READ GENESIS 38.
* What is your reaction to
2) Tamar & her actions?
3) God’s involvement in this episode?
* What do you find uncomfortable &/ encouraging about this story?
* Why do you think it is included in the middle of the Genesis story of Joseph?
Have you ever said “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that!” ?
Our churches are full of women and men who, far from ‘thinking too highly of yourself’ (as Paul warned in Romans 12.3) think way too little of themselves. Whose self-esteem is below carpet level and who don’t think they are worth much or have anything to contribute!
Why is that the case? Why do we say it? Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Is it false modesty – fishing for compliments? Or is it something more insidious. Something that shuts us down and disables the Body of Christ? There is a woman in the Bible who might have something to say to us about low self-esteem. Her name is Tamar.
There are two Tamars in the Old Testament. One is the daughter of David who was raped by her half brother (there’s a lot of rape in the bible – something to look at another time). However the Tamar we are looking at features much earlier – back in Genesis – in the time of the Patriarchs.
Some thoughts on the culture of the time won’t go amiss if we want to really learn from Tamar because it is so far removed from western culture today. These are the times of tribes, before people identified themselves as a race or culture or nationality. People were identified by clan, and the bigger your clan, the more sons you had, the stronger, safer and richer you were. Someone needed to protect you against marauders, to herd your livestock. Sons are what you needed… they were a gift from God.
Daughters had a different significance: they were for producing sons.
They couldn’t fight, it wasn’t safe to send them out with the herds alone – if they couldn’t provide sons they were simply a drain on precious food and water resources!
However there was one other way in which women could be useful to their fathers – as a trading commodity. (Yeah, I know we’re not happy about that.) Essentially marrying your daughter to the son of a neighboring clan meant you formed an alliance, useful if you were under attack or needed help in some way. But marriage for love? Forget it! Marriage was a pragmatic necessity, and men arranged it.
According to this story Tamar’s father formed an alliance by marrying his daughter to Judah’s eldest son. Now this is a good deal on his part. Judah is part of a big clan - one of twelve sons. This is a powerful family to ally oneself with. So…the fact that Judah’s son is cruel enough for God to kill him is of little significance in trading off your daughter!
Gen 38; 6-11
“Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan [his second son]”Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother. But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter in law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” – for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.”
Married, (at puberty was normal) to a cruel husband, to whom she does not bear a son and who then dies leaving her a widow. We can probably assume that she was beaten and worked like a drudge and had no choice about it. This culture blamed women when they didn’t conceive (that’s what they were for after all!) so presumably she has had a hard time.
Not a happy beginning.
This is where the culture starts to get bit weird for us to understand. A family line passed from father through eldest son and so on down the line. To loose your first son was a catastrophe. Old Testament law (despite coming into existence after this story) specifies that if a man dies then his brother must marry his wife, look after her, and any children they have together are legally those of the dead brother – his line continues, even though he is gone. So Judah marries Tamar to his SECOND son, Onan.
He, however, refuses to impregnate her – though he likes the sex!
Think how degrading and humiliating this is for Tamar. She is being used for sex but with no chance of conceiving a child to secure her future. This is worse than prostitution – she isn’t even getting paid! It is abuse and Judah as head of the household should have stepped in. His son is dishonoring his dead brother, cutting off the family line as well as abusing Tamar, who Judah should have viewed as a daughter.
But Judah doesn’t.
So God does.
According to custom Judah should then give his third (and final) son to Tamar as her husband to ensure a future for her and the family line. But, given that sons number one and two have married her and then mysteriously died, he’s reluctant. And making what we can see was an empty promise he sends her away – back to her father’s house.
I can’t really imagine how Tamar must feel about all this. Can you imagine the rumours ?
“Two dead husbands – do you think she poisoned them? It can’t be a coincidence, she must be involved – they were cruel to her you know, I bet she wanted revenge! Or maybe she’s cursed, there’s got to be a reason all this has happened!”
To go back to her father’s tent in disgrace, (I bet she was about as welcome as plague!) Alliance with the powerful clan destroyed. No heir. No possibility of future marriage – she’s just a drain on their resources. I suspect that her father did not greet her with, “There, there honey, Daddy will make it all ok, you were too good for him anyway.” Realistically she has no more value than a slave now – and probably that’s the kind of treatment she received.
I don’t know how you would describe this woman, her future, her emotional state? A victim? Desperate? Hopeless?
How does that help OUR self-esteem? Well, it’s not so much her circumstances but her actions that are inspiring.
She could be forgiven for just giving up, lying down and living out her life in quiet misery. Having been let down by those that should have protected her, that’s would be completely understandable. That is what makes Tamar a heroine – even if she is an unsung one. She doesn’t do that – in fact she does something outrageously risky.
Gen 18; 12-19
“In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told “ Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear sheep,” She put off her widows garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which was on the road to Timnah. She saw the Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come into you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me?” He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said “Only 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 the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.”
Her plan (having realised Judah is never going to keep his word) is to continue his family line with or without his knowledge. She dresses as a shrine prostitute, manages to way-lay him, (literally!) get impregnated, and persuade him to leave his identity signs behind. (Passport or driving licence in modern terms.)
Now, to me, the chances of her pulling this off without getting a) discovered or b) raped, are pretty slim which makes me wonder was God involved in this somehow? But surely entrapment of your father-in-law is NOT something the Almighty thinks is a great plan for his daughters! It is morally abhorrent both to us now and back then. (Have a look at the laws about who you could and couldn’t sleep with! - Leviticus 20.11-21) And yet without the ‘coincidences’ we so often come across in the Old Testament this plan could not possibly have worked!
Judah’s friend goes to take her the goat but not finding her they decide it’s better to keep quiet and let her have the ring, to save any embarrassment. But…
Gen 38; 24-26
“ About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of her whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my some Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again.”
The end of the story shows the full hypocrisy of the culture. It was fine for Judah to sleep with a prostitute but for Tamar to have got herself pregnant was so appalling that he’s happy to have her – and her baby – burned to death! (Yes this is Judah – ancestor of Jesus – hero of the Old Testament!) Her ability to show him as the father is what saves her, but can you imagine the fear? Hiding your pregnancy for as long as you can, but being found out, dragged to a powerful man who has already rejected you. The shouting, the violence, the genuine threat of a terrible death?
Well, in the west we don’t live in this culture (praise God!) but many of us have been let down by those who should have protected us. Many of us have been misused in relationships one way or another. Many of us have had our hopes crushed or been rejected – some of us more seriously than others. Let’s not pretend people aren’t neglected, mistreated, abused, even raped by fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and brothers. And before we paint a picture where women are always the victims and men the oppressors, let’s also acknowledge that women also mistreat each other, their children and men too. None of us come through life unscathed.
Tamar IS a victim. What is inspiring about her is that she refuses to behave like one. Despite her past, and her present, she fights for her future. She doesn’t wait for someone else to save her, she stands up for herself, and God appears to be with her in that!
Now please hear me – Jesus is our saviour, we don’t work out our own salvation. But often we have a culture in the church which encourages us to self-deprecate, to put ourselves down, to wallow in our ‘low self –esteem’ as if that’s actually a good thing (especially in Britain – it’s a national past time!) We often have a wrong view of humility. Jesus was humble, but he didn’t put himself down and think like a victim – even when he was made one! He spoke out, knew his mind, knew his purpose and had an intimate relationship with both God and other people.
Many people experience real pain, abuse, neglect. It would be totally understandable in the face of opposition, oppression or abuse to back quietly away. Let’s not negate or belittle real pain, real struggle in people’s lives. The Bible says that the enemy ‘prowls around like a lion’ (1 Pet.5.8) trying to destroy both men and women – by whatever means he can.
We are God’s right hand men & women! In Him we are powerful.
But the Apostle Paul tells us that when we accept Jesus as our saviour, the Holy Spirit moves in, ‘indwells us’.(Eph.1.13) That means not only are we forgiven, right with God – but also seated with Christ at the right hand of God. (Eph 2.6) We are God’s right hand men & women! In Him we are powerful, a threat to the enemy. You – YES YOU – are a threat, you have power and influence, whether you believe it or not. Often we don’t realize that and we certainly don’t use it. We’ve been told we are no one, nothing special, of no significance – and we have believed that. Often we use our hurt, insecurity, our past, to excuse our own attitudes, behavior or even sin. Paul tells us to ‘live up to what we have already attained.’ (Phil 3.16) That basically means ‘be who you already are’. Mighty women and men, made in God’s image, called and saved by him, equipped for a purpose – to partner with him.
Perhaps we are mighty women and men who have suffered, suffered greatly even, but we are NOT VICTIMS. Jesus died to save us from that. He is in the business of healing us, making us whole – that may be a process we have to walk out with him, not a one off fix. But we don’t have to be defined by our experiences, we can be defined by who God says we are.
Tamar refused to be defined as ‘widow’, ‘childless’, ‘rejected’, ‘worthless’. She took an outrageous risk but she refused to be a victim. This is not a case for entrapment, prostitution or deception as biblical ideals for women’s behaviour. That is not what Tamar’s story should inspire in us. Rather a determination to live the life God has for us, not the one people may have inflicted on us.
Today our opportunities are unparalleled. To study, earn, travel, influence, vote, lead – certainly no other generation of women in the world’s history has had these chances. But sometimes we are like the Israelites, having been rescued from Egypt by plagues and God parting the sea, we stand – saying…
“Oh, we can’t take that land, the giants are too big and we’re like grasshoppers”. (Num 13.33)
If we are on the side of God, and Jesus Christ who flings stars into space, who can heal hearts, who brings about justice, then he will strengthen and equip us for all he asks of us. Tamar – somehow – way before Jesus, even before the Law – said,”I’m not a nothing” – and she wasn’t.
One effect of women refusing to be victims and choosing to be heroines is that it both challenges and allows men to become heroes. We tend to believe that one sex must have power over the other, that that is inevitable. Either men oppress women or they dominate men. As Christians it’s not an ‘either or’ situation - men or women being strong and brave – it’s a ‘both and’ one! Tamar, by being the courageous woman she could be, changed Judah forever. It caused him to become a hero of our faith. Without her courage he would have stayed a cowardly, irresponsible, bigoted little man – the man who sold his younger brother Joseph, into slavery and lied about it. The man who did the wrong thing, who lied about his intentions and treated her, his dependant, despicably. She forced him to face the truth, to see the hypocrisy and dishonor in his actions. With that new understanding of himself and his responsibility, he had the courage to defend Benjamin from Egypt’s Prime Minister (the brother he had sold!) and see the whole family saved from starvation. (Gen 44.18-34)
Ultimately it saved God’s chosen people.
Look what God can do with one woman, who refuses to be shaped by her past, who refuses to be a victim, who is brave!
What could he do with you?
© Ruth Perrin -0001. Last revised on 20 February 2009
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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