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A test of eponyms
sexual sacral initiation in
classical Jewish culture
By Alexander Eterman
Posted June 11, 2006
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:
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. 
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.
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
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
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"  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 . 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
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.
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 ".
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 . 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 , 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.
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 ; 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
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
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 , 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 . 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  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" . 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 . Naturally, Tamar
conceived. Three months later her condition was noticed; she was charged with
harlotry  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" . 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'" . 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."  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.
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 , by means of a sacral,
i.e. supra-material, sexual act . 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 . Joseph, too, has two
sons, and not from Potiphar's wife, but rather from her daughter, who also
belongs to the next generation , and naturally the younger
of the two is destined for greatness .
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
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
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 . 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 ; the next day, Boaz took  her for his wife and
passed away immediately thereafter .
Incidentally, the analogy between Tamar and Ruth is not a
late invention: it was mentioned in the biblical text itself : "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
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) . 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 : "And David sent
messengers , 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 : "She has been more
righteous than I." Textually, the same happens in the story of Bath-Sheba and
David . 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 : "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 : "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 : "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 : "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" . 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 . The second Tamar, whom
the Bible refers to as "fair" , 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 . 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 : "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 .
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 : "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 : "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  that David fully realized
and even accepted this situation : "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 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 : "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
It is worth noting that the Bible
contains another instructive and strikingly similar story of relations with a
king's concubine : "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 : "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 : "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
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 :
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.
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
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 : "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.
 C. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology,
the section on "Magic and Religion", ch. 11, "The Structural Study of Myths".
 From the same root as the word "laledet"
to give birth.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 There are some traditions that mention her
name; however, we try to adhere as close as possible to the biblical text.
 According to tradition, he did the same
thing as Onan, for he did not wish his wife to conceive and grow ugly.
 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
 Gen. 38:14.
 It the Hebrew original it was literally a
thong possibly used to fasten the signet.
 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
 Gen. 38:28. It should be noted that one
rabbinical interpretation, diverging from the text, asserts the opposite.
 Gen. 39:7.
 Gen. 39:12.
 The other means are material and
 See the opening of the Kiddushin treatise.
 This refers to Peretz, who will beget the
royal dynasty of Judah/David.
 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.
 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.
 The overwhelming majority of traditional
interpretations concur with this biblical assertion.
 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
 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.
 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.
 Ruth 4:12.
 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.
 II Samuel 11:4.
 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.
 Gen. 38:26.
 Not only does a highly similar development
take place, but it is also mentioned in talmudic sources.
 II Samuel
 II Samuel
 II Samuel
 II Samuel 12:7-9.
 II Samuel 15:16.
 I Chronicles 3:1-2.
 II Samuel 13:1.
 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
 II Samuel 13:13.
 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.
 I Kings 1:4.
 I Kings 1:5.
 I Kings 1:4.
 I Kings 1:46-47.
 I Kings 2:22-24.
 II Samuel 3:6-10.
 I Kings 10:1.
 I Kings 10:13.
 I Kings 11:1-11.
 Gen. 40:23.