One Sunday our pastor challenged us to “be willing to move toward the messy” to become the kind of people Jesus wants us to be. I immediately thought of Tamar. Her Genesis 38 story is tucked away in the middle of Joseph’s compelling tale, and many routinely skip over her to continue his amazing technicolor dreamcoat saga. But more than an interruption, her story teaches us valuable lessons even though it competes for the messiest story in the Bible. She’s the woman who dressed up as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law just so she could have a baby. But is that all there is to her story? The more I’ve studied her, the more I realize she doesn’t deserve our typical harsh labels and quick judgments. I’m convinced that God doesn’t wants us to leave her out. Her courageous and determined fight for justice needs to be told so that we can follow her example today.
We meet the Canaanite teen Tamar just as she is being given in an arranged marriage. Patriarchy invested men with power and authority over women and Tamar’s sole purpose in that culture was to produce sons for her husband to preserve his family line. Barrenness was considered disgraceful. Tamar had been her father’s property, and now she belonged to Er and his family.
Er was the firstborn son of Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. Jacob favored his son Joseph, causing Judah and his brothers to seethe with bitter jealously. At first they plotted to kill Joseph but ultimately sold him into slavery. Then they lied to their father about it. After their treachery, Judah left home and migrated to Canaan, where he married a Canaanite woman who gave birth to three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. This is Tamar’s new family. Try to imagine what it would be like to live with a father-in-law who struggles with resentment and bitterness, whose heart was murderous and deceitful, and who indulged in human trafficking.
We learn in 38:7 that “Er was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the LORD put him to death.” Imagine Tamar’s miserable life married to a man so wicked that God took his life! With Er gone, Judah directed Onan to marry Tamar in order to fulfill a law that said if a man died without children then his nearest relative, typically a brother, would marry the widow, and her firstborn son would be considered the son of the dead brother. That son would carry on the first husband’s name and inherit his property. But this arrangement came at great cost to the living brother. Onan would forfeit the double portion due the firstborn if Tamar ever bore a son. Nevertheless, in this cultural setting and in God’s eyes, this was the right thing to do.
Two words address the issue of rightness or justice in the Hebrew language:
Righteousness, the Hebrew word “tsadaquh,” means fairness, generosity and equity in relationships, doing the right thing to and for people. The right thing here was to provide for Tamar and rescue Er’s family.
Justice, the Hebrew word “mishpat,” involves making things right. In other words, someone may have to do justice (mishpat) because someone else is not living righteously (doing tsadaquh). Justice can be messy, and “mishpat” recognizes the reality of moral dilemmas. Keep that in mind as we delve into the rest of Tamar’s story.
In Genesis 38:9-10, we read, “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so He put him to death.” Out of greed, Onan refused to do the right thing, (to do tsadaquh). Not just once, but over and over again, he used Tamar for his own pleasure with no thought for her welfare, and God was watching. He saw Onan’s wicked behavior, and He took Onan out too!
Now Tamar is twice widowed and Judah blames her for the death of his sons. In his mind, she has become a “black widow” so he sends her back to her father. He tells her that when his youngest son is old enough to marry, she can marry him, but he never had any intention of carrying out that promise. “For he thought, ‘He may die too, just like his brothers'” (38:11).
Judah had an opportunity to do the right thing—to follow the law and show sacrificial love and kindness to the helpless widow in his family—to accept his responsibility to rescue his own bloodline, but he refused. He left Tamar to live in shame, to waste away, waiting. Tamar wholeheartedly desired to rescue the line of Judah’s firstborn son, but Judah was in the way. Tamar birthed a desperate plan in her mind, and as we will see, fighting for justice can be messy.
Thus far, Tamar passively accepted the selfish choices thrust upon her by the men in her life. But when she discovered Judah’s plan to withhold Shelah, his youngest son, from her, she decided to act on her own behalf to right the wrong. Her plan was directed at Judah, her father-in-law, as the patriarch and head of the tribe. She hears he is headed to Timnah to shear his sheep and she goes into action in Genesis 38:14. Carolyn Custis James says, “all the verbs belong to her now. . . She took off her widows’ clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim . . . for she saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as his wife.” Judah saw her, thought she was a prostitute, and propositioned her.
Let’s be clear here. Tamar didn’t pose as a prostitute because she was looking for a new career. She’d never done this before and she never does it again. The men of the town attest to the fact that there never was a prostitute in their town in that location (38:21). And in verse 23, we read that Tamar never actually took any payment for sleeping with Judah. (Judah promises a goat, but never delivers.) However, she does accept his staff and seal, a small cylinder used to sign a person’s name on a clay tablet. In essence Judah gave her the equivalent of his driver’s license, as proof of his identity and pledge of future payment.
But Tamar’s not looking for financial compensation. Her sole purpose was to right the wrong, even though her plan was risky and far from foolproof. Carolyn Custis James says, “Put bluntly, Judah deliberately engaged in prostitution, Tamar fought for his family. He is seeking pleasure for himself. She is laying down her life for others.” Three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law, Tamar, is guilty of prostitution and as a result, is now pregnant.” (38:24)
What was Judah’s reaction? “Bring her out and have her burned to death” (38:24). He demands the severest punishment, reserved for the vilest of crimes. In essence, he’s calling for an honor-killing, even though the double standard of the day is blatantly on display! At this point, Tamar sent a message to her father-in-law: “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are” (38:25). And Judah does. He’s finally forced to face himself and his life-long refusal to do the right thing. He had sex with a woman he thought was a prostitute. He neglected his duty to take care of his sons’ widow. He shirked his responsibility to preserve his family line. With these powerful words, he admits in verse 26, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”
It’s a startling declaration! Judah pays her the highest of compliments, calling her “righteous” (tsadaquh). James suggests that this is a turning point in Judah’s life. He repents, much like the prodigal son whose humiliation brought him to his senses. We see the change in Judah at the end of Joseph’s story. As one who had trafficked his younger brother, he became the one who offered himself to Joseph as a slave in the place of his youngest brother Benjamin. And years later when Jacob was on his deathbed, he gathered his sons around him and prophesied that Judah’s bloodline, rather than Joseph’s, would bring forth the Messiah (Genesis 49:9-11).
Tamar gave birth to twin boys, and through her firstborn Perez she joined the ancestral line of Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah! God, as it turns out, often moves toward the messy. He refuses to abandon Tamar. He sticks her story right in the middle of Joseph’s to make sure we don’t miss it. He even includes her in the genealogy of His Son in Matthew Chapter 1 to make sure we never forget that she’s a valued member of His family.
Remember Tamar as the strong, courageous, woman that she is. She stood up for what was right in God’s eyes. She fought for justice, and it mattered, not just for her, but for generations to come through her offspring, Jesus. The challenge for us is to be willing to “move toward the messy,” to refuse to make quick judgments and slap on labels. My hope is that we will let Tamar’s story motivate us to pray for wisdom to handle the moral dilemmas we and others face with grace and compassion.
Our call is to fulfill Micah 6:8, “to do justice (mishpat), love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” That will take courage and determination, just as it did for Tamar. May God help us to follow her lead!
Barb Haesecke is married, has 6 grown kids and 18 grand kids. She enjoys finding ways to connect with each and every one of these precious people. She has led ministries and served the Lord in various capacities. She and husband Mark have overseen the Journey class for over 20 years at Irving Bible Church. Her other passion includes studying God’s Word and discovering the way God’s love shows up on every page. Oh, yes, then there’s dark chocolate—even more proof!