Tamar: One Scrabbling, Stubborn, Iron-Willed Ancestor of Jesus

I was an editor for twenty years. Editing other peoples words, and sometimes their thoughts, though never their souls (a few of their souls needed editing and mending, but that’s God’s responsibility, not mine).

And in that time, I learned how vulnerable writers can be when they put thoughts and words to paper. It’s tough. Yet as Christians, we are called to share what matters, what moves us, what makes a difference from our own lives of faith and pain and joy. We’re a bit like Martin Luther, with those famous words attributed to him: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Such a stake is true of the words of women in the Bible as well.

They’re not all brilliant. They’re not all perfect. But like good writers, the 93 women who speak in the Bible all have something profound and genuine to say, something that has lasted through the ages. Their words are like us: never perfect, sometimes chipped, sometimes broken…but still here, still functioning, still contributing, in most cases, God’s light and love and presence in the world.

For the next few weeks, we’ll look at one Bible woman each week, alternating between the Old Testament and the New, using one word that describes her. Think of her word as a gift from God that might inspire you as you keep after whatever it is that is on your heart this week.

Today: Tamar

Her word: Persistence

Summary: One of only four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, Tamar is the only woman in biblical history to seduce her father-in-law (thankfully there was only one).
Without her, and without the DNA she contributed to Jesus’ genetic make-up, suffice it to say that Jesus would be a little different, at least genetically. He’d also be short one incredibly single-minded, persistent, creative and dedicated woman…who tried standard operating procedures of the day until they just didn’t work anymore.

She didn’t give up. She kept going, at the risk of death, to reach her goal. And that persistence has been way overlooked by most of us who read the Bible.

Her story

Tamar’s story is found Genesis (38), the first book of the Bible, when all was wild and spirited and life was exceedingly difficult. Women were clearly considered property (yet in Genesis we also see some of the most powerful women of the Bible).

Upon the death of a husband, ancient Hebrew law dictated that it was the duty of the next brother in line to marry the widow and impregnate her so that the older brother’s name and inheritance rights might be carried on (don’t be shocked here but widows and daughters did not inherit) in the name of deceased male.

Tamar marries Er, Judah’s firstborn (Judah is, by the way, Jacob and Leah’s son)–and then Er dies suddenly from unknown causes.

Up steps the second brother, Onan, to marry Tamar, who “spills his seed” (an early form of birth control, now called “Onanism”), instead of impregnating Tamar. Such an action ensured that Onan would receive Judah’s inheritance, for no grandson would be born in Er’s name. Tamar must have been humiliated, but God was angered—and struck Onan dead.

Only one brother, Shelah, is left. Hmmm…thinks Judah… two of my sons have died while married to this woman; do I want to risk the last one?

He shuns Tamar, but does not release her from her vow of marriage within the family. Had he done so, she would have been free to remarry. In sending her back to her father’s house without such freedom, however, he condemns her, giving her no chance to have children or a future.

But Tamar will not go “gentle into that good night.” It was not her fault that her husbands had died; she would claim and act on her right to bear children. Since Judah would not give her the vehicle for those children—his third son—she designs a plan. She will seduce the newly-widowed Judah, claiming the family sperm as her due.

Dressing as a prostitute, she plants herself in Judah’s path as he walks to a neighboring town. The fish is hooked: they have sex. Short of money, Judah says he will send a goat for payment. She insists that he lend her his staff, signet and cord for collateral.

Judah keeps his word—or at least, tries. When he attempts to send the promised goat by way of a servant, “the prostitute” cannot be found. Months pass.

When word reaches Judah that his daughter-in-law is pregnant and has “played the whore,” he mandates that she burn to death.

But calm, non-anxious Tamar has great presence of mind. In a different century, she would make a fine lawyer. She holds up the cord, ring and signet.

“The man who owns these items is the father.”

Boom! Judah acknowledges the new life in her womb as his own—and he admits he was wrong. “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

Case closed. She gives birth to twins and the Bible says that Judah, “did not lie with her again.” Good call.

Consider this:

Throughout the Old Testament, men most often saw women as vessels to bear children. Here that order is reversed: Tamar uses Judah as a family vessel to deliver sperm.

Clearly, Tamar, by producing children, increased her worth in the cultural and economic system of the time. But she has also accomplished the following:

She has children to love and to love her;

She has children to care for her as she grows old;

She leaves her mark on history;

She has triumphed when marked for life in the shadows.

Through the birth of one of her twins, Perez, the line of Judah (and Tamar) would continue through Boaz, Obed, King David, and eventually, to Jesus (Matthew 1). The lion of Judah, a symbol of Judah and his tribe, would be used as a Jewish symbol for centuries, as Jerusalem was located in Judah.

As the British would say, “Brilliant!”

Tamar’s word: Persistance

What objective would God have you not abandon?

Art: The meeting of Judah and Tamar, Tintoretto, Wikipedia, public domain

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