It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. 3 She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. 4 Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. 5 Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. She[a] was in Chezib when she bore him. 6 Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
12 In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over,[b] he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He went over to her at the roadside, and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
20 When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. 21 He asked the townspeople, “Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?” But they said, “No prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah, and said, “I have not found her; moreover the townspeople said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’” 23 Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.”
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again.
27 When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. 28 While she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore he was named Perez.[c]30 Afterward his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.[d REFLECTION: In Genesis, particular motifs mark the lives of the women, matriarchs of Israel. These women often appear by wells or springs, and are often soon to become wives. They are often barren women, or if not, have other problems with fertility that render them marginal unless or until the problem is solved. For those who areto have children, predictions about the birth and the lives of their children are received in divinely sent annunciations. And many of the women engage in acts of trickery or deception in order to further the careers of their sons or husbands.
Tamar, the childless widow is just one example. like other marginal women Tamar is not able to fulfil her roles as a women and thus falls between the cracks of the social structure, until she uses her sexuality in a direct and daring way to obtain sons through Judah.
Gen 38 begins as a story about Judah who is left in the land of Canaan during Joseph’s ordeal in Egypt. It is a small story within a larger story (chapters 37-50) which at first glance appears to be the story of Joseph. But the story is actually concerned with the sons of Jacob which means that this story of Judah in Ch 38 rightly sits where it is. Judah was the 4th son of Jacob; Joseph the 11th song of Jacob.
In the Joseph narrative, Judah is one of the villain brothers. He is the one who instead of killing the boy suggests that he be sold to bandits as a slave. Just as Joseph was taken in an ambush, Judah is taken by deception and forced to do his duty by Tamar.
In an ancient Jewish law, there was a law called ‘levirate marriage.’ if a married man died without a son, his brother was obligated to marry the widow of his brother. The corollary is that widow must marry the brother in law rather than anyone outside the family. The oldest of the surviving brothers had the first obligation to perform this commandment, which also allowed him to inherit all of his dead brother’s property. Any children she bore him would be considered the offspring and heirs of the dead husband.
Because a wife’s role in this society is to provide children, especially sons, a barren woman or a childless widow are an anomaly. They are no longer virgins but have not produced heirs of her husband’s clan. She has lost her tie with her father’s clan, having been given into her husband’s clan, so no longer belongs in her father’s household. The levirate law neatens up the anomalous situation.
The purpose of this law was to have the surviving brother produce an heir to perpetuate the name of his dead brother. But it also served to protect the wife. In numerous verses, the Torah lumps widows with orphans and strangers as the disenfranchised members of society to whom special kindness must be shown. The situation of a widow without children was especially dire, for she had no one to care for her and provide material support. The levirate law guaranteed her a new family, enhanced status, and financial resources.
The most famous story about levirate marriage in the Hebrew bible is that of Tamar.
When her husband Er dies, Judah gives Tamar to his second son, Onan, to continue Er’s lineage. In this way, Tamar too would be assured a place in the family. Onan, however, would make a considerable economic sacrifice. According to inheritance customs, the estate of Judah, who had three sons, would be divided into four equal parts, with the eldest son acquiring one half and the others a quarter each. A child engendered for Er would inherit at least one fourth and possibly one half (as the son of the firstborn). If Er remained childless, then Judah’s estate would be divided into three, with the eldest, most probably Onan, inheriting two thirds. After the death of his older two sons (who had both married her), Judah refused to allow his third son to perform this obligation with the childless Tamar. He has come to suspect that Tamar is a “lethal woman,” a woman whose sexual partners are all doomed to die.
So instead of giving Tamar to his youngest son, he sends her back to her father. As a result, Judah wrongs Tamar. According to ancient Near Eastern custom, if a man has no son over ten years old, he could perform the levirate obligation himself or he can declare the woman a “widow,” freeing her to marry again. But he does not—he sends her to live as “a widow” in her father’s house unable to remarry and forced to stay chaste on pain of death. She is in limbo.
As time passes, she realizes that Judah is not going to effect a union with his youngest son. So Tamar takes the things into her own hands. She heard that Judah’s wife had died, and that he was nearby. She removes her widows clothing and sat on the road where Judah would pass by. She disguises herself as a prostitute – it is an excellent symbolization of her status – neither virgin or wife.
Their encounter is abrupt and devoid of any social niceties. Judah thinking Tamar a prostitute offers to send her a goat by way of payment for sex. Smart, sensible Tamar asks for some collateral and Judah gives her several pieces of identification.
In time Judah, tries to pay as promised but when his friend Hirah goes looking for Tamar because she is not in the road (women offered a variety of services – eg wet nursing & prostitution). But rumor relates that Tamar is pregnant and has obviously been faithless to her obligation to remain chaste for that family. Judah, as the head of the family, attempting to maintain his family’s honor, commands that she be burnt to death. It is swift, unconsidered and cruel and shows clearly how little value is placed on women’s lives in this culture. But Tamar has anticipated this danger. She sends him the tokens he has left as an identifying pledge, items so identifiable that Judah cannot deny being his. Judah then does something quite remarkable – he publicly announces Tamar’s innocence stating that “she is more in the right than I” (Gen 38:26), a recognition not only of her innocence, but also of his wrongdoing in not freeing her or performing the levirate arrangement.
Gen 28 ends on an interesting note – stating that Judah did not again know Tamar (euphemism for sleep with). some suggest that this might be a later editorial comment by a writer anxious to minimize the incest evident in the story.
But it’s possible that Judah is even more fearful now of this woman who survived 2 husbands and boldly got the better of him – and so he keeps his distance from her.
Tamar’s place in the family and Judah’s posterity are secured. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah (Gen 38:29–30; 1 Chr 2:4) – in doing so she restores two sons to Judah, who has lost two; and her own future.
But a deeper meaning can be found here. Like Rebekah, Tamar give birth to twin heroes which is the mark of a special matriarch.
The progeny of this Zerah became known as the Zerahites (Numbers 26:20).
From the younger, Perez, will be descended Boaz, the husband of Ruth, whose story is very similar to Tamar’s. Both of these women contribute to the genealogical line leading to Israel’s greatest hero, David.
And Tamar is the first of only 5 women listed in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy, and Perez her son is also named in Luke’s genealogy. We will meet the others in subsequent weeks.
Despite this, theologians have not been kind to Tamar. She has long been accused of prostitution, adultery, incest, deceit, revenge and immodesty. If only she’d been patient, Calvin said.
Martin Luther acknowledged that she was justifiably angry because she had been denied the right to be a wife and mother and that her good judgement had been clouded by sterility widowhood, and impatience. Luther concluded that she was sinful, but Judah’s sin was worse.
More recently we have come to view things differently - Tamar was assertive of her rights, few though they were, and subverted convention to ensure that her rights were honoured. Tamar’s traits of assertiveness in action, willingness to be unconventional, and deep loyalty to family are the very qualities that distinguish their descendant, King David.
This story should remind us that we live in a world of moral complexity. While some would like to hold others to strict moral codes they rarely have to worry about themselves, we know that the world is much more grey than black and white and has been since the beginning of time.
And sometimes justice is more important that strict adherence to rules. Think about issues such as abortion – the taking of a life vs the health and wellbeing of the mother; euthanasia – the loss of life vs ongoing life that is too painful, or lacking in dignity and a feeling that life is simply not worth living. Think about the conversation around the generation of cheap power vs the future of our planet.
Consider the phenomena (manifest most obviously in the media and on social media) of criticism over a person’s views without taking the time to listen to what lies behind those views.
Perhaps Tamar’s story should remind us that there are always 2 sides of the story. or remind us that we should take time to look at issues from a variety of perspectives before making up our mind.
May God give us the wisdom and generosity to do that.