The Bible’s Supporting Players: Tamar

Opened bible on a table

“Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar” (Genesis 38:6, NRSV). That’s how her story (an odd insertion into the Joseph narrative) begins. If it sounds like this Canaanite woman was a piece of meat bought at the marketplace, read on: It gets worse.

After Er dies, Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, hands her on to the next son, Onan, because the Levirate custom was that he should conceive offspring for his dead brother. The ancients thought a woman’s role in conception was simply to receive new life. The custom was originally intended to prevent a family’s extinction. But many, like Onan, evaded that obligation. When Onan also dies, Tamar, like a family heirloom, is put on the shelf to await the younger brother, Shelah.

The idea of Tamar being consulted in these matters is foreign; the dark implication is that she had a sinister power which caused the deaths. Duplicitous Judah has no intention of keeping the promise to his third son, fearing “he too would die, like his brothers” (Genesis 38:11). We wonder: Did Tamar feel guilty, angry, grieving, worthless?

Asking for a Pledge

After Judah’s wife dies, he is on the road to Timnah when he spots a veiled woman he assumes to be a temple prostitute. But the woman is Tamar. When a woman’s identity rested solely on husband and offspring, many childless widows became prostitutes to survive. Some scholars suggest Tamar was there out of a desperate desire for children.

Not recognizing Tamar, Judah asks her for sex. Her response is the first indication she has any say about her own life. When Judah offers her a kid from his flock, she insists on a pledge until he sends it: his seal, cord and staff.

The seal was “a highly personal object that performed the function of the signature in modern society, a kind of extension of the personality. Judah leaves part of himself with Tamar when he gives her his seal,” explains Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis.

Judah leaves more: twin boys. When Tamar’s pregnancy is discovered (“as a result of whoredom,” v. 24), Judah (that paragon of virtue) sentences her to death by burning, the penalty of Hammurabi’s code. Dramatically, Tamar produces Judah’s seal, cord and staff, explaining she is pregnant by their owner. At least Judah admits, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v 26). The twins (Perez and Zerah), along with Judah and Tamar, all appear in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Jesus Breaks Taboos

Of course, it’s anachronistic to apply 21st-century North American concepts of women’s equality to a more patriarchal time and place, a culture interwoven with ancient tribalism. We assume women are agents in their own lives; in Tamar’s time, women were property owned and protected by their fathers, husbands or closest male relatives.

But what we can admire is the change Jesus precipitated. Every other boy sat in the synagogue, heard stories of his foremothers and said, “That’s how it is for women. Thank God I was born male.”

But Jesus was different. In the boy who heard the stories of his great-great-grandmothers, there welled up a sadness that finally exploded. His culture was just as oppressive to women. He took deliberate steps toward change, steps so dramatic that, over 2,000 years later, we have barely begun to enact them.

Jesus broke every taboo in the book regarding women: He learned from them, befriended them, conversed with them, wept with them, touched them and never derided them. Restoring the widow of Nain’s son to life, he spared her the cruelty that Tamar had endured. When he engaged in intellectual discussion with Martha or verbal sparring with another Canaanite woman, he may have caught an echo of the gutsy woman who demanded Judah’s seal.

Perhaps when he cured the woman bent double (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus remembered Tamar who was bent beneath family obligations. Jesus invited the woman who had been crippled for 18 years to stand up straight and look him in the eye, in contrast to the posture of inferiority women too often adopted. Healing her, Jesus redressed a wrong done to women for centuries. Afterward, he might have whispered, “That cure is for Tamar.”

Next Month: Silas

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