Whitening Another’s Face

by Lois Tverberg

“Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Genesis 38:24-25

In Jesus’ teaching, he says that certain smaller sins are equivalent to greater sins – like that looking at a woman lustfully is the same as committing adultery (Matt 5:28). Other rabbis used this technique of comparing a lesser sin to a greater sin, to show the sin’s severity.

An interesting example is that of publicly shaming another person. The rabbis pointed out that just as the face of a corpse is white, the face of a humiliated person becomes white to show that you have “murdered” him, in a sense. You have caused him great pain and distress, and the person’s reputation is often damaged in a way that cannot be repaired, just as murder can never be undone.Jews of Holocaust

Jews are particularly sensitive to the sin of humiliation, having been ridiculed for their piety over the centuries, as this image from Nazi Germany shows. They have a long list of ethical rules to prevent shaming of others. They say that a husband should not insult or correct his wife in front of others to in any way bring shame on her (and vice versa). And a teacher should not ask a student a question in a class if he doesn’t believe he can answer. Even in death, Orthodox Jews are buried in a plain wooden box in a simple white garment, so that the poor would not be embarrassed by their inability to afford an elaborate burial.

The sages looked to the scriptures for examples of how to live, and saw that when Tamar was accused of being a harlot, she could have exposed Judah publicly, but instead she subtly gave him back his seal and cord so that he would not be humiliated. She risked her life in order not to embarrass him.1 And, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and reminded them of their crime against him, he first sent all his servants out of the room so that he would not publicly shame them. (Gen. 45:1)

While we as Christians know intuitively that humiliating others is wrong, it is good to remind ourselves of the severity of its effects, especially on our spouses and children. We can learn much from the rabbis’ meditations on this subject and apply their wisdom to our lives.

(1) From the Talmud, tractate Bava Metzia 59, written down about 500 AD. At the site http://www.divreitorah.co.uk/shame.html the following quote is found: “The pain of humiliation is more bitter than death. Therefore, one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public. They derived this from Tamar.” Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a. (This is an example of rabbinic exaggeration for emphasis like, “if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out…” – Matt 18:9)

See also “The Sin Against Persons” by A. Wolf at http://www.clal.org/e38.html

Photo: USHMM

Tamar, the Heroine

by Lois Tverberg

It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” …Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah. – Genesis 38:25-26

Tamar the heroineOne of the most difficult stories in the Bible is that of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. It shocks our modern ears to hear about a woman pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law, and when she was found pregnant with Judah as the father, she was vindicated as righteous. What in the world is going on here? This story shows that it is critical to understand the culture to get the Bible’s message.

A common law in many ancient cultures was the law of “levirate marriage.” If a woman married and her husband died before having a son, the husband’s family was obligated to give her another husband to have a son as an heir, because to die without one was a terrible curse. To keep the heir in the family, one of the man’s brothers usually was chosen, but even the father-in-law could fill the role according to some ancient documents.

So when Tamar’s husband Er, Judah’s firstborn son died, the family was obligated to help her have a child. The younger son, Onan, deliberately avoided getting her pregnant because the son would inherit Er’s estate, but if she died childless, Onan would get it. His greed infuriated God and he died an early death.

Judah also avoided giving Tamar his other son as a husband, possibly thinking that Tamar was “unlucky” after his first two sons died. By ignoring his obligation to her, he was committing a great sin against her by forcing her into childless widowhood, because she couldn’t marry anyone else. He also was endangering his own tribe, because if his last son died without an heir, they would be wiped out.

Tamar was in a terrible situation, and in the moral understanding of the ancient writer, she found an honorable solution to her desperate need. When she tricked Judah into fathering a child with her, she was choosing not to abandon the family of Judah, but to force Judah himself be her levirate husband, which would have been acceptable in that time. If Tamar had given up instead and Judah’s clan didn’t have an heir, the messianic line would have ended. But because of Tamar’s chutzpah, she entered the line that would lead to the birth of the Messiah. She was considered a heroine for her daring ploy that answered her need as well as the tribe of Judah’s.

As we read, we need to remember to respect the morals of the time and have patience that God is still teaching people how to obey him. It was still hundreds of years before the Torah was given, and thousands of years before Christ. We can admire Tamar’s perseverance in a moral world very different than our own.

Photo: http://www.ng-slo.si/si/razstave/razstava/umetnine-iz-prekmurja?id=1455