The Family Leibovitz: Sex, Lies and Levirates

The Family Leibovitz: Sex, Lies and Levirates
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 60/48
Year: 2006

This painting tells the story of Judah’s family including his wife, Bat-Shua, and their three children, Er, Onan and Sheyla, and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, the heroine of this story, and her and Judah’s twin children. Leib/Loeb in Yiddish/German means Lion i.e. tribal totem of Judah. The slavic name suffix “vitz” (likewise, witz, vitch, vics, vich) means “son of”, hence Leibovitz family.

This is a zesty oriental tale about court intrigues, sexual desire, morals, obligations, treachery and deceit. It’s also about power plays, attempted and successful homicides, and royal battles over rightful and wrongful successions. This story is very similar in many ways to the life story of Judah’s descendant, King David, his wife Bat-Sheva, and his prominent children Tamar, Shlomo (Solomon), Avshalom, Amnon and Adonyahu. The names of Judah’s (Yehuda, in Hebrew) future descendants are slightly different, yet it as though someone took the Judah story, rearranged the characters and their names a little, refracted them all through a Lewis Carroll looking glass, reflected them back onto a canvas, and then unveiled the King David story. Hence this painting illustrates the fused tales of Judah and his descendants at least seven generations into the future. The past foreshadows the future, and the future mirrors the past. Like stars in the night time sky, past and future are illuminated in this painting, flashing and glittering simultaneously in the eternal expanse of the present. This will be outlined below.

The Torah, in the midst of one of its longest narratives concerning Joseph and his Egyptian sojourn, suddenly shifts midstream to tell the tale of Judah’s family life which must have taken place over a period of at least twenty to thirty years. The narrative then abruptly shifts back to the Joseph story. Whether all these events took place simultaneous to, or prior to the preceding and/or remainder of the Joseph narrative is unclear.

The Judah family narrative begins with him taking a Canaanite wife, the daughter (“Bat” in Hebrew) of Shua, hence, Bat- Shua. He has three children with her, chronologically, Er, Onan and Sheyla.

When his first born son, Er, reaches marriageable age, Judah arranges a union for him with a woman by the name of Tamar. Because Er is evil, God kills him, leaving Tamar a childless widow. In this painting, Judah and all his children are illustrated as lions, their tribal totem. The lion is also symbolic of royalty. It is from Judah’s lion’s loins that ultimately King David springs forth (literally in this painting, more on that later). The lion at the bottom middle of the painting surrounded by ants is Er. He is ashen, grey, and dead. He is sinking into the sand, partially buried, symbolizing descent into death. He has three sextets of puncture sites that are bleeding, inflicted by the bites of three, six legged desert fire ants (18 legs- the anti-chai) a possible guess as to the mechanism of heavenly ordained death .Death by creepy crawly things is one of the multiple punishments meted out by God in the last chapter of Deuteronomy, if one does not obey him. Written beneath Er and above the ants are the words in Hebrew “And God killed him”.

His name in Hebrew, ER (Hebrew letters Eyin/Reysh), when spelled backwards spells RE (Reysh/Eyin), pronounced RA which means “evil”. Throughout his body I have spelled his name forward and backwards, repeatedly, swimming around like alphabet soup, emphasizing that the etiology of his name refers to his evil character (RA). The specifics of his evil acts are not detailed in the Torah, but one can speculate that he may have rebelled against Judah (and of course God) if we compare him to his future homologous behavioral descendant, Adonyahu (to be discussed later).The name Er is also etymologically related to the first Hittite husband of Bat-Sheva, Uriah (EuRiah) .In the painting, Uriah’s Hebrew name is written on Er’s torso underneath his beard. EuRiah like Er was killed (indirectly) by God (to be discussed below).

Because Tamar is a widow, and childless, under tribal levirate law, the relative, usually a brother or even a father, of the deceased husband, must marry and cohabit with his widowed in-law, so that his relative’s family name can live on. Hence, Judah tells his second eldest son, Onan to marry Tamar. Onan fulfills this obligation, but can not stand the thought that any child he conceives with Tamar will technically belong to his deceased brother and will carry his brother’s, not his own name. Hence every time he engages her, he withdraws and spills his seed on the ground, guaranteeing that he will not propagate his brother’s name, and hence abrogates his levirate duty.

In this painting, Onan is the grey ashen lion hugging Tamar’s leg, attempting to stay above ground, to no avail, as he is descends unto death, being killed by God, because of his sin of Levirate abrogation. He is drowning in a pool of his own seminal secretions (God has an amazing sense of irony) which piles up after repeatedly spilling it on the ground rather than instilling it in its properly destined location. Swimming circularly in the pool of secretions, going nowhere in particular, are his sperm with whiskers, denoting Lion spermatozoa.

Written on Onan’s body in Hebrew are several words which are the etymological roots of his name. What does Onan (ANYN) mean? At its root are the letters “AYN”, meaning “nothing”. His existence and his acts of anti-conception (birth control) lead not to procreation, and hence he is ONAN, he will not reproduce and hence may as well never have existed, he is “nothing”. Also related to the word Onan is “Aynenu”, “he is not here”. Another related word is “L’AN”, “where to?” Written on his body are the words “L’AN halach Onan?” “Where did Onan go?” If you add the Hebrew letter “mem” (M) to Onan’s name, you get “AmNON”, another son of David’s, who raped his half- sister, Tamar (yet another Tamar) and whose relationship did not end in marriage and/or conception i.e. it ended in nothingness (more on that generation later).

Judah now looks at Tamar as a black widow, whose very act of marriage to any of his son’s, and probably to anybody, leads to death. He has only one son left, Sheyla, and he really does not want to see him die, which Judah believes will surely happen, if Tamar marries him. Judah does not want to make it seem that he is party to abrogating the Levirate law, so he tells Tamar to go back to her family, not to worry, and when Sheyla grows to marriageable age, he will marry her.

When Sheyla grows up, the promise is conveniently and deceitfully forgotten, and the Levirate law pushed aside. In this painting Sheyla is the Lion on the far right hiding behind Judah’s back tiptoeing away, making sure he doesn’t land up with the black widow, running off with an unknown girl, someone other than Tamar. The Torah does not mention this, however it can be deduced from Chronicles (Divrei Hayamim) which mentions Sheyla’s many descendants, from whence the royal Davidic line did not descend.

Judah’s wife, Bat-Shua, now dies, and to comfort himself, he goes to the city of TiMnA (sounds a lot like TaMAr) to sheer his sheep. Tamar, the childless widow, knows that unless she takes destiny into her own hands, she will be both husbandless and childless. Thus when she hears where David is going, she goes to the city’s gate, takes off her widow’s garments and puts on a veil dressing herself up as a prostitute /kadeisha. She is seen in this painting with long red fiery hair and a purple veil. She is referred to in the narrative as both “zona-whore” and “kedeisha –holy temple prostitute”. A “Kedeisha”in many ancient tribal near and Middle Eastern religions is one who dedicates herself to sex for religious ritualistic purposes, i.e. “Holy one”.

Because Tamar’s face is covered, and her body uncovered, Judah does not recognize her. When he sees her, he pleads to come into her, and then the compensatory negotiations begin. “And what will you pay to come into me?” questions Tamar. “I will give you a “gdee eezim” (a male goat) from my flock”. And she says, “Will you give me a pledge until you send it?” “What pledge do you want?” he asks. And she said, “Your signet, your cord and your staff that is in your hand”. “And he gave these to her, he came into her, and she conceived”.

Tamar, the star of this painting is shown standing at the opening (gate) of the city referred to as “Petach eynyim”, “the opening of eyes”. The opening in this painting is illustrated with many eyes. Clearly the walls and gates have eyes and are witness to the transaction, and to all history, even though there are no other human witnesses. She is seen with her veil covering her face. Written vertically on her chest are her two appellations “Zona” and “Kedeisha”. They are joined horizontally by the letter “H”, which both names have in common. When both words are thus read together in unison, in Hebrew, from right to left, Zona is read downwards, and Kedeisha is read upwards, i.e. backwards, reading HaZedake. The combined words thus read “Zona HaZedake”, “The Righteous Prostitute”, which she was, a sort of Kedeisha.

When Judah sends a goat the following day, to pay for her services, the prostitute is no where to be found. When townspeople are asked by Judah’s emissaries “where is that prostitute by the city’s gates? No one knows or has heard of such an individual.

Three months later it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant. It is surmised by all that she is pregnant by Harlotry. Judah demands justice, and orders her to be brought forth, and burned to death. When she is brought before Judah, she proclaims, “By the man who these are, I am with child”. And she held up his staff and signet and cord, and said, “Do you recognize who this staff, signet and cord belong to?” Judah instantly recognizes his objects and says “she is more righteous than I! I did not give her Sheyla”.

In this painting Judah is sitting on his throne in his royal garb waving a torch threatening to burn Tamar. Several sparks have already flown down to the logs, upon which she is standing, ready to ignite. She is shown raising her right arm brandishing his royal staff which is blue just like his clothing. Her left hand extended to Judah is adorned with his signet on her finger, with his face on the stamp. Her fingers are dangling his blue cord. Judah is petting the male kid which returned to him, after the prostitute could not be found, the payment he never provided (symbolic of yet another promise to Tamar which is not kept). The goat’s coat of wool in the painting is yellow and black, similar hair color to Judah’s, another identification of his guilt. At the bottom of the painting is a predominantly blue flock of sheep, blue like Judah’s woolen clothing; the sheep that he was on the way to shear prior to his seduction by Tamar. Behind Judah, in the painting are the Judean highlands. Between Tamar and Judah is a palm tree which represents the growing fertile seed which was planted by “Tamar”, which means “Palm tree”, as well as other meanings (to be discussed below). This reminds one of the aphorism in Psalms “Tzaddick kaTamar yifrach”, “the righteous individual blossoms like a palm tree”, which may be an allusion to Tamar.

Tamar then gives birth to twin boys. The first boy sticks his hand out, and a red ribbon is tied around his hand to connote first born status. This is illustrated in this painting, on the intrauterine cub’s right wrist. However, this twin’s arm is quickly retracted, and the other twin cub jumps over his brother, and out the womb. Because this younger cub jumps out he is called Peretz (jump), and thus achieves true first-born status. The other cub is called Zerach (shine, as in, sunshine).The sun is shining upon him in this painting in Tamar’s womb. Peretz is seen jumping out like a circus trapeze artist over his brother Zerach. He reaches for and grabs on to Judah’s cord which says “Malkut (monarchy”). One can imagine him using the cord as a trapeze to summersault straight into Judah’s lap on the throne. This is symbolic of his line assuming royal leadership six to seven generations later via David.

In this painting, one can see that the battle for royal succession begins in Tamar’s womb, just like it had in Rachel’s womb for Jacob and Esau. It was Zerach who was destined to be the first born. But Peretz, like his mother Tamar, and his warrior father Judah, took destiny in his own hands and with daring and might burst forth from the birth canal to claim the first born status. Zerach does not take this sitting down. You can see him trying to hold Peretz back as he is jumping over him, but Peretz manages to break free, along with the requisite scratches and scars of battle. The bloody battle is also symbolized by the post partum bleeding with blood running down from Tamar’s birth canal symbolizing not only the painful bloody trauma of child birth, but also a harbinger of the never ending bloody succession battles of the future.

In the painting, the palm tree, symbolically planted by Tamar, between Tamar and Judah, is growing deep roots which are sprouting underneath Judah’s throne, with checkered stairs. The bright green root sap nourishes the kingship of Judah and his future descendants whose existences are only realized by Tamar’s gutsy actions. The palm tree roots, symbolic of Tamar’s strength and influence, are growing arms physically and spiritually elevating Judah’s throne heavenward off the ground. Likewise Judah’s family line and his descendants are granted protection by the Tamar palm leaves hovering above. It is ultimately only Tamar, who risked all, to save the royal line, and according to some traditional interpretations, the Messianic line, despite all the obstacles placed before her by Judah and his sons. Written on the bottom of Judah’s checkered stairs are cross- words of the name Judah, David, and Adonyahu, cross-connecting family and time lines between Judah and David. Also written on the stairs is the Tetragramatton (the ultimate director of history) which is spelled like Yehuda, minus the Hebrew letter “daled”.

There are two other definitions of the name “Tamar”. Tamar also means a billow of smoke, usually sacrificial. She was certainly almost ignited, and almost became a billow of smoke. She is portrayed in this painting with fiery red hair, symbolizing both her fierceness and resolve. She is also spiritually and almost physically hot as fire until she is saved by revealing Judah’s utter hypocrisy, which subsequently douses her flames.

On Tamar’s knees are written the separate words “Tam” and “Mar” which is a linguistic bisection of her name providing yet another definition of Tamar. The Hebrew word “Tam” means pure. Her motives were pure and her desire was to fulfill the Levirate laws, and have children. The Hebrew word “Mar” means bitter. She was bitter at having lost two husbands, at being betrayed by Judah and Sheyla, not having children, having to resort to trickery and being accused of harlotry. Hence her name Tamar is a combination of purity and bitterness. All three meanings of her name- palm tree, billow of smoke, pure and bitter- are portrayed in this painting.

Written on Sheyla’s arm, behind Judah, are alliterations of multiple variations of his name, with the root letters SHL. From right to left, the top line reads in Hebrew, “Shelly” (SHLy) which in Hebrew means “mine”. “Shelly” then gets transformed into “SHeyla” (Hers). He really was hers (Tamar’s). By Levirate law he belonged to her. If you then take “Sheyla” (SHLA) and add the Hebrew letter “mem” (M) you get derivations of two children of David, “Shlomo” (SHLm) and “Avshalom” (avSLm). Written on the bottom line of Sheyla’s arm is a portion of Jacob’s blessing to Judah prophesizing that Judah would hold the crook and staff of royalty “until Shiloh (ShYLH) comes”. For some reason the word “Shiloh” has been deemed mysterious, referring either to the town of Shiloh or to some mystical Messianic name. It is quite obvious that it refers to a name derived from Sheyla, with the root SHYL, and probably refers to Solomon (SHLomo,i.e. SHiLo with a “mem”) after whose reign the monarchy splits, leading to the beginning of the end of Judean royalty after which it limps along until it finally ceases.

Let us now fast forward to David’s life story pointing out parallelisms with his ancestor’s, Judah’s life, with respect to names and plot lines.

David has multiple wives and many children. But it is another man’s wife, Uriah (etymologically-phonetically related to Er, EuRiah) the Hittite, whom he truly desires. Her name is Bat-Sheva, who may or may not be, a Hittite herself. Judah’s wife, analogously, is a Canaanite, another related pre-Israelite tribe. Her name is Bat -Shua. If we use the same Hebrew characters and pronounce it differently, her name can easily be transformed into Bat- Sheva. These names are written on the ashen dying descending Bat-Shua, Judah’s wife, on the bottom of the painting. Again this represents her in the act of dying, preceding Judah’s dalliance with Tamar.

David sends Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed, and then claims Bat-Sheva as his own, after he had adulterously violated her. Just like Er, EuRiah, is killed (indirectly) by God, but unjustly. For directing this, Nathan the prophet rebukes David with a tale about how a rich man with a huge flock of sheep, steals the single sheep of a poor man. Note the homologous sheep flock feature of both David’s and Judah’s plot lines, and how prostitution payment for Tamar’s services is one male sheep (As though Judah is attempting to repay David’s future debt in the past, with a single sheep, which represents Bat-Sheva). Homologously, Avshalom, gets revenge on Amnon for violating his sister Tamar by killing him at a sheep shearing ceremony to which he invited him to. Thus the sheep at the bottom of the painting are not only Judah’s sheep, they are also David’s parable sheep; they are also the sheep that witness the murder of Amnon at the hands of Avsholom.

The union between Bat-Sheva and David leads to Solomon who is the successor to the throne over his older brothers Amnon, Avsholom and Adonyahu. It was up to Bat-Sheva to take destiny in her own hands (like Tamar) and insist that Solomon be anointed. Just like David took destiny in his hands and took another man’s wife (although this is probably not what he was thinking at the time).

David has a son called Amnon, and a daughter called Tamar, both from different wives; hence Amnon and Tamar are half-siblings. Amnon feigns illness to trap Tamar and rape her. He then refuses to marry her, which would fulfill his obligation, and partially abnegate the rape, upon Tamar’s request (sound familiar?). Tamar’s full-brother Avshalom avenges Tamar and kills Amnon. Hence just like in the story of Onan and Tamar, which leads to lack of offspring and royal succession, the relationship between this Amnon (Onan with a “mem” with this neo Tamar also leads to nothing; no children and the death of Amnon/Onan.

The name “AvSHoLom” is another linguistic variation of “SHeyLa”. Subsequently Avshalom rebels against his father David, and in an attempt to usurp the throne is killed when his hair gets caught in a tree (a Tamar palm tree?). Likewise, Sheyla, Judah’s son, who is the rightful heir of Judah, although he doesn’t die, does not land up succeeding Judah, because he did not obey the Levirate laws. Based on the Book of Chronicles, he had many descendants, but they did not lead to the Davidic line.

The name “Shlomo”, (SHLomo) the successor to David, “is also linguistically derived from “SHeyLa”. I believe Judah’s first born son Er /Rah (EVIL) is homologous in personality and character, though not linguistically to Adonyahu who with EVIL intention planned to usurp the kingship from David and Solomon. In the end, just like Er, Adonyahu was killed by God. Thus David like Judah starts out with multiple sons (four prominent sons instead of Judah’s three), and is left with only one living son (SHLomo/SHeyLa). Just like Judah, David has a relative called Tamar (his daughter, not his daughter-in-law), who is terribly wronged, and is treated like a prostitute.

Peretz and Zerach, the twins of Judah and Tamar, also symbolize the future power struggle between Shlomo and Adonyahu, between Avshalom and Amnon, between Avshalom and David, between Adonyahu and David, between Jacob and Esau, Between Ishmael and Isaac, and between Cain and Abel long before them.

Thus this painting concerning the family Judah mirrors the future Davidic line, portraying the same stories which recur and play out with minor differences. But the major leitmotif recapitulated endlessly in both stories is that one’s destiny is in one’s own hands, and that there is no law which can dictate fate. Tamar could have been a weeping widow willow, and never had children, and never have derived King David. She did not accept fate. She relied on trickery and seduction, and justified the means by the ends. Bat- Sheva could have accepted fate and let Adonyahu reign. She did not; she went to David’s death bed and changed history. Peretz jumped over Zerach, Jacob the second born conspired and got first born status. Ultimately this is the message of the Bible. There is no such thing as destiny or fate other than that which one makes for one self. What happens in the end is always what God wants.

The background of the painting gives the impression that the wind is blowing dispersing Tamar’s hair, blowing the palm trees and the clouds. The purple sun, clouds and water are conspiring with Tamar’s purple veil to alter history. The pebbles on the ground seem to be jumping with the strong wind, all symbolic of something above and beyond simple humanity which is hard at work. All the while the eyes of the world are watching and witnessing just like Moses and all the prophets proclaim, “Let the heavens hear and the earth bear witness”.

Homologous past –future name summary: 1) YEHU DA – DA Vid - adon YEHU - YEHo Va 2)Tamar- Tamar- TiMnAR, 3) SHeyLa – SHiLo – SHLomo –avSHoLom, 4) O NAN - Om NAN, 5 ) Judah’s BAT-SHuA- David’s BAT- SHevA , 6) ER - EuR iah, 7) Judah SHEEP SHEERING- Amnon/Avshalom SHEEP SHEERING festival, 6) SINGLE SHEEP –Judah’s prostitution restitution - SINGLE SHEEP -David’s moral parable theft which requires moral restitution.