The Bible’s Bamboozled Men and Hornswoggling Women
By Denise Noe

We commonly think of the society depicted in the Old Testament of the Bible as a classically “patriarchal” one. Indeed, it was a culture in which formal power was largely concentrated in male hands. However, certain stories in the Bible display a great deal of real power wielded by women. Perhaps most interesting is the way prominent women outwit men and are in no sense punished for their treachery.

In Genesis 25:28 we are told of the feelings of Isaac and Rebekah toward their twin sons: “And Isaac loved Esau . . . but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Here the Bible is perennially relevant and realistic. Most people would probably say parents of both sexes should love their children equally but parental emotions are often dramatically undemocratic.

As the official head of the family, Isaac has the power to bestow blessings that Rebekah does not. He wants to bestow a blessing on his favorite son Esau. However, he has become blind in his old age so Rebekah comes up with a plan to foil his intentions and grab the blessing for HER favorite son Jacob. She advises Jacob to pretend to be his brother. When he objects that his father might feel him and realize he is not the hairy Esau, she puts goatskins on his hands and neck (Esau must have been hirsute indeed). Isaac is taken in by Rebekah’s subterfuge and blesses Jacob. We do not read of any comeuppance for the cunning Rebekah. Perhaps the moral of this rather sordid tale is that the son favored by his mother is the son “blessed” both literally and metaphorically.

Genesis 31 is about Jacob’s leaving the home of his father-in-law Laban – a double father-in-law since Jacob is married to both his daughters, Leah and Rachel – accompanied by his wives, servants, and children. He does not inform Laban that they are on their way. Verse 19 tells us that, “Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s.”

Laban catches up with the crew and remonstrates with them for the sudden departure. Then he searches for the stolen “images.” Verses 34-35 explains, “Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel’s furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not. And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched but found not the images.”

It would appear from these verses that men of the era felt constrained from demanding movement from a woman who was menstruating (or said she was). After all, she might have cramps or be having a heavy flow and need to sit. This is reminiscent of the modern custom of including couches in women’s restrooms but not men’s. I have heard that the supposed reason for making this convenience available to women but not men is concern for the problems of menstruation. The effect is to make these rooms places of literal“rest” for women but not for men, although the latter certainly suffer (non-menstrual) aches and pains and may even perform physically harder labor that leave them more fatigued.

Rachel gets away with her subterfuge and Dad goes away without his images.

Perhaps the outflanking of Biblical “patriarchal” authority by female conniving is illustrated most powerfully by the story of Tamar. In Genesis 38 we read that Judah recruits Tamar to be the wife of his oldest son Er who soon dies. Following the custom of having a brother marry his brother’s widow, Judah orders his son Onan to marry Tamar. The custom also meant that any babies the living brother fathered would be socially considered the children of his dead brother. Onan did not want his children to be regarded as those of Er so he practiced withdrawal with Tamar, leading God to strike him dead and masturbation to be called “onanism.”

Judah is understandably reluctant to have another son marry Tamar as she appears to be something of a jinx. However, his youngest son Shelah is not yet of marrying age and that gives him some room to maneuver without denying Tamar outright. Judah asks her to return to her father’s house and promises that she will marry Shelah when he grows up.

After awhile, Tamar sees that Shelah is all grown up and she is still a widow residing in her father’s home. Since she lives in a time when it is regarded negatively for a woman to die childless, Tamar is determined to continue the line and believes she must do so through the family of her deceased husbands. She hits upon a daring plan.

Tamar learns that Judah is planning a trip to shear his sheep. Genesis 38:14 reads: “And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath.” The information that she veiled herself should give the modern reader pause. Face veiling among contemporary Muslim women is often seen and justified as a kind of ultimate sign of modesty and guarantee of chastity. It is also controversial because many people see it as extremist in obscuring the woman’s identity.

However, face veiling among women in the era described by Genesis appears to have been a practice of prostitutes. Perhaps this worked to lessen the sense of degradation that might have been experienced by women in this occupation. Or perhaps it was good for business as the customer could imagine any face he wanted and real life so often falls short of fantasy.

At any rate, verse 15 of Genesis 38 reads, “When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.” He requests a sex act. He does not have payment with him but promises to give her a kid from his sheep flock when he gets it. She understandably demands collateral and he hands over his signet, bracelets, and staff.

The pair has sex. After Judah departs, Tamar divests herself of the veil and puts on her widow’s garments.

Judah sends a pal to give the kid to the harlot and get his collateral returned. The friend cannot find her, asks around with no luck, and returns to Judah with the young sheep.

Verse 24 of this same chapter of Genesis states, “And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot: and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah, said, Bring her forth and let her be burnt.”

The forgoing is remarkable. Judah appears as outrageously hypocritical, a man who is happy to tryst with a “harlot” and commands a woman’s death for “playing” one. He is also not a pro-lifer as he does not wish to wait for her to give birth before executing her.

However, Tamar has a trick up her sleeve. Verse 25: “When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child, and said, Discern, I pray these, whose are these, the signet, the bracelets, and staff.”

Judah acknowledges that they are his and believes her to be “more righteous than I” since he had not followed the custom of marrying her to his youngest son Shelah.

The resourceful and courageous Tamar had taken an extraordinary risk for she could easily have been killed for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Instead, she is able to continue her lineage and gives birth to twin sons, apparently in a state of respectability.

I have deliberately left out the stories of Adam and Eve as well as Samson and Delilah because they are not about women deceiving men. Eve merely hands the fruit to Adam; Delilah keeps bugging Samson until he spills the secret.

I believe the prominence of the stories of Rebekah, Rachel, and Tamar illustrates an important truth about relations between the sexes. By looking at formal power instead of what is actually done, we tend to see a world of male authority and female subordination. However, the Bible shows us that a major dynamic in gender relations is that of bamboozled men and hornswoggling women.