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The Strength of Tamar

Judah was tender with Hagar the winter she was sick. Her flesh shrank from her bones and her eyes burned, avid and angry. He carried her from her tent himself and set her on her pillows under the olive trees, holding her hand as she muttered. Her life had been cruel, she said. She had brought forth three sons, and two of them had died before her. If she caught sight of me, she would say, “It’s the fault of that one that I have no grandchildren.”

“Hagar, that’s not just,” Judah would say. For a moment he would look aside, then his whitening eyes might rest on my breasts before he lifted his chin and pointed his beard towards my father’s tents on the other side of the spring, to send me back home.

I would slip away, furious and crying. Didn’t she see that I too was bereft? She had lain with a man, born children, held them to her breasts. She was a woman of rank, to whom others deferred, whose husband was tending her even as she lay dying. No such fortune had been mine. I was nobody’s wife and nobody’s mother, forever at the fringes, waved away. Yet it had all been promised me by Judah, when his eyes were clear and he picked me out for his first son, picked me for my beauty and my virtues and my strength to continue the royal line. “She’s good-natured,” he had said, telling my parents why he wanted me. “She will accept the will of the Mighty One.” He knew this because I had grown up at his feet, where my brothers and sisters and cousins all scrambled in the sand with his sons, within the moving circle of tents.

So Judah chose me for Er, who was so handsome I could hardly look in his face, son of the chieftain, seed of Jacob. I agreed, my parents settled on the bride price, and I was ready. My mother and father took me to Judah’s tents and gave me to Er.

That evening as we all feasted, Er’s eyes were on me, eager and excited. Then they danced away, then danced back. My gaze clung to them, dark pools I wanted to enter. I waited impatiently for everyone else to go so we could have our time together. But when we entered our tent, his palm was wet and his skin almost gray. His nails were blue as well. Terrified, I watched him lie down helplessly, shuddering and thrashing. His eyes found mine for one last moment, and then closed. I ran from the tent screaming, and his parents came. All night they sat with him, and before dawn he stopped breathing. While they kept vigil I clung to the girl who had been given me as my maid, Rebecca. We rocked together while his mother wailed that the mighty one was cruel, and Judah paced and cried. After Er was buried, in the morning, I cried, too, even more frightened than saddened by my loss.

We mourned and mourned. Why? His mother used to ask. Nobody could answer her. We all knew Er must have done something terrible for his life to end that way. Usually He takes the lives of the old, or warriors, or babies whose breath is still uncertain. Rarely does He take a healthy youth. “My son was a good man,” Hagar would yell, up towards the heavens. “Why am I suffering when other mothers’ sons thrive?”

Judah often went to walk in the fields and one morning he returned and found us sitting outside the tents under the tree while Hagar ranted. He sat down and placed his large hand on her neck. “We must accept this. It’s not right to resist the Mighty One,” he said sadly. I respected him because he could see beyond himself and his pain.

“This is my decision,” he said. “Onan will be Tamar’s husband.” I turned to Onan, fearing something would go wrong again. During the weeks of mourning he had been silent and remote, as indeed he had been all the years we were growing up. Then he used to play by himself, scratching in the sand with a stick, piling stones into shapes which he told us other children he couldn’t explain, we wouldn’t understand.

This time there was no feasting. We were lying together already, when he asked me, “Do you want to have my child?”

“Yes,” I said. “I want a child.”

“But it won’t be mine, it will be my brother’s. I only got you because my seed is the seed of Judah, son of Jacob,” he said bitterly. He put his hand on my bare breast. “You weren’t chosen for me. You didn’t agree to marry me.”

“Your brother was never my husband,” I said.

“I want my own wife and my own son,” he said.

“I hadn’t known Er when he died. I will be your wife.”

“You are very beautiful.” He kissed me then, and I began to feel easier. But when he thrust into me again and again I was in pain and I wanted him to stop. Soon he reared back and pulled himself from within me so that his seed spilled on the ground.

“Why did you do that?” I knew this was wrong. And now I couldn’t conceive a child.

“I had to,” he said. “I can’t be the ram brought in to the best ewe. I will be myself, Onan, no matter what.” He got up and put his robes on and went outside into the cold night. I cried with disappointment and dread, knowing something bad must happen. In the morning they found his body, bitten by a small snake as he walked in the night, the snake crushed in his fist.

I had to tell Judah what had happened before his death. “Poor girl,” Judah said, and put his arm on my shoulder. I held on to his warm body, comforting and sturdy, and he began to sob. He let go of me and went to tell Hagar. This time we knew what the wickedness was. Again we talked of what had happened before, to Er, and Hagar asked me over and over if I knew why he had died. Sometimes Judah asked me too. I also was frightened that the deaths of two of his sons were connected to me.

“I didn’t know Er,” I said each time they questioned me. “He was your son.”

Finally Judah said, “Go back to your father’s tents and remain a widow till little Shelah is old enough to marry you, if the Almighty is willing.”

My maid Rebecca went with me to my father’s. “Poor Tamar,” she would say, referring to the loss of first one and then a second husband. I never told her how I worried that the Mighty One was against me.

My older brother’s wife had a new baby at the breast, though her first son was almost ready to take a wife. The baby looked into the eyes of my sister-in-law, and she looked into his, as I had looked into Er’s during the night of feasting. As this baby grew he still came to her, tugged at her robes till she opened them, and held one of his hands to her breast while he sucked. My breasts would burn with longing at the sight.

“Go away now,” she would say to me, seeing my eyes. Banished, I would go behind the tents and stroke my breasts, but my skin burned more, and I grew more hungry, not less.

“Tamar stares at me too much,” my brother’s wife told him. He frowned at me, not knowing what to say. By now they rarely remembered my sorrow; I was an extra helper, little different than my Rebecca, my most frequent companion, except that Rebecca had married a shepherd and was a mother herself, so that often it was I who helped her. She at least didn’t forbid me to look at her with longing, though sometimes she said, “Tamar, you pain me. Here, take the child.” I would hold her daughter, but I couldn’t comfort her cries.

Now years had passed, Rebecca had five children, and Hagar was an old woman, dying, with no grandchildren. Judah had not kept his promise that Shelah would beget my children. I put myself in his way on the path to the spring.

“Judah, I am growing older,” I said, as he came near. He nodded his covered head with silent formality, as if he had already considered this and set it aside, and continued down the hill with a determined stride. He had decided to forget me, let me live my life without the daily wheat and honey of husband or children, without ties to connect me to others. I was bitter. How could I get him to keep his promise?

Judah had never taken a concubine, perhaps because the sorrow of their dead sons bound him to Hagar. When Hagar was gone he would be full of lust. Once in my childhood when we traveled by the gates of a strange village, a woman had been sitting alone on a rock, her face veiled, talking to the men who went by. I was startled, because she had nothing to sell, so what could she talk to strangers about? My mother said she was a harlot, who sold her own body, as the Egyptians did.

“Why?” I asked. My mother had told me there was always a reason for wickedness.

“Maybe her family all died and she is alone.”

Remembering that woman, I decided that after Hagar’s death, I would take off the mourning I had promised to wear as the widow of Judah’s sons, dress like that harlot, and sit outside the gates of Enaim on the road I knew Judah would take to the sheep shearing in the spring.

I explained this to Rebecca, for I would need her help. She gasped when I told her what I meant to do. “You must wait for Shelah. He’s grown tall and handsome, old enough to marry. Judah promised him to you, everyone knows that.”

I shook my head. “Judah never speaks to me. He’s not keeping his promise.”

“Go to Shelah yourself,” she said. “Tell him he’s your husband, he’s been promised to you.”

I shook my head. “Shelah won’t do it. Judah would be too angry.”

“If Shelah won’t anger Judah, who are you to dare?”

“I am more desperate than Shelah. Let Judah be angry. Let the Almighty strike me down. Better than living my life like this.”

“But Judah will punish you. You can’t shame his family publicly.”

“I can do whatever I make up my mind to do. He broke his promise to me,” I said, and went to sit by myself under a palm tree.

I was afraid. First of the Mighty One. Er and Onan had died for their wickedness. Rebecca was right, I might be killed too. Besides, my desire was to bear the children I was meant to have. The Almighty wouldn’t strike me down for carrying out His instruction to be fruitful, which Judah himself should be minding. I was in the right. I knew that. I would go ahead with my plan.

Hagar died. Judah and Shelah buried her. The weeks passed, Judah resumed his
herding, the spring sun grew hot, and one evening my father said that Judah was going to the sheep shearing in a few days. So Rebecca and I slipped away to the spring, and she washed my hair and lined my eyes with kohl, She rubbed my breasts and neck and ear lobes with oil and myrrh. We left my father’s tents early in the dark morning while everyone still slept, and when the sun was beginning to rise we stopped at a grove. Rebecca took the mourning clothes I had grown to hate and gave me a plain robe and veil. Then she went back to my father’s to say I was sick and staying in my tent.

I walked along the sandy trail, watching the birds fly up from the bushes as I approached, and growing hot as the sun rose in the sky. When I reached the gates of Enaim I had to sit waiting for hours, turning away from the whistles and propositions of other men.

“Why are you sitting there if you’re too good for me?” one shepherd said angrily, when I refused to look at him. I’m not selling my body, I’m getting my due, I thought to myself Still, my heart beat like a gong in my chest, my body shuddered, and I had to go over the lightness of it all with myself again.

At last, in the late afternoon, Judah came, with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite, and their men. on their way to the sheep shearing. Judah left Hirah and name up as soon as he saw me. I had judged right, he was full of lust.

“Good afternoon, woman,” he said, very politely. “I’d like you to come to my tent tonight.” His voice wasn’t quite easy when he said this.

My courage ebbed, and I dropped my head, afraid he would know me when I spoke. If he did, he would be shamed, he wouldn’t go through with it. But I must speak. It would all be for nothing if I didn’t make sure of his tokens. “To your tent? What will you give me?” I asked.

He showed no sign of recognition at the sound of my voice. “I’ll send you a kid, as soon as I have one that’s ready to leave its mother,” he said. A kid was a handsome payment. Too much, I thought. But I kept bargaining.

“I’ll need something to show you mean it,” I said.

“Yes, of course.” He removed his seal from his finger, and then gave me the band on his head that showed he was a chief. I was shocked to be holding these in my hands, and he misunderstood my hesitation.

“Here, take my staff as well,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Come to my tent after dark,” he said, and walked back to Hirah. So after dark I went to the place where his men had set up his tent, on the other side of the gates. Again my body had become a drum for my heart to beat against.

“It’s me,” I said, at the opening to his tent. “Here’s the staff you gave me,”

“Come in,” he said. He was alone. I was frightened as I took off the veil. But he gave my face only a quick glance, and then began to remove his own robes. He still didn’t recognize me. I was relieved by the girth of his strong body, aging, unlike the slender youths Er and Onan. I lay down on the mat, watching him shyly as he took me, almost absentmindedly, though he stroked my sides and breasts and showed pleasure.

While I felt his hardness against my legs, he opened his eyes. I was frightened. How could he look at me without recognizing me? Was I no longer Tamar, but a harlot, as he thought?

“Your” heart is strong,” he said, his head on my chest. He came into me, and this time it didn’t hurt. My groin seemed to turn into an animal, running and thrashing, till he moaned, and I whimpered, and he slept. I lay quietly next to him. When he woke I kissed his old shoulder, then touched him, to excite him again. I wanted more seed. This would be my only chance.

“You will have two sons,” he said, when he had moaned again. I waited without moving, wanting the seed to take root. After a long time I knew the sun must be about to rise. When I left the tent, taking the seal, the cord and the staff, I walked back along the track till I met Rebecca in the grove. She gave me my own clothes, and I put them on, thinking, not for long now. She carried the staff, wrapping the end in her robe so it wouldn’t be recognized. Together we returned to my father’s tents.

For days my body grew warm when I thought of what I had done. Yet I felt more tender when I saw Judah, on his return from the shearing, and had to stop myself from running up to him. My hands shook so much I was afraid my mother would notice, and each time I heard a noise I jumped. But after a couple of weeks I realized that my deed would not be noticed until my parents saw I was canning a child.

After a few weeks I saw Hirah leaving the encampment early one morning with a new kid under his arm. I laughed to think that he was going to Enaim to give the prostitute her due. He would ask, and they would say, “What harlot? There’s no harlot here.” And indeed, he returned that evening with the kid. Then I was sad and frightened to have tricked Judah. His anger would be great when he learned the truth. Still, he had betrayed me first. Besides, I had already acted. I couldn’t change my course.

In a few weeks my mother saw that my breasts were swollen and my belly was round. She wept and my father turned on me cruelly. “Judah will decide what should be done with you,” he said.

“Take me to him, and I promise to accept his judgment,” I said.

“He told you to wait for Shelah.”

“I waited many years.”

“How did it happen?” he wailed. “How? Tell me how?”

“I played harlot,” I said, and I cried because he couldn’t understand.

“You are no longer my daughter,” my father said. He took me to where Judah was standing in the open between his tents. My father told Judah I had gotten with child by playing the harlot. The hot wind swept across the desert and blew my robes against ray belly,

“Tamar has prostituted herself,” Judah said, repeating my father’s meaning as if he couldn’t understand. His face was a refusal, blank and shocked.

I filled with rage. “Look at me, Judah, don’t you recognize me?” I said.

“The penalty for prostitution is death,” he said.

“Before you judge me, let me give you something to know me by.” I pulled his possessions from my robes. He took his seal, band and staff and looked at them, and looked at me and saw me for the first time since he had chosen me for Er.

“Tamar. The harlot from the gates of Enaim,” he said.

“Yes. You promised I would bear Jacob’s sons.” My mother and father were silent. I stood numbly in the sun, supported by the hot wind. Judah paced, holding the staff, his robes blowing. Then he stood still.

“I broke my promise to give her to Shelah. Tamar is more righteous than I,” he told my father and mother. “She will come to live in my tents now.”

When my time came I labored for many hours. It was so difficult that the midwife knew I was going to have twins. But they were tangled together and they couldn’t get out. Then one of them thrust his hand out of me, and the midwife tied a thread around it, to show that he was first. He pulled his arm in and the other came first. In this, as in everything, we were out of order.

Judah came into the tent when both were born. “Remember you said I would have twins?” I asked him shyly, because we had never spoken of the night that I conceived.

“Yes, I remember,” he said. “What will we name them?”

“Perez and Zerah,” I said.

Judah was always respectful, formal, almost afraid of me. He lived for another ten years, to watch his sons grow. He sent me honey and nuts in the mornings. He brought me meat in the evenings. I never let another woman suckle my sons, but held Perez to one breast, Zerah to the other, watching their small mouths pump. I dressed them myself, held them to me, and took counsel with Judah about who their wives should be, before he died.

Now their wives live in tents near mine, and defy those who whisper about my past, by bringing their children to me for advice. They hold my righteousness to be great. They don’t understand that my strength lay in following my own judgment when I came to a crossroads in my life.

Ingrid Hughes writes poetry and fiction and teaches English to immigrants in New York City.