Tamar and Judah
Tamar and Judah
It’s been a long time since I read Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace and now many of the details and minor characters have faded from memory. But what remains and still captivates me is Tolstoy’s development of his main characters. Some began so well and then fizzled. Others, with seemingly no promise, rose to memorable heights.
I read that long novel of the Napoleonic wars and the life of the rich in St. Petersburg with surprised fascination and pleasure. Over the years I have learned more fully that is how life really is. People aren’t static. They’re in a process until they die. People surprise!
This is so true of the real-life drama of Jacob’s descendants, and dramatically so right here with the account of Judah and Tamar.
· On one level it’s about how Tamar single-handedly preserved the line of Judah.
· On a deeper level it’s about the providential preservation of progeny for Judah.
· And on a still deeper personal level, it reveals how God’s sovereign plan and purpose is bound up in the development of individuals as he shapes them to fulfill his ends.
The surprises begin to take place just after the opening of the Joseph story with the jarring interruption of the Judah-Tamar episode. This story is so unexpected in moving Joseph’s story forward that some older commentators argued it was an awkward editorial insertion.
But most today admit that the presence of this unusual story was intentional and actually argue that it was placed here for special purposes. In fact, a close comparison of chapters 37 and 38 shows that they have many literary and thematic parallels.
Also, the Tamar story enlarges on a great theme of Genesis, the sovereign choice of the younger over the older. And more, the immoral conduct of Judah and Tamar in Canaan demonstrates how remarkable Joseph’s chasteness was in pagan Egypt.
All Jacob’s sons had long known that both Abraham and Isaac had warned against marrying the daughters of the Canaanites.
Abraham had solemnly charged his servant,
that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell,
And when Isaac sent Jacob off to Mesopotamia:
Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women.
So, Judah, Jacob’s fourth-born son, who now occupied the place of birthright by virtue of his older three brothers’ sins knew full well that he must not marry a Canaanite. Yet despite his position and knowledge, Judah did just that before or during the time of Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt.
It happened when Judah went down to the area southwest of Jerusalem, and visited a Canaanite named Hirah and met an unnamed Canaanite woman, known only as the daughter of Shua.
Evidently it was lust at first sight, or as Wenham wryly says, “a union based on chemistry rather than principle” because the language describing their relationship is minimalist and abrupt.
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her,
The woman was fertile, and she bore him three sons:
and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.
So, half-Canaanite Er and his Canaanite wife Tamar were set to carry on Judah’s important line of inheritance.
But Judah’s sons were “wicked.”
Er’s wickedness was of such a degree that the Lord put him to death. Onan’s sin lay in this: The existing marital laws directed that if a husband died without an heir, his brother was to then marry his widow and produce an heir for him by proxy.
The son would not be his but his deceased brother’s son and the legal heir to firstborn privileges. In fact, the son would be given the name of the dead man.
Onan married Tamar but refused his duty because he wanted the rights of the firstborn for himself.
And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.
Now poor, young, twice-widowed Tamar was childless.
To add insult to injury, Judah, as the father of his dead sons, sinned against his daughter-in-law Tamar.
Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.
Tamar took Judah at his word and quietly obeyed. But the reader knows what Tamar did not know, that Judah had effectively removed her from the picture and left her neutralized. Legal compensation for a widow in Tamar’s position was impossible.
As Bible readers, we know that Judah would become the principal tribe in Israel, the royal tribe through which Israel’s King would come. But at that time the line of Judah faced extinction.
Er was dead.
Onan was no more.
And Judah had manipulated Tamar away from Shelah. Of course, with the passing of time and Shelah’s maturity, Tamar came to understand the bitter truth, she had been permanently sidelined.
What could she do?
Tamar’s Bold Plan
Tamar’s Bold Plan
Tamar’s window of opportunity came when her father-in-law Judah became a widower himself.
In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
Knowing Judah for the kind of man he was, she discerned that when he was “comforted,” (meaning that the week’s mourning was past), he would be seeking some female comfort. Tamar also knew that it was sheepshearing time and that he would be visiting his old friend Hirah.
Also, as a Canaanite, Tamar knew that cultic prostitutes would be out selling their services as fertility magic to ensure the growth of the fields and herds. In a flash, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, seizing the opportunity to produce a child for her departed husband.
And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.
Her hurried disguise was reminiscent of Rebekah’s busy assembly of a disguise for Jacob’s deception of Isaac in Genesis 27.
Tamar was all business.
He turned 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?” He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him.
Old Judah was despicable.
As Robert Alter explains, “Judah takes the bait. His sexual appetite will not tolerate postponement though he has been content to let Tamar languish as a childless widow indefinitely.”
Having no goat for payment, Judah readily gave Tamar his most personal items, which declared his individual and corporate identity. In modern terms, his license and Social Security number.
His “signet” was not a ring but a seal (likely cylindrical) that he wore on a cord around his neck. The staff, often carved, was equally distinctive. Three generations of deceit were now complete, each involving an item of identity and a goat.
· Jacob deceived Isaac by wearing a goatskin.
· Judah deceived Jacob by dipping Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood.
· And now Tamar has deceived Judah, and the deceit involved disguise, items of identity, and a goat.
So, the transaction between Judah and Tamar was brisk and businesslike. “So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him.”
Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
The child she conceived for Er was not a grandchild of Judah. Tamar was set to become the progenitor of the line of Judah, a principal matriarch in Israel, bearing the son of Judah himself.
Judah was not proud of his deed and predictably sent his Canaanite friend to settle up and get his identification back. In effect, to retrieve the license from the bordello. But the prostitute was gone, and the locals had no recollection of her. Both Judah and Hirah met and agreed to forget it so they would not become objects of local humor.
Infidelity during a betrothal period was counted as adultery and called for the death penalty. So, when Tamar neared the end of her first trimester, the suspense and internal pressure must have been unbearable.
About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”
Such “naked unreflective brutality” (Alter)! Judah’s violent declaration suggests that he may have leapt at the opportunity to have her out of the way once and for all.
But now the moment of Tamar’s triumph came because as she was being led out to judgment, she sent to Judah the symbols of his legal persona:
As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”
What a breathless moment as Judah was forced to own that each of the items was his!
Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.
Judah admitted that Tamar was justified in taking matters into her own hands. In doing so, he likewise admitted that his conduct had not been righteous. Tamar was exalted. Judah was humbled.
People do change.
And this was the first hint of a change taking place in Judah as he publicly admitted his moral failure. Judah’s admission to Tamar suggests that he had learned something. In fact, Judah would develop remarkably during the years leading up to chapter 44, where Judah would act as a righteous man before Joseph, pleading for the welfare of Benjamin and offering his life as a pledge to save his half-brother.
For Judah the effects of his deep sin, plus the example of others, plus the hidden hand of God had been at work, so that at the end of his father Jacob’s life, Jacob would confirm Judah as the scepter-bearing tribe through which would come the one to whom “shall be the obedience of the peoples” (49:10b).
What surprises spring from changing grace! By God’s grace Judah had become the man.
Tamar Perpetuates the Tribe of Judah
Just as the Jacob narrative began with the story of twins wrestling in their mother’s womb, so now at the end of the Jacob narrative there is a similar struggle.
When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.
Again, just as with Jacob and Esau, the struggle resulted in the reversal of the right of the firstborn. In both cases the younger gained ascendance over the older, establishing again that God elects as he wills.
The book of Ruth closes with a record of the ten generations from Perez to King David (4:18–22). Matthew later quoted these same ten generations leading to David (1:2–6) and then outlined the further generations to Christ.
Blessed be Tamar!
Through her determination to have children of the promise, she scratched and clawed her way into Israel and secured for Judah the honor of fathering both David and the Savior of the world.
Here is a great surprise.
Tamar the Canaanite, who began outside the people of God, turned out to be a heroine of God’s people. Tamar aligned herself with the purposes of God, and through her God’s promise to Abraham (blessing to all the peoples of the earth) was fulfilled.
The Judah-Tamar story teaches us that God’s purpose is bound up with the growth and development of his people, so that God is always at work in his children’s lives, shaping them to serve his design, as he so marvelously did with Judah and Tamar.
As Andrew Reid has so well said:
In this way it is possible to see all of life as the medium of God’s activity. He is not just active when we read our Bible and pray. He is also active when we live in our world. Hence, when we wake up tomorrow, we don’t wake up to a day without God.
Tomorrow is God’s day, for he made it, formed it, and works in it. What’s more, he wants you to enter tomorrow determined to be his person in it, and to let Christ be formed in you as you allow his word to interact with your situation.
People are not static.
And for we who believe this, there is cause for great optimism, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). So, with proper fear and trembling we submit ourselves to God, believing that we will change, that surprising grace lies ahead.
There’s a final word of encouragement. Tamar is the first of five women in the genealogy of Christ as we have it in Matthew 1.
· Tamar (v. 3)
· Rahab (v. 5)
· Ruth (v. 5)
· Bathsheba (identified as “the wife of Uriah,” v. 6)
· and Mary (v. 16)
Notably absent are the great mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel.
Why only the four, and then Mary?
First, all four of Mary’s predecessors were Gentiles. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabitess, and Bathsheba was a Hittite. So, Tamar and company declare that in Christ there is hope for the Gentile nations. This is why when Jesus’ parents took him to the temple, Simeon swept the baby up in his arms and said:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
And this is also why Matthew bookends his Gospel with hope for the Gentiles. Chapter 1 showcases Gentiles in Christ’s genealogy, and the final chapter records Christ’s charge to take the gospel to the Gentiles:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
There is one other reason for these women in the line of Christ, and it is so sweet. As Victor Hamilton explains:
Each of these four women had a highly irregular and potentially scandalous marital union. Nevertheless, these unions were, by God’s providence, links in the chain to the Messiah.
Accordingly, each of them prepares the way for Mary, whose marital situation is also peculiar, given the fact that she is pregnant but has not yet had sexual relations with her betrothed husband Joseph.
So, the inclusion of the likes of Tamar in this family tree on one hand foreshadows the circumstances of the birth of Christ, and on the other hand blunts any attack on Mary. God had worked his will in the midst of whispers of scandal.
What a God is ours. He is so great that his hidden hand constantly surprises us as he works in history and in the hearts of his people for their benefit—always for their good.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,