What is a veil? Typically, a veil is a piece of fabric that hides the wearer’s face but does not hide the wearer’s view. Biblical references to veils suggest that they interfere with the non-wearer’s view more than that of the wearer. The Hebrew word for veil, צָּעִ֖יף (tza’ief), appears in two stories about biblical women, Rebekah and Tamar. Each story tells something about seeing versus being seen.
In Genesis 24, Rebekah, the second biblical matriarch, catches sight of her intended spouse, Isaac, from a distance. She pauses to cover herself with a veil before meeting him for the first time. Rebekah was likely following a local custom for betrothed women, the result being that she got a better look at her future spouse than he got of her.
A few chapters later, in Genesis 38, we meet Tamar, a woman with an unusual story. Tamar had married Er (עֵֽר), the oldest of Judah’s three sons (Judah was one of Jacob’s sons and the namesake of a future Israelite tribe). Er died and, following a custom to provide him with a posthumous heir, Tamar was married to Judah’s second son. This practice is documented in Deuteronomy, which explains that:
“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies, and has no son, the wife of the dead man is not to go outside [in marriage] to a strange man: her brother-in-law is to come to her and take her for himself as a wife, doing the brother-in-law’s duty by her. Now it shall be that the firstborn that she bears will be established under the name of his dead brother, so that his name not be blotted out from Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6, Everett Fox translation).
When the second son/husband died, custom again required the next son to wed Tamar. Initially, this remaining son was too young, but when he came of age, Judah still failed to arrange the marriage. Tamar, who was living as a widow, took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a harlot, arranged an assignation with Judah and became pregnant. Judah ultimately acknowledged his parenthood, saying about Tamar, “She is more in the right than I…” (Genesis 38:26).
Tamar’s disguise had included a veil: “So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; … When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face” (Genesis 38:14-15). So even though Judah could not recognize her behind her veil, Tamar was able to see Judah.
That Rebekah donned a veil before meeting Isaac foreshadows the seeing-while-not-being-seen dynamic critical to their future relationship. Late in Isaac’s life, “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see” (Genesis 27:1), Rebekah conspired with her second son, Jacob, to use Isaac’s blindness to steal Isaac’s blessing—and its implied leadership position—from Esau, the “older” twin brother.
Although Rebekah was no longer the young bride modestly hidden behind a veil, Isaac was, once again, unable to see her while she could see him. Rebekah exploited this advantage to benefit the son she preferred. It seems that she both saw and saw through (understood) Isaac better than he did her.
Tamar, in pursuing justice for herself and the now-deceased Er, donned a veil so her face could not be seen. Tamar knew that Judah could not recognize her behind the veil and that she would later need to prove his role in the pregnancy. Accordingly, she insisted that he give her personally identifiable items — his “seal, … cord, and … staff” (Genesis 38:18, Everett Fox translation) as a pledge toward later payment. She saw and understood the ramifications of Judah’s sexual adventures beyond what he had imagined.
Before investigating these veiled biblical references, I’d thought about veils only from the perspective of the non-wearer, who was unable to see the wearer fully. These biblical texts demonstrate, however, that while a veil shields the wearer’s face from being seen, it does not necessarily deny her the vision to perceive the broader world. These texts expand our understanding of the phrase “behind the veil.”