The fourth Sunday before Christmas Day marks the beginning of Advent. In this 5-part Advent series we look at the women in Christ’s lineage: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Read Tamar’s story in Genesis 38.
Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1:1-17.
Tamar’s story is sandwiched in between the story of Joseph (of many-colored coat fame) being sold into slavery by his brothers in Genesis 37, and his encounter with Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39.
It is a story of strength and courage, but one that is easily misunderstood. Tamar’s unusual course of action ensured the continuation of the line of Judah from which Jesus, the Lion of Judah, would come. Here is a short recap.
Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, was one of Joseph’s older brothers. When our story starts, Judah has left his father’s house and has put down his roots elsewhere, marrying a Canaanite woman who bears him three sons.
In Genesis 38:6-7 we read that Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his oldest son, Er, but Er “was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death” before any children were born. According to Near Eastern law and custom, in this circumstance the next-born son is obligated to marry the widow and serve as a surrogate so that she will have an heir.
Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to sleep with Tamar and fulfill this obligation. This son spurns his obligations and also dies at the hand of the Lord. His motivation was most likely greed, since an heir produced with Tamar would inherit half of his father’s estate.
Judah looks for a way out of his obligation to Tamar.
There is one more son, but he is too young to marry. It would have been acceptable for Judah himself to serve as a surrogate under the customs of the day. In fact, he was obligated to do so or release her so she can remarry.
But rather than recognizing that his sons’ deaths are the consequence of their own evil choices, Judah blames Tamar; not willing to take the risk that he or his remaining son might fall prey to the same fate.
Instead, Judah goes against custom and sends Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s house. But unlike other widows, she cannot remarry and must stay chaste on pain of death. As time passes, Tamar realizes Judah is not going to do the right thing. In fact, he has chosen not to act at all, making no provisions for her future and putting his own family in danger of extinction. In those days women had no legal recourse, and so Tamar is faced with a serious choice: submit to Judah’s authority or come up with a way to conceive within his family.
Here’s where things get interesting; even scandalous to Western eyes.
After what the Bible says is “a long period of time” (Genesis 38:12) we read that Tamar learns that Judah’s wife has died and that his time of mourning has ended. Hearing that Judah is headed to the sheepshearing at Timnah (the equivalent of a modern-day business trip), she comes up with a plan to get him to sleep with her in hopes of getting pregnant. 
Tamar disguises herself so that Judah mistakes her for a prostitute, as expected he propositions her, and she conceives. No wonder so many preachers skip over this chapter when teaching Genesis! Before he leaves, she asks for a token of good faith until he returns with payment for her “services”, and he hands over his signet, cord, and staff. This would be the Near Eastern equivalent of legal identification by today’s standards, and this evidence will prove her innocence later on, saving her life and the lives of the twin boys just conceived.
When it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah is incensed at the shame brought upon his family and calls for her to be burned. When Tamar sends him his seal and staff, he realizes what has happened and admits that he is the father. Not only that, Judah praises Tamar for her actions.
The climax of the story comes with Judah’s shocked and humbled response: ‘She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Tamar has acted out of the highest motives by having a child within the family of Judah. She has honored the demands of her relationship with her deceased husband, whereas Judah has not. By taking unconventional risks and humbling herself in order to hold Judah accountable, she is judged more honorable and maintains the line of Judah.”3
When this story is told, Tamar’s actions are usually characterized as adulterous (Adam Clarke’s Commentary), revengeful (Easton Bible Dictionary), or as an act of prostitution. But examining the context of the time can help us better understand the scene. Spackman suggests that “Tamar veils herself not because veils were traditionally worn by harlots, but to conceal her identity from Judah. Judah likely assumed she was a harlot because she was at a crossroads or city entrance, where harlots traditionally stationed themselves.” 
Although we can argue that the way she went about it was morally wrong, by Israelite standards Tamar was justified in her attempt to get Judah to carry out the responsibility he had dodged. He had unfairly deprived her of children, an inheritance, and the opportunity to remarry. “Genesis records neither taint of illicitness in their offspring nor criticism of Tamar. Her actions were unusual but, once clearly understood, not immoral by “the laws and commandments and circumstances of [her] day.” 
John Wesley goes further in defending Tamar’s motives:
“She believed the promise made to Abraham and his seed, particularly that of the Messiah, and…was therefore desirous to have a child by one of that family, that she might have the honour, or at least stand fair for the honour of being the mother of the Messiah.” 
Fast forward about nine months, and we learn that Tamar has given birth to twins, and both are named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3).
When the narrative resumes in chapter 42 Judah has returned to his family and changed his ways.
Jewish scholar Frymer-Kensky writes:
“[Tamar’s] boldness, initiative, and willingness to defy society’s expectations have enabled God to provide Judah with two new sons after the death of his first two sons. By continuing to consider herself a member of Judah’s family and insisting on securing her own future within its parameters, she has made it possible for that family to thrive and develop into a major tribe and eventually the Judean state…
Tamar passes from the scene, but her impact continues…the woman who transformed the history of the kingdom of Judah also transformed Judah himself…the rest of Genesis shows him back in Jacob’s family. He had betrayed Joseph out of jealousy, but he henceforth acts out of loyalty to his brother Benjamin and his father, and is willing to stand up to the Egyptians in order to ensure their safety…” 
After a dangerous detour, the actions of Tamar ensure that the house of Judah aligns once more with God’s purposes.
“From Judah will come the cornerstone.” Zechariah 10:4a
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1. Note: Levirate law protected a widow by giving her every opportunity to bear a son, and to have a family of her own. Another option was to release her from any obligation to the family so that she could remarry.
2. Note: His motivation was most likely greed since any heir produced by his union with Tamar would inherit half of the father’s estate.
3. Binz, S.J. (2011). Women of the Torah: Matriarchs and Heroes of Israel. Brazos Press, Baker Publishing Group. Grand Rapids: MI.
4. Wesley, J. (1754-1765) Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Bible Commentary.
5. Frymer-Kensky, T. (2002). Reading the Women of the Bible. Schocken Books, New York.
For more on Tamar and the other Old Testament women in the lineage of Jesus, check out Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.