Authentic :: Tamar part 1

A Tale of Two Tamars

Two women of the same name are perhaps among the most tragic stories in the Bible. Well, there are a lot of tragic stories, but these really do make a person sit up and go ‘what now?!’

So let’s set the scene for part 1:

Tamar the Canaanite (Genesis 38)

Once upon a time, in a land far away from his brothers, a man named Judah settled down with a Canaanite woman. Together this delightful couple had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They were a perfect family. The three boys grew older and Judah realized his eldest son, Er, was just incomplete. So he found him a wife. Her name was Tamar.  


Photo by Artsy Vibes on Unsplash

Now, like most little girls, Tamar dreamed of the day she would marry and have children. She would be the perfect wife and mother because she’d been dreaming and preparing for this day her whole life. Unfortunately, about 3.5 seconds into the marriage, it was clear that her husband was not the Prince Charming she’d been dreaming of. In fact, the LORD found him to be so evil, that he struck Er down. Er died, and just like that Tamar became a widow.

Now, Jewish tradition dictates that if your husband dies before you are able to conceive a child to carry on the family name, then the closest male relative must perform his Levirate duties and produce offspring for the dead relative and the widow. Sooooo, Onan was required by law (and his father) to lay with Tamar. As it turns out, Onan was about as delightful as his brother and while he did sleep with Tamar, he made sure that his, well you see he spilled his…well, let’s just say he made sure Tamar would not get pregnant. So, seeing his wickedness, God struck down Onan too (seriously, I mean really you’d think he’d learn from his brother’s mistakes, but no.)

Tamar was still a widow with no children so Leviate law dictated that Shelah (the third son) sleep with her next. However, Shelah was kinda still a kid so Judah sent Tamar back to live with her father until Shelah was grown…or so he said. However, like most stupid fathers, Judah didn’t see any fault with his own sons, but rather blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. So he had no intention of allowing her to sleep with Shelah—thus condemning her to a life of solitude and shame.

The Jerkface.

Sometimes things happen that are just completely out of our control. What do we do when life seems unfair, unjust, or just plain wrong? If we are wise, we trust in the Lord and let him direct our decisions and our plans.

Right or wrong, Tamar devises a plan, and personally given the cultural context, I can get behind her extreme actions, and evidently, God directed them given the ultimate outcome. According to Jewish tradition, Tamar was most likely a Canaanite woman who converted to Judaism either before or after she married Judah’s son. When she devises the plan, the narrative takes on a positive tone, not condemning her, but confirming that she is doing what is righteous because Judah was being unrighteousness. Rather than living in the shame her father-in-law saddles her with, Tamar decides to take the future into her own hands, but trusts God will ultimately vindicate her.


Photo by Kyle Loftus on Unsplash

Genesis 38:20-23 we see that Judah has never been very good at the whole ‘personal responsibility’ thing. This is actually an echo of Genesis 37:26-27, where he wants to do the right thing, makes a comment or a suggestion or a half-baked action, but doesn’t really follow through. What it boils down to is Judah takes the path of least resistance–knowing what is right, but refusing to stand up for it. He sleeps with a woman who he believes is a ‘cult prostitute’ (or a prostitute for a religious sect), which is pretty heavily frowned upon in God’s law. He gives this prostitute some pretty personal items (kind of like giving her his driver’s license and social security card) as collateral and then, rather than tracking her down, he just shrugs off the items as stolen and goes about his business, never recognizing the sins he himself has committed.

Judah is quick to judge Tamar when it comes out that she is pregnant “immorally”. She’s been living in her father’s home, ignored and forgotten by him until he believes she’s made a mistake and then suddenly he’s all fired up–to burn her at the stake. Nevermind his own sins which he thinks has been forgotten and hidden. But yet again, God proves that he is just and righteous and not only will our sins be found out, but there is also always a consequence to those sins.

This story is not as tragic as it could have been. While it is not exactly a happily ever after kind of situation, it is a beautiful picture of conviction and grace, on the part of Judah, who when he does realize that he was wrong actually admits it and does his best to make it right. After all, Tamar’s life was literally in his hands. He could have ignored the message she sent him and had her burned at the stake–his honor forever in tact. But he didn’t.


Photo by Hello Lightbulb on Unsplash

On the surface, this appears to be condoning Tamar’s deceptive acts, but I think it’s actually highlighting her determination to follow God’s law no matter the consequences to herself. Let me explain.

  1. Despite the fact that her two previous husbands were jerks, she never curses God, the men, or even Judah. She had every opportunity to be bitter and surly, but instead she is obedient and compliant. She bides her time and takes action only when she sees that there is no other choice.
  2. When she devises her plan she is careful to still bring honor to bother herself and Judah. She targets him specifically, and strategically placing herself in his path. She covers herself with a veil, which shows an unusual amount of modesty for the ‘prostitute’ role she is playing.
  3. Tamar is thoughtful and cunning, making sure that she can prove who the father of her child is–securing identification tags rather than money, or other forms of payment that might have been tempting.
  4. When the scheme is found out, she does not go public. She doesn’t shame Judah (or herself), she trusts Judah and God to do the right thing, by privately addressing the issue (unlike Judah who rants to anyone who will listen about burning her at the stake).
  5. She is gracious to forgive, only grateful to be vindicated and justified in her own moral character.

All of these elements prove that Tamar was not just acting out of selfish ambition, but with a desire to honor the Lord, Judah and herself.

And we can learn a valuable lesson from her example in how to deal with those who have wronged us–a lesson that is hard to apply but valuable to remember, because at some point we will all feel taken advantage of, lost, or forgotten by the world. So, what do we do?

  1. Be thankful for what we do have, not bitter over what we have lost or think we deserve. After all, if we truly got what we deserved, we wouldn’t be any happier (death, we all deserve death and punishment because we are all sinners)
  2. Check your motivation. Always ask yourself if the actions you are taking will bring honor to God, and if the answer is ever no…take a step back and think about another plan, or just wait to hear from God. Jealousy, revenge, and bitterness do not bring honor to God, but obedience, justice, and thankfulness do.
  3. Think things through. All actions, even rightly motivated, have consequences so it is highly advisable that you consider all the possible outcomes before acting.
  4. Keep things private. I know posting your business and beef with others on social media feels good in the moment, but it causes way more damage to you and the other person when you go public with any kind of conflict. If you truly want to bring honor and justice to a situation, keep it private. Don’t “vent” about to others either. “Venting” is usually just a nice way of excusing your own gossip. Trust me, I know this from personal–heartbreaking–experience.
  5. Forgive. You’ll never truly bring honor, glory or peace if you don’t learn to forgive the wrongs. I’m not saying that it’s easy–I’m sure it was a struggle for Tamar, but forgiveness is the only way to move forward. They don’t call it ‘holding’ a grudge for no reason–it holds you back as much as it does anything else. Let go. Let God. Move on.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Tamar’s story might be weird to the 21st century mindset, but despite the differences, there is always a human connection to be made and if we are wise…we won’t just hear. We’ll learn.

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