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Tamar in the Bible: An Unintentional Hero

Who is Tamar in the Bible image

Tamar in the Bible is not a woman that you will often hear talked about in sermons or even women’s conferences. Her story is just too scandalous for our pious Christian ears. But God doesn’t hide her story, bury it, nor tries to sugar coat it. He tells it like it is because her story needed to be told.

Her story is the story for all women who have ever been pushed into difficult and compromising situations. She is a reminder that God understands our vulnerability and sometimes we do what we do just to survive.

Who Was Tamar in the Bible?

In short, Tamar was a Canaanite woman and the daughter-in-law of Judah. Judah chose her himself to be his oldest son’s wife. Unfortunately for Tamar, both her first husband Er, and second husband Onan, died by God’s hand for their wickedness.

Judah was obligated to provide a third husband for Tamar, but he skirted that responsibility. So to force Judah’s hand, Tamar devised a plan to sleep with her father-in-law and she became pregnant. Tamar’s and Judah’s children would become Jesus’ ancestors and part of a royal line. Tamar is even mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, only one in four women to be mentioned by name.

A few questions arise from her story. Why would God seemingly reward her actions by mentioning her in Jesus’ genealogy? Why did Judah feel that Tamar was more righteous than he? Why is this odd and somewhat embarrassing story included in the Biblical record anyway?

We will dig deep into this story to answer these questions, but before we do please read the record in your Bible or read it here: Genesis 38:6-30.

The Greater Context of Tamar’s Story

We have all heard of Joseph, right? You will find the story of Tamar sandwiched between the chapter of Joseph being sold into slavery and the chapter on Joseph’s trials with Potiphar and his wife. The story of Tamar spans several years so her story runs parallel to Joseph’s ordeal in Egypt.

Why would God throw this apparently odd story in the middle of a larger narrative about Joseph? We know God does not do things by accident so to help answer the question, I want to provide a little bit of background that will help shed some light.

Tamar's story is the story for all women who have ever been pushed into difficult and compromising situations. She is a reminder that God understands our vulnerability and sometimes we do what we do just to survive. Click To Tweet

Who is Judah and Why Does He Matter?

Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers. He is the one with the “brilliant” idea to profit from Joseph by selling him into slavery. Judah is clearly an unsavory character at this point in the Biblical record and his less than noble intentions towards Tamar are in line with his character.

However, Judah’s story does not end with Tamar. He actually redeems himself in his encounter with the young brother he sold into slavery after Joseph has risen to power. He offers himself in place of his other brother. The same jealousy that turned Judah against Joseph is no longer there, even though Benjamin is now his dad’s favorite (because they all presume Joseph is dead). As a result of his selfless actions, a great blessing is placed before him in Genesis 4:10.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

Kingship would come out of Judah’s descendants, including the greatest King of all. Jesus.

What caused this great transformation in Judah? I believe the key is in the story of Tamar. More on that in a little bit.

The Context of Old Testament Law in the Story of Tamar

A Near East custom which would later become codified into law is referenced in the account of Tamar and is central to her story. The codified law appears in Deuteronomy.

[5] “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. [6] And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. [7] And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ [8] Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ [9] then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ [10] And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 ESV

According to this law, if a man died, his brothers or nearest of kin would marry the widow. The child born out of that union is raised as the eldest son of the dead brother and the dead brother’s heir. What is the purpose of this custom and later law?

The purpose is two-fold. It would preserve the line of the elder brother and allow him to carry on his name. It also had great implications for the inheritance of land.

The law also protected the widow. In biblical times a widow would quickly become destitute without a husband to protect and provide for her. This would help guarantee that the family of her late husband would take care of his widow. It was one of many laws and regulations God had put in place as a social net to protect the most vulnerable.

At the time of Tamar’s story, God had not yet codified it into law but Abraham’s descendants evidently practiced it. They understood that it was God-inspired.

God Has Always Sought to Protect Widows

God has been consistent in the Old Testament and in the New about protecting the most vulnerable: sojourners (immigrants), orphans, and of course widows. Aside from the law referenced above, there are other verses that references God’s intentions towards widows.

[19] “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV

[9] The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Psalm 146:9 ESV

[5] “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

Malachi 3:5 ESV

Keep God’s feelings towards widows and those who oppress them in the back of your mind as we go through the story of Tamar.

The Three Trajedies Suffered By Tamar

Three major tragedies marr Tamar’s life. We will go through each one in turn.

Tamar Loses Her First Husband

Tamar was the wife of Judah’s firstborn, Er. Because of his wickedness God put him to death. We don’t know the nature of his wickedness, but it certainly was bad enough for God to execute his judgment upon him. Tamar is left childless and so the Deuteronomy law would apply. Judah, as the father-in-law and head of the family, is obligated to provide his second son for Tamar and he does (vs 6-8).

Tamar Loses Her Second Husband

It appears that the second son, Onan, was not much better than Er. He is bitter about having to fulfill his obligation and raising a child under his brother Er’s name. He therefore wastes the semen after sexual intercourse to keep Tamar from getting pregnant. The result? God is livid and puts him to death (vs 9-10).

Onan failed to fulfill his duty to his brother’s line, but he also failed to fulfill his duty to Tamar. God’s response to Onan is in line with scripture. Remember how God feels about those that would oppress widows? He brings Onan to ruin as per Psalm 146:9, referenced above. However, Tamar is without a husband again.

Judah Blames Tamar for His Sons’ Deaths

Judah must once again provide a husband for Tamar. He tells Tamar to go back to her own family and when his third son is of age, he would let them marry. However, this time around he has no intention of fulfilling his promise (vs 11). Judah blames Tamar for the calamity of both his sons and refuses to see or acknowledge that it was his own sons’ sin that brought about their deaths. He, therefore, intends to leave Tamar husbandless, childless, and likely destitute.

How Tamar Responds To Judah’s Injustice

Another woman might have just accepted her lot. After all, God killed two of her husbands and it is clear after so many years that the patriarch of her late husbands’ family has no intention of fulfilling his promise. But Tamar chose no such path.

Instead, she takes matters into her own hands. When she hears that Judah is going to his sheepshearers, (vs 12-13) it presents an opportunity for her. Sheepshearing was a big deal and it was a time of festivities, celebration, and excess (For example, King David waited for the sheepshearing season to ask for a handout from Nabal–find out more in my blog about Abigail). Tamar knows two things: Judah will probably be in a good mood (and possibly drunk) and she knows the road he will take to get there.

What does she do? She puts on a veil and goes and waits for him alone along that road. The text says, “he thought she was prostitute, for she had covered her face (vs 15).” Veiling was not actually a sign of prostitution. However, a woman alone on a roadside screamed out “prostitute.” It is likley that he presumed she was a prostitute as a result of him not being able to identify who she was (because of the veil) coupled with her being alone on the side of the road.

Judah propositions himself and she accepts in exchange for payment. He promises a goat, but Tamar is no fool. As a pledge for the goat, she asks for the signet, cord, and staff which would identify him as the owner (vs 16-18).

After the incident, Tamar returns to her old life and resumes her status as a widow (vs 19).

How Judah Responds to Tamar’s Actions

Judah intends to pay the prostitute a goat, especially if he wants to get the signet, cord, and staff back. However, when he sends his friend the Adulamite to find her, he can’t (vs 20-22).

Three months later, Judah gets the surprise of his life. They tell him that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He quickly casts judgment and decrees to burn her for her immorality until she reveals who the father of the child is. And she can prove it! When Tamar pulls out the signet, the cord and the staff, Judah exclaims,

“She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my Shelah (vs 24-26).”

Why was Tamar More Righteous Than Judah?

If Christians today found out that one of their female church members went to the red lantern district to sleep with her father-in-law because he didn’t provide for her financially after her husband died, can you even imagine the scandal that would ensue? If he held a position of leadership, he would be probably be asked to step down, but she would be dragged through the mud.

But is that how God would respond? Is it even how Judah responds? No, Judah says, she was more righteous than he? Why?

Tamar was a Canaanite Woman

Tamar was a Canaanite woman and married into a family that had many different practices than her own. Canaanites were pagans and were known for their abhorrent practices like child-sacrifice, temple prostitution, adultery, and homosexuality. Their practices were worse than some of the other surrounding peoples. For example, Abraham and Isaac were adamant about their sons not marrying Canaanite women and instead looked East for their son’s future wives. But Judah had no such qualms. He married a woman from Canaan himself and had chosen Tamar, a Canaanite, for his son Er.

Why does this matter? Because it tells us a lot about Tamar. Even after Judah had sent her back to her family, she still wanted to subject herself to the family she had married into. The Canaanites had clearly loser moral standards. She probably could have found a more suitable option for her predicament among the Canaanites, but she was intent on belonging to Judah’s family. She was intent on being part of God’s people.

Yes, in letting Judah believe she was a prostitute, she may have been reverting back to Canaanite ways. However, remember Judah is the one who had sent her back to her Canaanite family. You bring someone into your family and teach them about the God of Abraham and then you send them back alone to live with a people known for having horrific practices? What can be expected from someone that goes through that?

And yet, Tamar had waited patiently for years for Judah to fulfill his obligations. He did not. I deeply feel she longed to return to a people who worshipped this amazing God, but she was left alone and abandoned. So at best, her actions were driven by good intentions–to force Judah, in the only way she knew how, to fulfill his responsibilities. At worst, she was a desperate woman pushed into a corner who was doing what she needed to do to survive. At the end of the day, it was Judah who placed her in that predicament.

Greater Authority Leads to Greater Responsibility

Judah was the head of the family. He was the patriarch and he had the responsibility to provide for his daughter-in-law, a widow. He skirted that responsibility because he was afraid of losing a third son. Instead of following God’s will, he let Tamar carry the burden with no concern with her well being. Remember what God had to say about those that oppress widows? It did not look good for Judah.

As the patriarch, he held greater authority and therefore greater responsibility. Her actions might have been questionable out of the context of the greater story. But in the context of her suffering at the hands of one with more power, wealth, and authority — God clearly gives her a pass. Not once does he mention her indiscretion, but God was quick to judge her two previous husbands.

This is an important lesson for us to learn as a church. Often when there are acts of indiscretion between a woman and a person of authority within the church, the woman gets the greater damnation. That is not how God would see it and we learn that from this Biblical account.

Bottom line: Tamar was more righteous because she exposed the man that had cornered her into a very difficult situation. She did so by bringing to his attention the very law that he was ignoring, God’s law. Judah, on the other hand, who held the power to ease her suffering, skirted God’s law in every way.

Without Tamar, there is a strong indication that Judah may not have become the man willing to sacrifice himself for his brother Benjamin. He may not have become the man worthy of a royal line.

Why is Tamar an Unintentional Hero?

I titled my article, “Tamar in the Bible, an Unintentional Hero” and you are probably wondering why. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Judah had a radical transformation? At the beginning of Judah’s story, he sold his brother into slavery but towards the end, he offers himself as a sacrifice for his younger brother Benjamin. What caused that transformation?

I venture to say that it was Tamar.

Tamar Exposes Judah and it Leads to His Redemption

The first time we see Judah recognize his own unrighteousness is in the account of Tamar. I believe this was the beginning of his redemption and why God tells us this story in this part of Genesis. It is actually integral to the history of Israel and our redeemer, Jesus. Jesus is the Lion of Judah after all.

Judah’s transformation into the man whose line would result in the birth of the King of kings, begins with the story of Tamar. He needed to be exposed—and Tamar was the one who exposed him. It was only when his sin was laid out in the open for everyone to see that he saw his own unrighteousness. Without Tamar, there is a strong indication that Judah may not have become the man willing to sacrifice himself for his brother Benjamin. He may not have become the man worthy of a royal line.

Tamar fought back. Yes, in her own way, but she made him a better man in the end. And that makes her a hero in my book. And God saw it fit to include her in the genealogy of Jesus and that is pretty awesome if you ask me.

Three Lessons Learned from the Story of Tamar

Tamar’s story is not your typical story, but it has some great lessons we can apply today.

Don’t Let the Men in Your Life Skirt Their Responsibilities

God calls us to be “ezers” to our men (to find out more on what an “ezer” is read my blog, Biblical Womanhood: A New Look at “Help-Meet”). An “ezer” is more than a helper, she is a rescuer and sometimes we need to rescue our men from themselves.

I am not suggesting nagging nor condemnation, which hardly ever work, but it is calling men to take their place in authority AND responsibility. If it is a husband-wife relationship, are we covering for them when we should be calling them out? If it is a mother-son relationship, are we taking on their responsibilities instead of holding them accountable?

We need to help the men in our lives become the men God created them to be. Use wisdom and use prayer. Love them and be encouraging, but every once in a while we might need to take extreme action.

Be Careful Where You Place Judgement

I often find that churches want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to give men the higher authority but not hold them accountable. They want women to submit to their husbands, but when there is mutual sin, it is usually the women that get the greater condemnation.

I often find that churches want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to give men the higher authority but not hold them accountable. They want women to submit to their husbands, but when there is mutual sin, it is usually… Click To Tweet

Let’s take abortion for example. Many Christians openly shame women who committed an act of abortion. Abortion is sin, of course, but I have found the church gives men a free pass when the topic of abortion is discussed. And yet, most acts of abortion are the a result of men that refused to be fathers. It is the result of a man freely engaging in sex — not wanting to commit to a marriage, not wanting to provide for a family.

How many women that enter an abortion clinic are as desperate as Tamar? They don’t know how they are going to support a baby or themselves since clearly the baby’s father is not interested in doing so.

I do not condone men shaming. We all need grace. However, let’s give equal grace to women involved in “scandalous” situations. God certainly does and it is the example he sets here with Tamar.

Don’t Hide the “Ugly” Stories

Tamar’s response to her father–in-law is rather shocking and probably why her story is not often highlighted in sermons or Bible studies. We love to recount the story of beautiful Esther, noble Ruth, or courageous Deborah, but Tamar….it is just too much. The gal sleeps with her father-in-law for crying out loud!

This should really give us pause to search our own hearts. Why do we want to hide Tamar’s story? Why don’t people often teach on it? The same reason we want to “put away” the scandalous women in our churches or hide our own “ugly” stories. Don’t hide the ugly stories. Teach them, tell them. It is part of our testimony. The Bible is full of “ugly” stories and we should let that be our example.

I am interested in your thoughts! Please comment below!

Don't hide the ugly stories. Teach them, tell them. It is part of our testimony. The Bible is full of "ugly" stories and we should let that be our example. Click To Tweet
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I am interested in your thoughts! Please comment below.

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