Genesis… how to read it. Pete Enns has put together a great podcast that follows the work of Gary Rendsburg and in particular his ‘The Genesis of the Bible’ lecture (2005; available here: https://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/people/core-faculty/gary-a-rendsburg/gary-a-rendsburg/articles-2000-2009).
The podcast is episode 172 at:
So many aspects of interest, but given that I see 1 Samuel 8 and the request for a king as being so central to the ‘downward trajectory’ of Israel, to set the writing of Genesis in the context of ‘defending’ the monarchy gives a fascinating window on the text. Here are a couple of paragraphs relating to one of the strong resonances from Enns’ podcast (he develops 7):
It really seems clear that the writer of Genesis is writing from a monarchic point-of-view and about things that happened during the monarchy.
Again, a lot of balls in the air here, so here’s the bottom line for clue number five: the stories in Genesis of Ammon, Moab, Esau, and Jacob are not really stories about people and what they did. They are really stories of nations. Namely, of how they arose and how they rank below Israel. Like “The Crucible” and MASH, Genesis is commenting on present realities by means of the past. [My Note: in taking this approcch neither Enns nor Rendsberg is suggesting that the individuals were not historic, like ‘The Crucible’ the history recounted was factual… but written in a way to comment on the present ‘McCarrthy-ism’.]
Okay, #7 – Let’s, we need to keep three stories afloat just for a couple of minutes here. One is the famous story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah to cover up the pregnancy. The second story is what follows just two chapters later. It’s the rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother Amnon. And that’s bad enough, but David lets Amnon get off the hook, doesn’t punish him, which is astounding, frankly. And that really steamed Tamar’s full-brother, Absalom, who bided his time and eventually killed Amnon, which set off like a whole thing that we’re not even going to get into.
See, both of these stories involving David are in the Book of 2 Samuel. The third story is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 (yes, Tamar – the same name as in that one David story). So, we’re looking here at two stories of David, Bathsheba and Tamar, and one story about Judah, also involving a Tamar.
Well, one odd thing everyone notices about the Judah and Tamar story in Genesis 38 is that it interrupts the story of Joseph. See, that began in chapter 37, then you have Judah and Tamar which seems totally irrelevant in chapter 38, and then the Joseph story just sort of picks up again in chapter 39 and goes to the end of the book. That awkward interruption actually draws attention to the story. It really forces us to ask, “What is this doing?”
And I’m going to say I think that’s very, very intentional on the part of the writer of Genesis to put it here in a place where it seems like an abrupt intrusion which means you have to sort of think about it.
Well, this is the story of, again, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, and he marries a Canaanite woman, which is weird, whose name is not given but she’s simply called the “daughter of Shua,” and together they have three sons. The eldest son married Tamar, but he was evil and struck down by God. According to custom, the second son was to assume the family duty of impregnating the dead brother’s wife, only he refused so God struck him down too. That left the youngest brother, but he was too young to carry out the duties, and plus Judah was just petrified of losing him too. So, Judah asked Tamar just to be patient for a while, let the boy grow up. So, she went back to live with her father for the time being and she waited.
Now long story short, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. And after a period of mourning, he went off on a business trip of sorts to the far-off town of Adullam. When Tamar heard of this, she dressed up like a prostitute and waited for him to show up. See, apparently Judah had been dragging his heels about handing over his youngest son to her, so Tamar was now taking matters into her own hands. She’s getting ripped off and she intends to get pregnant somehow.
So, Judah, he shows up to this town and upon seeing her and not seeing through the disguise, he was only too happy to hop in the sack with her and of course Tamar got pregnant. When later on and the disguises are off and Judah hears that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant, he demanded that she be burned alive. At least, that’s until the whole story was revealed, and Judah saw that he was actually in the wrong and Tamar was in the right.
Okay, so, let’s just get to the point here, right? These three stories are related in some fascinating ways and not accidently. When we read about the unjust sexual exploit of Judah in Genesis 38, the writer intends for us to be thinking about the unjust sexual exploits of David the Judahite.
And here are the main reasons why these stories are related. I just think this is so clever. This is why I love reading the Bible, it just never gets old. Such clever writers.
Okay, for one thing, David and Judah are both shepherds. And they both separate from their families at a point in time by going down to the town of Adullam. If you want chapter and verse in both stories, I’ll leave that to Rendsburg’s article. Okay, so small thing, but still fascinating.
But the second one is even more fascinating. And when I first saw this, about forty lightbulbs went off in my head. And I just knew that the story had to be connected with David somehow, okay, Judah’s wife is not named, as I said, but referred to as the daughter of Shua. In Hebrew, daughter of Shua is bat-shua. David’s wife is Bathsheba. Which in Hebrew is bat-sheva. Do you hear that? Batshua and Batsheva. There’s only one letter difference between them. No, the names are not exactly the same, but the names are similar enough to get you thinking like, you know, telling your daughter Maria the story with a moral lesson you want to get across to her and you begin,
“Once upon a time there was a little girl named Marian.”
“Hey, wait a minute daddy, that sounds like my name.”
“Good, I’ve got you thinking.”
Interestingly in 1 Chronicles, this is a key issue here too. Judah’s wife and David’s wife are both called Batshua, there’s no daughter of Shua, no Bathsheba. They’re both given the same name because that’s certainly how the author of 1 Chronicles understood the connection between these two stories.
You know, it really seems that Judah and David are mirroring each other.
A third parallel in both cases – the perpetrator is forced to admit his guilt publicly. Judah in front of the town and David when he’s confronted by the prophet Nathan for rape and murder.
Fourth, and rather obvious point, both Judah and David have a Tamar in their lives. Judah’s daughter-in-law and David’s daughter. Both of whom are at the center of an injustice involving sexual intercourse.
There are a few other connections Rendsburg makes but we don’t need to get into all of that. Let’s just take a stab at the significance of these three overlapping stories. And here I am channeling Rendsburg and adding a bit of my own thinking.
The story of Judah and Tamar, like so much of Genesis, is really a way of talking about a later period of Israel’s history. In this case, the life of David, namely his major sexual injustice with respect to both Bathsheba and then his daughter Tamar, both of which lead him to lose his kingship for a while until he won it back. It’s a big moment. The stories of Bathsheba and Tamar in 2 Samuel present David in a bad light, but not nearly as bad as they could. It’s like they’re holding back from panning David completely, much like politicians do today. You know, when they do all sorts of hard things, their supporters acknowledge it, but then move on and not hold anyone accountable. Politics hasn’t changed.
See this story of Judah and Tamar can be seen in one of two ways, it could be a safer way of condemning David, right? It’s indirect. The names are sort of the same but not the same, right? He’s not mentioned explicitly and the readers can draw the connections themselves. Or, on the other hand, it could be another way of getting David off the hook somewhat, now listen to this, by saying, “Hey, you know, tribe of Judah. Judah will be Judah. Boys will be boys. Our forefather Judah was no saint, don’t get me wrong, but look how God used him anyway.” Feel free, by the way, to make any connection you want to contemporary American presidential politics. Anyway, the bottom line is that Judah and Tamar, that story is not a random story of the past randomly inserted into Genesis. It’s another example of the deeper meaning of Genesis as a commentary on the monarchy.
[The seven points pulled out in the podcast:]
- Adam story is a preview of Israel’s national story.
- The land promised to Abraham matches the borders during Solomon’s reign.
- Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be kings.
- Judah son of Jacob is destined for kingship. Again, remember David comes from the Tribe of Judah.
- Genesis draws a political map of Israel’s neighbors.
- God’s preference for the younger over the elder brother, especially Judah.
- The Judah and Tamar story connects to the life of David.
4 thoughts on “Genesis – a way of reading it”
I like Enns, he has pushed me to see the text as a lot more art/poetic and a lot less documentary…also this post kinda makes it clear that politics has been woven into the narrative a lot more than we like to admit.
I was hoping to avoid politics, looks like thats not going to be possible.
I grew up in Oklahoma…was educated there, never once heard about the Tulsa race massacres until I was an adult and far from there…
Enns has handed us a very important tool, “Look at your history in truth, and if its too painful you’re allowed to squint a little, but you need to make out the trajectory of abuse that pollutes because you have work to do”
Yes the look at your history even if you have to squint is so important. Also for me as I both engaged with Enns and downloaded the paper by Rendsburg there was the aspect of the Bible’s ‘bias’… writing the history to defend monarchy!!! Makes it harder to read… and also can read some of it without taking it too seriously… I know you will get that but I am also aware that invites a few stones to be thrpwn my way!
I find this interesting. I don’t keep up on theologians, perhaps I should. But what interests me is the nuanced take on the book. Seems a long way from the assumptions I was taught and the literal approach taken when I was in Bible College. I welcome it. I left what I was taught long ago so a new approach is interesting. Funny how we missed so much of what was being said due to our own biases more than anything else.
Ann… yes the shifts that not only are legitimate but are ‘demanded’ by faithfulness to the ‘story’ of Scripture (beyond the text) we were never schooled in. I have always said that the difficulty of the Bible is that my personal biases can be justified by what I read.
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