Bible study 38 – Genesis 38

We’ll get back to the adventures of Joseph tomorrow, but first there’s a short interlude about Joseph’s older brother Judah. It contains two very ambiguous stories about sexual morality.

Judah had three sons. The firstborn, Er, married Tamar, but God killed Er (for, and I quote, being “wicked”) before he could give Tamar a child. So Judah ordered his second son, Onan: “Go into your brother’s wife.” The idea was that Onan would give Tamar a child, but the child would “really” be Er’s. (I guess the child would call him self “, son of Er,” or something.) Anyway, Onan didn’t like this deal, and instead “spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife.” So God killed him, too.

I have a couple of comments on this. First, everyone seem to be fighting about something completely non-existent. Onan will physically make a child, give him half his genes, and raise him up to be a man. In my book, that meets just about every criteria for being a “father”. And yet, everyone pretends that the child won’t “really” be his, and commit mortal sins to avoid it, and slay each other for those mortal sins. Onan could instead have just rolled his eyes and said “Sure, he’ll be Er’s son. Whatever,” and lived happily with his family ever after.

Further, this is supposed to be the textual evidence for the Jewish prohibition against masturbation in the Talmud, yet there is absolutely no masturbation going on. Onan is explicitly engaging in normal sex, but the following Coitus interruptus went against his father’s specific instructions to make a child. It’s pretty clear that this is why God killed him. Whatever Rabbi thought that God didn’t care about Judah’s instructions, but was actually just mad about the spilled semen, was obviously influenced by preconceived notions about sexuality. Which Maimonides actually did point out, but this was as late as the 12th century.

Anyway, on with the story. Judah is supposed to give Tamar his third son as a husband, but he forgets about this. So Tamar covers her face, pretends to be a prostitute and sleeps with Judah for the price of a goat. When Judah finds out that she prostituted herself, he decides that she needs to be burned to death. When he finds out that he was the customer, he decides that the whole fair was totally legit and that it was his fault for not giving her his son. I…don’t even know if there is supposed to be a moral to this. Either way, the result of their encounter is a pair of twins.

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One Comment on “Bible study 38 – Genesis 38”

  1. […] sexual actions are wrong: getting your father drunk and raping him in turn with your sister; disobeying God’s order to get a child with your wife; and prostituting yourself if you are a widow…. But these are just stories, not moral codes; and God never says explicitly that the sexual actions […]


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