Friday, December 14, 2012

Literary Devices Serving Moral Messages

Chapters 37, 38 and 39 of Genesis contain early episodes of development in the lives of the sons of Ya'akov. In 37, the reader is introduced to the sons of Ya'akov as active protagonists. The scene is one of envy as the elder brothers begrudge Yosef his favored position in their father's heart, and hate him for what they interpret to be ambitious dreams. When the brothers get a chance, they plot to kill their younger sibling, eventually heeding the advice of Yehuda to sell him, instead, as a slave. His coveted cloak and all that it symbolizes is dipped in blood and brought to Ya'akov, who, upon recognizing it as Yosef's, descends into depths of depression from which no one can redeem him. In chapter 38, our introduction to Yehuda is developed further in his partial estrangement from his family. He commits an indiscretion with his daughter-in-law, who has tricked him into thinking her a common harlot. Yehuda saves her from the death sentence with which her resulting adulterous pregnancy would normally be met, when he admits that it was he who impregnated her. In chapter 39, then, a previously passive Yosef develops his own active role: he turns down the temptations of the master's wife, netting himself an undeserved stint in prison. His virtuosity rewarded at every turn makes the best out of each tragedy that befalls him, and Yosef eventually ends up viceroy to the Egyptian Pharaoh. These stories contain some of the most morally reprehensible tales of the patriarchs, as well as some of the most uplifting. From a literary perspective, the tales are tightly coupled by choice of diction as well as thematic parallelism. Taken together, they demonstrate the contrast between the two personalities of Yehuda and Yosef, and the ethical maturation of Yehuda, progenitor of princes and kings in Israel.

Both chapter 37 and 38 involve trickery. In the aftermath of Yosef's sale, the brothers dip his special coat in blood, and bring the bloody tatters to their father in feigned innocence (37:32): "הכר נא, הכתונת בנך היא אם לא", "please try and recognize this: is it the cloak of your son?"1 Now, the brothers (almost certainly led by Yehuda) know very well that this indeed is Yosef's coat; they dipped it in blood themselves. Their plan is to manipulate their father's emotions by controlling the information he possesses. (Indeed, the midrash has the elder ten brothers binding heavenly and earthly beings in an oath forswearing revelation of the sale of Yosef. Such was the extent to which they are willing to go to keep the truth from their father.) The brothers justify this dishonesty with the belief that their actions are unavoidable: they have sinned, yes, but the end justifies the means; Yosef was planning to supplant them, they reason, and so he must be removed from the equation.

Parallel to this, in the next chapter, Yehuda is now on the receiving end of trickery. Tamar dresses as a harlot and Yehuda turns to her. She demands collateral for future payment, and Yehuda gives her his seal, staff and cloak, personal items that identify him2. When word spreads that Tamar has become pregnant out of wedlock, Yehuda, as her father-in-law and honored son of Ya'akov, is asked what should be done with her. In accordance with standard codes of law at the time (such as the Code of Hammurabi3), he demands her death. Tamar, as she is being led to her execution, reveals the deception and brings her plan to its climax when she produces Yehuda's personal items and demands almost mockingly, "למי החותמת והפתילים והמטה האלה", "to whom do these...belong?" (38:25) In accordance with Hammurabi, the husband has the authority to commute the adulteress's sentence, and this is an authority probably extended to Yehuda as surrogate male-guardian (as she was in between levirate marriages to his various sons). He rescinds the death sentence, admitting publicly that she has bested him and "she is more righteous than I". Tamar thus sins, but expects the ends to justify the means, and she unknowingly completes the saga begun with Yehuda's betrayal of his own father.

In both these episodes, personal articles are used to identify supposedly (to a bystander in the story) unidentified protagonists, though the reader knows through omniscient narration that those who offer up the articles for identification are far from innocent. Yehuda knows exactly whose bloody cloak he is showing his father, and Tamar knows precisely whose seal and staff she is displaying to those gathered to watch her execution. The dramatic effect of the parallel thematic activity here binds the stories together: it is Yehuda's wronging of his father and brother that brings upon him the shame and sin of the Tamar episode.

Furthermore, the stories exhibit an inverse relationship which highlights the character differences between Yosef and Yehuda. While Yosef suffers punishment and trouble that is undeserved, Tamar is pardoned from deserved punishment. Yosef has done little to deserve the years of pain and suffering to which his brothers destine him, and even less to deserve the prison sentence he receives at the hand of Potiphar, but Tamar indeed has enticed a man and committed adultery (in a manner). Additionally, Yehuda gets by the whole incident with only public shame, but no standard punishment for the taking of a betrothed woman. Yosef appears morally superior to his older brother; he suffers in silence the abuse heaped upon him, while Yehuda behaves selfishly, denying his father the knowledge that his cherished son is still alive.4

If the thematic elements were not enough, the two chapters are cinched together by word choice. In the climax of both stories, the words הכר נא, please identify, are used (37:32, 38:25)5. This phrase is not found anywhere else in the entirety of the Bible. We have noted in earlier discussions (here and here) the importance of words that link concepts and stories in the Torah. The singular use of הכר נא in such close proximity, and the fact that the same term is used in both stories to demonstrate a cynical trick being played, certainly relates the two stories and supports the thesis that the events of 38 are a punishment for Yehuda's and his brothers' behavior in 37.

However, Yehuda's shame in the Tamar story is not only retribution for his behavior, but is also evidence of the process of his moral growth. For if we take Yehuda's life as presented by B'reshit, we note three main encounters that act as epoch-defining episodes in Yehuda's life. The first and second we have already examined in detail, but now let us view them through a moral lens. In the first encounter, chapter 37, Yehuda initially agrees with his siblings that Yosef must be killed. However, when he sees a convoy of Arab merchants, Yehuda demonstrates his first step in moral growth: why kill him, if we can sell him and just as surely be done with him? Yehuda's moral superiority to the other brothers is limited: he does not deny their sentiments that Yosef must be done away with. His objection is to active fratricide. He is not above deceiving his elderly father, either, and perhaps only realizes the treachary of it all when a similar deception is played upon him, by Tamar.

And it is in the second encounter, chapter 38, where we find Yehuda taking another step in his moral progress. Whereas in 37, he was willing to lie to his father so that his guilt not be known, in 38, Yehuda admits a shameful truth in public, in order to save Tamar's life. Initially, in verse 23, Yehuda wants to pay the harlot immediately, פן נהיה לבוז, lest it be a shame to us. Rashi explains that Yehuda wants to ensure that no prostitute publicly call for his payment, since this would be shameful to him. And yet, when Tamar reveals her accomplice, Rashi comments that she was careful not to accuse Yehuda in public, and rather hinted to him that he was her accomplice by showing him the seal and staff: לא רצתה להלבין פניו...אמרה אם יודה מעצמו יודה ואם לאו ישרפוני ואל אלבין פניו. "She did not want to embarrass him...she thought, 'if he admits it, he admits it, and if not, I shall allow them to burn me, but I will not shame him publicly'." It certainly took a good deal of moral fiber for Yehuda to be willing to admit the truth and accept the accompanying humiliation. He could have easily ignored her, and allowed the execution to take place, never to hear another word about the matter. Perhaps the Yehuda who tricked his father in 37 might have done this, but not the morally maturing Yehuda of 38. He publicly concedes his sin and absolves Tamar of her punishment. This is Yehuda's growth from brutish to honorable, from lowliness to dignity.

Finally, in our third encounter with Yehuda, in chapter 44, we read the aftermath of Yosef's deception of his brothers in Egypt. Yosef demands that only Binyamin remain behind and serve for life as punishment for robbing the palace. Yehuda again is presented with a moral choice: he can go back to Cana'an, and again tell his father that a cherished son is no longer (as he in fact did in chapter 37), or he can stand up and do what is right no matter the personal cost. Yehuda is given the chance by Yosef to correct the mistake of decades past, and in verses 33-34 he meets the challenge, offering himself as a slave in place of his youngest brother. He places his own family, life and aspirations upon the altar of his father's happiness. He thinks as the leader of a larger group, the nation of Israel, instead of as the egotistical and petty brother from years past. In doing so, he shows Yosef and the audience how far he has come morally, and demonstrates why it is that his tribe is chosen to rule the future Israel.

Thus upon close readings of the episodes of Yehuda's life, it becomes clear that his moral progress is carefully mapped. While Yosef seems to have few moral flaws, what comes naturally to him comes with great difficulty and expense for Yehuda. And from this, readers may glean a valuable lesson: some people are born morally great, and others must work hard for years to attain such stature, but lack of such greatness in one's natural inclination is no reason to give up on it. In Yehuda's footsteps, those of us whose ethical nature must be carefully trained may find encouragement in the fact that it is precisely he who is chosen to forbear the dynasty of Israel's monarchy. Hard work and struggle are no shame; on the contrary, they provide meaning and deeper value to those who overcome natural tendencies to ascend the ladder of integrity.

1Embedded in this seemingly innocuous request hide the brothers' true feelings: Yosef is referred to as "your son". The reason for his siblings' enmity towards him is encapsulated precisely and subtly in this description. It is because you, father, made us feel as though he was your only son, your cherished one, that we went to the extremities that we did; it is because of Yosef's ambitions to be the only bloom from which the future of the Abrahamic covenant would blossom, that we did away with our brother. Because Ya'akov and Yosef allowed the brothers to feel as though they believed that only Yosef was Ya'akov's son, the excluded brothers plotted to begin with. Not "is this the cloak of our brother," or, "is this the cloak of Yosef," but "is this the cloak of your son." The word בנך here, your son, evokes an earlier use of the term, when God commanded Avraham to bind Yitzchak. There too, there were more than one brother. There too, בנך, your son, is used, to signify that the lad under discussion is the only true heir to the father. And so, when the brothers say בנך here, it echoes the בנך, יחידך (Gen 22:2) of Avraham - your son, your only heir.

2The seal in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, was a personal item that was marked with etchings, and could be rolled in clay or ink to to impress one's unique signature to documents or items. It was often worn pinned to a cloak, and was an item of pride. As for the cloak, פתילך is translated thus by Rashi.

3See the code online, here, §129.  Traditional rabbinic exegesis has Yehuda presiding over a Jewish court, and deciding the law in accordance with Torah law for a daughter of a priest who sins. However, there are a number of problems with this position, whose answers do not seem entirely plausible. First of all, how could Yehuda preside over any case (especially a capital one) to which he was a נוגע בדבר, related to a party involved? This is the  classic situation requiring a judge to recuse himself from the case.

Secondly, even if we were to ignore the first question, and assume that this case did indeed come before a court including Yehuda as a judge, then the judgment is wrong. In Jewish law, levirate marriage, or yibum, is only valid, indeed, permitted, between the widow and one of her brothers-in-law. The father-in-law would never be permitted to take a daughter-in-law in as wife, which would be against the biblical injunction (Lev. 18:15).  Thus, if indeed the judgment were to be conceived in Torah-law parameters, Tamar would still be subject to punishment (and Yehuda to atonement for inadvertent sin)  for her actioins.

On the other hand, if taken in the context of ancient Near-Eastern law, this criticism falls away. For the levirate laws of the surrounding cultures allowed any male relative to act as surrogate husband for a widow. Thus, while Tamar waits for Yehuda's third son, Shela, to come of age, she is bound to Yehuda's household as a betrothed woman, a betrothal that could technically apply to Yehuda as well, as a male relative of the first two dead sons. So, at the start, when the people of Tamar's town find her pregnant and assumed adultery, they and Yehuda are technically  justified by the laws of the time (and by Torah law, as well) to demand her execution. However, when the fact comes to light that it is Yehuda who was Tamar's accessory to impropriety, Torah law and Near-Eastern law would differ: according to Torah law, it would make no difference that Yehuda was the man who impregnated Tamar, the situation would still be one of adultery. But according to the surrounding culture, it is a crucial difference: impregnation by an unrelated man would be adultery, but with Yehuda, it would simply be a consummation of the levirate act.

Finally, a question might be put forth to our thesis: if Yehuda, as the Code of Hammurabi allows him, simply pardons Tamar as he had the power to do, then why does he have to admit the embarrassing detail that it was he who impregnated her? He can pardon her for any or no reason! The answer reveals further the moral growth of Yehuda. Had he simply used his position to forgive her transgression, her twin sons would still be mamzerim, illegitimate, and Tamar would still carry the stain of her actions forever. Almost certainly, she and her sons would be forsaken by Yehuda's family, and Ya'akov's clan. Their rejection would have been a moral hypocrisy of epic proportions. The new Yehuda of chapter 38 would not allow this to happen. He would rather suffer his own humiliation than allow another to suffer undeservedly, and this is his moral superiority over the Yehuda of chapter 37, who, in an effort to hide his misdeed, allowed Ya'akov to suffer for many years. His willingness to hold himself accountable allowed Tamar and her sons to become a natural part of the Jewish people, and indeed, the twins are counted amongst Yehuda's legitimate offspring.

In general, the rabbinic position has been that to a lesser or greater extent, the stories of Genesis can be read in the context of Torah law. Certainly in chapter 38, a less dogmatic approach seems more plausible, and better demonstrates the moral growth of Yehuda. This should not be seen as a rejection of the rabbinic exegetical enterprise, but as an alternative in this episode which may be more historically acceptable, and contributes greatly to the moral and ethical teachings that are the express purpose of the first book of the Torah.

4In fact, there is another parallel, this time from chapter 38 to 39. While in 38, Yehuda strays and commits sexual impropriety. Although Tamar sets him up, in the sense that she dresses as a prostitute and stands on the road, other than this, she does not seduce him. It is Yehuda in his full free will who allows his eyes to stray, and commits what is certainly a moral failure (if not an outright sin). This is to be contrasted with the episode related in chapter 39, where Yosef is continuously and resolutely seduced by the wife of his master. Even under such intense pressure, and while so far from his family, he is able to keep his father's image in his mind and resist the extreme temptation before him. This temptation is doubled in that his rejection of Potiphar's wife was not only a rejection of a seductress, but additionally a crisis point in his employment: Yosef probably knew that his saying no would result in the irony of being labelled an attempted rapist, being thrown in prison (or worse), and a total loss of everything for which he had worked so hard these past years. That he was able to walk away under such duress surely demonstrates Yosef's moral constitution, the purity of which is contrasted with Yehuda's low behavior with Tamar.

5After noting this unique diction, I saw that Victor Hamilton also notes it.