Two-thirds into the book of Genesis is the story of Joseph, interrupted briefly by the story of Er, Onan, Judah, and Tamar. One chapter, and endlessly fascinating. Er is evil, so God strikes him down. Onan then takes Tamar as his wife with instruction from Judah to give her children and extend his brother’s line. Instead he spills his seed on the ground, giving his name thereafter to one of the better words for masturbation, onanism. He is struck down. Tamar, untrammeled, moves out and prostitutes herself in a nearby township. Judah, passing through that township one day, does not recognize her and so sleeps with her. He has no money to pay for the encounter but promises her a goat. In lieu of payment she takes his staff and signet ring, instead. She is pregnant.
Judah hears a rumor his first two sons’ former wife, also the wife he promised to his third son Shelah, is prostituting herself. He gives instruction that she ought to be killed. When Tamar hears this, she sends him his signet ring and staff with a message that the seed of the man whose items these are is growing inside her. His reaction is significant. She has been more righteous than I. Yet I would call no one in this story quite righteous. Only fascinating, and all too human. And as whimsical, crafty, and clumsy as God. It is the best story in Genesis, probably.
What killed Onan, and motivated Tamar, many don’t properly comprehend, at least not those with only minimal interest in the Bible. It’s not Onan’s spilling his seed on the ground that kills him. It’s that he doesn’t give a child to Tamar. And Tamar’s obverse desire for a child is a directive from God. Be fruitful and increase in number is commanded each descendant of Abraham. And Tamar wants especially the seed of Judah because it carries with it the blessing. She wants to play a part in that lineage. So she behaves with cunning to rival that of Jacob, and in the end births twins. Judah’s twins. One newborn races to get outside, past the reaching hand of the other, who was to be firstborn. And competition for the blessing continues into the next generation.
I am a firstborn, so I never liked Genesis, not until lately. Firstborns are treated with contempt by its authors, and rightly. They’re idiots, the firstborn. And so I always thought myself one. Perhaps rightly, too. See me now, for instance, on my floor in the wee hours, heater pointed at my naked leg, blanket draped over one shoulder and lap, typing on and on about a chapter in Genesis while my head pounds from mixing Sudafed with beer last night. It is like this I consider the snub (out of the blessing, whatever blessing) proper, like my self-assessment. I am Esau. I am Er. I am Onan, too, since I refuse to make a child and frequently masturbate, though typically spilling my seed in the sink. I am unhappy in my job, my relationships, my life. Yet I will continue, changing nothing. Why? Because I like to read, I guess.