An Ethical Realm for Grace
Lessons from Tamar
Trauma – a definition
Trauma is an act of violence that crosses the physical, personal, emotional boundaries of a human being and disables their ability to overcome fear and acquire hope for a normalized ordered life. In an attempt to survive this onslaught on the senses, this lack of trust, a person constructs a self protective field of isolation. Trauma is the threat of annihilation of the person (not necessarily death). Trauma permanently changes a person and its effects outlast the event. Trauma causes confusion because it disrupts a persons human rights or infringes on their emotions through the experience of horrific suffering.
The sources of Traumatic violence can be directly from another human being, a group of human beings, from natural catastrophe, or an accident involving human technology. In the gospels Jesus directs us to two traumatic events one is caused by a person and the other by a failure of technology. (Luke 13:1; Luke 13:4)
We must understand how to apply grace to persons that have suffered trauma or are victims of trauma inflicted upon them by others.
“Traumatized people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. Thereafter a sense of alienation, of disconnection, pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of community and religion. When trust is lost, traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than the living”.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror pg. 51
- Judith L. Herman -
An Ethical Realm for Grace – Reading the story of Tamar
I will discuss Tamar as scapegoat and trauma victim. Also I will discuss the Tamar story as competing story that challenges a legal reading of Deuteronomy as culturally problematic (Deut. 25:5-10). Even suggesting that a woman should be released from the law. I will also discuss the ethical realm of grace that allows a victim of trauma to create a field of righteousness inconsistent with our conceptions of the ethical.
The Right of a Woman to Birth a Child
Learning from Tamar
The Tamar story assaults the sensibilities of dogmatic religion. Is she a whore? Is she a daughter in-law? Does she have rights or is she the family’s property? Does Judah’s judgment of her acts as righteous affirm the right of women (if necessary) to seduce men in order to have a child? Her appearance in the lineage of Jesus possibly legitimates her actions, or at the least, attests to the truth of human genealogy; our familial origins are less than ideal.
The story of Tamar is placed within the Joseph story and reflects the failing moral character of Judah. Later, when Judah stands before his brother (Joseph the Egyptian) he will demonstrate a self sacrificing character. This act of Judah (Gen. 44:33) is in contrast to Reuben who is willing to sacrifice his sons in a foolish vow offered to his father Jacob (Gen. 42:37). Reuben is unable to redeem himself from his moral failure; sleeping with his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22), although he tries (Gen. 37:22).
The seed of Abraham passing through the bloodline of Judah is threatened by Judah’s failure to teach his sons the way of Abraham. Judah’s sons are not allowed to live because they are evil and so the text claims that the LORD oversees their deaths; how they die, or how the LORD is complicit in their deaths is not stated. The sons of Judah are not taking wives so Judah finds a wife (Tamar) for the eldest son Er; he dies thereafter because he is evil. In accordance with the customs Tamar is passed along to the next eldest brother, Onan. Onan (practicing withdrawal at the moment of ejaculation) refuses to bring any children into the world with Tamar and uses her only to fulfill his sexual desire. Like Er, Onan suffers an untimely death attributed to be the actions of the LORD for his failure to provide a child for Tamar.
Judah’s wife has died and the ongoing lineage of Judah is threatened by extinction (in the text). Judah’s wife is nameless in the story. This failure to name the wife of Judah reflects the oppressive practices of Judah towards women; it also places Tamar as the person to pass on the seed of Judah. Tamar’s roll in preserving the seed, the lineage of Abraham through Judah, is more righteous than Judah’s. So, it is her name that is remembered.
Judah, fearing his youngest son Shelah would suffer a similar fate as his brothers withholds Tamar from bearing a child and does not give her to Shelah. Tamar, pursuing her right as a woman to bear a child takes matters into her own power. Tamar poses as a prostitute in order to produce a child through the family that has claimed the right to govern her womb. Judah is prepared to burn her alive upon hearing of her pregnancy. However, Tamar has tricked Judah and the child is his. In effect she has honored the claim of her womb by the family of Judah, yet has exposed Judah as an oppressor, an unjust man.
Tamar exhibits traits of courage and wisdom, and through these, she continues the lineage of Judah. Tamar is blessed with two sons (twins) for her refusal to remain barren. Judah declares her righteousness to be superior to his. Perhaps it is implicit within the text that Tamar will be the dominant influence in the lives of her sons. Certainly, her story will impact her sons. I do not think it is intelligible to suggest that Tamar's need for a child is for the child to support her in her old age. She will risk her life and give her strength to rear the child (whether male or female). A woman of Tamar's courage, wisdom and will is not thinking of personal survival as the impetus for bearing a child.
Is Tamar’s assertion of her right to govern her own womb and bring children into the world regardless of moral implications a suspension of ethical norms for the purpose of establishing justice? Is the right of women to bear children bound only to the confines of society’s accepted norms for marriage and family?
I think the story of Tamar challenges and questions normalcy. I think the story reveals that the desire of women to bear children, even the right of women to fulfill their person through birth and motherhood is not to be governed by men. In this sense, the Tamar story challenges the governing of women and childbirth in Deut. 25:5-10.[i] I think Judah is guilty and Tamar is innocent. With this in mind, a man that engages in sexual activity with a woman outside the commitment of marriage is guilty of wrongdoing, if married he is an adulterer. However, a woman deprived of her right to bear a child can take advantage of the weakness of men and fulfill her desire within the confines of a righteousness that is superior to the social constraints and failures that stop her from fulfilling her child bearing rights.
[i] The book of Genesis receives its final form during the Babylonian exile and one of its many functions is to offer counter-cultural stories that challenge accepted norms. The book of Genesis is in part a critique on cultural aspects of the Torah that are expressed in legal commands.