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Powerful women
Tamar and Potiphar’s wife
Sex and deception

This week’s haiku should not be considered sexist condemnation of the tactics used by both Tamar and Potiphar’s wife in different stories from this week’s Torah portion. After all, deception was common among our patriarchs. From Abraham’s request that Sarah say she’s his sister, to Jacob’s deceiving Isaac to gain his blessing, to Joseph’s brothers lying to their father about the favorite son’s fate in another part of this week’s reading, we’ve seen this kind of trickery before.

Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber, most of us know about Mrs. Potiphar. She tried to seduce Joseph and lied about his refusal to do her bidding, leading to Joseph spending two years in Egyptian prison. In this story, the deceiver uses her powerful position to punish someone who would not bend to her will.

The story of Tamar might not be quite as familiar. She disguises herself as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law Judah. When she turns up pregnant and Judah tries to shame her – not knowing she is the “prostitute” he visited – she turns the tables and tells Judah she has his cord and staff, which he had left with her as security for payment. Judah is forced to admit “She is more right than I” (Gen 38:26) and confesses to his earlier wrongdoing.

A couple of years ago, the Torah haiku was specifically about Tamar. Click here and follow the links in that post to learn more details of Tamar’s story.

Tamar is considered by the text in a much more positive light than Potiphar’s wife. Her deception was done in the course of avenging a wrong done to her – a path to righteous power, not an abuse of power. Also, she did not publicly shame Judah. Her deception was revealed to Judah only in private so his confession did not have to include the fact that he was the father of his own grandchildren.

Tamar gives birth to twins, one of which was an ancestor of King David. This suggests Tamar is not viewed in a negative light by the author(s) (or Author, if you prefer) of the Torah.

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