Torah Portion Noach

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Amos 2:6 – 3:8

This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.

In Vayeshev, Joseph has some dreams that get him in trouble with his brothers. Judah has some trouble of his own with his daughter-in-law Tamar.

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  • NIV Application Commentary by John Walton

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[/s2If][/vc_column_text][/mpc_tab][mpc_tab title=”Haftarah” tab_id=”1518210544-2-597dc-8afee223-58a9″][vc_column_text]Shalom! This is the ninth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing the seven fold prophecy in Amos against the house of Israel.

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Recommended Reading list:

  • The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane

  • The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
  • Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva

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[/s2If][/vc_column_text][/mpc_tab][mpc_tab title=”Echoes” tab_id=”1518210641895-2-1097dc-8afee223-58a9″][vc_column_text]In Vayeshev, Rico and I team up to discuss the theme of suffering and vindication that is found throughout the Bible. This also helps us to understand why the Gospels do not try to explain Yeshua’s death in terms of sacrifice but rather in terms of intense suffering!

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  • The Bible
  • The Day the Revolution Began by NT Wright
  • Echoes Through Scriptures in the Gospels by Richard Hays

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Parashah VaYeshev
A Family Affair
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23


She is more righteous than I am! What a statement to make. Judah loses two sons who had slept with Tamar and then she has the nerve to deceive Judah by dressing up like a prostitute and seducing him and she is the righteous one? Try fitting that into a religious box of the definition of righteousness! What is going on here and why is this little story included in our Biblical narrative? At first glance, the story seems to be out of place in the flow of the narrative; an awkward insert. The Torah portion begins with introducing us to Joseph with his dreams of family domination and his being sold into slavery and concludes with Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, yet right in the middle of this is a story which doesn’t mention Joseph once. There actually is a strong connection between the episode of Judah and his family and that of the Joseph narrative, but in order to fully understand it, we must first investigate why Tamar is the righteous one.

Tamar marries Judah’s oldest son Er but it was apparently a short marriage because he dies before she is able to get pregnant. The Biblical author does not consider this death to be important to the story and simply offers up that Er did wickedness in the sight of YHWH. Now the family is left in a problematic situation which must be fixed by means of what is known as the Levirate Marriage[1]. This type of marriage was common enough in the ancient Near East that the author of Genesis did not feel the need to explain anything about it, instead assuming the reader is familiar with this cultural aspect. This law is detailed later in the book of Deuteronomy where it states that if brothers dwell together and one dies without having produced a male heir, then his brother shall take his widow as his wife, and have sexual intercourse with her in order to produce a male heir[2]. The purpose for this is in order to raise up the name of the deceased, so that his name is not blotted out in Israel. There is no mention in Deuteronomy of anyone other than one of the brothers performing this duty, yet in the book of Ruth we see that it is a distant relative who performs this duty. It is a well known feature of ancient Near Eastern law codes that they assumed a basic understanding of the law and thus the written codes only explained how to deal with unusual situations[3]. According to Hittite Law 193, it is actually the father who is supposed to be the one who impregnates the widow, only if he is dead would one of the brothers take up this duty[4]. Regardless of where this law originated from, it is clear from the Biblical narrative that the brothers were the first choice to raise up the name of their deceased brother. Yet when the brothers did not perform the duty, it was considered righteous that Judah performed the duty, even though he was tricked. Let’s now consider why this duty of raising up an heir for the deceased is so important that it warrants a whole chapter of Genesis.

Judah tells Onan to “raise up a seed for your brother” which is clearly linked to Deuteronomy 25. Our English translations will tell us that this raising up is for the purpose that the deceased name is not blotted out, which would appear to indicate a desire to preserve his remembrance. Yet in our two cases of this law being carried out (Judah & Tamar, Boaz & Ruth), the genealogies completely forget the names of the deceased brothers and instead attribute the biological father to the lineage. Clearly the law is not for the purpose of preserving the memory of the name of the deceased. It is in the book of Ruth where we discover the purpose of raising up an heir for the name of the deceased. In chapter 4 Naomi must sell a piece of land which belonged to her husband Elimelech and so Boaz seeks to redeem the land. The other kinsman redeemer was willing to redeem the land until he discovers that he will also have to marry Ruth and produce an heir in order to “raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance[5].” Why does this other kinsman refuse to perform the duty? Because the land he would redeem through purchase would not belong to him or any of his own children, it would transfer to the first son he had with Ruth. The land belonged to Elimelech’s family and had disaster not struck the family, it would have been given to his sons as an inheritance. Thus, Boaz raises up a son who can inherit the family property and thus preserve the estate. By birthing a son who can inherit the estate, the woman’s social status and thus honor is restored and she now has someone who can provide for her, thus giving her safety. In Deuteronomy 25’s law it states that “if brothers dwell together” then the levirate law applies. This phrase is similar to a law in the Code of Hammurabi which states “when the brothers divide after the father has gone to his fate” and then goes on to describe the division of the inheritance of their father’s estate[6]. Thus this law in the Torah must apply to a situation where the inheritance has not yet been given to the sons. Understanding this cultural aspect now enlightens us as to the reason why Onan’s act of spilling his seed upon the ground was such a wicked act that it warranted divine punishment.

Judah originally had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Judah died, his estate would have been split into 4 equal shares; two shares would have gone to Er (firstborn inheritance), one share to Onan, and one to Shelah. When Er dies without an heir, the rights of the firstborn shift to Onan and the estate would have been split into 3 equal shares with Onan receiving two of those shares (66% of the estate). However, if the duty of the levirate was performed with Tamar, Onan is back to only receiving 25% of the estate. If Onan would have refused to perform the duty of the levirate, as allowed in Deuteronomy 25, either Shelah or possibly Judah or another relative would have performed this duty, thus placing Onan back at only 25% of the estate[7]. So Onan devises a wicked plot in that he will take the responsibility of the levirate so as to take Tamar off the table, but will secretly spill his seed upon the ground in order to not get her pregnant. This way he ensures that he will receive his 66% of the estate. Onan’s sin was not practicing birth control as certain Christian denominations have taken a stand upon; it was greed – the love of money! This was the grievous sin that angered YHWH so much that he killed Onan. This greed is also what connects this story to the rest of the Torah portion. Joseph’s brothers were angry with him over his coat. When we study ancient Near Eastern culture, we discover that your clothes weren’t worn for comfort or style, they indicated your status. Tamar put on widow’s garments to indicate her legal status as a widow and “[t]hese clothes entitled her to the privileges provided for widows in the law, such as gleaning and a portion of the tithe[8].” When Tamar wants to indicate that she is a prostitute, she again changes garments. Joseph’s coat indicated his elevated status in the family and more than likely was taken as a sign that he would receive the firstborn inheritance, since he was the firstborn of the favorite wife. Thus greed drove his brothers to toss him in a pit. The brothers apparently had planned on letting Joseph stay in the pit until he died, but again greed reared its ugly head and Judah asks the question, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother[9]?” Clearly we are dealing with a message that warns of the pitfalls of greed!

There is now chaos in the family. Judah is afraid that he will lose his beloved son and last remaining heir and so he deals dishonorably with Tamar and denies her and her deceased husband the heir that they deserved. Tamar is relegated to the legal status of widow, a weak social caste which was often taken advantage of in the ancient Near East. Thus she took matters into her own hands, she endured the shame of prostituting herself to her father-in-law in order to restore order and honor to the family. As strange of a concept as this may be to our religious mindset, she is considered to be more righteous than Judah, not because she behaved perfectly, but because she restored honor to the family. Sometimes life presents us with impossible situations where there just isn’t a desirable path, where we must make take actions that we normally would never consider in order to fulfill the weightier matters of the Torah. This is the spirit of the Torah; to take care of the widow, the poor, the orphan, and anyone else who may be in need and oppressed.

[1] Levir is Latin for “husband’s brother”.

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

[3] Westbrook, Property and the Family in Biblical Law, 71.

[4] Also see Middle Assyrian Law 43, “If the seignior either poured oil on (her) head or brought betrothal-presents (and) the son to whom he assigned the wife either died or fled, he may give (her) to whichever he wishes of his remaining sons from the oldest son to the youngest son who is at least ten years old. If the father died and the son to whom he assigned the wife also died, but the dead son has a son who is at least ten years old, he shall marry (her), but if the grandsons are younger than ten years, the girl’s father, if he wishes, may give his daughter (to one of them); or if he wishes, he may make an equitable return (of the gifts). If there is no son, he shall return in full as much as he received, precious stones and whatever is not edible, but he need not return what is edible.” (Pritchard, ANET, 184).

[5] Ruth 4:1-5.

[6] Code of Hammurabi 165, “If a seignior, upon presenting a field, orchard, or house to his first-born, who is the favorite in his eye, wrote a sealed document for him, when the brothers divide after the father has gone to (his) fate, he shall keep the present which the father gave him, but otherwise they shall share equally in the goods of the paternal estate.” (Pritchard, ANET, 173).

[7] Westbrook, Property and the Family in Biblical Law, 76.

[8] Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary, Ge 38:26.

[9] Genesis 37:26.

Reference List:

Raymond Westbrook, Property and the Family in Biblical Law, vol. 113, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991).

James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969),

Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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