Tamar is not one of the more prominent characters of scripture; she is afforded one chapter in Genesis, a verse in the book of Ruth chapter 4, a reference in 1 Chronicles chapter 2, and a mention in Matthew chapter 1. Her importance, however, is not determined by the amount of space allocated to her in the word of God, but rather that each occasion marks her out as having a vital role in the line of descent along which Messiah would be born.
There are two women in scripture called Tamar. The one under consideration is not to be confused with Tamar the daughter of David and sister of Absalom, 2 Sam. 13, though both were shamefully treated by members of their own families.
Genesis chapter 38, in which we find the story of Tamar, is essentially a parenthesis. In the previous chapter, we are introduced to Joseph in the family home of Jacob, and the chapter closes with Joseph, having been sold by his brothers, now purchased from the Midianites by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Chapter 39 takes up the story of Joseph again without any break in the narrative.
The intervening chapter follows the footsteps of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, as he leaves the parental home and journeys into Canaanite territory. The land at this time was occupied by tribal nations which would not be removed until Joshua’s day, a further two hundred and thirty years or so, until ‘the iniquity of the Amorites’ was full, as made known to Abraham. Jacob was simply a tent dweller as Abraham and Isaac, Heb. 11. 9.
Before we are quick to censure Judah for his actions, we need to appreciate something of the problem faced by Jacob’s sons in finding suitable wives. Abram had entered the land already married to Sarah. He was most insistent that Isaac did not take a wife from the Canaanite tribes, but rather from his own people. Jacob was also found providentially in Padan-aram where he married Leah and Rachel. Now, however, the question of wives for Jacob’s twelve sons was not so straightforward. Joseph would later marry an Egyptian from which union two of the tribes of Israel would issue. We know from Genesis chapter 46 and the genealogies in 1 Chronicles that all the sons eventually had families, so can only assume that the wives, though not named, were from the indigenous tribes and prepared to leave their idolatry and embrace, at least in a measure, the rule of Israel’s God, as later, Ruth the Moabitess wholeheartedly did.
It would seem from the tone of the narrative that Judah’s purpose in going to Adullam, not a particularly long journey, was to find a wife. By verse two of the chapter, he has achieved his goal and an unnamed Canaanite woman becomes the mother of his three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. It is a point of interest that, although Judah was the son of Jacob through whom Messiah’s genealogy was established, none of these three sons was deemed suitable by the Spirit of God to continue that line. Genesis chapter 38 explains how the sovereignty of God preserved the line of promise, in a most unexpected way. Enter Tamar.
Some years had passed since the birth of Judah’s sons, and Er was now of marriageable age. It would seem that Judah chose a wife for his son, and that may have caused some resentment. For, without giving any details or account of his actions we simply read that Er, ‘was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him’. The word ‘wicked’ is used throughout scripture as an adjective to describe a variety of actions, thoughts, people, and nations. The Apostle John, in his first Epistle, identifies the source of all such behaviour as from ‘the wicked one’, the enemy of all that is good and of God. Er is the first of only three named individuals who are rightly described as ‘wicked’. ‘Athaliah, that wicked woman’, 2 Chr. 24. 7; and the ‘wicked Haman’, Esther 7. 6, complete the evil trilogy.
Responsibility then fell to Onan, to marry Tamar and provide a child who would take precedence of inheritance over Onan in place of his deceased elder brother. This arrangement was later enshrined in the Sinai law, Deut. 25. 5, 6, but was apparently accepted practice in Patriarchal days. The outworking of this and of the verses which follow in Deuteronomy chapter 25 are clearly seen in the actions of Boaz and the nearer kinsman in Ruth chapter 4.
Onan expressed his rejection of this procedure by making sure that Tamar did not conceive. The tense suggests a repeated action, not just a single occasion, thus compounding his refusal to obey the instruction of Judah his father. Had Onan been obedient, he could have taken his place in the ancestry of Messiah. But he forfeited that privilege by his selfish actions, the Lord’s patience was exhausted, and Onan joined his brother in the graveyard.
All now, it seemed, depended upon Shelah who was not yet old enough to marry Tamar. Judah appears to have laid at least some of the blame for the death of Er and Onan upon Tamar and took the opportunity to sideline her by sending her back to her father’s house, possibly hoping that, in time, she would find another husband. However, he reckoned without the resourcefulness and determination of Tamar.
Several events now came together. Judah’s wife died, and, maybe with a view to helping him to recover from her passing, Hirah the Adullamite, Judah’s friend, accompanied him to Timnath at sheepshearing time. Each year this was an occasion for celebration, drinking and general carousing, cp. 2 Sam 13. 23-29. News reached Tamar of Judah’s whereabouts and she swiftly put her plan into action. Shelah had now reached a reasonable age for marriage, but Judah, it seemed, had no intention of marrying his third son to Tamar, so, divesting herself of her widow’ garments, she dressed as a woman of easy virtue, covering most of her face with a veil, and sat in a place where she knew Judah would pass by.
It may seem strange to our western, puritanical minds, that no moral judgement or comment is made concerning the actions of either Judah or Tamar. The Levitical law would prohibit sexual activity between a father-in-law and his daughter-in-law, with death for both as the prescribed punishment, Lev. 20. 12. The catalogue of sins involving family members, and other more unnatural relationships, are given in detail in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20. In both chapters, the concluding summary adds that, ‘all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled’, Lev. 18. 27. These sins of the Canaanite nations provided God with a sound reason for casting them out and destroying them.
For Tamar, then, it may not have seemed such an unusual or scandalous undertaking, since such relationships were accepted among her people. She could also have reasoned that both she and Judah were widowed so that no living partner was affected or offended by their action. However, although Judah acted unwittingly, the implication drawn from his later response of anger and embarrassment reveals that conscience was at work within. It was the law that exposed the fact, the nature and the reality of sin, Rom. 7. 7.
For the believer, the New Testament sets out clearly the manner of life and behaviour which should characterize and motivate the Christian. Not by law observance, but through liberty in Christ we have a sure guide that monitors our actions in all circumstances, in order to be pleasing to Him.
Judah, having fallen for Tamar’s charms, without too much resistance, enters a bargaining situation to pay for services rendered. The agreed payment was a kid from the flock, but Tamar demanded a pledge, a security, until Judah sent the kid. She was astute enough to persuade Judah to part with personal possessions which were of value to him and would clearly and unambiguously identify him later. Then she waited.
Judah, meanwhile, attempted to fulfil his part of the bargain by sending a kid by the hand of Hirah to retrieve his belongings. Hirah asked around and made careful search, but obviously to no avail. On his return, Judah, no doubt reluctantly, accepted the loss of his goods and dismissed the episode.
Three months later, the news came to Judah that Tamar was expecting a child. Judah, without any compassion, demanded her death by burning. The moment had arrived for Tamar to play her master card! Brought out to suffer her fate, she produced the tokens of the transaction, leaving Judah no option but to acknowledge them. He also admitted that he had wronged Tamar by withholding Shelah from her as a husband.
Judah’s statement, ‘She hath been more righteous than I’, merits a mention. Righteousness is an absolute concept, the very nature of deity. There cannot be degrees of righteousness and though we may compare ourselves with others, we conveniently forget that ‘all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags’, Isa. 64. 6. Judah may compare his actions with those of Tamar and consider her to be ‘more righteous’, yet the actions of both parties in the previous verses leaves much to be desired.
Tamar is mentioned no more in the chapter, but attention turns to the twins which she had conceived. Possibly the most detailed description of any birth in scripture follows, with the child regarded by the midwife as taking precedence, in fact being born second. Yet another example in scripture of the first being last and the last first, e.g., Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Manasseh and Ephraim, among others.
When we come to chapter 42, Judah is back in Jacob’s family home with all his brothers. Chapter 46 confirms that no family, other than that recorded in chapter 38 is linked with Judah, suggesting that he never married again.
So, in the sovereignty of God, Pharez, the son of Tamar, takes his place in the royal dynasty, preserved, and privileged to be the ancestor not only of David the king, but of Joseph, and ‘of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ’, Matt. 1. 16.
Sovereign grace! o’er sin abounding,
Ransomed souls the tidings swell.
‘Tis a deep that knows no sounding.
Who its breadth or length can tell?
On its glories
Let my soul for ever dwell
(John Kent (1766-1843))
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