Women of the Bible – Tamar #1

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Tamar – her name means”Stately Palm”

You will find her story in: Genesis 38, and she’s mentioned in Ruth 4:12, 1 Chronicles 2:4 and Matthew 1:3

Double standards. Whenever sexual shenanigans are going on, here is a typical reaction of people both modern and biblical:

  • To the man: “Oh well. Boys will be boys!”
  • To the woman: “Whore!”

And that is exactly what happened in the story of Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah.

Bad Boys – Whatcha Gonna Do?

I think it’s in the movie Ben Hur that Massala says to Judah Ben Hur (with a heavy sigh): “Judah. Judah. Judah.” I’d liked to say the same thing to this Judah, too. “Judah, Judah, Judah.” Sigh.

  • The Bible interrupts the story of Joseph to tell us Tamar and Judah’s story. Fresh off betraying his brother Joseph – it was Judah’s idea to sell him to the Midianites – Judah moves out of the house. Maybe he left because he couldn’t stand watching his father’s continuous grief over the “death” of Joseph (Judah and his brothers lied to their father and told him Joseph was dead.) Maybe the guilt was eating him alive. Anyway…
  • Judah settles near his foreign friend, Hirah. There he meets and marries a Canaanite woman whose daddy’s name means “rich.” Hmmm. He obviously didn’t marry her for her faith in God because they raised two wicked sons – Er and Onan. Judah gets a Canaanite wife for his oldest son, Er. Her name is Tamar. Enter our beleaguered heroine. Yes, I said heroine.
  • Er is an evil man. We don’t know what kind of evil he was. All we know is that he was so bad that God killed him. (I don’t know if we have any other instances recorded in the Bible of that happening?!) According to the laws of the time, Judah was to provide Tamar with his next son as husband to keep the family line going. Levirate marriage is not something we practice today, so it seems foreign and uncomfortable to our ears, but it was common in those days. The Bible talks about this concept in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
  • Onan, Judah’s second son, was also an evil man. The Bible gets really graphic here. We know the evil Onan did. He spilled his sperm on the ground rather than get Tamar pregnant. (His name is actually still in our modern dictionaries – meaning self-gratification.) Onan would not do his duty for financial reasons – greed. He knew that any children of Tamar would endanger him from inheriting his dad’s estate. God kills Onan on the spot.
  • Judah has a third son, Shelah, but he’s just a boy. He tells Tamar she can have Shelah as her husband when he grows up but then he sends her home to live with her father. The right thing to do would’ve been to keep her in his own home. Instead of acknowledging that his sons Er and Onan were evil, Judah appears to blame Tamar for their deaths and fears for the life of his last living child.
  • Imagine waiting for a little boy to grow old enough to be your husband. Ewww! Years pass. Lots of years pass. Tamar’s biological clock is ticking. No kids means no support, no future for this two-time widow. When Tamar realizes that Judah is not going to keep his promise to her – he is not going to do his duty and provide Shelah to be her husband – she hatches a plot. This lonely, neglected widow springs into action. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The Seduction…or is it?

Historically, Tamar is portrayed as a seductress luring Judah into her bed. See painting above for proof. But is she the prostitute she is made out to be?

Judah’s wife has died and the mourning period has ended. Judah heads out to oversee the shearing of his sheep and to visit Hirah. Along the way he encounters a heavily veiled woman sitting at the entrance to the city. Now, notice this!

  • JUDAH approaches her.
  • JUDAH propositions her.
  • JUDAH sleeps with her.

There’s a couple of theories on Judah’s motivation here. One, he’s just a horny old widower seeking sex after a long mourning period. Two, he is trying to improve his sheep shearing profits by participating in a pagan ritual with a temple prostitute. Either way, it’s not good.

Jean E. Syswerda says: “Shrine prostitutes usually kept themselves heavily veiled before and during the act of intercourse, an attempt to create the illusion that the participant was actually engaging in the sexual act with the goddess herself.”

Judah is not behaving like a godly man. He is a man motivated by lust. Tamar does not seduce him. He simply took her and casually gives up his ID for a one night stand. Handing over his signet ring, cord and staff was like handing over his driver’s license, passport and credit card.

“She is More Righteous Than I”

All the men in Tamar’s life failed her. Every. Single. One.

It took incredible courage for Tamar to carry out her plan. There was no social media in those days. She couldn’t see Judah checking in at his favorite restaurant down the road to alert her that he was getting close. How long did she have to wait for Judah to show up? She was in danger of being seen and propositioned by other men the whole time she sat there. But she had even more problems to overcome…

When Tamar is found to be pregnant, Judah piles on even more sins.

  • He listens to gossip.
  • He over reacts – “Bring her out. Let her be burned to death!” (The usual punishment is stoning so he’s being extra vindictive here.)
  • He practices self-righteous indignation – harshly judging the woman for the same sin he just committed.
  • He’s probably secretly relieved that he can eliminate his “problem” and not have Shelah marry this cursed woman.

The triumphant moment of the story. On her way to be burned at the stake, Tamar produces Judah’s ID and names him as the father of her child (children! – she ends up having twins!). Judah’s response?

She is more righteous than I. That about sums up this story.

Ann Spangler says: Judah had shown little concern regarding the continuance of his family line. Instead, God used a woman, shamed by her own barrenness and determined to overcome it, to ensure that the tribe of Judah would not only survive but that it would one day bear the world’s Messiah.

This foreign woman – we don’t even know if she was a believer or not – ensured the line of Christ. Tamar’s desperate act thwarted any plans of Satan to cut off the line of Christ. Through Tamar, God’s plan for the world was carried out.

How is Jesus involved in Tamar’s Story?

Only five women are listed in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew chapter 1 – and Tamar is the first one. What a story to be in the line of Christ. Jesus comes from such a dysfunctional human family. It shows the power of grace.

While He walked the earth, Jesus displayed this grace to another woman caught in the act of prostituting herself.  The Pharisees throw a woman at the feet of Jesus’ who was caught in the very act of adultery. (Trying not to imagine that one.) Whore! they say. Stone her! they say. Where is the man who was caught in adultery with her? Nowhere in sight. Oh, well. Boys will be boys.

Jesus stoops down to write in the sand. When He rises He says: “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one they all leave. Starting with the oldest (who should know better.)

To the woman He says: “Go, and sin no more.” Judah never slept with Tamar again. She had her sons and sinned no more. (Also, on a more positive note, this event seems to turn Judah around and head him in the right direction. He becomes the leader of his brothers, stepping up and offering himself in exchange for Benjamin, worried about breaking his father’s heart.)

Questions to Ponder

  1. In your life, have you seen a double standard applied like this – where one guilty party gets off scot-free and the other is punished for life?
  2. Do you judge more harshly the people that commit the same sins you fall prey to?
  3. Is your family dysfunctional? How do you respond to the dysfunction?

Prayer:

Lord, thank you that you included imperfect people like Judah and Tamar in your own family tree. You came from a dysfunctional human family tree just like so many of us here on earth today. Thank you that while you do not condone or sanction evil, you can work all things for the good of those who love You and are called according to Your purpose. Amen.

The Bottom Line

Things I learned from Tamar: Appearances can be deceiving.

Originally published March13, 2016. 


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