Snakeskin and Veils: Garments in Genesis

An exploration of how the women of Genesis altered their style to gain power and protect themselves

by Beth Kissileff

Garments for women in the Bible are a means to protect and disguise their physical selves, and to give them a certain degree of power over how others perceive them. Clothing is something that can create a perception, right or wrong, in those who observe it on a woman.

Let’s start with Tamar and her veil. The story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 is one of the most fascinating examples of how a woman creates a plot for herself, and a new life, through her clothing disguise. In this chapter, a woman has married into the family of Judah, the father of three sons. The first son, Er, dies, and the widow is married to the second, Onan, who is commanded by his father to provide offspring for his brother. Onan refuses this duty (hence our English word "onanism" for self-pleasuring rather than procreative sexual activity) and he, too, then dies. The third son, Shelah (ironically named, meaning "hers") is not given to the dangerous black widow Tamar, as she is sent back to her father’s house.

Now Tamar is stuck. She can’t marry another until she has a child with someone in Judah’s family, and Judah has no intention of letting Tamar anywhere near his surviving son, thinking "now he too might die like his brothers"(Gen 38:11). Tamar comes up with a plan; she sheds her widow’s garments, puts on a veil, and sits at Petach Eynaim (the "opening of the eyes") to wait for her father-in-law Judah as he comes back from sheep shearing (Gen 38:14). Apparently, this spot is known to be an ancient Near Eastern red-light district, and Judah sees her with covered face and thinks her a "harlot" (Gen 38:15). Judah has sex with Tamar and leaves her all of his identity papers—his seal, cord, and staff—as collateral for later payment. When he later sends a friend to find and pay the "cult prostitute" (Gen 38:21, note the euphemism, as we might say "escort" or "masseuse" today), Tamar is not there.

Three months later (the time it takes for a pregnancy to show), Judah is told that Tamar, who must have acted as a harlot, is pregnant (Gen 38:24). This is Judah’s big break; he is justified in having the troublesome black widow killed off so he can marry Shelah to someone else. But, as Tamar is led out to be executed, she sends the message that the seal, cord, and staff in her possession should be examined, and that their owner is the father of her child. Judah is man enough to say, "She is righteous. It is mine" (or an alternate translation, "she is more righteous than I"), and to admit that he should have given her to his son Shelah (Gen 38:26). What Tamar gets Judah to admit is his own identity, undisguised. From their union come twins, in a nice symmetry to replace Judah’s two dead sons, and one is an ancestor of King David. What Judah has learned from Tamar, to bare his own deeds, seems significant as he is later the only brother to speak out to Joseph in Egypt and to attempt to behave towards Benjamin better than Joseph (Gen 44:18 ff).

Tamar’s ingenuity in gaining what has been withheld from her, creating her own plot by means of disguise, has resonance in our other tale of a veiled woman giving birth to twins in Genesis: Rebecca veils herself the moment she first sees her future husband Isaac walking/meditating/strolling among plants in the fields (Gen 24:65). I believe Rebecca’s covering herself on meeting Isaac is symbolic of her hiding information from him throughout their relationship, ensuring that he never sees her clearly. When God informs Rebecca that she is pregnant with twins and that the younger will rule the older (Gen 25:23), we are to understand that she does not share this prophecy with her husband. When Isaac plans to bless his oldest child, Esau, Rebecca uses garments to disguise the youngest, Jacob, as his brother by taking Esau’s clothing and placing the skins of goats on him to ensure Isaac will give the blessing to the younger son (Gen 27:15—16). Again, the garment is a medium to control what another will think about its wearer. From the moment Rebecca first sees Isaac and veils herself upon hearing who he is, she conceals information from her spouse; later on she uses garments to conceal identity.

However, the garment itself can be an object of transformation, not just a means for the wearer to transform the perceptions of others. In a midrash on the verses about Adam and Eve is this:

R. Eliezer said, "Of the skin that the serpent sloughed off God made coats of glory for Adam and his helpmeet; as it is said, ‘And God made for Adam and his wife coats of skin and He clothed them."(Gen 3:21) Pirke d’ rabbi Eliezer 20.

Avivah Zornberg writes of this midrash that its paradox is striking. The serpent, all deception, is reconstructed into an attribute of human dignity; the animal who brought temptation into the world can now, with his skin, be used as something with which to guard against temptation.

And this is the paradox of garments, items from the physical world. They can be used to trick others and also to provoke others to do the right thing. They can lie—see the torn garment of Joseph in the hands of Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39 or the bloodied tunic of Joseph as false evidence that he has perished (Gen 37:31—34). Garments can also be the weapons of women to wield the power usually denied them in overt ways in the Biblical world. The snakeskin garments of Adam and Eve serve as a poignant reminder that it is not the clothing itself, but rather the intent of the wearer and reasons for adornment that make an item of clothing significant.

About the Author

Beth KissileffBeth Kissileff is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible. She has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College, and received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


  1. Hi,

    This is very interesting. I am wondering if you have a citation for the Avivah Zornberg reference on snake skin as clothing?

    Thank you,


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