA and the threats of ‘crusades against terrorism. '

My friend did not know that I prefer the Hebrew Bible, and that the Gospel of John is too high theology for my taste. ’ In other words, this ‘bad boy ’ challenges me to venture beyond my comfort zones and I extend that challenge to you. ’ That is another of the reasons for choosing to focus on forgiveness: it is a concern that pushes us beyond our comfort zones. ’ It is easy to speak on forgiveness (qua principle) but it is not always easy to do forgiveness, especially when it involves persons like my inmate (or should I say out mate?) friend, a worthless and troublesome bloke. [2] ’ I speak on forgiveness because he, and others in his situation, wants me, and I include you, us, to practice forgiveness. [3] ’ In this regard, my reflections listen to the kind of voices that discomfort us. ’ And I have selected three discomforting biblical texts for my three reflections.

I focus on forgiveness, also, in response to another thinker [other than the more popular Christian prisoners Paul and Bonhoeffer] who understands what it ’s like to be in prison. ’ In his Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci distinguishes between two kinds of intellectuals: the traditional and the organic intellectuals (1971:5-23). ’ Traditional intellectuals are professionals, such as writers, lecturers, and scientists, whose position in society has an upper-class aura about it. ’ Traditional intellectuals derive their status from past and present class relations, concealing an attachment to historical class formations. ’ Organic intellectuals, on the other hand, are the thinking and organizing elements of each social class. ’ In this regard, a homeless person or an inmate who organizes and orders her social class is an organic intellectual.

Organic intellectuals may not speak scholarly languages, they may not even look nor act smart, but they are organic ’ they organize and order their life contexts. ’ I speak on forgiveness because it is significant to at least one organic intellectual, and because it is something we, as church, owe one another. ’ We owe one another forgiveness not because we may have wronged one another in the past, but because we have a responsibility to correct the future. ’ Forgiveness is not just about absolving the wrongs of the past, but about coming to terms with our responsibilities for the present and hopes for the future. ’ The call for forgiveness urges us to account for who we are, past, present, and future, and for with whom we are. ’ With whom do we read and reflect (Gerald O. West, Mary M. Fulkerson)? ’ With whom are we in solidarity (Gustavo Guti ‘rrez, Maria Isasi-Diaz)?

Let me interject that to speak on forgiveness requires one to take a side, to borrow the words of Djiniyini Gondarra: ‘I believe that Christians can be agents for this process of reconciliation [read: forgiveness] in the community. ’ However, I believe [that] they must declare that they stand with the Aboriginal people in this struggle: they cannot be middle men [my italics] ’ (Council 1997:39, cited in Habel 1999:1). [4] ’ Gondarra ’s request echoes Gustavo Guti ‘rrez ’s call upon Christians to take the ‘option for the poor. ’ ’ We must not be impartial, we cannot be middle persons.

They [the French peasantry] are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name. ' [ '] ' They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. ' Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. ' (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

reclaiming Tamar 's story

This morning I turn to the story of Tamar in Gen 38 to explore how a rejected widow counts among organic intellectuals. ’ I do not propose to push a politically correct reading. ’ I do not take a middle man ’s position. ’ Rather, I read in solidarity with a character who is rejected in her story. ’ In other words, my reading is about taking a stand with the kinds of readers who hear ‘forgiveness ’ in John 17:1!

Consult critical commentaries on Gen 38, the works of traditional intellectuals, and you will find multiple readings. ’ The list of possible readings is rather long, but I will mention two directions that dominant critics often take:

First, some critics read Gen 38 as part of the story of st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region>. ’ It tells of how this father produced two more sons and thereby extends his hereditary line. ’ His first two sons did not give him descendants, so st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> takes matters into his own hands. ’ In this regard, Gen 38 is the story of how one of the fathers of st1:country-regionst1:placeIsrael</st1:place></st1:country-region> assures that his house and his name will continue. ’ In other words, Gen 38 is a man ’s story!

Second, some critics read Gen 38 as part of the story of st1:country-regionst1:placeIsrael</st1:place></st1:country-region>. ’ This second reading takes note of how Gen 38 interrupts the Joseph narrative, in between Jacob ’s grief for his son (Gen 37) and Joseph ’s encounter with Potiphar ’s wife in st1:country-regionst1:placeEgypt</st1:place></st1:country-region> (Gen 39). ’ In the midst of grief for one missing son, Gen 38 tells of the birth of two sons thus suggesting that the future of st1:country-regionst1:placeIsrael</st1:place></st1:country-region> [Jacob] is not lost. ’ In other words, Gen 38 is a nation ’s story!

Both readings are endorsed by the text, though they may have been encouraged by the desires of ’traditional intellectuals ’ to affirm the [hi]stories of the patriarchs and of st1:country-regionst1:placeIsrael</st1:place></st1:country-region> (so Bal). ’ Both readings seek to locate and harmonize Gen 38 with[in] the [hi]story of the patriarchs/Israel. ’ Though both readings are valid, as far as higher criticism is concerned, they neglect some of the details in Gen 38. ’ This is usually the case with ’larger picture ’ readings. ’ They focus on the forest but miss some of the trees!

I propose to take another go at Gen 38, aiming to account for some of the details that ’traditional critics ’ miss. ’ I offer an ‘organic reading ’ that reclaims Gen 38 as a woman ’s story, Tamar ’s story, in a form that st1:placest1:PlaceNamePacific</st1:PlaceName> st1:PlaceTypeIsland</st1:PlaceType></st1:place> and Aboriginal ‘organic intellectuals ’ favor, that is, in story form. ’ My reflection involves a re-telling of the story.

I must add two caveats at this juncture. ’ First, I propose to take a closer look at Gen 38 but I also realize that no reading can account for all the details in any text. ’ No close reading is close enough. ‘There will always be details that a close reading, including mine, overlooks. ’ In other words, there will always be rem[a]inders! ’ And second, I acknowledge that the task of re-telling a story involves re-writing it. ’ To re-tell a story is to re-write it, to change it, to alter it, or in traditional academic language, as liberation critic J. Severino Croatto puts it, exegesis is eisegesis! ’ In re-telling Gen 38 I also re-call and re-member other stories, such as my own story, the stories of organic intellectuals, of the natives of this land, and so forth. ’ But for this forum, I speak as if I am only re-telling Gen 38. ’ My re-telling draws Tamar ’s story over st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s story.

re-telling Tamar 's story

st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s story involves Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah. ’ Because Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, the Lord opened Leah ’s womb. ’ The birth of st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region>, the fourth of Leah ’s sons, is announced in Gen 29:35. [5]

st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s first act in the biblical account involves Joseph, his proud half-brother whom Jacob favored. ’ When Joseph comes to check on his brothers (Gen 37:12f.), they wanted to kill him but Reuben, the eldest, urged them not to shed any blood but to throw Joseph into a pit. ’ Reuben intended to rescue Joseph later and restore him to their father (37:22). ’ Before he could do so, Ishmaelite (Midianite in 37:28) traders came by and st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region>, still thinking that they were going to kill Joseph, convinced his brothers that they should sell the dreamer to the traders (37:26). ’ Had st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> not talked his brothers into selling Joseph, there is a chance that Reuben would enact his plan to restore the lad to his father. ’ We get the impression from this event that st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> is one who will sell another human person, including his own brother. ’ He would make a good broker, jumping on the opportunity to make a profit!

My understanding of Gen 38 is [de]formed by this image of st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> as a profiteer. ’ He separates himself from his brothers to settle with an Adullamite friend, Hirah. ’ He takes a Canaanite wife and they had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. ’ In taking a Canaanite for a wife st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> emulates his uncle, Esau, who took wives from the Canaanites also (Gen 36). [6] ’ Like st1:placest1:CityEsau</st1:City>, st1:country-regionJudah</st1:country-region></st1:place> produces sons. ’ This sets him apart from Reuben, his only brother who is said to have laid with a woman, because it is not said if a son was born to Reuben (35:22). ’ In this regard, Judah the profiteer is more successful!

st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> does more. ’ He takes a wife for Er his firstborn; her name is Tamar (38:6). ’ Her racial background is not revealed, but given the context I assume that she is Canaanite. ’ The name Tamar is the Canaanite term for ‘palm tree. ’ ’ At this point, st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s plot begins to fail: Tamar did not bear a son for Er. ’ It turns out that Er was wicked in the eyes of the Lord so he puts him to death (38:7).

Following the tradition of those days, st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> gives Tamar to his second son, Onan, for the purpose of producing offspring for Er. ’ Since a son for Er means a grandson for st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region>, I can ’t rule out the possibility that st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> had his own interest in mind in this transaction. ’ But this time also, there is no profit. ’ Onan spills his semen on the ground whenever he goes in to Tamar, in order that he would not give offspring to his brother (38:9). ’ This was not pleasing to the Lord, and he puts Onan to death also. ’ Strange stuff happens in this story. ’ st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> tries to secure a grandson but the Lord keeps on putting st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s sons to death.

st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> assumes that Tamar is the problem so he sends her back to her father ’s house, instead of giving her to his third son as one would expect in light of what he did earlier. ’ st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> tells Tamar to remain a widow in her father ’s house until Shelah grows up, but the narrator tells us that st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> was afraid that Shelah would die like his brothers (38:11). ’ The broker holds his stock, unwilling to make his next and, probably, final transaction. ’ In the meantime, his wife dies and st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> is left in a man-only world consisting of his son and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

The focus then shifts from the context of death at st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s home to the ’entrance to Enaim ’ (opening of eyes), where Tamar takes a place. ’ She heard that her father-in-law was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, and she takes a seat on his way because ‘Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage ’ (38:14).

Tamar did not come as a widow, for just prior to coming she takes her widow ’s garments off, puts on a veil, and ‘dresses up. ’ ’ The narrator does not say that she dresses up as a prostitute but some critics assume that in putting on a veil she disguises herself as a prostitute. [7] ’ That reading does not account for the fact that respectable women in the ancient world, as in contemporary societies, put a veil on their faces (Westenholz 1989, Morimura 1993; compare Exod 34:33-34). ’ I am not certain why Tamar puts a veil on, but I sense that she has something up her sleeves. ’ And so does st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region>. ’ It was because of his [mis]perception, giving the impression that only prostitutes wear a veil, that Tamar comes to be viewed as a prostitute (38:15). ’ And it was Judah who propositioned Tamar, saying, ‘Come, let me come in to you, ’ not knowing that she was his widowed daughter-in-law (38:16).

Tamar responds in a language that st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> would understand, turning their encounter into a business transaction: ‘What will you give me, so that you may come in to me? ’ ’ st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> promises to send her a kid later. ’ He seems to know his business. ’ He thinks he knows what she is worth: not a ewe or a ram, but a kid (38:17). [8] ’ She asks for a pledge until he sends the payment. ’ ‘Without even thinking about it, he gives this woman the equivalent of his passport, credit card, and driving licence; the reader could hardly think this was the action of [a] prudent or sensible man ’ (Carol Smith 1992: 19 [drawing on Robert Alter]). ’ When st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> later sends his Adullamite friend with a kid to recover his pledge, he could not find Tamar. ’ st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s ‘business face ’ then takes charge, opting to relinquish the pledge but to keep the kid. ’ Out of concern for his image, also, he decides not to search any further.

About three months later st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> hears that Tamar is pregnant, and he hastily sentenced her: ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned ’ (38:24). ’ As she is led out she produces his pledge ‘st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s seal, cord, and staff ‘saying, ‘It was the owner of these that made me pregnant ’ (38:24). ’ The judge is sentenced, he who made a pledge is exposed, he who called for fire is burned. ’ He brings upon himself what he wants to avoid ‘being laughed at (38:23). ’ He would be laughed at for revealing that he himself is the very reason why he condemns Tamar. ’ He is the opposite of his brother Reuben. ’ Reuben laid with his father ’s concubine but did not make her pregnant; st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> laid with his son ’s widow and made her pregnant. ’ For this, st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> would have solicited various reactions, from laughter to disgust to abhorrence, and many emotions in between.

st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> makes another judgment: ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah ’ (38:26). ’ In this announcement st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> puts a veil on Tamar, insofar as his talk of right[eousness] overlooks the hurdles that make such talks possible.

unVeiling forgiveness for Tamar

So what does this discomforting story have to do with forgiveness? ’ The story does not say that Tamar is forgiven for becoming pregnant, nor that st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> is forgiven for doing what he should not have done ’ marry a Canaanite, withhold Tamar from Shelah, refuse to be accountable for his widowed daughter-in-law, whom he impregnates. ’ This story does not tell of forgiveness. ’ Rather, it tells of a new decision that can only be made if forgiveness is granted. ’ In other words, the story veils forgiveness from Tamar.

Judah changes his mind from wanting Tamar burned to saying that she is more in the right than he, thus letting her live, without considering the fact that such a change of mind should involve forgiveness. ’ st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> admits that Tamar is more right than he is, without realizing that this means that he is ’less in the right, ’ if not ‘more in the wrong, ’ than Tamar is. ’ According to this reading, st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> is one of those characters for whom ‘saying sorry ’ is difficult. ’ To do so would be bad for business!

This reading takes Tamar as an organic intellectual, one who takes a place at the side of the road, at the entrance to Enaim, in order to seek acceptance into the family from which she was ousted. ’ She comes with a veil to unveil how she is ‘more in the right, ’ how she is more righteous, than ’traditional intellectuals ’ perceive her to be. ’ This organic reading also unveils the relation between acceptance and forgiveness, between forgiveness and righteousness, which the text hides and interpreters [try to] disguise, to put a veil over.

The challenge for this kind of reading is how to forgive the ones who do not want to forgive, the ones who do not know when to forgive, and the ones who do not realize that forgiveness is not just about the past but the present and the future also. ’ This is the point where my organic intellectualism refuses to compromise. ’ Like Tamar, I come to sit at the opening but I will always return to the home of the rejected. ’ This reading does not forgive st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> for not realizing that he was ‘more in the wrong ’ if Tamar is ‘more in the right ’ than he was. ’ And, speaking metaphorically, I can ’t forgive the ones who justify and support st1:country-regionst1:placeJudah</st1:place></st1:country-region> ’s line of business. ’ With Gondarra and Gutierr ‘z, I take the option not to be a by-standing middle-person. ’ I extend that option to you also, the option to read on behalf of ones who are rejected in biblical texts and by traditional intellectuals. ’ I extend to you the option to give them forgiveness, especially when their stories would not.

I find forgiveness in this story just as my friend hears forgiveness in John 17:1, and I urge you to listen for, and practice, forgiveness in texts and experiences that seem to have nothing to do with forgiveness. [9] ’ This first reflection ends with a paradox: calling for forgiveness but refusing to forgive the failure to practice forgiveness!

In the next reflection I will complexify this paradox further by redefining forgiveness in relation to 1 Kings 3:16-28.


Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. ' 1997. ' Community: Reconciliation in the Community, Book 2. ' Canberra: Commonwealth Government.

Croatto, J. Severino. ' 1987. ' Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the Production of Meaning. ' Trans. Robert R. Barr. ' Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Gramsci, Antonio. ' 1971. ' Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. ' Ed. and Trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. ' New York: International.

Habel, Norman C. ' 1999. ' Reconciliation: Searching for Australia 's Soul. ' Sydney: HarperCollins.

Jameson, Fredric. ' 1991. ' Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. ' Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Morimura, Nobuko. ' 1993. ' 'The Story of Tamar: A Feminist Interpretation of Genesis 38, ' Japan Christian Review 59: 55-67.

Smith, Carol. ' 1992. ' 'The Story of Tamar: A Power-filled Challenge to the Structures of Power, ' in George J. Brooke (ed.), Women in the Biblical Tradition. ' Lewiston, NY: Mellen (pp. 16-28).

Vawter, Bruce. ' 1977. ' On Genesis: A New Reading. ' Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. ' 1989. ' 'Tamar, Qedesa, Qadistu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia, ' HTR 82: 245-65.

Williams, James G. ' 1991. ' The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred. Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. ' San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

[1] In good deconstructive fashion, whatever that means, this is another case in which 'I should not but I must ' speak on forgiveness.
[2] This echoes the way James Cook characterized Polynesian natives as 'common, low fellows ' (cf. Williams: 258).
[3] I am playing with the polyvalence 'practice ' here: to try something out, to repeat a certain behavior, to put into action a plan, and so forth.
[4] This mode of reading, as Jameson puts it, '[ '] is not first and foremost a matter of moral choice but of taking of sides in a struggle between embattled groups ' (1991: 290]).
[5] Leah relates Judah 's name, Yehudah, to the Hebrew word for praise, hodah. ' Leah bore two other sons after Judah plus a daughter, Dinah (Gen 30:14-21).
[6] The story of Dinah (Gen 34) gives the impression that marriage to foreigners was not desirable for Jacob 's children.
[7] It was her placement at the side of the road/entrance, as if she is 'a woman available for commerce ' (Vawter 1977: 397), that portrays her as a harlot (Westenholz 1989: 247).
[8] Since he was on his way to shear his sheep, he must know what a ewe or a ram is worth. ' And it is curious that he is going as a herder without a flock at his side!
[9] By transference, taking upon the foregoing, this reading raises the possibility that there is 'forgiveness ' in the act of 'glorifying. '
**** © Copyright 2001, Jione Havea