The Wages of Sin are Death, we well know, and of the Cardinal sort, Lust (Lechery, Fornication: take your pick) will always come high, if not highest on the list. For, bad enough taken on its own, in combination it colours each of the other six. As for the dark deed itself, it is, as old Sir Thomas Browne, himself a medical man, once said, ‘the foolishest act a wise commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his cool’d imagination, when hee shall consider what an odde and unworthy piece of folly hee hath committed.’ Which altogether seems to rule well out of order that natural imperative which, unanswered, would leave none of us here at all. Very puzzling and confusing it is.
Let us take, for example, the story of Tamar and Judah, with which all readers of the Erotic Review will be familiar from their regular study of the Good Book (Genesis 38: 1-26). Now Judah, the son of Jacob, had married Shuah, the sister of his old friend, Hirah the Adullamite, and by her had had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah, in that order. And it came to pass, as they said in those days, that Judah married Er off to a young woman called Tamar. But Er, unfortunately, ‘was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.’
So Judah told Onan it was now his turn to marry Tamar, and so secure the family line down to the House of David, as spake by the prophets. But again there were problems, for Onan proved uncooperative, which seems a little odd to us nowadays on two counts: 1) Tamar was, as we shall see, a highly personable and desirable creature; 2) Onan had got into his head the idea that any heir he might beget would still not count as by his seed, but by his elder brother’s (no, I can’t work it out either). The upshot, or rather the down-shot, was that ‘when he went in unto his brother’s wife’ he came out again, and ‘spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother’, thereby also acquiring a lasting if possibly undeserved notoriety for solitary diversion. But it did Onan no good, for ‘the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.’
Which left not only the Lord displeased, but Judah also, and poor Tamar bitterly frustrated, for she was now packed off to her own father’s house to wait until Shelah, the youngest brother, was old enough to have his go with her. But now the plot thickens, for she was not given unto Shelah after all, and, Judah’s wife having died in the meantime, she therefore decided the time had come to take matters into her own hands. Hearing that Judah was about to go up unto his sheep-shearers at Timnath, along with his old friend Hirah the Adullamite, to keep an eye on things, ‘She put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail … and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath’.
The ambush worked: ‘And when Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.’ Well, from what I can see, there was a bit more to it than that, quite a bit more in fact, to draw him on, but we’ll let that pass for the moment. Anyway, ‘he turned unto her by the way, and said’ (with his usual subtlety and tact), ‘Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee. And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she’, wise girl, ‘said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand.’
It is thus in mid-transaction, at just that moment of negotiation rather than consummation, that Horace Vernet has chosen to offer us his moral narrative, painted in 1840 and now in the Wallace Collection. There the pair are together among the mountains on the way to Timnath. The camel parked behind them, turning its gaze discreetly away as only a camel can, acts as a screen that gives them at least a modicum of privacy. Tamar sits on a handy wayside rock, her back only half-turned upon her swarthy importunist, who, leaning confidentially towards her in his heavy striped-blanket of a cloak, seems rather overdressed for the occasion – most certainly so compared to her. Yet oh how modest she is, as she raises a hand to draw her long white scarf across her face, leaving but a fetching glimpse of jet-black hair and so-seductive eyes.
In view of what is to come, we do rather wonder quite how long she will manage to keep it there, and the deception going. But, that said, there is much else to distract him in the ripe fullness of her figure, of which little is left to be imagined beneath the loose folds of her flowing white robe. There is plenty of soft, pale, youthful flesh to consider too, and the eye to linger on – the long extended leg bare to the upper thigh; and the farther shoulder from which the robe has already fallen clear. Beneath it, and more enticing still, is one firm, pert young breast, with its clearly delicious nipple, now laid all open to the sky, and delicately cushioned upwards by the fall of cloth upon her forearm.
There is no fool like an old fool, and Tamar knows full well what she is up to, as her hand coolly reaches out to accept his pledge of beads, ring and staff. As for the fond bearded patriarch, the thought that this might be his daughter-in-law is clearly the last thing he has in mind. You know how it is, bumping into someone unexpectedly, out of context. It’s happened to all of us. He gives her his signet, his bracelets and the staff that is in his hand, and so ‘came in unto her, and she conceived by him.’ In short it was, I suppose, what we would call these days a ‘win-win’ situation.
Judah of course tried to have the best of it, first by sending loyal old Hirah back with the promised kid in order to retrieve his bits and pieces, so that he could then forget the whole thing. Hirah ‘asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.’ Tamar of course was safe at home by then, and in her widow’s weeds once more. But a pregnancy has a way of declaring itself, ‘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.’
‘Hang on a moment’, was Tamar’s not unnatural reaction. Out came the evidence. ‘By the man whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these.’ The which, having beheld, Judah acknowledged and then, rather remarkably, blamed himself for the whole imbroglio, saying ‘she hath been more righteous than I, because that I gave her not to Shelah, my son.’
Which seems to me not so much to miss, as rather to evade every point there is. More righteous indeed. On the one hand there is the small matter of Judah’s lusting after one whom he took to be an harlot, and on whom he immediately relieved his base desires, as to think no more of it: on the other is Tamar’s quite brazen opportunism in playing of the harlot with her own father-in-law, in order to fulfil her own carnal desire to bear a child (in fact she had twins). And where does all this leave us? None the wiser, I would say, nor our morals the least bit improved.
Picture above: Horace Vernet, Tamar and Judah, Wallace Collection.