Week 10: Tamar and the Amazing Red Thread; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Part 1


Genesis 37–45 (Tamar and Judah; the Story of Joseph, part 1)


  • What’s up with the stories of the patriarchs making them seem like total assholes? (Cough, cough, first Jacob, then Simeon and Levi, now Judah and his sons)
  • Are dreams a way of communicating with the divine? How much can we trust knowledge gained in dreams, or interpretations thereof?

In the homestretch of Genesis, we first read about Tamar’s deception of her father-in-law Judah in order to become pregnant, and then are plunged right back into the Joseph narrative—as Joseph is enslaved, then becomes a renowned interpreter of dreams in Egypt. We discuss: What does it mean to have agency? Is it morally wrong to lie when you have no other way of asserting your agency? Can dreams—or their interpreters—be trusted?

Miscellaneous notes from Lucifer on the story of Judah and Tamar:

  • Tamar’s disguise as a qedeshah may be the first time sex work is explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Qedeshah is translated variously as “shrine-prostitute,” “sacred prostitute,” “temple prostitute,” or simply “whore.”
  • What does it mean that Jesus ends up being descended from Judah, not from golden-boy Joseph?
    • The red thread that delineates Perez as the “true elder son” (Gen. 38:28) makes a parallel with other biblical twins/brothers so far, where the younger has been favored over the elder(s): Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Jacob and Joseph…
    • This could be one reason that the red thread story is inserted into the Joseph narrative: it’s a way of linking the ancestor of the kings of Judah (i.e., Perez) to the longer tradition of the younger son that supplants the elder.
  • Why is Judah embarrassed? Is it because he’s slept with a sex worker, or because he’s made a foolish business transaction? Mephistopheles points out that the staff and cord were the equivalent of Judah’s driver’s license and passport, which he presumes lost.

We got into a bit of an argument about whether Joseph’s dream interpretations could be trusted.

  • Mephistopheles holds that Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams isn’t that impressive; he’s worked in the court, and probably knows when Pharaoh’s birthday is (Gen. 40:20). Maybe he’s just making all of this up. After all, we don’t have hard evidence that it’s actually God behind his words.
  • Raphael points out that it does establish a nice parallel: the closer one is to God, the better/more reliable one’s dream interpretation will be. (This squares with what Alter points out in his notes to Genesis 40: that Joseph, unlike the traditional poter or Egyptian dream interpreters, has no formal training.)
  • Gabriel does emerge as the self-styled “defender of dreams.” If someone cultivates a positive relationship with their subconscious, who is to say that their interpretations are “false”? They might just have more confidence in parts of their minds that are not usually available.
  • A point of contention is the word that Alter uses: solutions to dreams, rather than interpretations. Are dreams basically messages in code, available with the right Enigma machine? Or are they more like texts (or the Bible itself), with multiple, overlapping, fluid, equally valid meanings?

We also spent some time discussing the morality of deception, and whether deception/moral evil can be part of God’s Plan.

  • Lucifer questions whether Simeon and Levi are almost serpent-figures in this story (as Gabriel puts it: “Judas vibes”). If the Israelites have to get to Egypt to be saved from the Canaanite famine, maybe…Simeon and Levi were working as part of God’s Plan?
  • Uriel takes issue with this. Doesn’t it have to do with how much knowledge they had? Simeon and Levi are just being jerks; Judas at least knew that Jesus was the Son of God…
  • Raphael wonders how we figure the many instances of trickery/deception that have permeated the Bible so far. Is it, as Lucifer muses, a linkage with a God-figure, that we also have a trickster-figure? Can God lie?
  • Belial brings up the important point that lying is seen as bad, in Kantian ethics, because it deprives people of agency. If a person’s agency is already compromised—if the person is a woman with no rights, as is Tamar, or enslaved, as is Joseph—do that person’s lies carry the same moral valence? i.e., What if the grounds for deception’s “wrongness” have already been violated?


Deception has been a central theme in many biblical stories so far. But how much is deception the tool of the oppressed? and how much is it a way of wielding linguistic prowess in a world where one is (physically) oppressed?

Gems from the Chat

would luv it if i were doing my PhD in dream interpretation


pharisee versus laypreacher vibe


Last tirade on dreams: I guess I’m more impressed by the first interpretation. I suppose that the first dream “solution” is remarkable in its specificity and that it can’t be self fulfilling; whereas the Pharos dream was so broad (like, who knows what will happen in seven years) and also seems v self fulfilling in that if you spend 7 years harvesting the land in anticipation of a famine it’s likely not to be so good for the soil and in some ways could be set fulfilling.


valar morghulis


Image source: “Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream” (19th century, Iran). Courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, UC Berkeley, Flickr.

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