Vayeishev: When Men Bond (and Others Pay the Price)

Vayeishev is a parsha that details the violence of brothers against a sibling they reject. Their rejection is sexually fraught as are their actions, from stripping Joseph naked to selling them* into slavery. Joseph’s body was never Joseph’s. It belonged to Jacob’s sons. Jacob’s sons owned Joseph, and they sold Joseph. Others were given the power to repeat their crimes.

In the midst of the Joseph story is a chapter that is not about Joseph at all, but about Judah. Genesis 38 tells a story of Judah and the men he hangs out with, the men he sires, and the men he orders around.

Here, too, there is rejection and sexual violence. Here, too, male characters plan together and bond over sexual experience and violent behaviors.

In my recently published book Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, I make the case that shared sexual experience is a pivotal part of male homosocial relationships in the Hebrew Bible. Male characters may not be having sex with each other, but sex with women creates bonding opportunities, ways to maintain alliances and to establish status and rank.

When Judah leaves his brothers behind, he turns to Hirah, the Adullamite (Genesis 38:1). Immediately, in the verse following, Judah sights the wife he wants — notably, right in Hirah’s locale. He takes her (yes, that is  biblical texts articulates marriage) and sires three sons in quick succession. As his sons grow up, it becomes clear that Hirah and Judah have remained close friends. It is Hirah who, after the death of Judah’s wife, is part of his decision to end his mourning. They decide to enjoy themselves together. Judah is single and ready to mingle.

They travel together to a sheepshearing, a pastoral festival. As I write in Malignant Fraternities:  “It is a time to have fun, break boundaries, play tricks, an even plot murder. During a sheepshearing, Jacob surreptitiously escapes from Laban (Genesis 31); David acquires a new wife—Abigail—from a foolish husband who is inclined to heavy drinking (1 Samuel 25); Tamar disguises herself to induce her father-in-law to have sex with her and impregnate her (Genesis 38); and Absalom deceptively invites Amnon, his half-brother and heir to the throne, to festivities where his death will be arranged (2 Samuel 13).”

We forget that Hirah and Judah were traveling together when we read Genesis 38. We forget that Hirah was around or nearby when Judah crassly bargains for the use of Tamar’s body. He certainly knows the results of the negotiations, for Judah sends Hirah to redeem his pledges to Tamar. And it is Hirah who does everything he can to make sure that what has happened between Judah and Tamar remains secret (and that involves some complex and fancy dancing on his part that is revealed in the Hebrew nomenclature he uses for Tamar).

Two men shared interactions that had to do with sexual gratification. One had the actual gratification. Perhaps the other experienced it vicariously. But both were part and parcel of the negotiation and the attempt at controlling the consequences. It is an ancient version of the news we were subject to when we discovered how Donald Trump sent Michael Cohen to negotiate the silence of the women he slept with.

The story ends with an apparent redemptive moment for Tamar, when Judah cedes her right to make sure that he performed the levirate. But Tamar’s body, like Joseph’s, was never her own.

She was taken by Judah to be a wife for his first son, Er. When that son died, she was given to Judah’s second son, Onan. He, in turn, did his best to protect his own share of the inheritance, “spilling his seed.” This happens not once, but repeatedly.

When Onan dies, Judah refuses to free Tamar, casting her as a man-killer and exiling her to her father’s house. In the end, Tamar makes sure Judah himself performs the levirate by selling her body to him. He orders her burned alive when he learns she is pregnant. She escapes his sentence, bears twin sons, and disappears from the narrative, her body having served its purpose: to ensure Judah’s lineage.

Male characters plan, plot, and bond over the sexual use, misuse, and abuse of others in this story.

It is an old story. And sadly, a familiar one.

  • The use of the plural pronoun is deliberate; Joseph’s gender identity does not fall on one side or the other of a simple binary.
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