Toward Understanding Biblical Gapping: Genesis 38 as a Case Study


The 20th century literary critic Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) famously wrote that some biblical narratives and their characters are “fraught with background.”[1] While there are moments of action in these biblical stories, the thoughts of characters are suggested, rather than explicitly spelled out.[2] This, for Auerbach, was all part of an effort on the Bible’s part to accurately portray the historical, religious and theological truth. By omitting the background of these characters, the text implies that it carries a “second, concealed meaning.”[3] This is opposed to other non-biblical narratives, which attempt to simply create a legendary reality with their stories in order to entertain. Auerbach attempts to prove this by comparing the story of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 38 and an episode from Book 19 of The Odyssey. In the course of this comparison, Auerbach points out that, due to the lack of psychological insight in the biblical texts, these stories “require subtle investigation and interpretation… demand them”[4]. The close reader will, and must, ponder the mindset of the characters and the presence of God in the story in order to uncover their background and the truth therein.[5] While Auerbach’s essay has seen its share of criticism in the years since its publication,[6] it still seems that one of his points stands: the mindsets of many characters in biblical stories are notably opaque, and we, as close readers, must attempt to explain the thought process of biblical characters.[7]

Before getting caught up in this characterization of biblical literature, however, it is worthwhile to appreciate the difficulty of examining an ancient text through the eyes of a modern scholar of literature. As James Kugel points out, even if Auerbach is correct that the biblical characters are “fraught with background,” this only is true if we look at these characters through modern eyes. If the literary backdrop that these texts were written in did not require more than foreground for characters, is it really true to the text to focus on the brilliance of the suspension of background?[8] More generally, literature, and the tools utilized by literary works, may be totally different for moderns than it was for the ancients, and to use our conception of literature to analyze the Bible would be completely anachronistic.

To these objections, it is worthwhile to cite Robert Alter’s responses. Alter admits that there are differences between literary conventions of the Iron Age and the 21st century. Despite this, Alter posits, literary works throughout the ages do contain some of the same mechanisms, or at least mechanisms that are similar enough to modern artistic conventions, that the tools of 21st century literary analysis can be used to study them. In addition, the very fact that modern scholars are aware of the dangers of anachronistic readings provides some, although not complete, protection from misreading, and should lead critics to look for features that are truly biblical, and not “modern.”[9]

Another, and perhaps more important, point for a religious audience to consider is that the attempt to understand biblical works through the prism of modern literary criticism might be disconcerting. Viewing the Bible as literature allows the assumption that what is under study is not a divine composition, and the practitioners of the literary theory often have conclusions about biblical stories that go beyond what the religious community is comfortable with. However, as Moshe Bernstein observes, the literary study of the Bible provides us with methods and categories of reading, not simply interpretations and evaluations of sources. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this critical literary categorization, and in fact they can further our understanding of devar Hashem.[10] In this vein, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein argues that critical literary studies do not necessarily need to be critical, as in judgmental. One can study biblical works using literary methods, without resorting to evaluating the merits of one books style, for example, and can instead attempt to elucidate aspects of the text itself.[11]

The following essay is an attempt to understand the story of Yehudah and Tamar, Genesis 38, in light of the poetics of Meir Sternberg, an Israeli literary critic and biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University.[12] Sternberg posits that the Bible utilizes a method he terms “gapping” in its story telling. Simply put, for Sternberg, all literary works are networks of gaps. The reasons behind occurrences of the story, how characters feel about each other, and the norms of the society of the story are all examples of features that are often left open for the reader to determine due to the absence of their explicit discussion within the text. Usually, when studying a text the reader will choose the most simple and obvious explanation as an answer to these questions. However, Sternberg argues that often in biblical narrative there are multiple legitimate, though mutually exclusive, explanations that the reader could choose that could fill the gaps.

These gaps are not the result of sloppy writing, or used as a simple literary trick, however. For Sternberg, “generally speaking, gaps and indeterminacies have no aesthetic value.”[13] Rather, when a narrative has two or more possible reading at odds with one another, and the text itself, intentionally for Sternberg, never provides a resolution to the open-ended gaps therein, an analysis of the gaps can be substantive.[14] Keeping in mind Auerbach’s comment that biblical characters are “fraught with background,” and that their background “demands” an explanation, this article will utilize Sternberg’s view of “gapping” in the Bible to examine the story.[15]

In order to examine the importance of the gaps in Genesis 38, it is worthwhile to analyze the structure of the chapter and understand the tension that these gaps form.[16] The story begins with Yehudah leaving his brothers and starting a family. The first section of the chapter establishes the basic rhythm of life in Yehudah’s setting:

1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went in unto her. 3 And she conceived, and bore a son; and he called his name Er4 And she conceived again, and bore a son; and she called his name Onan5 And she yet again bore a son, and called his name Shelah; and he was at Chezib, when she bore him.[17]

In these five verses, Yehudah’s household is portrayed as a center for reproduction and the establishment of the next generation. In verse 6, Yehudah chooses Tamar as a wife for his firstborn, Er, leading the reader to believe that Yehudah’s household will continue to expand. This narrative, however, is disrupted by the deaths of Yehudah’s first two sons and Tamar’s expulsion from Yehudah’s house. The rest of the story, with Tamar’s deception of her father in law and trial, all work to get to verse 27, where Tamar finally has her children. The structure of the narrative, then, is concerned with the establishment of Yehudah’s lineage.[18] The end cyclically returns to the beginning, albeit in an unexpected manner, giving a sense of reestablishment and completion through the continuation of Yehudah’s lineage.

However, this structure, and particularly the sense of completion it carries with it, degenerates slightly when the specific content of the chapter is studied Specifically, examining the personal perspectives of the characters, their awareness of God’s hand in the story, and the viewpoint of the other characters can alter how one views the end of Tamar’s trial. In order to examine this, two preliminary questions, whose answers are not apparent from a simple reading of the story, must be asked:

  1. Are Yehudah and Tamar aware of God’s involvement in the deaths of Er and Onan?
  2. How does the answer to the first question affect their view of one another?

When the deaths of Er and Onan are recounted in chapter 38, the text goes out of its way to point out that God had a direct influence on the events.

7 And Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. 8 And Judah said unto Onan: ‘Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.’ 9 And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. 10 And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of the Lord; and He slew him also. 

After this, Yehudah sends Tamar away with the promise that she will be the wife of his youngest son, Shelah. When he does this, however, what is his thought process? What does he think it will accomplish?[19] If he knew that God killed his two older sons because of their evil actions, then it is reasonable to accept Ramban’s interpretation, that, “[Yehudah] did not want [Shelah] to perform the levirate marriage while he was still young, lest he sin with her like his brothers [had sinned].” [20] With this interpretation, Yehudah sends Tamar away in order to protect Shelah from his own actions. However, if Yehudah was not aware that Er and Onan were subject to divine punishment, then Tamar was sent away for different reasons, likely because it was assumed that she was somehow causing the deaths of her husbands.[21]

Analyzing Tamar with this approach, however, is more difficult. Beyond the initial gap regarding whether she is aware of God’s actions in the story, a second gap is opened, in that the text is unclear whether Tamar knows what Yehudah thinks. The options are not as simple a dichotomy as Yehudah’s thought process was. Of course, Tamar could either realize that God was involved, or not. Even if she knows that God killed off her first two husbands,[22] does she think that Yehudah knows this? If she does, then Yehudah would be protecting Shelah from sinning again, a perfectly logical act. However, if she does not, then Yehudah has done a great injustice, accusing her of killing her husband when it was divinely decreed, and separating her from her next husband.

This gap in our understanding of Tamar, however unsettling it may seem, is only one part of our greater ignorance of her character. Although Tamar sets events in motion that end with the establishment of Yehudah’s lineage, the text says very little from her perspective. Yehudah takes Tamar as a wife for his sons in verse 6. Although much attention is paid to her actions when she dresses in the clothes of a prostitute, we do not see the deception of Yehudah through her eyes. Instead, we know that Yehudah comes upon her, and does not recognize her because she covers her face. And in the end of their dialogue, the reader only sees the transaction of Yehudah’s staff and seal to Tamar through his eyes, and does not understand their purpose until later, when her life is threatened. Finally, while she is present after her trial at the birth of her children, Tamar fades away after verse 26. The focus of the story of the birth of Peretz and Zerach is on what her sons and nursemaid do, and Tamar does not even name them, unlike Yehudah’s wife in the beginning of the chapter. So while Tamar is the agent through which Yehudah’s house is established, a hero of sorts in the narrative, her thoughts and motivations are extremely marginal.[23] This gap is not simply a coincidence, and fits quite well within Sternberg’s poetics. The ambiguity of the narrative, between the structure of the story, where Tamar is portrayed as the hero, and the content, where Tamar in marginal, allows two totally divergent readings of Tamar’s character to emerge.

The gaps in characters’ relationships between themselves and their surroundings reach a high point at the conclusion of the chapter with Yehudah’s claim that Tamar is “Tsadekah Mimeni” in verse 26.[24] The structure of the chapter would seem to imply that at this point Yehudah realizes the complete scope of his actions. Additionally, Targum Neofiti, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, develops a fascinating expansion of this moment saying that:

Immediately Judah rose to his feet and said “I beseech you, brothers and men of my father’s house, listen to me…with the measure with which a man measures it will be measured to him, whether a good measure or a bad measure. And happy is every man whose deeds are revealed. Because I took the garment of Joseph, my brother, and dyed it with the blood of a goat and said to Jacob, ‘Recognize! Recognize! Is this your son’s garment or not?’ now it is said to me ‘The man to whom these, the signet ring, the cord and the staff, belong—by him I am pregnant.’  Tamar my daughter-in-law is innocent. By me she is pregnant. Far be it from Tamar, my daughter-in-law— she is not pregnant with sons through illicit intercourse!”[25]

This interpretation of events by the Targum views Yehudah in verses 25 and 26 as ultimately learning from the events of the chapter. The Targum equates Yehudah with Yaakov his father, pointing out that both of them were deceived with garments, and that both of them were demanded to recognize something. However, in Chapter 38 the tables are turned, and Yehudah must recognize. According to Targum Neofiti, Yehudah learns from his past mistakes, taking the high road and admitting what had happened. Chapter 38, in this view, is not only the story of the establishment of Yehudah’s lineage; it also tells the tale of the Yehudah’s moral renewal.

However, this reading does not sit well once one considers the gaps in the narrative. While it is possible that Yehudah, after not realizing that God had taken his sons away from him, had a moral revelation where he admitted his wrongs to Tamar, this is not the only way to read his admission of “tsadekah mimeni.” It is conceivable that Yehudah was simply saying that Tamar was legally correct; that the child was his and that she should be returned to Shelah.[26] This is especially plausible once one considers that it would be strange for a morally awakened Yehudah to claim that Tamar was righteous, after she had tricked him and incestuously become impregnated by him.[27] In this second reading, Yehudah does not emerge as a morally admirable character. Instead he continues to be disappointingly unaware of his surroundings.

Ancient interpretations also seem to be aware of this gap in the penultimate section of the narrative. Targum Neofiti says that after Yehudah’s admission “a voice went out from heaven and said ‘Both of you are innocent. From before the Lord is the decree.’”[28] This would make it unavoidable that Yehudah is completely aware of what has happened, as he hears it from the mouth of God Himself. However, the fact that this insertion had to be made points to an ironic gap, that, even though Yehudah decides that Tamar is innocent, God’s judgment is never made clear in the text itself. This is particularly upsetting because although, as Robert Alter comments, biblical stories often avoid judging characters explicitly,[29] God was present in the beginning of the narrative, and was actively judging people and carrying out those judgments. While He was so apparent at the beginning of the narrative, God is conspicuously absent in the end, and we must ask ourselves: In the end of the day does Yehudah realize what has happened when he says that Tamar is “tsadekah?”

This article is not intended to be comprehensive. Other gaps in the narrative, such as Tamar’s intentions when she tricked Yehudah, have been left open. However, by utilizing Sternberg’s view of gapping in biblical stories readers can appreciate the deep irony found in Genesis Chapter 38. While the structure of the chapter seems to imply a redemptive story, the content is murkier, with a heroine who is rarely the focus of the narrative, and a resolution that might or might not resolve all of the problems. With both of these equally possible readings present in the narrative, it is easy to gain a deeper appreciation of the saying that biblical narrative is “fraught with background.”

Yakov Ellenbogen is a sophomore at YU interested in History, Jewish History, and Bible

[1] This article was originally presented, albeit in a different form, to the YU Tanakh Club

[2] Erich Auerbach, transl. by Willard R. Trask Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003),12. I thank Professor David Lavinsky for introducing this text to me.

[3] ibid. 15

[4] ibid.

[5] This is investigated further in the first chapter of Mimesis, “Odysseus’s Scar,” 3-23

[6] See William Whallon “Old Testament Poetry and Homeric Epic,” Comparative Literature 18, 2 (1966): 113-131, and Egbert J. Bakker “Mimesis as Performance: Rereading Auerbach’s First Chapter,” Poetics Today 20, 1 (1999): 11-26 for two examples of the different types of criticism of Auerbach’s work.

[7] This point may be especially apparent to those familiar with Midrash, which often provides readings that work to solve ambiguities in the Biblical text. For an insightful analysis of how midrash fills gaps in narrative, see Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 39-56

[8] James Kugel, “On the Bible and Literary Criticism,” Prooftexts 1,3 (1981): 217-236, at p. 230

[9] Robert Alter,  “How Convention Helps Us Read: The Case of the Bible’s Annunciation Type-Scene,” Prooftexts 3,2 (1983): 115-130, at p. 117-118

[10] Moshe J. Bernstein, “The Bible as Literature: The Literary Guide to the Bible: Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds.,” Tradition 31, 2 (1997): 67-82, at p. 76-78

[11] Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Criticism and Kitvei ha-Kodesh,” in Rav Shalom Banayikh: Essays Presented to Rabbi Shalom Carmy by Friends and Students in Celebration of Forty Years of Teaching, ed. by Hayyim Angel and Yitzchak Blau (Jersey City, New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, inc., 2012) p. 15-32. I cite this source with the hope that I am not violating the authors’ wishes that all citations of his essay are done “in the spirit with which it was written” (p. 31). This is not to say, of course, that just because there are potential benefits in applying literary studies to biblical texts everyone must appreciate the endeavor to the same extent. As R. Lichtenstein has put it elsewhere, some works that employ critical methods may simply not be “every ben Torah’s cup of tea.” However, the endeavor itself should not be discounted prima facie. Cf. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Foreword,” in Nathaniel Helfgot, Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and its Interpretaion (Jerusalem ; New Milford, CT : Maggid Books, 2012), p. ix-xiii.

[12] “Poetics” simply refers to the “systematic working or study of literature as such.” Meir Sternberg The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 2

[13] Sternberg, p. 225

[14] This is similar in practice to Wolfgang Iser’s theory of indeterminate meaning as presented in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response

[15] Sternberg’s theory is presented at length in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative p. 186-229. To be sure, Sternberg does not agree with Auerbach on the whole (see, for example, p. 232), but their theories seem to go hand in hand in that they agree that much is left unsaid in biblical narrative.

[16] This analysis of the structure of Chapter 38 was largely inspired by R. Elchanan Samet “Yehudah and Tamar; A Story Within a Story?” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at:, specifically section G.

[17] All translations are taken from the JPS 1917 edition.

[18] Indeed, in the complete scope of Biblical literature, this is the establishment of something even greater than Yehudah’s line, it is the foundation of the line of King David

[19] It is true that verse 11 states that Yehudah was worried for Shelah, “Lest he die like his brothers.” However, as this analysis is attempting to show, this statement can be understood in multiple ways.

[20] Ramban to Gen. 38:11, s.v. Ki Amar, translation mine. The Ramban had different reasons for utilizing this interpretation, however I believe the reading is still viable in the context of our current discussion.

[21] This is the understanding of both Rashi to 38:11 s.v. Ki Amar Pen Yamut and Bechor Shor ad loc. s.v. Ki Amar Pen Yamut

[22] It seems unlikely that if Tamar was not aware that God killed Er and Onan she would have suspected that Yehudah thought that, as she would most likely have adopted that position herself, since it would better than the alternative, choosing to blame herself. However, this leads to the possibility that Tamar did think that she was to blame for the deaths of her husband, a belief which must have been quite disturbing, yet the text does not discuss her own view on the matter, an issue which will be discussed in the next paragraph.

[23] This analysis is heavily influenced by Esther Marie Menn, Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) in Ancient Jewish Exegesis: Studies in Literary Form and Hermeneutics (Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997), 28-35

[24] Due to the unclear nature of this admission, it has not been translated in this article. While the JPS translation renders the phrase as “She is more righteous than I,” I am hesitant to adopt this understanding for reasons that will be explained in the course of this article.

[25] Translation taken from Esther Marie Menn, Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) in Ancient Jewish Exegesis: Studies in Literary Form and Hermeneutics (Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997), p. 219

[26] This follows both the first interpretation of Rashi to 38:26 s.v. Tsadekah and Mimeni and the comments of Bechor Shor ad loc. s.v. Tsadekah Mimeni

[27] An issue dealt with by both Seforno to 38:26 s.v. Tsadekah Mimeni and Bechor Shor ad loc. s.v. Tsadekah Mimeni. It is also possible that the first interpretation in Rashi ad loc. s.v. Tsadekah and Mimeni is sensitive to this issue.

[28] A heavenly voice playing into Tamar’s vindication is also a feature of Gen. Rabbah 85:12, and also appears in Makot 23b

[29] Robert Alter “Introduction to the Old Testament” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 23