Alice C. Linsley
The best way to appreciate the Biblical narrative is to honor the story as a meaningful whole while investigating the smaller anthropologically significant details.
Some commentaries on Genesis cut the whole into pieces to get at what is inside. This seems an impatient mode of operating. I'm reminded of a problem I occasionally encounter when trying to open the large dog food bags with white stitching across the top. To open the bag properly one must find the right end of the string, jiggle it a bit and pull in a straight line. If you try to rip from the wrong end or yank at an odd angle, the bag won't open. If at this point you become frustrated and take scissors to the bag you will get at what's inside, but you will have destroyed the integrity of the whole.
Cutting the whole into pieces leads to skepticism about the text because the pieces no longer possess a natural arrangement. We are unable then to see the relationship of the pieces. This is like trying to make sense of a person's dream while insisting that parts of the dream belong to someone else. Biblical narratives have a complexity similar to dreams. They have their own logic involving symbol and structure. Many of the same cognitive approaches used in interpreting dreams can be used to interpret biblical narratives. Attention must be given to symbolic details in the dream, but the greater narrative always must be kept in sight and kept intact.
The biblical theme of 2 sons requires just this approach of preserving the integrity of the whole while exploring the genealogical details.
In the New Testament the motif of two sons appears in the case of James and John, and Andrew and Peter, and at least 2 parables involving 2 sons. The Old Testament motif of 2 sons often involves murder, jealousy and conflict between brothers and/or the first born sons of the Horite ruler-priest's two wives. The following list provides something of the scope of this motif. Two sons comprise an essential element in the following narratives:
Cain and Abel (interesting Bantu parallels to Cain's murder of Abel)
Cain and Seth
Ham and Shem
Eber's sons, Peleg and Joktan
Terah's sons, Abraham and Nahor
Joseph’s son, Manessah and Ephraim
Judah’s sons, Perez and Zerah
Moses’s sons, Eleazar and Gershom
Naomi’s 2 sons who died in Moab
Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas
Moab and Ammon
Ishmael and Isaac (two of Abraham's 9 sons)
Jacob and Esau (two of Isaac's sons, but likely not his only sons)
Simeon and Levi
Judah and Joseph
Rueben and Judah
Moses and Aaron
This list, while not comprehensive, is adequate to illustrate the scope and recurrence of the theme of 2 sons. Clearly, the biblical narrative derives structure from this theme. However, it would be erroneous to conclude that these were the only sons born at a time before birth control and when fecundity was highly valued. We must remember that Nahor had 8 sons (Gen. 22:20-24) and Abraham had 8, if we add them all together. We remember also that Jesse had 8 sons, the youngest being David.
Let us return to the analogy of the dog food bag. Analysis and proper interpretation require finding the right end of the string: key words, recurring images, or genealogical patterns that allow us to get inside to what Carl Jung called the “ah hah moment.” In other words, understanding what the Bible means requires investigation. Such is the case in examination of the 2-sons motif. Let us now turn to a specific case.
Speiser could not see the natural relationship of the Judah-Tamar-Joseph narrative because he wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. Instead he was focusing on documentary threads, following the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis. Thus he wrote concerning Genesis 38, “The narrative is a completely independent unit. It has no connection with the drama of Joseph which it interrupts…” (E.A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis, p. 299).
By looking at the whole, we see that the placement of the story of Judah and Tamar is not an interruption of the Joseph narrative, but rather a key to understanding that story. Both narratives are about the loss of 2 sons and the gain of 2 sons. Jacob lost Joseph and then Benjamin to Egypt, but gained Perez and Zerah in Canaan. Both stories are about the loss of sons and God’s action to restore. The loss of Joseph and Benjamin in Egypt was temporary and foreshadows the Egyptian captivity of Israel. The gain of Perez and Zerah in Canaan foreshadows the dynasty of David and the coming of Messiah. Chapter 38 constitutes a bridge between two settings of divine action: Egypt and Canaan. It reminds us to seek God's working out of salvation in more than one place.
Joseph would have been about 26 at the time that Judah’s first born son married Tamar. This son died and the next oldest was enlisted to marry Tamar according to the law of levirate marriage. The second son also died and Judah was reluctant to have another son involved with Tamar so he sent her home to her “father’s house” in Edom. Judah, like his father Jacob, lost two sons. The key here is the term “father’s house” – the opposite of Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law. Naomi told them to return to their “mother’s house” which was a way of urging them to remarry. Judah, on the other hand, by sending Tamar to her “father’s house” condemned her to widowhood and broke the law. He knew what he was doing because later he admits that Tamar is more righteous then he.
So after losing 2 sons, Judah gained 2 sons and his rule was amplified through Perez from whom would come Israel's greatest king and the promised Messiah.
The theme of loss, restoration and amplification is lifted up when Joseph presents his sons to his father. Then Israel said to Joseph, "I did not think I should ever see you again, and now God has let me see your children as well." (Gen. 48:11)
The theme of 2 sons also involves reversals. Consider the repetition of the blessing of the younger son over the older.
When Israel saw Joseph’s two sons, he asked ‘Who are these?’ ‘They are my sons whom God has given me here,’ Joseph told his father. ‘Then bring them to me,’ he said, ‘so that I may bless them.’ (Gen. 48: 8). Joseph presents his older son to Jacob’s right hand and is surprised when old Jacob lays his right hand on the younger and his left hand on the older. Just as Jacob received the first born's blessing, now he bestows it upon his youngest. This theme is found in extra biblical sources also.
Consider the Falasha account of the death of Moses. Moses wife “went weeping and said to the children: ‘Go to your father before he dies, for you shall see him no more.’ She awakened them from their sleep and brought them, holding their hands in her right and left hands and said to them: ‘Weep over your father, for you and he must part… Look well at your father until you be satisfied, for soon you will be parted.’ When they saw their father they fell on their faces and wept with a great weeping. Moses wept with them… [and] he put his younger son Eleazar on his right knee and his older son Gershom on his left and he blessed them.” (Falasha Anthology. Yale University Press. p. 110).
Such reversals in the Scriptures must be taken seriously as clues to meaning. Reversals indicate that God is acting both here and now and also in another place and time. The Judah-Tamar story is an example. It points out that God is working in two places: Egypt and Canaan. The Judah drama in Canaan parallels the Joseph drama in Egypt. We see this alluded to in the mention of the women’s association with sacred shrines. Joseph’s wife, Anath, was the daughter of the priest of the shrine at On (Heliopolis) and Tamar dressed herself as a shrine prostitute.
Tamar is the most famous female ancestor of David. She is mentioned in Genesis and in Ruth. Her name means date nut palm, a symbol of fertility, prosperity and strength. Honoring this ancestor, Solomon made her hometown in Edom one of his 7 fortified cities. Tamar is to Edom what Anath is to Egypt. Both women had 2 sons and in both cases, the younger son was elevated above the older.
What lesson are we to take away from this exploration of the theme of two sons? God is not restricted by customs of primogeniture. He blesses whom He chooses and his blessings extend in all directions. So it is with the youngest of Terah's sons, Abraham, that God forms an everlasting covenant through which all the peoples of the earth will be blessed, and it is to the youngest of Jesse's sons that the throne of Israel is given that the scepter might pass to the eternal Messiah.
Related reading: Genesis in Anthropological Perspective; Sent-Away Sons