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Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) in Ancient Jewish Exegesis

Studies in Literary Form and Hermeneutics

Esther Menn

This exploration of Genesis 38 in three interpretive writings shows how new meanings emerge through encounters between the biblical text and later Jewish communities.
A literary reading within the canon suggests that the story of Judah and Tamar points to the morally ambiguous origins of David's lineage. Ancient Jewish exegesis, however, challenges this understanding. The Testament of Judah interprets Genesis 38 as the story of a warrior king's tragic downfall. Targum Neofiti develops it to illustrate the concept "sanctification of the (divine) Name". and Genesis Rabbah portrays it as a series of providential events issuing in the royal and messianic lineage.
Esther Marie Menn pioneers a fresh approach to the study of biblical interpretation by analyzing the relation between interpretative genre, altered plot structure, and cultural values.
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Esther Menn

Abstract

Contrary to what might be expected, the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs set forth in the Targum of the Song of Songs does not consistently portray God and Israel as male lover and female beloved. Instead, the Targum presents a multiplicity of additional metaphors suggesting the intimacy between divine and human counterparts throughout their history together, including the affective relationships between male friends and scholarly colleagues, siblings, infant and nurse, father and son, gardener and plants, and farmer and animals. Ambivalence towards sexual love and marriage as appropriate theological metaphors, sensitivity to the rich symbolic language of the Song of Songs and other scriptural passages, and celebration of the primacy of Torah study with male colleagues in rabbinic culture all contribute to this diversification of imagery, which builds on the emotive intensity of the Song of Songs even as it complicates the language of desire.