Saturday, July 9, 2011

David and Tamar

Since Stan Gibson mentioned the story of Judah and Tamar here on his blog, I thought it would be fun to post an old paper I wrote way back in my undergrad days for a class at UC Berkeley entitled "The Hero in the Bible and the Ancient Near East" (that was around 2000 or 2001 I think), where we looked at the figure of the hero in various biblical and other ancient Near Eastern stories. I still find myself in agreement with it, which is nice for a paper written that long ago. Here it is:

In this paper we will look at the Bible and examine two different heroes and their mutual mode of transcendence. To begin with, we see that these stories we will look at tell of a situation peculiar to humanity. Humans are normally limited by their sociopolitical status in what kinds of roles they can take on - having certain groups of roles they are born into generally without having my choice in the matter. Those born socially and/or politically disadvantaged are the most limited in what they are allowed or able to do in a society. The most advantaged, however, are the most powerful and have the most possibilities before them – as well as, often, a larger amount of responsibility especially if such a person is in a place of authority. But all these classes of people – advantaged and disadvantaged – are still humans, with human feelings, and make human mistakes. The ideal for a powerful person in their authoritative role is missed constantly as those who seek to fulfill their role fail in doing so. Kings fail in being good kings, fathers in being good fathers, and those with a certain grave responsibility fall short of perfection in one way or another.

Normal people might fail in their roles of authority to uphold justice and righteousness, but where the normal people are limited, the hero is able to transcend and overcome. The heroes that we will be looking at not only do this but also do it in an extraordinary way. These two begin in the class of the disadvantaged – normally there would be no way they could achieve one of the roles that belong to the advantaged – let alone surpass all others in fulfilling it. Yet this is what these heroes do. A role not “naturally” their own requires a transcendent figure to meet the ideal, so these figures go above their own limitations imposed by society and go above normal human limitations and strive to the ideal. Not only this, but they must prevail over those who are currently in the positions of power and who are not fulfilling their duties – the hero must take on the position, indeed the very identity in some respects, currently occupied by the failed advantaged person to make things right, thus transcending in the seeking of justice.

These two heroes who we will look at in this line of inquiry are Tamar and her descendant David. The advantaged power-figures involved with these two and with which they interact are Judah, who interacts with Tamar, and Saul, who interacts with David. To this end we will focus mainly on the text of Genesis 38 and certain key passages in I and II Samuel in the section of the narrative dealing with David’s rise, especially chapter 18 of I Samuel (and thus we will deal basically with David as he becomes the ideal king – before the later problems wreak havoc on the kingdom). Here David is a kind of warrior-hero and in Genesis Tamar is a trickster, but both operate in their transcendence in a very similar fashion as I have described above – in the mode of fulfilling the failed role. We will first look at the story of Tamar as it bears on our subject and then look at the story of David in the same light and compare the two.

In her relations with the family of Judah, Tamar is definitely disadvantaged. For one thing, Tamar is a foreigner – and a foreign woman at that. As such she has very little power whatsoever and, according to the patriarchal society she lives in, she is under the practical ownership of one male or another at almost all times. The figure of authority Tamar relates with is Judah the patriarch, her father-in-law. We can take Judah in a way as having been chosen by God for his role as patriarch through the fact of Judah being born to Jacob. Coming from a family of patriarchs who are wealthy, nomadic people, Judah seems especially fit for his position. This seems to heighten Judah’s responsibility to his God-given role and helps to show how deeply he truly failed – and by contrast how greatly Tamar will succeed.

Judah fails in a variety of ways. His first failure may perhaps be that he marries the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite. His later failure is neglecting to take care for his lineage – to continue the house of Israel through his descendants, as he should. But after his first two sons, Er and Onan, die he neglects to provide Tamar with offspring from his family to continue the line in Er’s name. In fact, he seems to be rather unresponsive to his sons’ deaths. This is brought out especially be the great contrast between Judah’s response to his sons’ deaths and Jacob’s response to Joseph’s apparent death in the narrative just before the story of Judah and Tamar (Robert Alter, The Art of the Biblical Narrative, p.7). He thus seems to be cast in a negative light in this passage.

As patriarch and head of the family it is his responsibility according to the custom of the levirate law to provide Tamar with someone from Er’s family to give her offspring in her dead husband’s name (this practice is commanded in Deuteronomy 25 and an example of its implementation is found in the book of Ruth – for more on the levirate law, see Claus Westerman, Genesis 37-50, p.52). In not following through on this responsibility Judah violates Tamar’s rights – especially by promising to give her his remaining son Shelah to fulfill the levirate law and then not following through on that promise. Thus Tamar is left in a position even worse than before – she is left a childless widow in her own father’s house, having been cast away by the father-in-law whose responsibility it was to take care of her and see that justice was done.

So Judah, in failing his role, wrongs his younger charge Tamar, who depends upon him – Judah is her caretaker and virtual owner by patriarchal custom. Tamar, however, has shown herself as a hero early on by being dutiful in her fulfillment of the levirate duty. The biblical passage is silent as to what her feelings or thoughts are – she just simply does what she is supposed to do. It seems fitting that Tamar, in doing the right thing and being dutiful in fulfilling her own role as widow of Er, is seen as dangerous by Judah, who neglects what is right and does not do what he is supposed to do.

In this apparent dangerousness, Judah sees Tamar as a threat to his lineage. He sends Tamar away without giving her Shelah, thinking that since his other sons died with Tamar Shelah might do so as well. And if Shelah died, Judah would no longer have any sons. Yet this apparent danger to the family comes from one who has married into the family – who has identified herself with the family through her relationship to Er, the firstborn son. Thus she comes into a relationship with Judah, prepared thus for later taking on his role, being thenceforth in effect cut off from the family she has joined despite her rights through marriage to Er.

Ironically, Tamar is in fact attempting to further the line of Judah, not to destroy it – it is Judah who has failed, not her. As a reward, she is cast out from her new family and sent back to her father’s house. To underscore the wrongfulness we see that before Tamar conceives, a “long time” has passed – more than could reasonably be expected – and she sees that Shelah has not been given to her as promised – despite the fact that he is now grown, the time at which Judah was to give him to her. So she sees the true injustice that has been inflicted upon her by her father-in-law.

Judah thus becomes Tamar’s opponent and forces her into the fringes of society as a widow. Through this avenue, Tamar moves ever closer to Judah’s role. In a liminal transition, Tamar changes identities as she removes her widow’s clothes and puts on a veil – thus symbolizing her transformation. She leaves her identity as a widow and takes on the identity of a prostitute – another figure on the fringes of society. So she begins to transcend the male/female divide – prostitutes generally have more of a camaraderie with men, not holding the normal social roles of women and both being on their own and engaging in trade. So she takes on for herself an appearance of evil (after all, she could be killed for engaging in prostitution as we later see) in order to do what is right. Her quality as a hero is emphasized in the boldness with which she acts. Claus Westerman (see also Herman Gunkel, Genesis, p.399) comments,

Tamar was living in her father’s house with no future. She had noticed that she had been deprived of her right because Shelah had grown up in the meantime. She decided, therefore, to procure her right herself and devised a risky plan that could cost her both her honor and her life.

(Westerman, p.53)

In this line of action, Tamar is able to take on the role and identity of the patriarch. She has already overcome the male/female opposition keeping her form the role, but now she tricks Judah into giving her the very things which symbolize his position as patriarch – that show his very identity. So she gains Judah’s cord and seal and staff. Westerman (on this subject see also Alter, pp.8-9) comments on the seal, cord, and staff,

These are the insignia of a prominent man in Babylon (Herodotus) as well as in Canaan and Israel. The signet ring or cylinder seal is used to sign contracts; the staff has markings carved on it that are peculiar to the owner. The seal was carried on a cord around the neck.

(Westerman, p.53)

Symbolically, in this liminal transition, Tamar is identified with Judah and in effect becomes the patriarch, she being the agent in this passage now and Judah basically the patient – it is Tamar who is now in control. So she becomes pregnant by Judah, doing what should have been done in the first place. Tamar calls the shots – it is Judah who is dependent upon her and she has him in her power. She sees he has lost his wife and that the time of morning is past – so that Judah is likely in a state of sexual needfulness. So she takes advantage of the situation.

The guise of evil, however, in seeking to do the right thing, leads to the threat of death from Judah – who at least nominally is still in charge. According to Gunkel,

Tamar is considered a wife. She is legally Er’s wife to whom she is still obligated, or – the effect would be the same – Shelah’s betrothed. Consequently, she is under the jurisdiction of her father-in-law, not of her own father. The patriarch has the right of life and death over his whole household.

(Gunkel, p.402)

So Tamar risks death in her being a hero – and, as a hero, overcomes in triumph. Tamar, as we have seen, is really in control of the family – she produces the signs of the patriarch-hood and Judah now understands and acknowledges that she is in the right and he in the wrong. Tamar is providing children to continue the line of Er, and thereby Judah and Israel, and so has fulfilled the role of the patriarch.

As we look at David’s rise we see many similarities between that story and the story of Tamar. The figure in authority over David is King Saul. God has chosen Saul through the prophet Samuel. By birth, he seems especially fit to be king. His father is a prominent man and though Benjamin is among the smallest of the tribes of Israel, it is centrally located and thus an ideal position to provide leadership to the land. Saul even looks the part of a king. But like Judah, all this only serves to show how much Saul falls short.

In comparison to Saul’s situation, David is extremely disadvantaged. His family does not seem to be as well off and he is in fact the youngest of eight sons – and it is generally the oldest who is normally the one who ascends to greatness (or who becomes a king). Indeed, David does not seem at first be the one to whom the kingship over Israel should go to – he is not even one of Saul’s sons. And this is the burden of the history of David’s rise in I and II Samuel (roughly from the sixteenth chapter of I Samuel to about the fifth chapter of II Samuel). On this section of I and II Samuel and its relationship to David’s ascension to the throne of Israel, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. says, “Its purpose was to justify the succession as a reflection of Yahweh’s will and offer a rebuttal to charges made against David” (P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., I Samuel, p.28).

Saul meanwhile, though, fails at his role, just like Judah. He neglects to follow the directions of God and imposes unnecessary hardships on his very own men. Later, he becomes afflicted by fits of madness due to an evil spirit and even more than once tries to kill his own heir, his son Jonathan. To emphasize Saul’s failure, the Spirit of Yahweh departs from him. So David comes into Saul’s court and serves him well, providing him with a necessary service – his playing of the harp is of such a virtue as to calm Saul as he is afflicted with the evil spirit. His harp playing, having such almost supernatural abilities, helps display David’s quality as a hero.

Saul wrongs David in various ways, trying to get David to be killed in battle, and ends up driving David into hiding. He owes David a daughter in marriage (apparently this is what was promised to the man who defeated Goliath) but does not give her to him. Again David is promised Saul’s oldest daughter Merab, but she is given to someone else when the time comes for her to be married. Saul’s youngest daughter Michal, meanwhile, loves David and so Saul finally gives this daughter to David in marriage - and after he does give David one of his daughters, he takes her and gives her to another man.

Saul, like Judah, is concerned for the security of his line and for his own well-being. David, meanwhile, does in fact only further the security of Saul and his line to the very end and takes care of them – David is portrayed as but a faithful servant. Even when Saul becomes his enemy, David goes so far as to rebuke his men for even suggesting that they kill Saul. McCarter notes, “We are shown that David […] was quite willing to comply with Saul’s will until absolutely forced to flee the court to save his life” (McCarter, p.29). Even afterwards, David will not raise a hand against Saul, despite many opportunities to do so. He even fights against Saul’s foreign enemies while hiding in the land of the Philistines.

In his service and in his military success as a warrior-hero, David gains great renown and the love of the people. The Bible emphasizes that he had great success in all that he did, since Yahweh, his divine benefactor (something important for an ancient hero to have, which of course also marks him as a hero), was with him. Even Saul’s family turns in favor of David and loves him intensely – including even the crown prince and, of course, Saul’s daughter, the princess Michal. This success scares Saul, since it emphasizes his own inadequacy and the fact that Yahweh is no longer with him.

Thus Saul, in his jealousy, sees David as a danger to his kingship and dynasty, declaring his suspicions in an outburst against his son Jonathan. There he proclaims that if David is not killed, he will inherit the kingdom of Israel instead of Jonathan himself. David too, like Tamar, has in a way become part of Saul’s family by marriage to a child of his opponent and he too is cut off. And Michal is taken away – denied to David as Shelah is denied to Tamar. David in losing Michal, though, is taken care of by God – he gains the wise woman Abigail as a wife even as he loses the king’s daughter.

So David too is forced into the fringes of society as an outcast and man on the run. But in this David gains a large following, even though forced into an appearance of evil by staying with Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, and leading what looks like a band of outlaws. Thus David’s qualifications as a leader come out, especially fit for the heroic warrior-king he is meant to become. But again it is from this apparent evil that David rises into his position as only he is fit to do.

David has taken on the identity of royalty through his identification with Jonathan – who in turn, as heir, is identified with Saul. This is done when Jonathan makes a covenant with David and gives him his robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt – David thus entering into a liminal transformation. It is probable that the robes were Jonathan’s royal robes – such a transfer evoking a certain legal symbolism in which there is a transfer of Jonathan’s position as crown prince to David (McCarter, p.305). So like in the story of Tamar, David’s relationship with his opponent’s eldest son is a driving force behind his ascension, though of course not in the exact same way.

All this leads David into the threat of death from his opponent Saul. At first, in a fit of madness, Saul tries to pin him to the wall. Then he tries to get David killed by sending him off on missions against the Philistines, even offering a daughter of his in marriage as an incentive to lure David on to what Saul probably thought was certain death. But as the hero, David as usual succeeds in what he does and achieves great victories. Merely by being a hero, David is under the wrath of Saul – leading Israel in battle under God’s favor, as Saul, being the king, should have been doing. Finally Saul actively pursues David and tries to kill him continuously but David, as a hero, is always able to escape. Saul ends the threat of death by taking his own life so that now David can ascend to the throne – though consolidation does take a number of years longer to take place.

Because of the particulars of the stories, the themes we have been looking at are worked out in different ways accordingly, especially in regards to the kind of hero that our respective heroes fall into. With Tamar, Judah ceases trying to kill her when she reveals what has been hidden – as a trickster she has knowledge that Judah does not and has used it to her advantage, but now she reveals it to him so that he too sees truly. With David, on the other-hand, the warrior is the kind of hero most often exemplified and so the threat of death from Saul, according to the theme of the warrior-hero, ends when Saul ends the pursuit himself – but this by his death rather than seeing truly.

The general sequence we see in these stories is as follows: First, the hero becomes associated with his or her opponent-to-be. Second, the hero excels in his or her duties towards his or her opponent and his family. Third, the hero is seen as a threat. Fourth, the hero is forced into the fringes of society. Fifth, the hero takes on the appearance of evil, meanwhile or afterwards being pursued for death. Lastly, the hero emerges spotless from this evil appearance through the threat of death and ultimately fulfills the role his or her opponent failed in.

Through all of this, we see the hero moving closer and closer to his or her opponent’s role. Being forced into the fringe they display their transcendent qualities by using this to come into power “through the back door” as it were. Thus there are one or more liminal transformations involved and an intimate identification of the hero with the one that they are to replace. With David, his liminal identification with his adversary occurs before his appearance of evil. By contrast, Tamar’s occurs during her appearance of evil, though in a way these cases still coincide since Tamar is not known as the person who has this appearance until after the liminal transformation, where she gains Judah’s identity.

In both David and Tamar there is an entrance by marriage into their adversaries’ respective families. Thus they are not naturally a part of that family, but have joined by identification through marriage with one of its members. This mirrors the fact they are also both not naturally in the position to take on the role of their opponents. Yet because of their relationships to their opponents families they are able to take on the position by other, yet perfectly legitimate, means. The relationship with the family is especially indicated in the heroes' relationships with their opponents’ eldest sons. This is particularly fitting as we have seen in David’s case since the eldest son is heir to the father and thus identifies with him very strongly.

In both Judah and Saul we see contradictory impulses emphasizing their unfitness in their positions. Judah wrongs Tamar because he thinks that perhaps otherwise his last son will die, perhaps destroying his line. Yet in doing so, he harms his line by not continuing the name of Er. Saul is in a similar situation. He wrongs David because he thinks that otherwise his dynasty will end, yet at the same time in his anger at David he tries once to kill his very own son Jonathan. So it is revealed that Judah and Saul are really acting out of blinded self-interest rather than justice and true concern for the people around them.

So we see the quality of the hero as it is worked out in the supplanting of those who have abused their power. They create justice out of injustice and make right what was wrong. They succeed where others fail. In this way we see the ways these heroes transcend and go beyond the normal limits of human existence, doing more and accomplishing more than anyone else could or would. Their stories are thus greater than normal stories and as a result live on.


Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books: 1981.

Gunkel, Herman, Genesis, Mercer University Press; Macon, Georgia: 1997.

McCarter, Jr., P. Kyle, I Samuel, Doubleday and Company, Inc.; Garden City, New York: 1986.

Westerman, Claus, Genesis 37-50, Augsburg Publishing House; Minneapolis: 1986.

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