What do you know about Tamar? What comes to mind when I mention her name? Maybe you’ve never heard of her. Or maybe you think: Crazy, deceitful woman, dressed up like a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into having sex with her! Yuck! Or maybe you’re like many of us who come across her story and think “What was that all about?!” and then you go on reading and don’t think much more about her. One commentary I read called her story “One of the top 10 passages pastors avoid preaching on” and you can imagine why. Let’s take another look at Tamar.
Tamar’s story is found in Genesis 38 – neatly sandwiched between the sale of Joseph to slave traders and Joseph’s success in Poiphar’s household. The historical context is important, as always, because the other main character in Tamar’s story is Judah. Remember that it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph to the traders and he witnessed, day in and day out, his father’s grief and it must have made him feel terribly guilty. So Judah leaves Jacob’s family and makes a life for himself among the Canaanites, marries a local, raises some boys, and blends right in. A bit of a loner and a prodigal – and certainly an example of how we can be negatively influenced by those we choose to spend our time with!
Now Judah’s oldest son marries a local girl named Tamar – meaning “palm tree” like a date palm that bears fruit in the desert. And what a desert she entered! Her husband Er was so awful that God struck him dead! How often does that happen?! He must have been absolutely terrible, worse than we can imagine! And poor Tamar – what horrific circumstances she encountered in Judah’s household. So then she’s given to the 2nd son Onan and he uses her for sex but refuses to give her an heir. (Some translations indicate that, based on verb tenses, he continued to use her and deny her an heir.) And God is displeased with Onan and kills him too. Yikes! Tamar might have been happy to be free of her awful husbands, but I’m certain the whole household thought she was cursed and had brought nothing but death and disaster to the family. How in the world did she endure?
Allow me for a moment to comment on the Inheritance Law – a little bit of math for you, but it helps us understand Onan better. When there were 3 sons, the inheritance pie was divided in 4 pieces. The oldest got a double portion (50%) and the other sons got 25% each. Once Er died and there were only two sons, then Onan would have gotten the double portion (60%) and the other brother only 30%. If Tamar had born a son with Onan, the son would have taken the inheritance portion of his dead father. Do you see how much was at stake for Onan and why he refused Tamar?
And a word about the Levitical law regarding sons and inheritance too – we find in Deut 25:5-10 that the priority is for the family name, line, and wealth to continue. The brother of a dead man is to raise up a son for the sake of the family line and inheritance. Granted that this law had not yet been given by God, but it was already the practice at the time. In fact, some ancient texts show that it was the father-in-law’s responsibility to bring about an heir if no other male was available. Tamar wasn’t necessarily desperate for a child, she was concerned about the family line… more concerned than Judah apparently.
So Tamar is returned to her family in shame, suspected of bringing a curse on Judah’s family, and as the years go by it is clear that Judah intends to leave her a widow. There is no future for Tamar and no heir for Judah’s line. She dresses up like a temple prostitute, a common sight in that time, and recently-widowed Judah falls for her. He sacrifices so much (all his important identity papers and signs of authority!) for so little. Why did Tamar think this might work?
And out of this one encounter God grants her twins! Interesting that she never bore children with her other husband(s)… but God chooses this moment to grant her sons, sons that will be the line of kings and the lineage of Christ. It’s interesting to note that there’s no judgment passed on Tamar in the text – she is not “wicked in God’s sight”.
When Judah finds out that she’s pregnant there’s quite a drama and he wants her burned to death, until he learns that it’s his child. Shocker! (This would be a great movie or a Shakespearean tragedy.) Judah has seen so much death – the “death” of Joseph, his two wicked sons, his wife… and now the death of Tamar is almost on his shoulders too.
Judah intervenes saying, “She is more righteous than I” or sometimes translated “She is righteous, not I.” Judah takes full blame for everything that has happened. Tamar is released and taken back into Judah’s house hold and he never touches her again. This incident was a turning point in Judah’s life – he changes and develops real character, he returns to his father Jacob’s house, and to God. In fact later, he offers his life in exchange for Benjamin – what maturity he has developed.
“Tamar is the best example we have of an ‘ezer (a strong and mighty defender, a helpmate) we have in Genesis” writes one commentary. Interesting proposition – and certainly not how I was thinking of Tamar when we started this study! She is strong, courageous, patient when wronged, longsuffering, righteous, and persistent. Later when Boaz goes to the city elders to request permission to marry Ruth they say yes and bless him saying, “May your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (Ruth 4:12). King David named his daughter Tamar, and Absalom also named his daughter Tamar. The legacy of Tamar endured and she was revered by elders and kings for many generations.
There are so many more lessons we can draw from this story:
The influence of the world is strong and can cause us to compromise our faith;
How we can and should respond when wronged by others;
That God is just and will bring judgment in His own timing;
That Nothing is hidden from the Lord, your sins will find you out (Num 32:23);
The sin cycle is powerful, we are drawn away by temptation and it brings forth death (Jam 1:14);
We should not judge others until we have heard the whole story;
Jesus is interested in restoration, not condemnation (Jn 8:1-11); and
God uses imperfect people to accomplish His work. Amen!