Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sometimes, two wrongs do make a right: Reflections on the story of Tamar from Genesis 38:12-26

The story of Tamar shows that the failure of those in the culturally privileged position to recognize the suffering of others does not mean such suffering does not exist. Further, the extreme measures undertaken by Tamar, and the obvious pre-planning done in advance, demonstrates the amount of work that must be done to achieve equality.  The formula is simple, the greater the inequality, the more work that must be done to overcome it. It is then completely unfair of those in the privileged position to criticize those suffering from inequality as not having worked hard enough to overcome such injustice.  Such is what had happened to Tamar. Rather than recognizing the gross injustice done to Tamar by Onan; that he sexually manipulated her, sexually exploited her, essentially sexually assaulted her, Judah essentially assumes she was the problem.  Judah assumes she was the cause of his son’s deaths. He assumes her childlessness was her own fault. Completely oblivious to his own privilege, unable or unwilling to see the great inequality, Judah resorts to taking the easy rode of blaming the one suffering from the gross inequality for not overcoming it.

Interestingly enough, even though Judah recognizes that Tamar was more in the right than himself, he seems content with the situation as is. He still did not choose to do the right thing, Tamar was still a widow denied the right of levirate marriage. Judah acknowledged this unfairness, but made no effort to rectify the situation and gave no indication he ever would do anything for Tamar.  She was dependent on him for justice and he failed her. This demonstrates the problems of a society in which some are dependent on others for justice in society.

'No Right Turns' photo (c) 2010, Richard Eriksson - license: her patriarchal society, Tamar was dependent on Judah for justice.  In society today, many are oppressed and marginalized like Tamar, on the outskirts of society and dependent on those in the culturally superior position for justice.  Only in society today, the justice often takes the shape of charitable giving, in that the poor are often dependent on the charitable whims of givers. Just as Judah came out of the whole event with nothing lost other than hurt feelings, Tamar essentially had to risk her own life to achieve justice.  The societal structure of charitable giving is often the same way. Those in the superior position of charitable giving donate only from their abundance, sacrificing little. They can walk away unscathed, much like Judah, having done little to change the unjust structures that caused the problem in the first place, and like Judah, get some pleasure out of the whole thing thanks to the “warm, fuzzy feelings” of having done “the right thing.

While this text may be useful as an inspirational text for women and others suffering from injustice and oppression, in other ways, it should be an indictment on society then and now.  The Tamar story can easily be interpreted by those in privileged positions as part of the Horatio Alger myth, that despite great injustice and oppression, people can overcome their suffering if they just try hard enough and are creative enough, like Tamar. But Tamar, and others like her, are the exception, not the rule. Rather than reading this story as an inspiration tale, those in privileged positions must rather read this story and others like it as an indictment on their society. Rather than praising Tamar or someone like her for “all they overcame,” those in privileged positions should rather be shaking their head in disbelief at all she had to overcome. Stories such as this should reveal to the privileged the gross inequality that exist in society.

In the end, one must conclude that Tamar, and others like her on the outskirts of society, is indeed righteous.  For the oppressed, this story certainly can be used as an inspirational tale. Tamar used the means available to her to achieve some measure of justice for herself.  Tamar’s story certainly seems to suggest that sometimes to do what is right, cultural “laws” or “norms” must be broken; justice cannot come from within an unjust system. Tamar broke the cultural norms regarding adultery and incestuous relationships to achieve justice. It seems then, in the case of Tamar, that two wrongs do make a right.

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