Putting Tamar in her Place

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Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, Rosalie 

Putting Tamar in her Place: Rosalie Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh

Tamar and Genesis 38 strayed by accident into my life during MPhil research. Such an intriguing account inspired this dissertation, which set out to answer three questions:

  • What part does this unusual story play in the bible and especially in the Book of Genesis?
  • What does Genesis 38 tell us of the Hebrew understanding of God?
  • In particular, what is Tamar’s role in answering both these questions?

A significant breakthrough in understanding the text occurred when it became clear that the chapter had to be approached both diachronically and synchronically. In particular it became evident that Tamar’s role can only be understood through an exploration of the different compositional phases of the story. My study shows that initially Genesis 38:1-26 was a discrete story which circulated independently in pre-exilic times. This story focused on the theme of levirate marriage and the extraordinary lengths Tamar undertook to conceive a child. Subsequently the story was inserted into the Joseph narrative. Drawing on the insights of David Bosworth (The Story within a Story in Biblical Hebrew Narrative, CBQMS 45 [Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2008]) it became clear that Genesis 38:1-26 then acted as a mise-en-abyme, a proleptic story within a story, for the Joseph narrative. Finally a post-exilic coda was added, probably in the time of the Chronicler, describing the birth of Tamar’s twins and establishing the lineage of her descendant David through Tamar to the patriarchs.

Each stage reveals different facets of Tamar’s character and role: the committed mother, the alter ego of Joseph, and the fifth matriarch beside Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Taken together they also show how the story serves as a lynchpin in Genesis uniting the patriarchal stories and the Joseph narrative. Most importantly it becomes clear that contrary to conventional scholarly opinion the chapter is a deeply theological one, where Tamar is revealed as an agent of God who embodies the divine qualities of righteousness, holiness, justice and חסד, and where the Hebrew belief that God can work through fallible humankind is expressed.

Of special methodological interest was the discovery of the weight of evidence which confirmed Genesis 38 as a mise-en-abyme and the remarkable realisation that it is Tamar, not Judah, who foreshadows Joseph. I also proposed and applied a new development of the device: the reciprocal application of the mise-en-abyme, where the macrocosm can shed new light in turn on the microcosm. This application evoked surprising new insights on Tamar as a family woman, business woman, survivor of trauma, and woman of God.

Among the new areas for research prompted by such rich material three stand out as most deserving of further exploration in relation to other parts of the Hebrew Bible: the application of the concept of reciprocity in a mise-en-abyme; the examination of trauma in individual cases, and the negative impact of certain aspects of reception history on the understanding of Tamar’s role and significance.

Tollington, Janet
Tamar, Judah, Joseph, levirate marriage, mise-en-abyme, fifth matriarch, theology, agent of God, qedesha, aetiology, genealogies, composition, reception, trauma, Genesis 38
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge