Trickster Tales of Scripture
In last week’s column, we looked at the trickster motif and its relationship to honesty. We concluded that sometimes we must earn the right to be told the truth. This week, we look at the same trickster theme, but consider how it relates to power. The trickster claims power, but not a power of violence or aggression. Though not always a force for love, at least the trickster doesn’t destroy.
The Hebrew Scriptures are full of trickster tales. Younger siblings supplant older ones. Women survive and even save their communities by using their wits. Cleverness is appreciated, deception encouraged, and audacity rewarded. You could say that Israel itself was a community of tricksters, ex-slaves who, in spite of their weakness and poverty, turned the theological and political world of their day on its head.
One such trickster, a woman showed that even women deserve fairness, was Tamar, the widow of Er and the daughter-in-law of Judah.
Part of Judah’s importance is as the ancestor of King David. He married a Canaanite woman and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. He married Tamar to his eldest son, at which point things started to go bad.
We don’t know what Er did, but it was something bad enough that God killed him before he had given Tamar any children. Back then, if childless widow could expect that one her dead husband’s brothers would marry her and produce a son who would take the deceased brother’s name and carry on his lineage. So Judah did what was right and instructed Onan to do his duty and produce a son for his brother.
But Onan did not want to create an heir for Er. With his brother dead, he was the eldest and received the best portion of his father’s estate. If he produced a son in his brother’s name, that boy would get that portion instead of him. So although he married Tamar and had intercourse with her, he withdrew before ejaculating, and his seed spilled on the earth. So God killed Onan, too.
Why would God kill Er for some unnamed crime and Onan for failing to fulfill his levirate duties, but let someone like David live, who cuckolded Uriah, then arranged for him to be murdered? God may love a trickster, but he seems also to approve of using violence to maintain power. That seems ironic, for a good trickster resists the power of violence.
Judah Fails Tamar
Violence can take many forms, not just murder. Even Onan’s small act was aggressive, withholding from Tamar what was rightfully hers. She had no power to convince him to do otherwise.
Then Judah further abused her by refusing to let her marry his third son. Thinking she must be cursed, he was afraid that if he married her, Selah, too, would die. Thus, he sent her to live at her father’s, making her an empty promise that once the young man came of age, they would wed. It wasn’t long before Tamar realized that Judah never intended to do so.
We might think of Judah as the trickster here. Wasn’t he using the tools a trickster: lies, misdirection, and subtefgure? Yet when a rich and prestigious man like Judah cheats a widow of her right to a meaningful life, that is not the work of a trickster. It is cruelty. If a trickster is powerful himself, he never his power to deceive those weaker than he.
Of course, Judah probably didn’t mean to be so unkind. His intention was to save his son, not hurt Tamar. Yet this does not excuse him. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out in her analysis of Tamar’s story, “a man with both power and lack of understanding becomes an oppressor.” 
Sitting alone in her father’s house, but under Judah’s control, Tamar surely felt oppressed. She had no strength she could turn to power, no legal force to back her up if she were to demand her levirate rights. Not even the collective strength of social stigma could help her. So Tamar turned to what power she did have, that of intelligence, cunning, and courage. She conceived of a plan that, if it went well, would vindicate her. If it did not, it would cost her her life.
Tamar Tricks Judah
About the time that Tamar realized Judah never intended to fulfill his promise to her, his wife died. Soon after that, he set off plans on a journey to Timna. It was time for Tamar to act.
Part of her plan depended on a technicality in levirate law that allowed the father-in-law to fill in no sons were available. Tamar might have tried to convince Judah to consummate the levirate marriage himself, but she knew he never would. At least not willingly.  Thus she removed her widow’s garments, and, disguising herself with a veil, sat down by a well on the way to Timna and waited.
Seeing her there, Judah thought she was a holy prostitute, and he stopped beside her and said, “Let me come into you.”
She was willing, but first they had to agree on terms. He would give him a goat kid from his flock, but Tamar insisted he her a pledge as a promise of this gift. She wanted his seal, his cord, and the staff he carried.
Judah did not demur. He gave her his pledge and “came into her.” In this way, Tamar became pregnant.
Later, Judah sent a servant to bring her the goat kid he had promised and receive back his pledge, but the servant could not find her. When he returned, the servant told Judah that there had never been a “holy prostitute” at that place. Then Judah told him to stop seeking to recover his pledge, because if he did, they would “become a laughing-stock” (Gen 38:23). Judah knew he had been tricked, though did not understand the extent of his foolishness.
Tamar Is Vindicated
About three months later, Judah learned that his daughter-in-law had “become pregnant from whoring!” (Gen 38:24). By doing this, she had betrayed his honor, so he commanded that she be burned.
“But as she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: Pray recognize – whose seal and cords and staff are these?” (Gen 38:25).
Recognizing them as his own, Judah announced that Tamar was in the right more than he was. “For after all, I did not give her to Shela my son!” (Gen 38:26). After that, Judah never slept with her again.
Winning Judah’s Support
In this way, Tamar got her life back. As Frymer-Kensky explains, although a divorced woman had independence and could negotiate a new marriage for herself, a widow did not. She was dependent on her dead husband’s household. If she had children, a new husband would be found for her. If she did not, levirate marriage would reconnect her to the family. When neither of these was possible, she could be released to marry someone outside the family.
But Judah would do none of these. Instead, he left her powerless in her father’s home. As a woman, Tamar had no power to act on her own behalf. Whatever she did, she would be branded, rejected, or perhaps killed. 
In her wisdom, though, Tamar figured out a way out. Fortunately, her plan worked, and all was well. Judah acknowledged his failure, announcing her righteousness to everyone. We don’t know what happened to her after she gave birth to what turned out to be twin sons, but one of them went on to become an ancestor to King David. And this, it seems, was the point of the tale.
But if all we needed to know was that David was a direct descendant of Judah, why tell a story of trickery? Why not have Tamar get pregnant by Er? Obviously, the writers cared about more than David’s pedigree. What does this story of sin, betrayal, and vindication teach us about who we are, about who God is, and about what our relationship with that deity should be? What does it teach us about the rights of women and the use of power?
As always with scripture, it’s complicated. God might be laughing along with Tamar, but He also smites two men dead, using violence to assert His sovereignty. It might even be fair to see God’s hand in the convenient death of Judah’s wife. After all, if she had still been alive, the upstanding Judah would hardly have been enticed by what he took to be a prostitute.
So God is a politician, plotting and scheming along with his beloved second-class citizens, yet Her methods sometimes leave us scratching our heads. We don’t know why Er was punished, and while Onan’s refusal to impregnate his sister-in-law revealed a greedy nature, so many men in Scripture do far worse things, and are not only forgiven by God, but rewarded. What kind of God does such things?
A God of Covenant
Scripture is meant to be a record of a human relationship with God. The humans who wrote these stories interpreted them according to their understanding of the divine. Knowing this, we can dismiss the parts we don’t like or don’t understand, but what does that teach us? Sometimes it helps to wrestle with texts we don’t like.
Maybe we can learn something if we look at the crimes committed by Judah’s sons. We’ll never know what Er did, so let’s focus on Onan. In his greed, he betrayed his relationship with his deceased brother. He also betrayed his sister-in-law. Though he consummated the marriage act, he withdrew before Tamar could become pregnant.
That must have shocked her. Trusting him to do his best to give her a child, she would have felt betrayed. How many times did she have to endure his interrupted intercourse before telling him she would sleep with him no more or before God saved her from this humiliation by taking Onan’s life? Onan knew how important a child was to Tamar’s standing as a woman and her future as a widow. Onan made it impossible for Tamar to ever have the offspring she needed to be a respected Hebrew woman. By choosing material gain over relationship, he betrayed not just her, but also his god, a god who honored the covenantal nature of relationship.
Still, this doesn’t explain why God would punish some people, but not others. That doesn’t mean there’s no point in asking the question. By wrestling with it, I have come to understand Onan’s selfishness in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. I learned that to be honorable myself, I must consider how my attempts to protect my own interests might hurt someone else, and I need to be careful with my own power.
The Power of the Trickster
Everyone has a duty to behave with honor, and everyone deserves respect. It turned out that Tamar was the righteous one. With her intelligence and courage, she corrected a wrong done her by two men. In so doing, she also fulfilled her duty as a woman of her day by becoming a mother. The Bible might not question the cultural assumptions that keep women powerless, but it does celebrate those who nonetheless find a way to claim power for themselves.
Indeed, that’s the point of a the trickster story, that the powerless can be powerful. The trickster reveals the wrongs done not by resorting to the power of violence, but by using the power of cunning. That might not sound moral to us. We might prefer all things be made right by the power of love. But even if love does heal all things, it takes a longer to do so than trickery does.
The Power of Tamar
Instead of making Tamar’s life easier when she was widowed, Judah treated her like a commodity. With impressive planning, Tamar outwitted him. Fortunately, Tamar succeeded in her trickery, and Judah honored her.
Tamar succeeded in her trickery, but such ruses can fail. Whenever we strive to outwit another person, we risk getting caught. Perhaps more important , we risk damaging the relationship.
Cunning isn’t always the best approach. Yet until every person is treated with equal respect, given the same rights, and provided the same opportunity to pursue happiness, the trickster will, at times, be needed. Indeed, the power of trickery is often preferable to the power of violence. Maybe that’s why God loves the trickster. If we do claim such a devious power, may we be as wise, and as successful, as Tamar.
In faith and fondness,
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading Women of the Bible, New York: Schocken, 267.
- Ibid 269.
- Ibid 271.
Photo Credits: Judah and Tamar by Rembrandt, School of Rembrandt [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved