Categories: Women in the Bible, Women in the Old Testament
- Tamar’s name means “date palm, or food or life.”
- Her story can be found in Genesis 38.
- She marries the eldest son of Judah.
- His name is Er.
- Er’s name means “evil in the sight of the Lord.”
- His offense is not mentioned, but he lives up to his name and is “wicked in the sight of the Lord.”
- The Lord “put him to death.”
- God controls everything; Er’s death has to be the result of some unspecified sin.
- Invoking the concept of Levirate marriage, Judah immediately tells his second son, Onan, that he needs to “do his duty and raise up seed for his brother.”
- Onan’s name means “the virile one.”
- Levirate marriage is derived from the word levir meaning “husband’s brother.”
- It is intended to protect widows in societies where women are not independent.
- If a man dies childless, it is mandated to continue his family line.
- Additionally, it allows Tamar to have a child and retain her place in the family.
- The practice, however, puts the second son at a great economic disadvantage.
- The resulting child will be the heir of the dead brother and is entitled to his share of any inheritance.
- So Onan is not agreeable to this.
- He says nothing to Judah, but he spills his seed, and Tamar cannot get pregnant.
- “What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”
- Readers know that God is the instigator of both sons’ deaths, but Judah does not.
- Judah thinks Tamar has had something to do with their deaths, and he suddenly becomes very concerned about his third and last son, Shelah.
- He sends her back to her father’s house on the pretense that his third son is too young to marry her.
- However, he promises to give her to his third son when he becomes of age.
- This places Tamar in a state of limbo. She is not free to marry anyone else.
- Much time passes.
- Shelah reaches marriageable age, but Judah makes no effort to keep his word to Tamar.
- As that realization becomes increasingly clear, Tamar takes matters into her own hands.
- Her plan is to trick Judah into having sex with her.
- Normally this would be forbidden, but in a levirate situation, Judah is simply acting as a surrogate for Er.
- Tamar puts off her widow’s garments and puts on a veil so Judah will not recognize who she is.
- She sits down alongside the road where Judah will pass by and pretends to be a harlot.
- Judah “saw” her and “took” her, not knowing that she is his daughter-in-law.
- He offers to give her a goat for payment, but she asks for his “seal and cord and staff” as a pledge until the goat arrives.
- He agrees and “went in to her, and she conceives by him.”
- They part ways, and she returns home and puts her widow’s garb back on.
- Judah sends his friend to pay her and retrieve his pledge items, but she is nowhere to be found.
- After asking around, Judah tells his friend to let it go because he doesn’t want people to know his private business.
- It is not long before the rumor is out – Tamar is pregnant.
- Being pregnant means she violated her obligation to remain chaste for Judah’s son. She is guilty of adultery.
- Judah’s honor is at stake, and he commands that she be burned to death.
- No doubt on some level, he is relieved to find a legal way out of his dilemma over having her marry his third and last son.
- But Tamar still has his pledge items.
- She presents them to Judah – his seal, cord, and staff – saying that they belong to the father of her child.
- Judah realizes she’s the one he met alongside the road, and that the child she is carrying is his child.
- Judah is repentant and compassionate. He declares her innocent.
- He confesses his sin, saying she is “more right than I, for have I not failed to give her my son, Shelah.”
- There are no repercussions for Tamar, indeed, the text does not sanction her in any way.
- She forces Judah to fulfill the levirate responsibility himself.
- When it is time for her to give birth, she delivers twin sons, Perez and Zerah.
- Perez will be the progenitor of Judah’s kings, including King David and the Messiah.
- Some scholars argue that Tamar must have been an Israelite, and that all these events (tragic, though they may be) occur in order to keep the lineage pure and free from Canaanite influence.
- The thinking is that she couldn’t have produced a child with his sons, because they are the product of marriage with a Canaanite.
- Most, however, acknowledge that God works in mysterious ways.
- This time he chooses a desperate widow, whose desire for a child is rewarded by giving birth to the ancestor of the Messiah.
- This story is about social justice.
- Despite Tamar’s unorthodox methods, she risks her life to fulfill her duty to herself and her family.
- She has a right to bear a child for this family.
- Her first husband also has a right to an heir.
- Tamar is also one of the four women mentioned in Matthew’s official genealogy of Jesus. Since the other three are non-Israelites, it is likely that Tamar is, too.