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A test of eponyms
and
sexual sacral initiation in classical Jewish culture

By Alexander Eterman

Posted June 11, 2006

1. Preamble

This essay is written in a somewhat unconventional style. Stylistic ambiguity, in turn, results in complexities of terminology and labels and often irritates the reader. The problem arose because this essay focuses simultaneously on several interconnected yet, on the whole, incompatible layers of Jewish culture. Though structured in part as an Orthodox exegesis, it nevertheless makes free use of rationalities like the history of biblical texts and their compilation, as well as the mystical semantics of dividing the Pentateuch into weekly portions, relying on talmudic and related sources and on anthropological considerations. In light of this, the essay appears at first glance to be confounded by methodological incongruities and to transgress against historical veracity. Actually, it is much more accurate that it would seem. Its subject of inquiry is none other than Jewish mythology, that same mythology that is often mistaken, by force of habit, for Jewish history or Jewish religion. Historical research undoubtedly requires a different – or at least a differently stratified – methodology than the one used in this case, while myths can probably be studied only in this fashion. This is what C. Levi-Strauss had in mind when he wrote:

Our method thus eliminates a problem which has, so far, been one of the main obstacles to the progress of mythological studies, namely, the quest for the true version, or the earlier one. On the contrary, we define the myth as consisting of all its versions; or to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such. A striking example is offered by the fact that our interpretation may take into account the Freudian use of the Oedipus myth and is certainly applicable to it. Although the Freudian problem has ceased to be that of autochthony versus bisexual reproduction, it is still the problem of understanding how one can be born from two: How is it that we do not have only one procreator, but a mother plus a father? Therefore, not only Sophocles, but Freud himself, should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on a par with earlier or seemingly more "authentic" versions. [1]

All we have to do is follow the French anthropologist in accepting, even if only to a limited extent, the idea of the interrelation between mythological layers and the methodological aspect of the essay becomes far less problematic. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that this essay attempts to handle an enormous volume of information. Thus the unusual choice of style is, at the same time, a matter of efficiency. This is probably the only way –employing the style of ironic exegesis – of rendering the essay succinct, intelligible, and at least relatively entertaining.

At any rate, it is far from clear what label to attach to the mixture of Jewish cultures discussed in this essay; thus, for the sake of discussion, it is tentatively named classical. Essentially, the essay examines certain aspects of the myth of Joseph and concomitant mythological events that belong to different strata – not only mythological eras, but also completely different interpretations and exegeses. All of them – biblical, historical, talmudic, aggadic and scientific – are part of a single myth; which is precisely why what is promising and productive – for the researcher as well – is above all their dissimilarity.

2

The Va'yeshev weekly portion begins with Gen. 37:1 and ends with Gen. 40:23. It serves as the opening of Joseph's epic narrative, recounting the quarrels between Joseph and his brothers, his being abducted and sold into slavery in Egypt, and so on, up until the time that Joseph finds himself in an Egyptian prison. Here this portion comes to an end. Joseph's liberation from prison and his elevation are depicted in the next weekly portion.

Like many other parts of the Pentateuch, Va'yeshev is a rather deceptive text. I will cite a seemingly innocuous (and absolutely incontrovertible) example. In Gen. 37:2 it is written, among other things: "Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives, and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report." A straightforward reading of this passage paints the following picture: Joseph was herding the flock together with the sons of his father's "minor wives" (or simply concubines), and telling tales on them to his father. However, further reading (and certainly the talmudic tradition) indicates that Joseph's conflict was not with the sons of the concubines, but rather with the sons of his father's senior wife, Leah. This fact can be reasonably deduced from the apparently redundant double mention of Joseph's brothers in the passage in question. That being the case, it should be read in the following unconventional manner: "Joseph was feeding the flock with his brethren, but he preferred the company of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, while informing on the other brethren to his father." For us, the crucial point is that this is the very interpretation – and the main rather than a marginal one – that Rashi proposed, based on the midrash. Thus even the central traditional elements of biblical narrative may be rather incompatible with the biblical text.

We shall begin our own case with this passage in Gen. 37:2: "These are the generations (toldot) of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren..." It is reasonable to translate the word "toldot" [2] as "generations" or "posterity", or even "offspring" if worst comes to worst. Similarly, in the preceding weekly portion (Gen. 36:1) is it written: "Now these are the generations (toldot) of Esau" (this is followed by the list of Esau's descendants) and Gen. 25:12 says: "Now these are the generations (toldot) of Ishmael" (followed by the list of Ishmael's descendants). True, in Gen. 25:19 it is written: "And these are the generations of Isaac" and what follows next is not only a brief list of his descendants, but also their deeds. In the last instance, the word "toldot" is commonly translated not as "generations" but rather as "lives", to highlight the aforementioned meaning. Similarly, in the case of Jacob the word "toldot" is often taken to mean "chronicles", for this is followed not so much by a lineage as by the history – and a voluminous and inconsistent one at that – of his descendants. The Talmud (Sotah 37b, Bavah Batrah 123a, etc.) does not remain indifferent to this problem, advising one not make allowances for the structure of the text, i.e. regard the word "toldot" precisely as "generations". What is of particular interest to us is that talmudic sources group the following fragment of the passage into a single semantic unit: "These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph". Based on this separation, they assert that in a certain sense, Joseph is the entirety of Jacob's generations; specifically, that Joseph alone was worthy of being the progenitor of all the twelve tribes of Israel, that he was a physical and spiritual copy of his father (being born circumcised, among other things), and certainly the most deserving of his offspring. The same is evidenced by Joseph's prophetic dreams, in which he is venerated not only by his brothers, but by his parents as well. Thus from the very start Joseph is as much a patriarch as Jacob, surpassing his brothers to the same extent that Jacob (strictly within the framework of the talmudic analogy) surpassed Esau. Accordingly, following the analogy with Jacob (who appropriated the right of the first-born, that was not his in the natural order of things, from Esau) Joseph appropriated this right from Reuben and all the rest of Leah's sons who were senior to him. He may have appropriated this right – yet (unlike Jacob), as we shall see later, he failed to hold on to it.

Therefore, following the text of the Torah and its interpretations, Joseph is the most worthy of Jacob' sons, his heir. However, according to both the biblical and the talmudic traditions, Jacob's true heir is Yehuda, the son of Leah (and not of Rachel), the forefather of the dynasty of David, which has already given birth to the Christian Messiah Jesus [in one version of the myth], and is predestined to give birth to the Jewish Messiah yet to come [in another version].

The issue of primogeniture – or rather of the sacral and political hierarchy of Israel's tribes, which is to say the mythological sons of Jacob – was of justifiable concern to the Jewish theologians who compiled the Bible. The tribes residing in the northern kingdom of Israel traced their origins to eponyms linked, in epic and literary sources, to Joseph; above all to Ephraim and to a lesser degree to Menasseh – the biblical sons of Joseph. At the same time, the inhabitants of the southern kingdom of Judea, who would eventually compile the Bible, viewed themselves as mainly the descendants of Judah. At a certain stage (rather late, in fact), probably during the short-lived opportunity for a south-to-north territorial expansion and unification of the country under Jerusalem's control, there came a period of theoretical rivalry between the eponyms, which correspondingly gave rise to the issue of primogeniture. A large part, if not the majority, of early biblical accounts supported Joseph's birthright, and accordingly his descendants' right to the land. By that time, however, the question of Joseph's rights had become all but irrelevant, since there were no other challengers to Judea's claim to statehood. Thus the myth-makers, having become Judean nationalists, had to wrest the birthright – which essentially amounted to the right to rule the entire country – away from Joseph and transfer it to their eponym, Judah, the only one whose descendants had laid a real claim to it. In all likelihood this became a pressing and relevant issue during the reign of the Judean kings Manasseh and Josiah, who tried in the 7th century BCE – with Assyria weakened, Egypt and Babylon still reeling after their crushing defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, and the kingdom of Israel gone – to unify the whole land under their power. Their contemporaries needed to produce an etiological explanation for Judah's right of the firstborn, one that would directly follow from the national epic being compiled at the time. This explanation was manufactured by means of the skillful culturological stratagem that this article sets out to discuss. In addition, this stratagem, illuminating in its own right, is also of interest because it illustrates the theological devices employed at that time. As we are about to see, these devices also included the dauntless use of sexual topics.

More importantly, the quite utilitarian crowning of Judah and his descendants, a product of realpolitik at first, was not rejected by subsequent generations; on the contrary, they adopted and sanctified it. Judah's right of the firstborn, having lost its political meaning over the years, acquired an eschatological significance as the result of a conscious decision (or rather a series of decisions) on the part of Jewish theologians. Despite the obvious inadequacy of the myth ascribing immutable power to the lineage of King David (which traced its origins to Judah) as well to the political history of the Second Temple period, the pre-talmudic and talmudic theologians decided to grant this lineage – and accordingly the eponym – the right to bring the Messiah to the nation. It was this very right that was borrowed from them by the fathers of Christianity, who resolved to procure a messiah without delay. Thus the Christian concept is merely a branch of the southern, pro-Judean version of primogeniture.

Interestingly, the alternative, northern, and certainly earlier (for in the antiquity of parallel monarchies Israel's supremacy over Judea was indisputable) theological claim, which conferred the right of the firstborn on Joseph, did not vanish from Jewish literature [3]. On the contrary, with time the dispute over the primogeniture assumed a fascinatingly eschatological nature. To be sure, the winner was no longer in question: the final victory of Judah, already lined up by the compilers of the Bible, was entrenched by the writers of the Talmud. However, the aggadic literature retained numerous accounts of a false or simply hapless messiah from the lineage of Joseph (Mashiach ben Yosef), one who was destined to play a supporting (not the main, alas) eschatological role. This messiah, according to legend, must perish while ushering in the true Messiah from the lineage of David, i.e. a descendant of Judah.

One way or another, in order for Judah to triumph over Joseph, someone had to have tampered with the text of the Bible. This tampering was blunt, blatant and bold. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, it has gone undetected to this day.

3

The entire 37th chapter of Genesis is devoted to Joseph: his imaginary trespasses against his brothers, (traditionally interpreted as unconventional yet blameless conduct), his prophetic dreams of greatness; his abduction and sale into slavery. It ends as follows (Gen. 37:36): "And the Midianites sold him unto Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the butchers [4]".

Basically, the next chapter should have recounted the adventures that befell Joseph in the house of Potiphar – which is, in essence, the most famous story of a man's seduction by a woman in world literature. In all probability this was probably once the case – chapter 39 of Genesis must have followed chapter 37. However, the text of Genesis as we know it is interrupted by the irrelevant chapter 38, which is in many (modern) respects one of the most bizarre, and certainly most sexually suggestive, chapters in the Bible. Strangely enough, it deals with Judah rather than Joseph.

The interpreters did not overlook this warping of the text, yet their explanations come across as far-fetched and rather insipid. Gen. 38:1 says: "And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren..." The text specifically says "went down" ("va'yered"), and not "went away". Therefore, as pointed out by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102a, Sotah 13b), and subsequently by Rashi, after Judah "botched things up" in the affair of Joseph's abduction and sale, the brothers "demoted" him; alternatively, after the sale of Joseph it was Judah's turn to be in trouble [5]. What is important for us is that, according to tradition, the events depicted in chapter 38 occur concurrently with the events in chapter 39. In other words, Judah's adventures begin after Joseph is brought to Egypt, and unfold more or less concurrently with the adventures of the latter.

The story of Joseph's abduction and sale, at least in its modern version, reflects (in a rather distorted form) the story of the tribes' struggle for supremacy. Indeed, this crime begins as a collective undertaking. Gen. 37:18-20 portrays the brothers' treatment of Joseph as collective and anonymous, without mentioning specific names. The only individual roles are those played by Reuben and Judah, intended to ease Joseph's lot. Once again, it is no accident that Reuben and Judah are the ones to act in this capacity: both have claims to the "birthright" and accordingly to power. At first Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah, the biological first-born and original heir, proposes to cast Joseph into a deep pit rather than kill him. True, he thereby condemns his brother to a slow and painful death. Yet the biblical text expressly refers to Reuben's good intentions: evidently he plans to free his brother afterwards and to return him to his father. Yet Reuben is a failure [6], and thus he is unfit to be the heir and unworthy of the birthright. It become clear at once that Jacob's fourth son, Judah, has a greater influence over his brothers, Leah's sons, than the first-born Reuben. According to Gen. 37:26-27, it is Judah who has the final word on what to do with Joseph: instead of leaving him in the pit, as proposed by the elder brother, sell him into slavery. The brothers follow Judah's advice and sell Joseph, demonstrating thereby that Judah is the head of Leah's sons and the leader of his clan. Judah wins his match against Reuben with a knockout; even his wicked idea triumphs over Reuben's noble solution. Yet this is not enough: having won over his uterine brothers and triumphed over half-brother Joseph, he also has to vanquish him in sacral terms, by stripping his younger brother of the birthright granted to him a priori. This is not a simple task, especially in the disadvantageous position of having just committed a crime.

4

Before proceeding to chapter 38 – the account of Judah's marriage and sexual escapades – let us go back a few lines. In Gen. 37:35 it is written: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him." This, of course, refers to Jacob mourning over Joseph. However, according to the biblical text Jacob had only one daughter, Dinah. Where did the other daughters come from? Tradition, as we know, has preserved two irreconcilable answers to this sensitive question. Either each of Jacob's sons had a twin sister to whom they got married or the reference is simply to Jacob's daughters-in-law, that is to say to the Canaanite wives of his sons.

Both explanations are fraught with considerable problems. The twin version entails incest – which, incidentally, is thoroughly discussed in aggadic literature [7]; while the version of Canaanite wives involves sacrilegious and expressly forbidden relationships with unclean nations. Both possibilities are equally unpalatable. It would appear that both traditions trace their origins to a literary stratum rooted in a period that was ignorant of these sorts of problems. However, a purely historical assessment of the familial paradox fails to deal with the question of why this verse and its interpretations were never purified in any way in later times.

What we are concerned with, however, is something else. The Bible does not state whether the mythological Judah and Joseph were involved in the aforementioned marital combinations. The genealogy of the tribes mentioned in the Chronicles does not refer to any children born of unknown wives. Thus they were probably not involved in any such unions; this, once again, sets them favorably apart from their brothers, who entered into one of the two problematic marriages mentioned above. Furthermore, the rivals are the only sons of Jacob whose wives and concubines receive any kind of specific mention –their names or the names of their fathers.

Chapter 38 of Genesis is the only place in the Bible where Judah is presented as the character central to the plot. True, at the end of Joseph's story Judah is meant to lead his brothers and to speak to both his father and to Joseph in their name, but this is not very dramatic and far from an individual theme. Furthermore, it tells us nothing we do not already know: we are well aware that Judah is the undisputed head of Leah's clan.

And so, having left his brothers, Judah settled among the Canaanites and married the daughter of one of them. Although we do not know her name [8], we know the name of her father – Shuah. They had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. About these sons and Judah himself the Bible tells a rather remarkable story that, while having no analogies within the biblical text, bears a marked resemblance to well-known foreign myths of various origins.

Judah married his firstborn son, Er, to a woman by the name of Tamar. Er did something to displease God, who slew him as a result [9]. Then Judah handed Tamar over to his second son, Onan. He, too, displeased the Lord and was promptly dispatched. This time the Bible explains his transgression: instead of performing his conjugal duties in the conventional manner, he spilled his seed on the ground. After the death of his second son, Judah told Tamar that when his third son, Shelah, grew up, she would be given to him for his wife. While Tamar waited (and the Bible stresses that it was a long wait) in her father's house [10] for her marriage, Judah himself became a widower. The subsequent events took place immediately after Judah had been "comforted" following his wife's death – or, to put it simply, after he had completed the mourning rituals. He then set off for Timnath on business. Tamar realized that "Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife" [11]. She then dressed up as a harlot and waited on the road for Judah. Judah did not delay succumbing to temptation and slept with her, leaving her a pledge of payment in the form of his personal belongings, including his signet [12]. Naturally, Tamar conceived. Three months later her condition was noticed; she was charged with harlotry [13] and brought before Judah to be judged. Judah sentenced her to death. Before the execution, Tamar produced the objects he had left her. Realizing what had actually happened, Judah immediately and publicly acknowledged his guilt: "She has been more righteous than I; because I gave her not to Shelah my son." This is followed by "And he knew her again no more" [14]. Later Tamar gave birth Zerach and his twin Peretz – the forefather of David.

Chapter 39 ends with the birth of the twins (or rather, with the words "And his name was called Zerach"). With chapter 39 we return to Joseph, brought down to Egypt. He finds himself in Potiphar's house and becomes his overseer. There we witness a no less instructive and, moreover, strikingly similar story: Potiphar's wife, in a direct analogy to Tamar, "cast her eyes upon Joseph, and she said 'lie with me'" [15]. After several (or numerous) attempts to entice him came the denouement: Potiphar's wife "caught him by his garment, saying, "'Lie with me' and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got himself out." [16] Thus, once again, the woman got hold of the man's possessions. Naturally she was forced to denounce Joseph to her husband (as Tamar was denounced to Judah), and Joseph, barely escaping death, was thrown into prison.

5

An amazing thing! The Bible, or rather its present-day edition, tells us, one after the other, two very similar stories. Rashi could not restrain himself when he wrote, paraphrasing and commenting on the midrash: "The story of Potiphar's wife is adjacent to the story of Tamar to make us realize that both these women acted for the glory of heavens. [Potiphar's wife] read from the stars that she would produce the offspring of Joseph; what she did not know was whether they would come from her or from her daughter." Indeed, we have two women who are, let us say, not quite unattached, tempting in a similar fashion two claimants for birthright. One of them, Judah, succumbed to temptation, while the other, Joseph, resisted it. In both instances the woman was left with her partner's personal belongings as material evidence; in both instances the wronged party (Tamar and Joseph) is punished and barely escapes with his/her life.

Rashi and his sources clearly state that the Jewish ethos contains such an instructive phenomenon as sacred sex, sex performed in the name of and at the behest of heaven. This happens almost invariably at the woman's initiative and, as expected, outside of marriage. Its function is to test the hero's resolve, and at the same time to serve as an oracle, defining the status of people and the destiny of nations. In fact, this is a fairly banal assertion; however, our mind is so dominated by puritanical notions of Judaism that the very idea of the existence of sacral sex must be proven and substantiated. This is basically an easy task: suffice it to remind ourselves that Judaism views wedlock not as a civil union but as a merger made in heaven and having a sacral nature. What is more, even such a late source as the Talmud maintains that marriage is a kind of cross between earthly and heavenly transactions – one that can be completed, among other ways [17], by means of a sacral, i.e. supra-material, sexual act [18]. More interestingly, centuries later the post-talmudic sources reached the illustrative conclusion that the aforementioned theoretically legitimate marriage practice must be abolished, since the piety of contemporary Jews is insufficient for the performance of sacral sex – or, to put it simply, such sex contradicts the present-day sexual mentality. Similarly, according to the Talmud, sacral sex is the only means of entering into leviratic wedlock. Once again, later Jewish scholars decided that this sex – prescribed by the Torah! – must be rejected in our time, since sacral sex is beyond the capacity of today's Jews.

The parallel between the stories of Joseph and Judah runs much deeper that it seems to at first glance. Basically, we have to acknowledge their structural similarity. For example, both cases involve the children of the "empowered" parties to the intrigue – the sons of Judah and the daughter of Potiphar's wife. Judah has two sons from Tamar, who was the wife of his sons and thus belongs to the next generation; the younger of her sons is born to a great destiny [19]. Joseph, too, has two sons, and not from Potiphar's wife, but rather from her daughter, who also belongs to the next generation [20], and naturally the younger of the two is destined for greatness [21].

6

At first glance, or rather within our familiar system of values, the brothers' rivalry ended with the victory of Joseph. First of all, Joseph was the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime; and secondly, unlike Judah who succumbed to sexual temptation, he proved himself a righteous man and avoided the pitfall of sin. It is no accident that in late Jewish folk tradition he is referred to as Joseph the righteous (Yosef ha'tzaddik). The very use of this term underscores the homage paid to Joseph by late Judaism, which was induced to forget the unremarkable Judah as an individual mythological character. Yet is this homage historically appropriate? In other words, would it have been approved by the authors of biblical texts? Could it be an anachronism? Simple analysis shows, above all, that the ancients adhered to a completely different system of values.

The question we should ask ourselves is this: was a biblical hero, in the framework of the Bible's inner logic, really required to withstand sexual temptation? May it not have been a better, more rational course of action to succumb to this temptation, or rather to properly fulfil one's sexual duty? And another thing: is it really so fitting to be the weak side, like Joseph, the passive victim of a plot? Especially when the hero lays claim to his birthright, the right of the firstborn and royal power.

Oddly enough, the factual aspect of the matter is crystal clear. Anchored in tradition, the hallowed history of the house of David is the story of Judah rather than Joseph; it is filled with feats of bravery and dastardly deeds, as well as tests of sexual fortitude, wherein attempts to preserve one's chastity are all but non-existent. David's forefathers, David himself, and Solomon his son, were not overly disposed to sexual abstinence. On the contrary, they – or else the authors of corresponding biblical texts - regarded sex (as well as war and bloodshed) as quite honorable occupations.

7

We should probably begin with the formative myth related to the establishment of the royal dynasty of Judah/David. This myth is held by Jewish tradition to be the story of Ruth, a story almost certainly revised for that very purpose. It is plain to see that its plot is a direct analogy of the Judah/Tamar affair; in fact, it is a structural paraphrase of the latter. Once again, we have the head of the clan (Judah in the first instance, Elimelech in the second) separated from his kin and leaving to live among the impure. Once again the outcast begets sons who marry and die; once again there appears a non-Jewish (not of Abraham's progeny) worthy widow who has a passionate – and divinely inspired – desire to reunite with her husband's family. And once again this widow – in this instance Ruth the Moabitess – as if in imitation of the Canaanite Tamar (transformed by talmudic tradition into Shem's daughter), has an extramarital affair with a man who is old enough to be her father, Boaz (who belongs to the generation of her father-in-law). In both instances, this takes place during harvest time. Gen. 38:12 refers to sheep shearing ("Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers") while Ruth 1:22 talks about the barley harvest ("And they came to Beth-Lehem at the beginning of the barley harvest").

A striking similarity also marks the sexual relations of both widows with their partners – Judah and Boaz. Both women initiate the encounters. What is even more interesting, both cases involve a one-time sexual contact rather than a permanent relationship. In the case of Tamar, the Bible, as noted above, explicitly states that the sexual encounter between Tamar and Judah was never repeated [22]. In the case of Ruth, a similar claim is made for the Bible by Jewish tradition. According to the midrash, Boaz and Ruth met only once [23]; the next day, Boaz took [24] her for his wife and passed away immediately thereafter [25].

Incidentally, the analogy between Tamar and Ruth is not a late invention: it was mentioned in the biblical text itself [26]: "And let thy house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore unto Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give thee of this young woman." It is emphasized just as openly (see Ruth 4:17-22) that Boaz descended from the sacral union between Tamar and Judah and correspondingly Obed, grandfather of David the king-messiah, sprang from the sacral union of Ruth and Boaz. Judah's royal birthright, his right of the firstborn, is won and passed on through sacral sex initiated by a divinely inspired woman!

This same formula – that of sex initiated by a divinely inspired woman – recurs two generations later in the story of David's birth, recounted in the traditional midrash. According to tradition, what we have here is yet another sacral sexual story, which naturally echoes a sexual paradigm from the lives of the patriarchs – albeit a different one this time. Ruth clearly followed the example of Tamar; David's mother (who is never named in the Bible) followed the example of Leah, Jacob's wife and the progenitor of her husband Jesse. The midrash tells us that at a certain stage – rather late in his life, in fact – Jesse, the father of David, became ashamed of his descent from a daughter of an impure nation (the Moabitess Ruth) and cut off conjugal relations with his wife. The wife, following Leah's example, stole into his bed one time, replacing for one night the concubine Jesse had taken to himself. In performed this sacral act she conceived David. Jesse was convinced that the wife he had rejected had conceived from another man, and that his son was therefore a mamzer, a bastard. That is why, according to tradition, David was an outcast in his own family up until the time he was crowned the king of Israel. The midrash reinforces this version with numerous biblical quotes, mainly taken from the psalms, which, of course, are interpreted in a rather free manner.

The next sexual story of the same kind (probably the best known in the Bible) happens to David himself and his favorite wife Bath-Sheba – who became the founders of a dynasty, strangely enough, after their very first sexual encounter. To begin with, we should note that the features of the affair between David and Bath-Sheba are also symbolically significant. As in the previous cases, this affair is enacted with haste. From the roof of his palace David sees a naked woman (washing herself) [27]. In the symbolic language of the Ancient East, where nakedness had no esthetic value, this was an obvious sexual provocation: a woman cannot simply "parade" her nakedness out in the open, and in full daylight at that. Indeed, the Bible itself states that Bath-Sheba's nakedness was not accidental and asexual [28]: "And David sent messengers [29], and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was 'getting sacred' (mitkadeshet) from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house." In other words, Bath-Sheba was washing herself out in the open air at the moment of regaining her sexuality, and what is more, while her husband was away. No wonder she willingly went to David at his first invitation and had intercourse with him. In other words, David, as Judah, lost no time in succumbing to a sexual provocation that was, as the Bible indicates, of a sacral nature, literally "sacralization"; he then completed the sacral act by having Bath-Sheba's husband Uriah killed.

This is soon followed by the standard sequence of events we are already familiar with from the Tamar/Judah affair. After the very first encounter Bath-Sheba conceived and bore David a son; yet, as in all the previous cases, this biological first-born of the David/Bath-Sheba pair was assigned merely a passing historical role. The heir to the throne of David (who is himself Jesse's youngest son) will be the younger son of Bath-Sheba and David, Solomon.

What is even more instructive – and not at all accidental – is this. Tamar's story ends with the poignant scene of the trial, in the course of which she changes from accused into accuser. Judah demonstrates his magnanimity when he immediately admits his guilt and her innocence [30]: "She has been more righteous than I." Textually, the same happens in the story of Bath-Sheba and David [31]. Nathan the prophet, on behalf of the Lord, subjects David to a trial. He accuses David of murdering Uriah and stealing his wife and threatens him with a strange, unprecedented punishment of a sexual – and pagan – nature [32]: "Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will raise up even against you out of your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your relative, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." David hears this accusation – and immediately, in the very next verse, just as Judah did, admits his guilt [33]: "And David said unto Nathan. I have sinned against the Lord." The kinship between David and Judah is clearly demonstrated through their identical reaction to an identical irritant: the charge of sexual misconduct.

Naturally, Nathan's prophecy was fulfilled. When David's son Absalom rose up against his father and exiled him from Jerusalem, he performed a sacral sexual act, at the advice of the divinely inspired Ahithophel, which was to entrench his power. The Bible narrates this event as follows [34]: "So they spread Absalom a tent upon the top of the house: and Absalom went in unto his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel."

There is no doubt that this passage, too, refers to sacral sex: through the public, literally ritual act of possessing the king's concubines, Absalom staked his claim on royal power. But was Absalom the only one? For concerning his father David the Bible tells us [35]: "And Nathan said to David: You are the man. Thus says the Lord God of Israel, I appointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given to you such and such things." And so the sacral sexual formula that is all too often overlooked is here plain to see: David received Saul's concubines "into his bosom". Thus it should come as no surprise that Absalom took David's concubines "into his bosom", for that is one of the formalities involved in a transfer of power.

In this instance, however, it is tempting to point out two additional factors. First, this event took place in the very spot where the David/Bath-Sheba affair started: on the roof of the royal palace, from where David saw the naked Bath-Sheba. Since in the first instance the "rooftop romance" was of a clearly sacral nature, it is quite possible that in the second instance as well the location alludes not only to the "measure for measure" retribution dealt to David, but also – once again – to the ritual liturgical nature of Absalom's actions. Secondly, it is unlikely that the double mention of the sun in Nathan's prophecy is an accident or a mere paraphrase of the words "in the sight of Israel" (particularly since in the latter case it accompanies the words "before all Israel"). It is far more likely that Nathan uses a ritual formula that goes back to sun worship and a related rite (possibly more ancient than the mythological events being described) of a sexual nature, performed in the open, under the sun's rays, on the roof of the temple-palace. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of the sun in the description of Absalom's actions. We believe that the ancient censors, who had obliterated the textological unity between Nathan's prophecy and its realization, either amended the original account of Absalom in chapter 16 without daring to touch the solemn formula of the prophecy itself – or, as often happens, were sloppy in their work.

To this we should add the considerable peculiarity of the very fact that David left ten of his concubines in the abandoned Jerusalem "to keep the house" [36]. It is hard to imagine that this refers to mundane protection of the royal palace from the rebels. David's actions make sense only in one case: if the concubines are left behind at the palace as temple priestesses. That being the case, however, the rituals that were performed there must have been anything but Jewish.

At the same time, the symbolism of Tamar's story and in fact her very name continue to shadow the story of the royal dynasty of Judah/David. To begin with, David gave this name to one of his daughters, the sister (both maternal and paternal, if we are to believe the biblical context) of the future rebel Absalom, the son of Maachah, the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur [37]. The second Tamar, whom the Bible refers to as "fair" [38], became an unwitting tool in the removal of the first-born and intended heir of David, Amnon the son of Achinoam – another in the series of almost all first-born sons in Jewish mythology [39]. The offspring of Judah and the first Tamar suffer from excessive sexuality – or perhaps in this dynasty, succession to the throne is determined by extramarital sex, if possible with the bearers of this name. Amnon, madly in love with his paternal (but not maternal) half-sister Tamar, first raped her, and then, filled with loathing for her, drove her away. Absalom, aspiring to be David's heir, used his older brother's crime as a pretext that could advance his interests and killed him to avenge his sister. Regaining David's favor was difficult but not impossible. Having done so, Absalom became the dominant prince and the natural heir to the throne.

The story of Amnon and Tamar contains an astonishing element that not only merits a mention, but deserves a more serious discussion than we can afford at the moment. In an attempt to avoid rape, Tamar tells her brother [40]: "Now therefore, I pray you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." And what was Amnon supposed to say to the king? To ask his permission to marry Tamar? Not a bad idea, perhaps; yet to put it into practice, there would have to be a relevant law permitting marriages between a paternal (if not maternal) half-brother and half-sister. Jewish law of the historical period, as well as of the period when the book of Leviticus was compiled, prohibited such marriages. Therefore the story of David, set down at about the same time, is once again found hovering in mythological space next to other than Israelite systems of kinship. To be sure, we could conjecture that the earlier Canaanite law – which, though markedly different from biblical and talmudic laws certainly served as their original source – slipped into the biblical narrative this time, yet such a conjecture remains in the realm of speculation without collaborating proof. It would be much simpler to attribute this incongruity to a lack of compatibility between myth and history, especially since there is plenty of other evidence in support of this.

Naturally, this oddity was noted by talmudic tradition. The midrash, which easily finds a theoretical loophole in Jewish law that permits biological brother and sister to marry, creates an amusing yet full-blooded legal anachronism. It invents a pretty good story which claims that Tamar's mother was a captive who was forcibly (yet with full conformance to biblical law) taken by David into his harem. Since she conceived before she was made to convert to Judaism, her child is legally considered to be unrelated to the father, and thus she is not a sibling to his other children. Therefore Tamar, not being David's legal daughter, was fully entitled to marry her brother Amnon.

We will not comment on this tragicomic interpretation, even though it is obviously an unmitigated anachronism; furthermore, from the standpoint of both logic and Jewish law, it is full of holes.

Instead, let us go back to the symbolism of Tamar; for strange reasons, the Bible decided to give her additional play. In Samuel II 14:27 it is written: "And unto Absalom there were born three sons and one daughter, whose name was Tamar; she was a woman of a fair countenance." Thus we have a third Tamar; moreover, she, like her two predecessors, is related to the royal dynasty of Judah/David. This unprecedented phenomenon gives rise to several surmises that are quite difficult to verify. The idea of naming children after living relatives was contrary to the biblical thinking, so that Absalom would have been unlikely to name his daughter after his sister. It is far more plausible that in the framework of the myth of Judah/David, the name Tamar was considered symbolically significant or particular to the family. Unfortunately, the Bible tells us nothing more about the third Tamar. It is quite probable that such an account did exist, but it has not survived. Nor, to the best of our knowledge, is it mentioned in later Jewish sources [41].

The story of David's sexual exploits does not end with Bath-Sheba. The first Book of Kings opens with an unprecedented (once again, the Bible has nothing like it from then on) sexual tale of David who, in his old age, found himself the virgin Abishag, who kept his bed warm. The Bible tells us [42]: "And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him; but the king knew her not." Today we take the last part to refer either to David's chastity (more likely self-control), or his impotence. The actual picture is somewhat more complex – within the real biblical system of values, of course.

To begin with, traditional sources rule out the version of total impotence: according to the midrash, until his dying day David preserved his manly vigor in his relations with Bath-Sheba. Nevertheless, in the case of Abishag, as the author of the Book of Kings found necessary to stress, David was found lacking. As a result, he was found lacking as a king as well, so that Adonijah, one of his older sons, sensibly decided to assume the crown. That is precisely why the words quoted above ("...the king knew her not") are immediately followed by this passage [43]: "Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, I will be king." Thus David's sexual failure had a symbolic, or what is essentially the same, sacral significance: his life and his rule were over. Now the only thing that David had to the power to decide, and even that only in part, was which of his sons would inherit his crown. It could have been Adonijah, who was probably the second oldest of David's healthy sons (after Daniel, see I Chronicles 3:1-2, if he was still alive by then), or the young Solomon. In any case, David's time was over. It is therefore totally reasonable that David's sons inherited during David's lifetime, and not posthumously, as in later times. First Adonijah was crowned at El-Rogel, and then David himself had Solomon anointed as king. It did not even occur to anyone that crowning a son while his father was still alive is a bit problematic, not to mention premature. The dual reign was predetermined by the fundamental, mythological approach to the issue: David failed the sexual initiation that was obligatory under certain circumstances and this failure disqualified him from being a king, or at least the sole ruler.

The Bible emphasizes [44] that David fully realized and even accepted this situation [45]: "And also Solomon sits on the throne of the kingdom. And moreover, the king's servants came to bless our lord king David, saying 'God make the name of Solomon better than your name, and make his throne greater than your throne'. And the king bowed himself upon the bed."

The colorful story of Abishag does not end here. On the contrary, its development sheds new light on the sacral nature of her relations with David, or, to be more exact, on her sacral role at the Israeli court. Solomon, having become king, spared his older brother and rival Adonijah, who had attempted to seize the crown while their father was alive. True, he had ordered Adonijah to keep a low profile and make no political problems. However, after David's death Adonijah came to Bath-Sheba, the mother of the young king, and asked her for Abishag's hand in marriage. Bath-Sheba informed Solomon of this request. Here is what the king replied [46]: "And King Solomon answered and said to his mother, And why do you request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also; for he is my older brother... The King Solomon swore by the Lord, saying, God do so to me, and more also, if Adonijah has not spoken this word against his own life. Now therefore, as the Lord lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of David my father, and who has made me a house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this day." True to his word, he promptly had Adonijah killed, without a trial.

What did Adonijah do to deserve death? Was it because he had tried to marry one of his father's former concubines, and only a token one at that? Hardly. The real reason was probably the fact that Abishag, the bearer of the sexual curse that had caused David's downfall, the woman who had stripped him of his royal power, could have conferred the symbolic right to this power on someone who succeeded where David had failed – in bed. Solomon was far from thrilled with the idea of awarding this right to his brother – who, moreover, was highly popular with the people, the army and the court. What is more, Adonijah's very intention to pass the sexual test of Abishag, which had proved beyond David's powers, was tantamount to a declared aspiration for the crown. For that reason, Solomon's actions when faced with the threat of Adonijah's sexual sacral initiation were completely justified.

It is worth noting that the Bible contains another instructive and strikingly similar story of relations with a king's concubine [47]: "And it came to pass, while there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, that Abner made himself strong for the house of Saul. And Saul had a concubine, whose name was Ritzpah, the daughter of Aiah: and Ish-bosheth said to Abner, Why have you gone in to my father's concubine? Then Abner was very angered by the words of Ish-bosheth, and said, Am I a dog's head, who against Judah shows kindness this day to the house of Saul your father, to his brethren, and to his friends, and I have not delivered you into the hand of David, yet you reproach me today concerning this woman? So do God to Abner, and more also, if I do not do for David as the Lord had sworn to him; to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beer-sheba." Sexual relations with Saul's concubine were such a serious matter that Abner was forced to withdraw his support from the house of Saul and go over to David's side.

This begs the question: were regulations of this kind (as fantastic as they sound) actually present in real life, or are they pure myths depicted in a quasi-historical form? In our opinion the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that by the time the biblical text more or less acquired its present-day form, sexual sacral initiation rites had become a vestige of the distant past among the Jewish people. In all probability (although not necessarily), this practice is even older than the 10th century BCE, the period manipulatively assigned to the mythological kings David and Solomon (who may very well have been, and probably were, real persons – albeit belonging to a totally different socio-historical context). On the other hand, rituals that seem fantastic today were actually performed in remote antiquity (chronological or social), although different than the way they are depicted in myth. The very fact that ancient customs from the pre-state era were skillfully, though not always consciously, implanted in the flesh of the great monarchy ruled by David and Solomon testifies to its mythological nature. On the other hand, each of these customs, taken separately, has its origins in reality – although of a completely different kind. The brilliant achievement of the biblical authors – the creation of a pseudo-historical text describing pre-historic times and stylistically homogenous with real historiography – certainly hampers a critical approach to the Deuteronomic history. Nevertheless, such an approach is not impossible, but demands scrutiny and the use of appropriate tools.

With Solomon, the mythological history of Israel basically comes to an end, even though the authors of the book of Kings had to try hard to create an "interface" between the myth and the real post-Solomon history. At any rate, with Solomon dies the intense sexual controversy that originated in the parallel accounts of Joseph and Judah. The story of Abishag and Adonijah clearly indicates that the ancient rituals began to bother, if not the king of united Israel, then his chronicler. To be sure, sacral sex did not give up the ghost right there and then. Solomon passed his own sexual sacral initiation, the intrigue with the queen of Sheba, with flying colors; yet for him it was a casual, passing affair, particularly since the queen was a foreigner. Nevertheless, the concept of sexual sacral initiation begins to become a thing of the past, to fade into oblivion. In the story of Solomon, sacral sex is related to demonic, super-human sexual excess – yet here too it is not yet detached from religious ritual.

The affair between Solomon and the queen of Sheba begins as a literal illustration of the theory of sexual sacral initiation [48]: "And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions." It is difficult to construe the phrase "test him with hard questions" as anything other than a sexual euphemism. Even though the Bible contains no direct references to sexual intercourse between Solomon and the queen of Sheba, it does say [49]: "And King Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty." An interesting doubling of the subject of gifts! Furthermore, since the queen is described from the start as fabulously wealthy, presenting Solomon with gold and spices and precious stones, she would have been highly unlikely to "desire and ask" the king for material goods (in addition to those he had already given her). Thus the reference is in all probability to sex. Indeed, it has been traditionally claimed in numerous midrashim that Solomon – the king of Israel at the peak of his strength and power – slept with the queen of Sheba, withstood countless sexual tests, unearthed the queen's carnal and not quite human nature and succeeded in satisfying her every desire – something that no one had ever done before.

However, this was not the only ordeal. Moreover, the Bible draws a direct link between the decline of the Israelite kingdom and Solomon's sexual ordeals. While ignoring his asexual, politically motivated marriage to a daughter of the Egyptian king, the Bible nevertheless states that Solomon's other love affairs ended in disaster.

Indeed, up until chapter 10 of the first book of Kings the Bible extols the greatness of King Solomon and his kingdom. Starting from chapter 11, the Bible depicts the collapse and disintegration of the united Israel. The cause of the collapse is simple: Solomon's defeat in the sexual confrontation with his wives. It is for that reason that the chapter in question opens with a sexual passage. This calls for an extensive quote [50]:

But King Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, You shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Amnon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives who burnt incense and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he kept not that which the Lord commanded. Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, "Forasmuch as this is done of you, and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely rend the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant."

Solomon loved his numerous wives and concubines – which means that they were not mere baubles, banal appendages to his titles. Nor were they faceless and voiceless harem dwellers. On the contrary, they were active personalities, engaging the king in sacral interactions – each on her own terms.

Traditional sources see nothing reprehensible in the fact that Solomon had a thousand wives, often pointing out that such an enormous harem only testified to the king's greatness and glory. The Bible was concerned with quite a different problem: as it turns out, Solomon's wives performed a highly unconventional and, once again, cultic act by making the aging king abandon the straight and narrow, turning him away from the worship of the true God and inducing him to engage in conscious idol-worship. Thus Israel collapsed literally because Solomon had failed the sacral, cultic test administered by his wives. Naturally, tradition attempts to shield Solomon at least to some extent, yet in its framework, the role of women becomes even more pivotal. Rashi, summing up the talmudic sayings and midrashim concerning Solomon, comments on the most serious of biblical accusations (the building of altars for Chemosh and Molech): "Our sages said: since he did nothing to hinder his wives, this act is attributed to him alone." This implies that Solomon himself was not in any way guilty of idol-worship. His sole transgression was a chronic weakness in his relationship with his favorite wives, whom he did not prevent from worshipping gods of every kind and even building temples in their honor. Yet we remember well that weakness in one's relationship to a woman is tantamount to impotence – as well as to sacral political bankruptcy. The wife of Potiphar and Abishag are but two obvious examples. Once again, therefore, tradition turns to the symbolism of sexual initiation rites. Solomon had undergone such rites time and time again and had even triumphed over the queen of Sheba, yet in his old age he was eventually vanquished by his own wives. Naturally, this sacral defeat had enormous historical repercussions: as a result of it, God took the Israelite kingdom from Solomon and his descendants, leaving them only "one tribe" – in other words, only Judea, and even that for the sake of David – a politically correct yet somewhat inconsistent act.

Thus Judah's rule over his brothers began with a sacral sexual initiation by means of Tamar. With time, it acquired a mythological territorial embodiment, the Israelite empire under Judean rule, which broke up after the aging Solomon had suffered a sacral defeat at the hands of his own wives.

8

Now we have a fairly clear idea of both the nature of sexual sacral initiation as depicted in the Bible and the ingenious gambit, literary and political at once, performed by the compilers of the biblical canon, who decided to take the birthright away from Joseph and give it to Judah.

According to the text in our hands, both patriarchs were subjected to a sexual test, in the course of which a divinely inspired woman – or, to put it simply, an ad hoc priestess – urged them to enter into a sexual union. Joseph failed the test, fleeing his sacral partner. Judah passed the test, fulfilled the divine will, and established a lasting royal dynasty. The birthright is a fragile thing, especially in the ancient, mythological times when, due to a wide variety of circumstances and trials, it was almost never passed on to the elder son. More characteristically, this right was not so much taken away for transgressions as granted for virtue. Victors need never explain, and their past will not be held against them. That is why all the authors of Deuteronomic history had to do was credit Judah with a sacral sexual feat; it easily outweighed all of Joseph's accomplishments in Egypt. Ultimately, the birthright is a privilege that touches on eternity, dynasty, blood. It cannot be awarded to someone at least partially suspected of being insufficiently potent, especially in sacral matters. The fact that Joseph went on to beget children is of no particular importance in this case. Potency, manly vigor, is akin to military power. The real hero is not someone who can merely brandish the sword on occasion, but one who uses it to vanquish the formidable foe in difficult circumstances. By fleeing the wife of Potiphar, Joseph, who through the ages has been compared with Paris for good reason, abandoned the symbolic – sacral, and thus historical – battlefield. He thereby proved himself unworthy of being the father of an eternal people. Even Jacob's unparalleled affection for Joseph, even the blessings Joseph had received from his father, cannot reverse the verdict. Joseph was capable of giving birth to the mighty northern Israelite branch, but it was eventually chopped off and withered. Judea survived the Babylonian conquest and the Roman oppression while the tribes that inhabited the Northern Kingdom, the kingdom of Joseph, once dispersed by the Assyrians, became a historical specter. The seed of Judah proved stronger than the seed of Joseph.

In our opinion, it is virtually certain that chapter 38 of Genesis, which breaks up the story of Joseph and depicts the sexual exploits of Judah, is an insert, strategically placed by the political editor of the Pentateuch. It is far more difficult to answer the question of whether this chapter is a purely political fabrication; in other words, whether it was invented specifically for the above purpose. Correspondingly, the same question may be asked concerning the nature of Joseph's adventures with Potiphar's wife: was it concocted for the specific purpose of discrediting Joseph? What complicates this matter even further is that, as we have demonstrated above, the story of Judah actively echoes that of Ruth and the Deuteronomy accounts of David and his kin. Since there are serious reasons to believe that the Deuteronomy account is older than the first four books of the Torah, a sound theory that accounts for the myths of Joseph and Judah, including their sexual and political elements, can only be constructed after thorough research, having sifted through all the numerous versions and arrived at conclusions that are purely hypothetical.

To conclude: the underlying sexual causes of Judah's emergence as the first of Jacob's sons seem trivial; what is far less trivial is the role, revealed in the process, of sacral sex in biblical mythology. We venture to point out yet another simple, although as yet insufficiently explored, factor that naturally follows from the above: namely, the abundance of matriarchal vestiges in biblical epos. There is an acute need to continue the study of gender relations in the Old Testament and in Jewish tradition in general; to begin with, we should comprehend their hitherto underestimated discrepancy. The mythology of both ancient Israel and ancient Greece clearly demonstrates the suppression by patriarchal society of the matriarchal type of gender relations that preceded it. The forcing of women and sex to the social margins is the cost of the progress that accompanied the victory of the patriarchal forces. The only difference is that Greek scholars have long recognized and explored this clash while their Jewish counterparts have not done so to date.

And finally, we began by stating that the Va'yeshev weekly portion contains the opening of Joseph's story. In essence, as we have seen, its main theme is the transfer of the birthright from Joseph to Judah and Joseph's humiliation at the hands of his brothers, from which he will only be able to recover in Egypt – and not among the children of Israel, on the holy ground of Canaan. That is why this portion ends on such a significant note [51]: "Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him." By the end of the chapter, which begins with Joseph being in the bosom of his family, chief among his brothers, the possessor of the coat of many colors and of the birthright, he finds himself forgotten. The Egyptians will remember Joseph in their hour of need, but by then the united royal dynasty of Israel will have already been established by Judah and Tamar. In fact, with time this is how the royal dynasty will come to be known – as Judean.


[1] C. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, the section on "Magic and Religion", ch. 11, "The Structural Study of Myths".

[2] From the same root as the word "laledet" – to give birth.

[3] Even in the later, and more importantly, the purely Judean Book of Chronicles, the debate over primogeniture and the nature of royal power does not fizzle out (Chron. 1, 5:1-2): "Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, for he was the firstborn, but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright. For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright was Joseph's". Having lost its relevance from the political standpoint, this issue survived in the texts – and in the culture.

[4] It is most correct to translate the original Hebrew word "tabachim" (and the similar-in-meaning "katolaya" from the Aramaic translation by Onkelos) as "butchers", as proposed by Rashi. Any other translation (such as "guards" or "executioners") is either far removed from the original or follows other interpretations.

[5] According to one of the traditional versions, the brothers told Judah: "If you – with all your authority – had advised us to free Joseph, we would have obeyed you. Therefore the fault is yours alone".

[6] A failure who, to make matters worse, had lain with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and had been unable to hide this fact – see Gen. 35:22.

[7] Then again, the legitimacy of marrying one's half sister (paternal, not maternal) from the biblical standpoint is not a simple issue. We will deal with it below.

[8] There are some traditions that mention her name; however, we try to adhere as close as possible to the biblical text.

[9] According to tradition, he did the same thing as Onan, for he did not wish his wife to conceive and grow ugly.

[10] Tamar is traditionally believed to be the daughter of Shem, the primogenitor of the Semites; that makes her an older relative of Judah. According to the sources, incidentally, Shem had passed away by then.

[11] Gen. 38:14.

[12] It the Hebrew original it was literally a thong – possibly used to fasten the signet.

[13] It should be noted that being an unmarried woman at the time, Tamar could not have been accused of adultery under Jewish law. However, traditional accounts emphatically stress that in such remote antiquity, the laws – in essence, proto-Jewish laws – were harsher than today. The very fact of Tamar's intimate relations with someone outside of Judah's family (the family of her former husbands) was considered a betrayal of the clan, and thus a form of adultery – a rather reasonable anthropological opinion.

[14] Gen. 38:28. It should be noted that one rabbinical interpretation, diverging from the text, asserts the opposite.

[15] Gen. 39:7.

[16] Gen. 39:12.

[17] The other means are material and documentary transactions.

[18] See the opening of the Kiddushin treatise.

[19] This refers to Peretz, who will beget the royal dynasty of Judah/David.

[20] It would be natural to consider this a hint at one of the forms of cross-cousin marriage; but this is hardly the place to discuss the systems of kinship among the ancient Israelites.

[21] This son is Ephraim, who will receive a birthright of sorts, giving rise to a numerous tribe (even though he is only Jacob's grandson, not his son); his offspring will subsequently control the northern kingdom of Israel.

[22] The overwhelming majority of traditional interpretations concur with this biblical assertion.

[23] In the course of this meeting, Ruth proposed to Boaz performing a ritual sexual act of entering into a Leviratic marriage (although, as in the case of Judah, it was not strictly halachic; then again, the story of Judah and Tamar is even more exotic and licentious than that of Ruth, for Judah did not even recognize Tamar) – which is exactly what happened.

[24] He literally "purchased" her (Ruth 4:10). This is undoubtedly the product of a cultural and linguistic context that differed from the book's narrative.

[25] According to the narrative they could very well have had another sexual encounter following the wedding ceremony, yet if that were the case, why did the traditional account find it necessary to kill Boaz? In the symbolic language of the myth they met once and once only, the same as Tamar and Judah, and that is when Ruth conceived.

[26] Ruth 4:12.

[27] According to one of the traditional version, Bath-Sheba, too, was on the roof of her house, although this is not stated in the biblical text. As we will see below, this circumstance, too, may be of some importance.

[28] II Samuel 11:4.

[29] If they had only been simple messengers! The original Hebrew uses the word "mal'achim", which is sometimes translated as "messengers" or "envoys", but usually means "angels". Even if all we have here is a double meaning, it is not accidental. And another thing: Bath-Sheba was not carried to David, she came to him, and then returned to her house, of her own volition. 

[30] Gen. 38:26.

[31] Not only does a highly similar development take place, but it is also mentioned in talmudic sources.

[32] II Samuel 12:11-12.

[33] II Samuel 12:13.

[34] II Samuel 16:22.

[35] II Samuel 12:7-9.

[36] II Samuel 15:16.

[37] I Chronicles 3:1-2.

[38] II Samuel 13:1.

[39] Jewish mythological genealogy begins with Abraham. His heir Isaac was the younger son, for whose sake Ishmael, the eldest son, was exiled. Similarly, younger son Jacob replaced Esau as heir. Jacob's first-born Reuben did not inherit after his father; Joseph's heir was the younger son Ephraim, and Judah's heir was the younger son Peretz. David was the younger son of Jesse; Absalom, the intended heir, was David's fourth son; while Solomon, the actual heir, was all but the youngest. This brings Israel's mythological history to an end, together with the systematic ultimogeniture. The fact that the later, clearly realistic history of Israel is marked with systematic primogeniture highlights the extra-historical nature of the biblical account of the early monarchy and everything that preceded it.

[40] II Samuel 13:13.

[41] Y. Bloch mentions an interesting modern article (2001, Jack M. Sasson, "Absalom's Daughter: An Essay in Vestige Historiography"), which discusses the reference to Tamar, the daughter of Absalom, in the Bible. The author speculates that in the original biblical text the woman that Amnon rapes is not his sister, David's daughter, but his niece, the daughter of Absalom. A discussion of this hypothesis is outside the scope of this essay.

[42] I Kings 1:4.

[43] I Kings 1:5.

[44] I Kings 1:4.

[45] I Kings 1:46-47.

[46] I Kings 2:22-24.

[47] II Samuel 3:6-10.

[48] I Kings 10:1.

[49] I Kings 10:13.

[50] I Kings 11:1-11.

[51] Gen. 40:23.