Women, Hoodoos, Deception and Hope
(originally turned in as a paper at my theological school, entitled: Facilitator and Trickster; A Woman of the Biblical Badlands)
The idea of ‘badlands’ or ‘waste’ is a concept that transcends culture and geography. Although a ‘badland’ region may be called a different name within its resident peoples and carry specific topographical characteristics, they share common qualities. Their landscapes are varied and challenging, buttes, petrified forests and hoodoos in North America, dried out wadis, stony hills and land inhospitable to farming in Canaan. One woman who breaks into the narrative of the Book of Genesis in chapter 38, Tamar, begins her story in a legal and cultural form of ‘badland.’ She uses her physical and cultural geography to transform her status. Tamar asserts her rights within her culture and ultimately to provide male heirs who will continue her line through Boaz, and, therefore, the royal house of David. Tamar’s actions fit both the mold of a ‘Trickster’ archetype and that of the facilitating mother figure who makes things right not just for herself but for her male heirs.
Tamar’s identity as a trickster figure seems established before her story even begins; its very placement in Genesis creates a break in the narrative of the more well-known stories of more significant characters. This ‘break’ for Tamar’s story provides a leg up to the power of Joseph’s saga, adding a delay in his engaging adventures to heighten the anticipation of discovering his fate, (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Freitham, Bruggeman, Kaiser, 604). It also reinforces the themes of loss, disguise and victorious reversal in the larger and more significant Joseph story; these themes run through his family, bringing a counterpoint of his experiences to Judah, one of the brothers who participated in his betrayal (604). The tangled themes of injustice, betrayal and imprisonment with the real risk of death are just as present between Tamar and her father in law Judah as they are for Judah and his brother Joseph. In the Tamar story, however, the betrayed Tamar has to resolve her challenges in narrower confines than the men.
Tamar’s marginality is not merely familial and social—the neglected widow, the childless woman—the landscapes and locations of her story accentuate her remove. She has the right to marry Judah’s third son, but he prevents her. She is under the control of Judah’s authority but sent to live with her father’s family. She plays out her masquerade as a prostitute at the crossroads, a liminal, frontier like area where more than one path leads to multiple destinations—and spheres of authority (Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsome, Ringe, Lapsley 2012. 42).
Commentators agree on the roles gender and sexuality play in Tamar’s story, focusing on different examples of how those themes play out. The NIB commentary focuses on the question of harlotry in her actions, pointing out that while the narrative allows Judah to draw the conclusion that she is a prostitute, careful steps are taken to establish and affirm her position as Er’s virtuous (or at least not un-virtuous) widow. The timing of her enterprise with Judah occurs after his wife’s death; she is not inducing adultery. Her veil implies strangeness, a concealment of identity that suggests the behavior of a prostitute. At the same time, her widow’s veil and garb, as the story remarks deliberately on her taking them off and putting them back on, demonstrate a ‘continuity’ of her true dignity, her identity as the widow of the patriarch’s sons (605).
Because of the failures of the dominant powers in her tribe, the men, Tamar operates on the outside fringes of her culture. Her assumption of the prostitute’s guise serves to emphasize her marginality as much as it resolves her situation. As a young woman, she should still be able to give birth. As a widow, she is no longer a virgin. She is neither a mother nor wholly untouched (Newsome, 42-43). If she was indeed the prostitute beyond her disguise, Tamar would have had a very similar story; possessed, but only temporarily, sexually seasoned, but childless (42).
Who are Tamar’s ‘peers’—in the sense of other women who engage in similar (and wise) strategies to right the wrongs of their personal injustices? Ironically, one of her most immediate peers is her own grandmother-in-law, Rebekah. Rebekah has a much more central position, as the matriarch of her family, and yet she needs to employ trickery to insure that she can confer the sovereignty of Isaac’s birthright upon the son of her choice. So she seems to fill the role of the sovereign mother granting leadership, and the role of the trickster simultaneously. The Isis cycle of the Egyptian pantheon reflects another blending of queen-ship, power and the transference of sovereignty. Isis, the rightful consort of her God-King husband must resort to magic, or behavior outside the bonds of the everyday to conceive Horus, the heir. Then, to insure his succession, she has to perform her own ‘sting operation’ as the ‘trickster’ when she disguises herself as Seth’s wife, Nepythus and fools him into supporting Horus’ right to the throne instead of his own son’s cause. Isis may not be using the guise of a prostitute, but assuming the identity of another man/god’s wife is an invitation, however concealed, to adultery and behavior outside the behavior of a chaste or grieving widow.
The quality of what some women, then and today, might describe as merely ‘good sense and insurance’ is another strong and common thread between Tamar and Isis. Tamar, arguably aware that her very life could be at risk if she follows her strategy with Judah, takes care to secure irrefutable proof that he is the man she conceived with at the crossroads. And, indeed when her culture plays out the usual treatment of women and she is sentenced to death, Tamar capably saves herself with the well-presented ‘evidence’ (NIB 606). Isis secures a suitably specific and ambiguous promise from Seth to champion the rights of her son to the kingship, so that when her face changes, his oath remains binding.
Katniss Everdeen and Tamar might have a great deal to discuss, should they meet in a universal café for literary/theological heroines. Like Tamar, Katniss lives in an area of marginalization, a rough country where borders are not always firmly defined. In District 12, her human rights are compromised or actively suppressed—but she can slip under the electric fence to provide for her family. Like Tamar encountering both the constriction of her identity as a childless widow, Katniss sees the further restriction of her world and its borders, as law enforcement grows harsher, and the border fence is recharged. Marriage and trickery are intertwined for both women as well; ironically in reverse. Tamar must engage in risky behavior to get married and gain her place; Katniss must take the risk of pretending to be married in order to survive.
The sexuality Tamar employs to conceive her child is real and immediate. Katniss uses sex as an abstract deception; she plays on the intrusive culture of the Capital to gain attention and a popular following. Everyone believes she and Peeta are married and engaging in sex—conceiving children as well, but this is an illusion. Katniss is so protective of any children she might have, so determined that nobody will hold them hostage for her that attaining her freedom is the condition of bearing them—not bearing them to attain her freedom as Tamar must.
Bella’s ability to alter the outcome of the conflicts and power struggles of the Twilight series is far more nebulous. Much is made of the ‘stalker’ aspect of her relationship with vampire Edward. However this does not negate any power for Bella in his obsessive focus on her. She has a supernatural being at her ‘beck and call’ willing to do anything for her safety or happiness. This does not make Bella’s power as affirming as Katniss’ or even Tamar’s. It is not a resource she feels comfortable trying to control or direct. Her sexuality doesn’t come actively into play until she has married Edward. But the Twilight title is still a metaphor for consideration. Twilight is a period of liminal change, of uncertain boundary between day and night. Bella’s closeness to Edward (or his stalking-insured closeness to Bella) can only happen after dark, in her bedroom on the edge of a forest. They can only be freely together in their meadow, a topographically marginal, ‘in between’ space.
Tamar must seek out a cross roads, as an undefined place to regain her power, and she does so in a very immediate fashion, conceiving her male twins. Through her growing relationship with Edward, Bella eventually attains her power as a vampire, and the child she bears permanently resolves the war between the Cullen vampire clan and the Black wolf pack. Rennesme as a promised bride and a marital alliance is also a great deal more passive than the securing of Horus’ rights to the throne of Egypt, or Katniss’ freedom to have children unconstrained by the madness of the Hunger Games. Even Tamar’s twins have, as males, a more direct role in affirming their mother’s authority—and then going on to contribute to the royal line of David. It is sobering to reflect that in popular literary models for young women in the 21st century, there enough obstacles to their power and equality that Katniss’ fight is believable and sympathetic, and Bella’s indirect and less-than-healthy route to power is idealized. Tamar’s world, with its inescapable limitations and proscriptions of her freedoms is, on the surface, more challenging than ours. The struggle for equal representation carries common threads connecting the distant and mythological past to the ideas of the present set forth in fiction. The stories don’t end; they simply evolve.
The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary and Reflections for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 1., Walter Bruggeman, Terrence Freitheim, Walter Kaiser, eds., Nashville: 1994.
The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Mary J Evens, Catherine Clark Kroeger, eds. Downer’s Grove: 2002.
Third Edition Women’s Bible Commentary. Jacqueline E Lapley, Carol A Newsome Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: 2012.