?Judah?s Daughters?: A Reflection on Teaching Women in the Old Testament

By April 23, 2014

Please join us in extending a warm welcome to our latest guest blogger, Spencer Wells. Spencer is currently a PhD student in history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His is currently beginning work on dissertation project examining pacifists in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. His research in Mormon studies focuses on issues of religious and sexual tolerance. In his spare time Spencer enjoys hiking and making horrendously bad puns. Seriously folks, his puns are legendary. Here he offers his thoughts on his experience teaching a “Women in the Old Testament” Institute course over the past year.


Once every four years the LDS Sunday School trots out the Old Testament for the Saints? perusal and edification. At times, the decision raises hackles. Complaints, of course, vary. Isaiah?s opacity dismays some, Hebraic ritual etherizes others. And theological protests invariably sprout up. As a personal acquaintance argued with me years ago, God?s actions throughout the Old Testament place Him at odds with modern liberal values. Complicit in razing cities, murdering children, and oppressing women, this teenaged Jehovah played the part of a brooding, angst-ridden Hayden Christiansen (think Anakin Skywalker) to near perfection.

Mormon women of the nineteenth century could not have disagreed more. Writing in an 1890s edition of the Young Women?s Journal, a lady known only as ?Hope? called for her gospel sisters to honor their female forbearers. ?Let Judah?s daughters tune their harps again, and sing aloud in one triumphant strain,? she rhapsodized, for, ?their day of ransom now is drawing nigh, Again a message for them [is seen] on high.? Within verse, Hope thus conflated an Old Testament Jehovah with the salvific Christ of the New. Such a God delighted not in oppressing women, but in ?awak[ing] . . . chord[s] that . . . slumbered deep and long? within their breasts, ?to break forth in one triumphant song.?[1]

Hope?s assertion that God cared for ?Judah?s daughters? notwithstanding, stories of biblical women are often glossed over in LDS classrooms. To be sure, in recent years, the Mormon Church has made a greater effort to recognize faithful Biblical women. In the March 2014 Ensign, an article entitled ?Faith and Fortitude: Women of the Old Testament? lauded the contributions of Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, and Deborah. Even here, however, the piece often privileged men?s roles, at times hinting that the women in question were important primarily in relation to their husbands.[2]

As a volunteer Institute teacher for CES for the 2013-14 school year in Virginia, I received the unique opportunity of teaching a class on the lives of Old Testament women. The process has convinced me that women?s canonized stories contain great spiritual weight. To be sure, their lives are often buried beneath the inspiring narratives of prophets, patriarchs and psalmists, but this in nowise compromises the need for instructors to unearth their stories?stories, which hold vital lessons for all, despite (and because of) the inherent patriarchal bent of much of the Old Testament. As one female student expressed it at the end of our course: ?I feel like these women are my sisters now.? Strength and identification flow from understanding the world these women faced with courage and determination.

Tamar?s experience is instructive in this regard. Mormons today avoid Tamar?s story like the plague. It is not hard to see why. According to Genesis 38, Judah? of ?Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat? fame?offered his firstborn son Er, the woman Tamar to wife. Er, however, did evil ?in the sight of the Lord,? and died leaving Tamar a sonless widow in a culture which defined a married woman?s worth around the male offspring she produced. Seeking to rectify the situation, Judah urged his next son Onan to raise up seed to his deceased brother. But Onan demurred. Consequently, he soon found himself resting astride his own deceased brother. Though one son yet remained, Judah now temporized, promising Tamar his youngest son Shelah?s hand when he came of age. In the interim, he cast Tamar out of the family tribe, compelling her to go and reside in her ?father?s house.? However, when it became apparent that Judah held no intention of making good on his oath, Tamar took fate into her own hands. As Judah journeyed into Timnath to shear sheep, Tamar turned the patriarch?s foibles to her own advantage. Disguising herself by means of a veil, and assuming the garb of a ?harlot,? Tamar followed suit and lay in wait. Judah proved unwilling to resist his hormonal urgings. But before consummating the encounter, Tamar demanded payment, naming a kid of Judah?s flock as her price. As further insurance, she insisted on a pledge until such time as the goat arrived: Judah?s signet, bracelet and staff (symbolic of Judah?s legal identity).  Months later, upon hearing of Tamar?s pregnancy, Judah grew wroth. As punishment he decried death by fire. Until, that is, Tamar, once again displayed her acumen. Confronting her accuser, she demanded Judah ?discern? to whom ?the signet, and bracelets, and staff? she now unveiled, belonged. Recognizing his culpability, Judah backed off, and admitted that Tamar had acted in righteousness.[3]

Filled as it is with sexual intrigue, it is no wonder that a church which stresses fidelity avoids the story. Indeed, the most recent Sunday school Old Testament student manual skips over the story entirely, preferring to lump Joseph?s journey to Egypt and subsequent temptation by Potiphar?s wife in Genesis 37 and 39 as a coherent lesson. The Church Institute manual, while acknowledging the story, likewise marginalizes Tamar?s voice, focusing instead on ?Judah?s twisted sense of values? in sending his daughter-in-law away as well as soliciting sexual favors. ?Had Judah faithfully kept his promise to Tamar,? the manual concludes, ?the seduction would never have taken place [and] . . . [Judah] never would have sinned with Tamar.? Judah?s own recognition that Tamar ?hath been more righteous than I? finds no place in the manual?s exegesis. Tamar?s independent actions disappear beneath Judah?s sins.[4]

However, Tamar?s story is not meant to be read as a modern harlequin romance. Rather, her actions elucidate an important message of redemption. Indeed, her decisions are a direct catalyst for transformations in Judah?s life. Prior to his encounter with Tamar, Judah lived a life of deception, selling his younger brother into Egypt, while lying to his father about the sale. Judah evidences little remorse. A change of heart is not manifest until Tamar forces Judah to confront his own complicity in her exile and subsequent pregnancy.  But the story does not end before a burning stake. Years later, after traveling to Egypt in search of sustenance, Joseph tested his brothers? remorse. After hiding a ?silver cup? within his brother Benjamin?s sack and accusing him of burglary, Joseph demanded restitution. Until Joseph?s brothers brought Father Jacob down into Egypt, Joseph called for Benjamin?s imprisonment. Judah, however, refused to be cowed by Joseph?s decree. In a moment of selflessness, Judah offered to remain in Benjamin?s stead. The parallels with Tamar?s story are striking in their divergences. Whereas Judah offered worldly goods as pledge to lay with Tamar, he now offered himself as a pledge as surety for his brother. Tamar brought Judah face to face with the consequences of his own deceptions and called for justice. Benjamin?s plight now evoked mercy in Judah?s eyes. Having sold Joseph into slavery, Judah understood the ramifications of leaving Jacob?s youngest son in Egypt and determined to spare his father further pain. It seems that Tamar?s intervention not only secured her own future in a patriarchal society, but also caused Judah to reflect on the cruelties of his own past actions. Countering deception with a deception ending in revelation, Tamar proved a crucial link in ending generations of familial duplicity.[5]

Genesis 38 is not primarily a narration of Tamar?s life. But then again, neither is it solely an account of Judah?s actions. Rather, it is an account of the myriad ways in which women?s and men?s lives impinged upon each other throughout the Old Testament. In the course of their dealings, both experienced profound change. Tamar?s wits and Judah?s recognition of his folly secured Tamar a place in her deceased husband?s tribe while also helping to heal longstanding familial rifts. Tamar?s and Judah?s experiences convince me that an examination of Old Testament women not only reveals the lives, struggles, and triumphs of sisters often forgotten, but also reminds that any teaching endeavor we embark upon is not, in the end, about women or men in isolation, but about their interactions?and the very human faith they at times built together.

[1] [Hope], ?Judah?s Daughters,? in The Young Women?s Journal, Salt Lake City, 1890, vol. 1, no 10, 337.

[2] Faith S. Watson, ?Faith and Fortitude: Women of the Old Testament,? Ensign, March 2014. Within the article Sarah is introduced as ?the wife of the prophet Abraham, and the mother of Isaac,? while her life is often described as an appendage to that of Abraham?s: ?when He confirmed His covenant with Abraham, stating that the patriarch would be ?a father of many nations.? The Lord promised that 90-year-old Sarah would have a son.? Likewise, Sarah?s importance is summarized as bearing Isaac, who in turn fathered Jacob and ?the twelve tribes of Israel.?

[3] Genesis 38: 11, 18. For discussions of Tamar, see Susan Niditch, ?The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38,? The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 72 no. 1/2  (1979), 143-149; Rachel Adelman, ?Seduction and Recognition in the Story of Judah and Tamar and the Book of Ruth,? Nashim: A Journal of Woman?s Studies & Gender Issues, no 23 (2012), 87-108.

[4] Genesis 38: 26; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ??How Can I do this Great Wickedness,?? in Old Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher?s Manual, Salt Lake City, 2001, 46-50; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ?Joseph: The Power of Preparation, Genesis 37-50,? in Old Testament Student Manual, Genesis ?2 Samuel, Salt Lake City, 2003, 94-95.

[5] Genesis 44:2. My reading here of Judah and Tamar is indebted to Rachel Adelman?s ?Seduction and Recognition in the Story of Judah and Tamar and the Book of Ruth.?


Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Gender Intellectual History Pedagogy Women's History


  1. Nice work.
    Several of your phrasings made me wonder if you’d read my article on Judah and Tamar, but I’m guessing it’s more from similar observations.


    Comment by Ben s — April 23, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  2. Ben, that looks like a fantastic article. Can’t say I’ve read it, but will get on it pronto!

    Comment by sswells — April 23, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

  3. Thanks, this was great. Mormons are not alone in their downplaying of female Biblical figures, but I will confess it makes me cringe when I visit Temple Square and see the role of biblical prophet explicitly identified as male in their Scripture and Revelation exhibit.

    Comment by Saskia — April 23, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

  4. Great post! It’s posts like these that make me want to get serious about studying the Bible.

    Comment by DavidF — April 23, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

  5. Thanks for this, Spencer. I’d be interested in hearing more about 19th century Mormon women’s attitudes and approaches to the Old Testament.

    And I think your concluding sentence is an important one for all historians, and perhaps especially for historians of Mormonism guilty of treating women’s history as something else — a subset of the larger field.

    Comment by Christopher — April 24, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

  6. This is a great post. I’ve admired Tamar before as an example of persistence, and I’ve admired Judah’s repentant attitude when he gives himself as proxy in Egypt, but I had never noticed that Tamar was the catalyst in Judah’s reformation.

    Do you have any other OT women in mind for similarly deeper study? I guess what I mean is, women who “save the day” through somewhat unusual or unexpected actions. Rebecca, Sarah, and Zelophehad’s daughters come to mind.

    Comment by BrianJ — April 24, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  7. Thanks Spencer.

    I think that Matthew’s inclusion of Tamar (as Thamar) in his genealogy of Christ is likewise significant.

    I did a quick Exponent search for Tamar and no one is using Tamar as an example in the Exponent either, so at least we haven’t regressed. Though they talk about tamarind a surprising amount and I would suppose that Tamar Ricks, in a RS Pres in Rexburg was named after Tamar. (Is that like Bathsheba?) With Hope’s comment as a foundation have you looked for historical examples of LDS women (or even men?) who are using Hebrew Bible examples of women other than the standard Ruth, Naomi, and Esther?

    Comment by JJohnson — April 25, 2014 @ 11:54 am

  8. JJohnson, In the December 1915 edition of the Relief Society Magazine (not 19th C) there is a discussion of two portraits of women that hang in the Salt Lake Temple (Mary and Judith). In the article, there is a small discussion about Esther that surprised me:

    ?It is interesting to compare and contrast the character of Esther and Judith. Both women were undeniably beautiful. A plain-looking woman, whatever the inference could not, in the one case have won the queenship nor, in the other case, bewitched the unsophisticated Holofernes. Moreover both used their charms according to the notions of the times in the service of religion. Both too, encompassed the death of a powerful enemy of Israel the one through guile and the other her influence with the king, her husband. Besides Esther and Judith were devout, prayerful religionists. But Esther impresses us as a woman who needed guidance, direction, some thing or some body to lean upon. She has little or no initiative. She is more or less timid and hesitating. Judith, on the other hand, although perfectly womanly, is self reliant, courageous daring capable of decisive action in high moments. And yet she is always the woman, and a wonderful woman to smite the mind as well as the eye.?

    I blog about it here

    Comment by Kris — April 25, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  9. That’s great, Kris. Thanks.

    Comment by JJohnson — April 26, 2014 @ 4:57 pm


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