Chances are you didn’t hear the story of Tamar (Genesis 38) in Sunday School or at summer camp.
Boldness in the face of adversity is the name of the game for many women in the Bible, and Tamar is right on the top of that list. One of Jesus’ awesome female ancestors, she is brave, determined, clever–and a bit scandalous. A woman who fought for her right to bear children in the face of great odds, she is also the only woman in biblical history to seduce her father-in-law, and to be sentenced to death by fire for her presumed crime of adultery. Bottom line: She lived. She had children. And she is only one of four female ancestors named in Jesus’ genealogy by Matthew (Matthew 1).
The story: Her goal was to be a mother, yet it was not happening–apparently, by divine intervention. And that is also what makes her story unique.
God intervened on a number of occasions to bring about children (Isaac for Sarah, Jacob and Esau for Rebekah, John the Baptist for Elizabeth, Jesus for Mary, etc.) But God did not apparently approve of Er, Tamar’s first husband. Who was Er? He was the son of Judah, and Judah was the son of Leah and Jacob (remember that Leah was one of Jacob’s wives–the other was Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel). Whatever the reason, God strikes Er dead.
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. Whatever feelings the woman had about such an arrangement were not part of the equation. Neither was an inheritance unless a male was involved.
Up steps Onan, the second brother. But he “spills his seed” (thus the term “Onanism” for masturbation as an early form of birth control), 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. Note: two husbands down, by God’s hand.
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?
So Judah 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 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 orders that that she be burned 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.
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.
The Bible says that, “he did not lie with her again.” Good call.
Like several women before her, Tamar found herself unable to conceive. But unlike the others, she took things into her own hands to make conception possible.
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 had children to love and to love her.
- She had children to care for her as she grew old–and that was essential to the time in which she lived, as there would be no other support.
- She left her mark on history.
- She 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!”
What might we learn from Tamar?
- Stay singular with your goal.
- Think creatively.
- Assess the cost before taking action.
- Sometimes we have to make ourselves count when no one else will.
- Life is not over until it’s over.
Text adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman