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Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law. Judah believes that. Tamar has killed two of his sons and leverages the law so that she cannot remarry. However, she deceives Judah into getting her pregnant and secures her place in the family. She bears Judah two sons. Her story is one of dedication and loyalty and being willing to go against the grain.
The Story of Tamar in the Bible
The Bible is filled with unique stories, but this one takes the cake! In Genesis 38, we find ourselves tuned into an absolutely bizarre narrative concerning one of Joseph’s brothers and his daughter-in-law.
In the story, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, had left his family and married a Canaanite woman named Shua. When their oldest son Er came of age, Judah and Shua found him a wife named Tamar. However, according to Scripture, Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.
Making Tamar a widow.
The levirate marriage was a common practice in ancient times. The brother-in-law would be required to father an heir with his sibling’s widow so he could carry their name and ensure the inheritance for them after they died.
This became Omar’s responsibility. Although Onan took Tamar as his wife, he refused to let any children come from this marriage because he felt they would not be his own.
Onan, however, would make his decisions based on greed. According to inheritance customs, the estate of Judah, with three sons, would be divided into four equal parts, with the eldest son inheriting one half and the other son’s one-fourth each.
A child born for his brother Er would inherit at least one fourth and possibly one half (as the son of the firstborn). If Er remained childless, Judah’s estate would be divided into three, with the eldest, most probably Onan, inheriting two-thirds.
So instead of conceiving a child with Tamar, Onan would “waste his seed on the ground to not give offspring to his brother.” It was a disgusting act that displeased the Lord, and so, “He put him to death also”.
But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So, whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.
Now widowed twice, Tamar was without children and alone. Judah was supposed to provide one of his sons as a husband and caregiver for Tamar. But rather than offering up the third, which would have been expected from him in this situation- Judah refused, telling Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till Shelah my son grows up – for he feared that he would die, like his brothers.”
Although we know that God has snuffed out the lives of Judah’s two sons, Judah does not. He believes that Tamar is, to use modern terms, a “black widow,” a woman whose husbands are fated to die. So, Judah is terrified to give Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah.
According to Near Eastern custom (from Middle Assyrian laws), if a man does not have a son over ten years old, he could perform the Levirate marriage obligation; if he chooses not to, the woman is declared a widow, free to marry again.
Judah, afraid of losing another son, could have set her free. But he chooses not to. Instead, he sends her to live as a widow in her father’s house. Unlike other widows, she cannot remarry and must stay chaste for fear of death. She is in limbo and cannot move on with her life.
Judah had no intention of marrying off another son to Tamar, despite his argument for waiting until Shelah grew up. This negligent act was injustice towards the girl and showed a lack of respect from one generation over another.
He failed to acknowledge his own children’s sins, but Judah had also wrongly assumed that Tamar was at fault for Er and Onan’s downfall.
Then the story takes another bizarre turn. Later, after Judah’s wife had died, Tamar disguised herself as a harlot and offered herself to Judah. He did not recognize her disguise and went with her.
Tamar’s plan is simple: she covers herself with a veil so that Judah won’t recognize her, and then she sits in the roadway at the “entrance to Enaim” (Hebrew petah enayim; literally, “eye-opener”).
She has chosen her spot intentionally. Judah will pass by as he returns from the sheep-shearing festival. Most likely drunk and happy. The veil is not the sign of a prostitute; it simply will cover her face and prevent Judah from recognizing her. Apparently, women sitting by the roadway are fair game. So, Judah propositions her, offering her services and giving her his seal, cord, and staff (the biblical form of a credit card) as a pledge for payment.
Judah, a man of honor, tries to pay his debt to the “prostitute.” He sends his friend Hirah to search for her, asking around for the kedeshah on the road. The Hebrew translation for kedeshah is “temple prostitute. However, a kedeshah was not a sacred prostitute; she was a public woman who might be found along the roadway (as virgins and married women should not be). She could engage in sex but might also be sought out for lactation, midwifery, and other women’s duties. By looking for a kedeshah, Hirah can look for a public woman without revealing Judah’s private life. The woman, of course, is nowhere to be found. Judah, mindful of his public image, calls off the search rather than become an object of ridicule.
But there is a more significant threat to his honor. When Judah learns through the rumor mill that Tamar is pregnant and has broken her obligation to Judah to remain celibate, he calls for her punishment.
But Tamar has expected this outcome. She sends his payment back to him (the cord, seal, and staff). When he recognizes them, he realizes that he is the father of Tamar’s child.
Filled with remorse, Judah saw his sin and acknowledged his failure to provide for his daughter-in-law, confessing, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah”.
His admission was one of the first recorded examples of a public confession of personal sin.
Tamar’s place in the family and Judah’s posterity are secured.
Tamar’s pregnancy bore her twin boys named Perez and Zerah, restoring two sons to Judah, who had lost two.
The birth of the twins has similarities to the delivery of Rebekah’s twin boys. When they were born, Jacob emerged holding his brother Esau’s heel.
Perez one-ups Jacob, however. The midwife marks Zerah’s hand with a scarlet cord when it emerges from the womb first, but Perez (whose name means “barrier-breach”) edges his way through.
Ironically, out of Perez’s line, King David and later Jesus, the Messiah, was born.
God loves every single one of us. Flawed and sinning, yet still able to be used by Him in ways we could never understand because of His amazing grace!
Tamar in the Bible was assertive and unconventional. She was also interestingly loyal to the family of Judah. These similar qualities are also demonstrated in Ruth, who appears later in the lineage of Perez and preserves Boaz’s part of that line.
The blessing at Ruth’s wedding illustrates the similarity in its hope that Boaz’s house “be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
The similarities of Ruth and Tamar in the Bible include their traits of assertiveness, unconventionality, and deep loyalty to family and are also very similar qualities of their descendant, King David.
Lessons We Can Learn From Tamar in the Bible
What can we learn from Tamar in the Bible? We don’t live in a society where we are required to marry our husband’s brother if widowed. Plus, this woman has been through the wringer!
First, she is married to a wicked man that God put to death. Then she married his brother, who enraged God, and He also put him to death. After all of that, she may have felt relief in returning to her father’s house. However, she is in a difficult situation at this point. She cannot own land or provide for herself. She has no children. Also, she cannot marry anyone else because she has been promised to Sheelah.
I would venture to guess that none of us have been in her position, yet there are lessons we can learn from Tamar in the Bible.
1. Always Be patient
Tamar showed great patience after the deaths of her husbands and while waiting for Shelah to be of age to marry. Having patience gave her time to think up a plan. She may have dwelled on her hurt or how unfairly she had been treated, but she didn’t immediately act on those feelings. She waited. Patiently.
This verse is a poignant reminder of waiting patiently on the Lord.
It is hard to rest in the Lord and be patient, isn’t it? Here’s another instruction to be patient.
This short but powerful verse speaks volumes. Rejoicing in hope and being patient in tribulation are direct results of being steadfast in prayer.
Having patience with the difficulties in life is difficult, but this verse points to the fact that doing so will allow the troubles to not bother you anymore as your faith increases and you learn to let God fight your battles.
2. Be Courageous
Tamar saw an opportunity to improve her life, and she took it.
Can you imagine going through with her plan to disguise herself and “offering” herself to Judah? That took courage!
When you could use some courage, read the stories of these women in the Bible.
You may enjoy this brief video on Tamar in the Bible by Yale Sunday School.
3. Take Advantage of Opportunities
Sometimes we are called to wait, and sometimes, we are called to act. It is knowing when to do which is wisdom.
Allow God to open that proverbial window. Be prayerful, looking for God’s will.
4. Don’t Let the Men in Your Life Avoid or Hide From Their Responsibilities.
God calls us to be “ezers” (helpmeet) to our husbands. An “ezer” is more than a helper, she can be a rescuer, and on occasion, we need to rescue our men from themselves.
We don’t do this by nagging or usurping their place in the home but rather by encouraging them in their responsibility and authority.
Don’t cover for them, but privately call them out. Don’t take on their responsibilities but hold 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 we might need to take extreme action every once in a while.
5. Watch For Double-Standards
It’s sad that men often have higher authority but are not held accountable in our society and in biblical times.
In the church, specifically, women are to submit to their husbands, but even in the case of mutual sin, often the women get the greater condemnation or punishment.
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.
6. Don’t Hide the Uncomfortable or Ugly Stories.
The ugly stories in the Bible and even our lives are where we can grow the most. Don’t hide them. Learn from them.
The story of Tamar in the Bible is a powerful reminder that we should never give up on God. He has a plan for each of us, even when it seems like things are at their darkest. Tamar’s situation also teaches six lessons we can all learn from her experience. What other lessons do you take away from her story?
You may also enjoy one of these highly recommended resources:
Fiction w/ Bible Study
Unveiled: The Biblical Story of Tamar Historical Christian Fiction Novella with an In-Depth Bible Study by Francine Rivers
Tamar: Rediscovering the God Who Redeems Me (Bible Study) by Shadia Hrichi
ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”