December 20th, 2010 / 12:07 am

Literary Forebears of V.C. Andrews #1: The Book of Genesis

"Tamar and Judah," Arent de Gelder, 1667

When I was seven years old, an elderly deacon at Belvedere Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, challenged me to read the entire Bible start to finish, as he himself had done seven times. Being a reader and a baptized, you know, Baptist, I took him up on the challenge. After a few thrilling days in the early chapters of Genesis, in which I experienced two stories about the creation of the world, a worldwide flood (which one family survived by building a boat and filling it with all the animals of the world), and the invention of competing languages and subsequent dispersal of the nations at the Tower of Babel, (and here I know I’m leaving out all kinds of high-stakes trouble, none of it comparing to the serial genocides commanded by God in the Book of Exodus, but I digress), I came across the headscratching thirty-eighth chapter, which introduced me for the first time to such topics as coitus interruptus, legally-mandated sort-of incest (brother-in-law-on-sister-in-law and father-in-law-on-daughter-in-law), prostitution, extortion-by-prostitute, and threats-of-burning-to-death-as-a-result-of-unwanted-pregnancy (the extortion prevents the burning, thank god.) Here, by permission of King James I of England, in his commissioning proclamation of 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, I bring you Genesis 38, for your entertainment and possible edification:

Genesis 38

1And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

2And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

3And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

4And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

5And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

6And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

7And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

8And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

11Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.

12And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

13And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.

21Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

24And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

27And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.

28And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.

29And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.

30And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.


  1. letters journal

      This morning I was studying Torah, and we spent a lot of time on the word ‘rakiya’. What does it mean? It appears in the 2nd day of creation.

      What is ‘rakiyah’? From an old dictionary of the Hebrew I grabbed at the Temple library this morning: 1) extended surface, (solid) expanse (as if beaten out), 2. (flat) expanse (as if of ice), 3. the vault of heaven, or firmament, regarded by Hebrews as solid and supporting ‘waters’ above it

      So here is the 2nd day, written and translated very very roughly the lines before rakiyah appears:

      Hamayim hayu rabim m-ode. The waters were many.
      V-chal hamayim hayu al haaretz – There were waters on the land.

      Adonai sam rakiyah b-toch hamayim. What does ‘rakiyah’ mean here? When you plug in the different meanings above, the meaning is very different. It cannot simply mean “heavens” because another word for “heavens” – shamayim – appears earlier. An interesting and difficult question.

      (Interesting that G-d first makes grass and fruit trees and then makes the sun and moon the next day… first plants and then the sun!)

  2. mjm


  3. Tim

      I read this in almost the same context (young, Baptist, Bible-in-a-Year challenge) and this chapter–specifically the bit about slaying Onan–stuck with me as a moment of righteous weirdness, the kind of thing that would make the late-night HBO movie version of the OT.

  4. Kyle Minor

      The Onan part of this story is the historical argument against masturbation (Onan “spilled his seed” — this gets misread as masturbation — and was struck dead by god.) What the story seems to be saying is that Onan pulled out early so he wouldn’t fulfill his duty by knocking up his dead brother’s wife on behalf of his dead brother.

      Maybe the most disturbing part of this story is how god is striking everyone dead with so little provocation.

  5. Owen Kaelin

      You ask too many questions. That’s likely to end poorly.

      (Besides… there’s a good reason why the Bible is so long and convoluted. Such books aren’t meant to be read.)

  6. Hank

      The Old Testament is Best Testament. I’m pretty sure that the book of Esther has several laugh-out-loud moments.

  7. letters journal

      “Old Testament”, as a phrase, is a pretty gross act of Christian triumphalism.

  8. NLY
  9. alexisorgera

      such a soap opera. god’s really a petulant child, isn’t he?

  10. deadgod

      How does one know it’s the next “day” without a sun?

      God “let[s] there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night” on “the third day” (Gen. 1.14-19, 13).

      Are the ancient Hebrew words for “day” (‘daytime; the time when the sun is up’) and “day” (’24 hours’) the same as the (or a) word for ‘one indefinite unit of time; a conventional “while”‘?

  11. deadgod

      It’s important, when reading the Bible – especially, but not exclusively, as a non-believer in “god” – , to understand that these stories tell the truth about human reality in the way that ‘Homer’, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare do – and the same way your pappy does when he’s holding up the bar down at the Shoot ‘n’ Puke.


      When Onan is ordered “[to] go unto [his] brother’s wife, and marry her”, she’s no longer his sister-in-law, is she? Her husband is dead – she’s a widow.

      Onan feels weird about ‘marrying’ his dead brother’s wife – maybe he doesn’t understand clearly his brother’s “wicked”ness, or maybe he shares in it to a smaller enough degree not to be punishable by death for that “wicked”ness.

      – so he ‘pulls out’ somehow: for example, he ‘marries’/screws her and then publicly declares that the foetus is not his anyway – ‘check the timing if you don’t believe me’ – , in some way bastardizing the kid (?). That attempt at humiliating the woman/child sounds lousy, eh? – humiliating his own family, intentionally or not, sounds, in a familial culture, even more egregious.

      You might have been out of the house enough to know that lots of people get themselves slain for less than shaming a woman or family.

  12. Kyle Minor

      I’ve been rereading Genesis lately & thinking that a lot of these chapters are prototypes for entire novels.

  13. deadgod

      Or, perhaps neither of the first two brothers were willing to have sex with their father’s choice, so they ‘married’ her but disobeyed their father’s real command by not getting her pregnant – they were infertile? they were homosexual? or ass/mouth freaks?

      Whatever the specifics of Er’s and Onan’s refusal (or appearance of refusal), the thin edge of the patriarchy wedge is obedience to the father, resistance to which is surely one kind of “wicked[ness] in the sight of the LORD”.

      You can see that Judah is protecting his third son She-lah by keeping Tamar in Judah’s house as a “widow in [her] father’s house” until (I think) She-lah marries someone else (that is, “be grown”) – or, until She-lah can ‘marry’ her. She-lah would thereby be protected from rejecting the command properly (?) ‘to marry’ Tamar, who is “as” his sister and would therefore not be daughter-in-law material in Judah’s eyes – , or who would remain ‘unmarried’ and stay daughter-in-law material. (Judah is protecting She-lah from disobeying Judah (?).)

      Whatever the soap-opera details in the (to me: somewhat) enigmatic events behind Gen. 38.6-11, you can see that the punishments are not meaningless nor, from a patriarchal point of view, capricious. It’s not an unintelligible story, is it?

  14. Whatisinevidence

      mid-13c., from L. firmamentum “firmament,” lit. “a support or strengthening,” from firmus “firm” (see firm (adj.)), used in Vulgate to translate Gk. stereoma “firm or solid structure,” which translated Heb. raqia , a word used of both the vault of the sky and the floor of the earth in the O.T., probably lit. “expanse,” from raqa “to spread out,” but in Syriac meaning “to make firm or solid,” hence the erroneous translation.

  15. John Minichillo

      Never give a harlot your signet.

  16. letters journal

      I want to preface this by saying that I am a student, and that my knowledge of Hebrew (and of Torah) is limited. This stuff is important to me, but I am far from expert.

      Okay, now that my preface is out of the way…

      The creation of day and night (& morning and evening) is the first thing that happens – “let there be light”. Using the translation in the Gutnick Chumash – “G-d separated the (times of) light from the (times of) darkness… G-d called out to the light (and assigned it to the) day, and He called out to the darkness (and assigned it to) the night. It became evening, and it became morning – one day.”

      (This is why the day begins in the evening – Shabbos begins sundown on Friday.)

      2nd day is the weird stuff about the ‘firmament’ (rakiyah) and “separation of the waters”.

      3rd day is the creation of plants.

      4th day is the creation of the sun, moon, and stars. Sun is HaShemesh. Moon is HaYarecha. The words for Sun, Moon, and Stars are different than the word for Light (Or), though the word for Light appears on this day to describe the Sun, Moon, and Stars.

  17. letters journal

      I looked up Rashi’s commentary on this section, and it doesn’t help much with Rakiyah:

      “Why did G-d call the firmament (Rakiyah) “skies”?

      The Hebrew word for “skies” (Shamayim) is a combination of different words (Sa [in Hebrew the same letter makes both the ‘s’ and ‘sh’ sounds depending on where the accent mark is] & Mayim – “bear water”), (Sham Mayim – “there is water”), (Ash Umayim – “fire and water”). He mixed them together and made the skies from them.”

      That isn’t very clear.

      Here is the Tanya, where things get really weird and fascinating:

      “You (G-d) uttered, “Let the firmament (Rakiyah) (materialize) between the waters…” these very words and letters stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven and are forever found within all the heavens to give them life…. For if the letters were to depart even for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as though they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, “Let the firmament (materialize)…”

      I think that this sort of theological linguistics (or linguistic theology) is an interesting response to Derrida’s problem of signifiers signifying signifiers.

  18. deadgod

      – nor especially “thy staff that is in thy hand”.

      I wonder whether the Hebrew word translated as “harlot” is simply a word for ‘prostitute’, and not a word meaning ‘young woman’ or ‘attractive woman’ or ‘pregnable woman’, with ‘prostitute’ a secondary meaning in contexts that included, in the eyes of the Jacobean translators, Gen. 38.

      It’s interesting that Tamar hides her face to indicate exchangeable sexual availability – her show of chastity declares a content of paid lewdness.

      Tamar is not punished (with ‘burning’) for having tricked Judah; he discerns, at 38.26, that the lesson to be learned (I think) from him having gotten her pregnant is that he should have “g[iven] her […] to She-lah [his] son” as wife, despite both of She-lah’s older brothers having botched their spousal duties somehow (?).

      In other words, the patriarch has his own patriarch – “LORD” – whom he disobeyed by not ‘marrying’ his third son to Tamar; Judah is, what, punished (?) by letting the “harlot” live and bear his children (whom she’s already carrying).

  19. deadgod

      I see that I’ve misunderstood Gen. 38.11: Judah sends Tamar away to her (biological) “father’s house”. (I’d thought that that meant Judah took himself to be her ‘father’.)

      Does he blame her for his son’s “wicked”ness? – is she already some kind of “harlot” to him? – and her deception (by playing the “harlot”) is her delivery of a kind of poetic justice?