Friday, August 6, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

In what may be the earliest recorded example of a cliffhanger, Genesis breaks away from Joseph's exciting tale just as he is sold and Egypt bound, and revisits some of the less important branches of the family tree.

If you were unlucky enough to see The Meaning of Life in your misguided adolescence instead of just looking up the Catholic/Protestant sketches on YouTube, you may remember the intermission sketch, "Find the Fish". Chapter 38 of Genesis reminds me of nothing so much as that level of bizzarity, stumbled upon amidst an otherwise boring and repulsive string of tales. It is random, it is upsetting, and its logic bears no resemblance to our modern day Earth logic.

The chapter opens with Judah, who the reader may (but almost certainly doesn't) remember as the brother who thought that selling Joseph would be more profitable than simply killing him. Judah "turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah," which sounds like a particularly disorienting experience for both Judah and Hirah. Apparently this just means he visited; sadly the rest of the chapter can't be explained away via vernacular.

Judah has a few sons with a Canaanite woman; it's been well established that the worst thing a man can do is not marry his first cousin, so we know this isn't going to be a happy story. His first-born, Er, was "wicked in the sight of Jehovah". We can only begin to guess what his crime was, but the point is God strikes him dead. Judah's immediate response is that his second-born, Onan, should knock up his brother's widow, Tamar.

...what? At some point this must have made sense to someone, but it leaves me pretty thoroughly baffled. Apparently if Onan knocks her up, Er will get credit for fathering the kid. Why? And why would anybody care? Onan really doesn't want to father a kid just so his wicked, dead brother can get credit, but instead of being a gentleman and refusing to sex up a grieving widow, he DOES have sex with Tamar, but then pulls out, and God strikes him dead as well. Judah tells the widow to hang out until his third son grows up and she can get pregnant then, provided he isn't struck dead like his brothers before him in the meantime.

The more biblically literate of you maybe be saying to yourselves, "Oh, yeah, Onan, he's why we can't masturbate or use birth control" but this seems to me to be a pretty big generalization of a pretty specific story. At best all we can say is that it is evil to not knock up your brother's widow.

Jail-bait grows up but Judah fails to send him to perform his brother-in-law-ly duties, so Tamar gets fed up and heads off to seduce Judah himself. She wraps herself up from head to toe and covers her face, so Judah mistakes her for a harlot. So...apparently the burka used to be something only prostitutes wore? I couldn't confirm this with my standard 30 seconds of Google and Wikipedia searching, but I did find this.

Judah pledges her a baby goat, and gives his ring as collateral. But when he tries to send his payment, that mysterious prostitute is nowhere to be found! And at the SAME time, Tamar is pregnant! Everyone is for some reason pretty sure she hasn't conceived via incest, so of course she must be burned to death, which isn't very Pro-Life if you ask me. Judah is about to kill her, but then she reveals his ring, and Judah proclaims her to be a highly righteous woman after all. Hooray!

The chapter ends with Tamar birthing twins; one twin sticks his hand out to wave at the world, and the midwife ties a string around his wrist so they know which one came out first, but then he pulls his hand back into the womb and his brother comes out first! My favorite translation gives the midwife's response as, "What an opening you have made for yourself!" What an opening, indeed; good work, infant! The story ends, "And that's why the baby's name was Perez"; this is not the first time some seemingly pointless story has ended on a note of "And that's why they named it X" which leads me to believe that we have lost in translation some BITCHIN' puns.

So, to summarize: Judah turns into his friend, God kills his son for no given reason, and then his other son for not impregnating the first son's widow. His third son doesn't knock her up either, so the widow seduces her father-in-law and takes his ring. She is almost burnt at the stake, until it is revealed that sleeping with your husband's father doesn't count as adultery, and her deception is heavily praised. Thousands of years later all that remains is the Don't Use Condoms message, with the story's pro-incest themes tragically lost forever.


  1. Ah incest. Where woud the bible be without you.

  2. I hate that fish scene so much I cannot even. I had nearly blocked it from my memory! >:(

  3. Ah, yes... The "marrying" of your brother's widow, or "Levirate Marriage", was commonplace in the ancient middle-east.

    It's all about lineage, once more : It was very important to these people to preserve the line, so when a man died without child, his closest brother (closest to the main "lineage") would have to get his widow pregnant, so as to continue the line, and not divide teh family, the wealth, etc.

    We're still talking about whole lineages and tribes : one family includes all men in the family, and all of their property (that is their cattle, their furniture, their wives and daughters and sisters... Which are considered property, yes).

    When the patriarch of heirs of a lineage die, wars may ensue (as we have seen earlier) if the succession is unclear, and division of the Chosen people is strictly forbidden, of course.

    Yes, these are bronze age people... I'm very concerned about some people nowadays who say they use the Bible as a guide and a model for their own family...

    To get back to the whole "women are furniture" thing... The first marriage ceremonies, in the Bible and even before that, were done in front of witnesses so that everyone would know that the property of said woman had been transferred to the husband. Again, it was not just so the woman wasn't "dishonored", but also for reasons of succession and lineage preserving.

    Of course, it's just not as important today (although to some people, in certain countries, it apparently is).

    I find very hard to believe anyone who has read the Bible could say, in our modern age and developped countries, that he follows and holds dear the values contained therein.