The Story of Yehuda and Tamar ? Three Structures and Three Readings

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman






By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


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עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #24:

The Story of Yehuda and Tamar —

Three Structures and Three Readings



To conclude our analysis of the structural questions of biblical narrative, I would like to focus on one story that is clearly demarcated and to analyze the contributions of narrative structure to understanding the hidden clues within it. We will diagram the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Bereishit 38) according to the three types of structures that we have delineated: plot structure, deep structure, and artistic structure.




The basic plot structure of the story of Yehuda and Tamar relies on the well-known five-act dramatic structure:[1]


1-10: Introduction (Exposition): This exposition is a dynamic one, eventful and full of movement. Yehuda marries a woman and has three sons, Yehuda’s firstborn marries Tamar and dies, and then his brother does the same. The exposition is characterized by great tragedy, and from the start of the narrative, one can already hear the verse’s discomfort with the ostensible protagonist: “And Yehuda went down from among his brothers… And Yehuda saw there the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua, and he took her” (1-2). Yehuda’s yerida (descent) and marriage to “the daughter of a Canaanite man” raise negative associations, and at the outset of the chapter, the reader already feels a subtle criticism of Yehuda as the verse’s subtext.


11: Rising Action (Complication): Yehuda is concerned about giving his young son to Tamar, and therefore Tamar must return to her father’s house. At this stage of the story, the reader cannot decide whether the main complication is Tamar’s isolation, yielding a story about interpersonal relations, or Tamar’s inability to have children, yielding a story that examines the question of progeny and continuity.


12-23: Climax (Turning Point): The narrative reaches its dramatic peak when Tamar takes her fate into her own hands without Yehuda’s knowledge. She hides her face and takes on a harlot’s identity, ultimately succeeding in becoming pregnant from a male in the family, as prevailing cultural norms demand.[2] At this stage, the reader understands that the basic tension of the narrative is tied to the question of posterity and legacy, and not the question of Tamar’s seclusion, as her loneliness does not reach any turning point at this stage of the narrative. (In fact, as we will prove below, this isolation is not resolved even at the end of the story.)


24-26: Falling Action (Solution): At this stage of the story, Yehuda gives Tamar an official pardon (“She is more righteous than I”) and saves her and her unborn children. The reader thus feels that the complication has been resolved; there will now be a future for Tamar, as well as the family of Yehuda. Here, the verse itself stresses that it is not Tamar’s isolation that lies at the crux of the conflict when it states, “And he did not continue to know her” (26). The simple meaning accords with the interpretation of the Ramban and the Rashbam that Yehuda did not have further sexual relations with her (rather than the alternative translation “And he did not cease”). In other words, Tamar remains in her isolation, but the complication of the story has been dealt with because she now has progeny; she is holding twins in her arms.


27-30: Conclusion (Relief): The birth of Tamar’s twins constitutes the realization of the resolution — she has two sons who will carry on the family name together. Scripture grants a respite of tranquility; the verse no longer presents the action of the main characters in the story (but rather “the midwife”). Furthermore, Tamar’s labor is introduced with a chronological clause: “And it was at the time that she gave birth.” Even the naming of the children gives us no insight into the psyches of the characters (as is done, for example, when Yaakov’s wives give birth). Instead, we find an anonymous name-giver: “And he named him Peretz… And he named him Zerach” (29-30). The reader thus feels that the essence of the story is already behind him, and we are now talking about a general, joyful conclusion. 


According to this structure, it turns out that the problem fleshed out in this story is the question of Tamar’s legacy (and possibly Yehuda’s as well). It is remarkable that the solution of this problem in the narrative comes about because of the unique resourcefulness of Tamar and her willingness to endanger herself and her good name for the sake of progeny and posterity. Note that at the conclusion of the story (the birth of Peretz and Zerach), there is no mention of Yehuda, which strengthens the assumption that the narrative is focused on Tamar —the widowhood and childlessness that are forced upon her in the beginning and the fertility that she merits at the end. 


The meaning of the story according to this reading is tied to the responsibility that each person has for his or her future. Tamar is presented as the paradigm of proactivity, taking her life in her own hands and refusing to continue to sit as a widow in her father’s house. (This is the turning point of the narrative!) This action moves Tamar beyond the misery that has filled her life and affects salvation.


I assume that many of the readers of the story would have defined the theme in a similar way without availing themselves of the five-act structure. Indeed, as happens quite often, the value of tracing these five stages lies more in the very organization of the story than the allusion to hidden readings of the narrative that, were it not for the structure, would have been hidden from the reader. 




Beyond the representation of the narrative structure according to its stages, it seems that one can arrange the story according to the internal tensions that characterize it. At first glance, it appears that the story describes the tension between life (birth) and death.  In the narrative, there are seven main character mentioned (plus the midwife at the end of the story, and Peretz and Zerach, who are born there), and in the process of the story three of them die (Er, Onan, Bat Shua) and a fourth is almost executed (Tamar). In other words, half of the characters mentioned in the narrative die.  Alongside the pervasive death in the narrative, there is also an emphasis on birth — the readers learns of five births in this short story (Er, Onan, Shela, Peretz, and Zerach), and it is logical that the very abundance of death and birth in the story alludes to the question at its depth — life vs. death. 


This point is alluded to in the name of Onan. The simple exegesis of his name, as the Abarbanel notes, is that it expresses the hope for sustainable seed, from the term “on” meaning vigor — as in “My power and the first of my vigor” (Bereishit 49:3). However, in the continuation of the story, with his death, the reader reinterprets his name to mean mourning, similar to the name that Rachel gives to her son born at the time of her death, “Ben Oni”, “son of my sorrow” (Bereishit 35:18).[3] Indeed, the story before us moves along the axis of human existence, from vitality to bereavement.[4]


However, it appears that one may also present the story as organized around another tension, which is connected to the tension between life and death but is separated from it in other contexts. This is the question of honesty and dishonesty in the contexts of progeny and posterity. Who reveals his or her true face and when? How can a person realize his or her identity, and how can that person continue to exist?  These questions are tied to questions of birth and survival because in the Scriptural worldview people’s descendants are their direct continuation. In the story before us, questions of identity and secrecy, of deceit and honesty, are particularly prominent, and they move the plot along from one scene to the next.


The deceit and the secrecy appear in the narrative in different pairs:


1.            Onan is not prepared to perform yibbum (levirate marriage) with Tamar because he knows “that the seed would not be his.” He does not say this explicitly to his father Yehuda, but rather hides his perversity: “And Onan knew that the seed would not be his, and it was when he would come to his brother’s wife, he would destroy it to the ground, so as to not give seed to his brother” (9). Beyond Onan’s misleading Yehuda, the verse stresses that this deceit is between brother and brother — between Onan and the deceased Er, as the stress is on “so as to not give seed to his brother.” He thus presents himself as someone who is trying to do yibbum and to establish his brother’s name, but in fact is doing no such thing. Deceit such as this immediately receives a furious divine response: “And what he did was evil in God’s eyes, and He killed him as well” (10). In other words, Onan, who refuses to give his brother a life after death while concealing his true intentions, loses his own life. 

2.            As a response to Onan’s action and his death, Yehuda also tricks Tamar. He tells her, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shela grows up.” In fact, the verse attests, this has nothing to do with Shela’s age, but rather Yehuda’s concern that his youngest son will end up like his brothers: “For he said, ‘Lest he die as well like his brothers’” (11). As Rashi says (ad loc.): “He was pushing her away with a pretext, for he had no intention of marrying her off to him.” There is no divine response to this act of deceit, but in the narrative’s dénouement, Yehuda himself is forced to concede: “And he said, ‘She is more righteous than I, for indeed I did not give her to my son Shela’” (26).

3.            After a great amount of time passes, Tamar understands that she has been led down the garden path; she therefore also hides her identity and tricks Yehuda into thinking that she is a harlot and sleeping with her.[5] Following this deceit, Yehuda believes that Tamar has committed “harlotry,” and therefore decrees death upon her (24), a sentence that he sets aside when the truth is revealed. This response to deceit in the narrative is not unambiguous, but it appears that the verses supports Tamar. The very fact that the verse announces “And she became pregnant to him” (18) immediately after she sleeps with him indicates that Providence is assisting Tamar, even though she act with deceit and conceals her true identity.

4.            At the end of the story, there is another scene that we can see as connected to issues of deceit. One of Tamar’s twins begins the process of his birth (“And he put forth a hand”), and the midwife already believes that this is the firstborn - “This one came first.” However, after this twin “put[s] back his hand,” his twin brother takes advantage of the opportunity, and he bursts forth (paratz) before his brother. This circumvention earns him the name Peretz, while his brother must be satisfied with the name Zerach, which attests to the fact that he started to emerge as the firstborn (and is therefore named for the red ribbon on his hand — zarach, shine), although his younger brother outmaneuvered him and tricked him. Note that the term yetzia, going or coming out, is pervasive throughout this part of the story. “And the midwife took and tied on his hand the scarlet, saying: ‘This one came out first’”; “And it was when he put back his hand that, behold, his brother came out”; “And after that his brother came out, on whose hand was the scarlet.” It almost seems that Scripture seeks to tie this process to the words of Yehuda about Tamar in the previous scene (24-25): “And Yehuda said: ‘Take her out, and she shall be burnt.’ She was being taken out, and she sent to her father-in-law…” In both scenes, the one who begins to emerge reverses course: Tamar is not, in fact, taken out to be burnt, and Zerach is not the first to issue from his mother’s womb. Here too, as Peretz outmaneuvers Zerach, there is no divine response. However in light of the later development of Jewish history, it appears to me that one can rely on the assumption that there is no criticism of Peretz’s breakout, because this is the genesis of the royal family in Israel; from this dynasty, David emerges (Ruth 4:18-22).[6]


It is not surprising that a narrative based on consecutive acts of deceit alludes to this theme through the names of its characters.  An example of this is the name of Yehuda’s third son, Shela, which can allude to someone who misleads, deludes, or disappoints someone else.[7] Alongside his own name, we find that of his birthplace: “And he was in Keziv when she gave birth to him” (5); the name Keziv recalls kazav, deception and falsehood.[8]


What is the position of the text regarding the acts of trickery integrated into the narrative? Is there a place for guile and trickery, or are they always invalid? Diana Sharon reaches the conclusion that the aim of the story is to teach that the attribute of moral rectitude, whether it is seen or it is done, is a prerequisite for the continuity of the family and the dynasty.[9] It seems to me that the position of the verse on this issue is somewhat complex. The conflicts among the characters in the narrative, centered on issues of trickery and deception, may be arranged in a chiastic structure that emphasizes the relationships and internal connections between the four pairs:


A. Deceit among brothers (Onan towards Er)

B. Yehuda’s deceit of Tamar

B1. Tamar’s deceit of Yehuda

A1. Deceit among brothers (Peretz towards Zerach)


This arrangement of the concept of deceit in the narrative makes it easy to follow the two perspectives on dishonesty within the story. Concerning the first two acts — Onan’s deceit and Yehuda’s deceit (A-B) — we find criticism in the narrative (from God or from the character itself); on the other hand, the second two acts — Tamar’s deceit and Peretz’s deceit (B1-A1) — gain Scriptural approbation.  One may take another step and locate the different direction of these two pairs.  Both Onan, who does not perform yibbum, and Yehuda, who banishes Tamar from his family, move the family toward extinction.  Conversely, Tamar outmaneuvers Yehuda in order to get his seed for the sake of her reproduction, and Peretz also outmaneuvers his “lazy” brother for the sake of his birth, in order to enter the world a moment earlier.


Naturally, the arrangement of the narrative, while clarifying the issues of deception and hidden identity, alludes to a complex evaluation of the activity of deception. As long as this deception is integrated in the creation of life and promoting childbearing, it has its place and is a valid tool, but if the act of deception comes to limit fertility and reproduction, it is an invalid action, doomed to failure. From this point of view, the conclusion that arises from the narrative is almost the inverse of Sharon’s thesis, which sets up morality as a prerequisite for establishing a dynasty. On the contrary, from the narrative it arises that Tamar’s dedication to establishing her family merits praise, even if in this process, Tamar is compelled to seduce and deceive Yehuda.




Beyond tracing the plot elements and their arrangement in the narrative, it appears that the story of Yehuda and Tamar may be organized according to the artistic structure, the concentric structure:


A.  The birth and naming of Yehuda’s three sons by Bat Shua, and the death of two of them: “And it was at that time…” (1-10)


B.  Yehuda’s decree against Tamar and its execution: “‘Live as a widow in your father’s house.’” (11)


C.  Tamar hears that her father-in-law is going to Timna: “And many days passed… And Tamar was told, saying ‘Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timna.’” (12-13)


D.  Tamar disguises herself; she removes her widow’s clothing, puts on a veil and sits at the entrance of Enayim (14-15).


E.  Yehuda wants to sleep with Tamar (16).


F.  Collateral: Yehuda’s signet ring, wrap and staff pass over to Tamar (162-18).


E1.  Yehuda sleeps with Tamar and she becomes pregnant (182).


D1.  Tamar takes off her disguise; she removes the veil, puts on widow’s clothing and does not return to the entrance of Enayim, so that Yehuda’s friend Chira cannot find her there (19-23).


C1.  Yehuda hears that Tamar has prostituted herself: “And it was after three months that Yehuda was told, saying… ‘And behold she is also pregnant’” (24).


B1.  Yehuda’s decree against Tamar and its annulment: “‘Take her out and she shall be burnt…’ ‘She is more righteous than I.’” (242-26).


A1.  The birth and naming of Yehuda’s two sons by Tamar: “And it was at the time that she gave birth” (27-30).


The framework of the story (A-A1) opens with a similar description, “And it was at… time,” and the two chronological descriptions each introduce a scene of birth. It is naturally clear that the birth that occurs at the end of the narrative constitutes a certain rectification, a sort of compensation (more precisely, yibbum) for the two sons who die at the beginning of the story.


The two parallel parts B-B1 describe a similar position of Yehuda towards Tamar — issuing an unduly harsh decree against her. At first (B), Yehuda commands Tamar to reside in her father’s house, and the verse attests that he is concerned about giving her his third son; in other words, Tamar is condemned to spend her life without children and without continuity. The parallel part in the second half of the story (B1) starts in a similar way, as Yehuda sentences Tamar to the death penalty without an in-depth investigation, perpetrating a great injustice. 


However, here Tamar does not give in easily, and she does not accept the verdict without sending Yehuda the tokens of his identity.  Here, Yehuda recovers himself and sets aside the sentence. 


The two following parallel narrative elements (C-C1) also open with a description (“And many days passed” — 12; “And it was after three months” — 24),[10] and in both of them, one character hears something about the other character. At first, “Tamar was told” that Yehuda is going up to celebrate the shearing of his sheep in Timna (C), and in the end “Yehuda was told” that Tamar has become pregnant by her harlotry (C1). Here, the reader begins to sense the irony with which Yehuda’s character is shaped, because what Yehuda hears springs from what Tamar hears. In other words, in light of the news that reaches her, Tamar takes action and disguises herself as a harlot, and this in fact is the news that reaches Yehuda’s ears — that Tamar has become pregnant by her harlotry. The reader knows what Yehuda does not - that his journey to Timna (the first news) brings about Tamar’s pregnancy (the second news) - and this presents Yehuda in an ironic light.


The two following elements (D-D1) describe Tamar’s disguise and her return to the identity compelled upon her — the identity of the widow.  At first, she takes off clothes that identify her as a widow and puts on a veil that identifies her as a harlot (D),[11] and in the end, she takes off the mask of prostitution that she is wearing and goes back to wearing her widow’s clothing (D1). Beyond the clothing that represents different identities in the narrative, it is worth mentioning the geographical location stressed in these two parallel parts. While Tamar is masquerading, she sits “at the entrance of Enayim,” and after she discards her disguised identity and she returns to the identity forced upon her (widow), she also changes her geographical location. Her absence from the entrance of Enayim is caused by Tamar’s return to “her father’s house,” the place that symbolizes the prevailing institutions and the societal consensus.  In other words, when Tamar disguises herself, she undermines society’s guidelines, which are realized in the narrative in the decree of Yehuda and her living in her father’s house. In a symbolic sense, it makes sense that Tamar must strip herself of the social identity that is affixed to her because of Yehuda (“Live as a widow”) and adopt a new identity, even if it is only for the sake of playacting and only so can she merit posterity. 


The two following parts of the story are presented with parallelism (E-E1) because of the essence of the plot expressed in them. At first, Yehuda wants to sleep with Tamar: “And he said, ‘Come now, I will come to you’” (16), and in the second half of the narrative his desire is fulfilled: “And he came to her” (18). 


It is only logical that the central axis of the story (6) is Tamar’s request of collateral from Yehuda and Yehuda’s surrender of his tokens of personal identity: his signet ring, his wrap and his staff. 


This concentric structure is not surprising, as the narrative is essentially one of reversal — the death of two sons at first and the birth of two sons at the end. Tamar, a childless widow at the beginning of the story, becomes “a joyous mother of children” at its end. The surprise is that the crux of the narrative turns out to be the transfer of Yehuda’s tokens of identity to Tamar.  Is this indeed the central axis of the story?  Is this indeed the turning point of the story?  Would it not be more appropriate to build the story around Tamar’s pregnancy, mentioned soon after (E1)?


Building the story around the handing over of Yehuda’s personal objects to Tamar turns the focus of the narrative from Tamar to Yehuda.  It is clear that Tamar’s pregnancy is the key point of the narrative; however, the organization of the story in a concentric structure around Yehuda’s staff, which passes from hand to hand, stresses the process that Yehuda himself experiences over the course of the story because of the incident of Tamar. 


It makes sense that the objects which pass from Yehuda to Tamar are deeply connected to the basic theme of the entire narrative, and we once again reach the issue of identity. From within the story, it turns out that the signet ring, wrap, and staff are identified in a specific way with Yehuda (because this is how Yehuda identifies himself as the father in the end of the story), and naturally they represent his identity.  If this is correct, it turns out that the central axis of the story is Yehuda’s identity, which passes into Tamar’s possession. In other words, his seed, given to Tamar, constitutes Yehuda’s hope for continuity and posterity. It may be that Tamar seduces Yehuda for the sake of her own desire for progeny, but through this act of deception, Yehuda ends up with a future as well.


If this is correct, one may describe the theme of the story as the progression in Yehuda’s dynasty. After he descends from among his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, his two sons die, and Yehuda refuses to give Tamar his third son. At this point of the narrative, Yehuda’s family has reached a dead end, and it appears that his descent from his brothers and his involvement in the Canaanite environment have brought him to a catastrophe.  He separates from his family, thereby condemning himself to an existence with no continuity.  Only by dint of Tamar’s resourcefulness does the turning point of the narrative occur, and once again Yehuda manages to establish a family.  Yehuda’s staff, which symbolizes leadership and control (“the rod will not depart from Yehuda” — Bereishit 49:10),[12] becomes for some time Tamar’s possession.  Only through her can Yehuda merit once again his staff, earning the identity that is returning to him, the privilege of continuity, of family.


The three proposed structures present before the reader different perspectives that emphasize different foci in the story.  Through them, various complex, fundamental issues are emphasized and clarified throughout the narrative. Naturally, there is no need to present the different structures as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, in many senses one can see them as complementary. The process which Tamar passes through in the story (emphasized by the flow of the plot) brings along with it the personal redemption which Yehuda earns in the narrative (emphasized by the concentric structure), and through these two foci the issue of futile deception versus purposeful deception is clarified (emphasized by the deep structure).


However, at the same time, we cannot cut the analysis off from its context, as it becomes clear that the three proposed structures are tied to an additional question: What is the contribution of the story of Yehuda and Tamar to the full narrative cycle of Yosef and his brothers?  According to each structure (and consequently, any focus or theme in the narrative), one may point to a different relationship to the story of Yosef, and from each structure arises a different contribution to the fuller narrative continuity. We will expand on this, God willing, in our next lecture. 

Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

[1]     Lambe similarly claims that the story of Yehuda and Tamar is organized according to these five classic stages, but he demarcates the five stages differently (1-6; 7-11; 121; 122-26; 27-30). See Anthony J. Lambe, "Genesis 38: Structure and Literary Design," in P. R. Davies and J. A. Clines (eds.), The World of Genesis (Sheffield, 1998), pp. 102-120, especially pp. 103-104. According to him (p. 111), vv. 7-11 are arranged in an internal concentric structure around “And Onan knew that the seed would not be his.”  An alternative five-act division of the story of Yehuda and Tamar is offered by G. W. Coats in "Redactional Unity in Genesis 37-50," JBL 93 (1974), p. 16. Diana Sharon has suggested a different division of the scenes: 1-11: From Yehuda’s descent to Canaan until Tamar goes to her father’s house; 12-23: From the death of Yehuda’s wife to his relinquishment of his symbols of identity; 24-26: From the announcement to Yehuda that Tamar is pregnant to his confession that “She is more righteous than” he; 27-30: Birth and naming of two sons. Her proposal appears in "Some Results of a Structural Semiotic Analysis of the Story of Judah and Tamar," JSOT 29 (2005), pp. 296-297.

[2]     The Book of Devarim (25:5-10) says that specifically the brother of the dead man must perform yibbum. However, the contemporary custom before the giving of the Torah was that if the brother could not perform yibbum, the father of the dead man could do so, as indicated by Hittite and Assyrian laws. On this topic, see S.A. Levinstam, “Yibbum, yavam, yevama,Encyclopedia Mikra’it (Jerusalem, 5718), vol 3, pp. 444-447.

[3]     Y. Zakovitch, Abbia Chidot Minni Kedem (Tel Aviv, 5766), pp. 130-131.  He suggests seeing this wordplay in the name of Yehuda’s firstborn, Er, as well, since the root of the name can either be “to rouse” or “to be childless.”

[4]     For a progressive reading focused on the tension between life and death in this narrative (with a stress on the movement of the protagonists, such as Yehuda’s yerida, etc.), see M. E. Andrew, "Moving From Death to Life: Verbs of Motion in the Story of Judah and Tamar in Gen. 38," ZAW 105 (1993), pp. 262-269.

[5]     Consider a fascinating question in its own right: Does Tamar purposely dress up as a harlot, or does she merely intend to meet Yehuda at the crossroads and to speak with him? If the latter is true, it is Yehuda who regards her as a harlot, thereby allowing the narrative to develop as it develops. Most of the commentators believe that the former possibility is the correct one (she dresses as a harlot intentionally); however, there are those who prefer specifically the second option. See, for example, Andrew (mentioned in the previous note), p. 264; Victor H. Matthews, "Female Voices: Upholding the Honor of the Household," Biblical Theology Bulletin 24 (1994), pp. 8-15; Mary E. Shields, "More Righteous Than I: The Comeuppance of the Trickster in Genesis 38," in A. Brenner (ed.), Are We Amused? Humour About Women in the Biblical Worlds, pp. 31-51, p. 41.

[6]     On the contrary, one may see in this birth story a rectification of the relationship between Yaakov and Esav. Indeed, Peretz is presented in a light far more positive than Yaakov is, but this is not the place to elaborate.

[7]     For example, “And she said, ‘Did I request a son from my lord?  Did I not say, do not disappoint (tashleh) me?’” (II Melakhim 4:28).

[8]     The Abarbanel notes this, and modern critics have followed in his footsteps. See Y. Devir, Yiudah shel Ha-Shelichut Be-Shem Ha-Mikra’i (Tel Aviv, 5728), p. 70; Y. Zakovitch, “Maamadam shel Ha-Mila Ha-Nirdefet Ve-Shem Ha-Nirdaf Bi-Yetzirat Midreshei Sheimot,” Shenaton Le-Mikra U-Le-Cheker Ha-Mizrach Ha-Kadum 2 (5738), p. 101; M. Garsiel, Midreshei Sheimot Ba-Mikra (Ramat Gan, 5748), p. 83.

[9]     Sharon (mentioned in n. 1), p. 313.

[10]    Compare this to the view of Sharon (p. 297), who claims that following the descriptions of time in the narrative can allude to parallels between the different scenes. Similar points have been suggested by Fokkelman (pp. 167-168).

[11]    It is not clear whether Tamar covers herself with a veil as part of her harlot costume (Rashbam) or simply to hide her identity from Yehuda, with no connection to the metaphorical harlot’s mask which Tamar wears (Ri Bekhor Shor).

[12]    See also the commentary of the Rambam to Bereishit 38:18.  The Netziv (ad loc.) writes: “Behold, these three items are a sign of three privileges: the signet right is for the lawgiver; the wrap is for one who is secluded in fearing God; a staff is the scepter of the ruler.”