Bad girl or Brave Girl?
By Leslie Vernick
This Advent season I’ve been studying (and drawing) the women in the lineage of Christ as reported in Matthew 1. It’s fascinating that the women I thought God would choose, woman like Sarah, Leah, Deborah, or Miriam, are not mentioned at all. There are only five women singled out in this long ancestral list. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. With the exception of Mary, mother of Jesus, these four women were broken women, disenfranchised, marginalized, and discarded women. Yet God saw fit to use their womb to bring about His story and our redemption.
I wish I had space to cover them all, but I just want to focus this season on Tamar’s story. This is not the Tamar that was David’s daughter who was raped by her half brother Amnon. (2 Samuel 13). This is a different woman and a different story. She’s Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, from Genesis 38.
It’s interesting to note that Tamar’s story seems out of place in the narrative between Genesis 37 where Joseph is sold into slavery and ends up at Potiphar’s house, and Genesis 39 where Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, flees and is unjustly put in prison. The Holy Spirit must have had an important reason to insert Tamar’s story right here in the Holy Scriptures.
At first read, Tamar appears to be a shrewd and embittered bad girl. Widowed twice at a young age by two of Judah’s sons, she is childless. Years later Tamar disguises her face with a veil and sits by the village gate. Judah, her recently widowed father in law, mistakes this veiled woman for a temple prostitute and propositions her for sex. They bargain and Judah tells her he will send her a goat for payment. The woman requires that Judah leave a guarantee that he will send the goat and Judah leaves her with his personal ID. His seal, its cord and his walking stick.
A few months later Judah hears the shaming news that his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, has acted like a prostitute and is pregnant. Furious he orders her to be burned. But as they seized her, she cries out, “Tell the man who owns these things that he made me pregnant” and she produces Judah’s seal, his cord and his walking stick.
Judah’s response is profound. He says, “Tamar is more righteous than I am.”
What does this mean? Here is where it’s crucial that we understand a bit of Jewish culture during this period of history. When a woman was widowed and did not have an heir, she had no rights to inherit her husband’s estate. She had no rights to familial support. She was destitute and powerless. To prevent that, Jewish culture mandated that the brother of the deceased step up and marry the widow in order to provide a child to carry on the dead brother’s name. This practice ensured a widow would receive her rights to the family inheritance and familial support.
The story tells us that Judah was the one who arranged his oldest son’s marriage to Tamar. But he is described as a wicked man and dies young. Judah then instructed his second son Onan to fulfill his brotherly obligation to marry Tamar and provide his deceased brother an heir. Onan complied on the surface by marrying Tamar and having regular sexual relations but prevented her from getting pregnant. The Bible tells us that Onan didn’t want his dead brother to have an heir, perhaps thus reducing his own share of his father’s estate. The Lord saw what Onan did to Tamar as evil and he died young too.
Judah then promised Tamar that his youngest son, Shelah, would marry her when he grew up. But Judah had no intention of honoring this commitment because he was afraid Shelah would also die.
What was Tamar to do when she saw that Shelah was of age and her father-in-law was never going to honor his word? Destitute and desperate should she stay stuck and starve? No, instead Tamar took initiative and hatched a plan. Tamar veiled her face and sat at the entrance to the village. She didn’t know the outcome but she bravely put herself in a position to claim her rights to patriarchal protection.
Judah, perhaps lost in his grief at recently losing his own wife, never once looked at Tamar’s veiled face, even after propositioning her for sex. Even during the most intimate of acts she was just an object to use. Perhaps she brought him a moment of relief or pleasure or comfort. But God saw Tamar’s plight. He saw the future she faced and the injustice she had experienced.
God honored Tamar’s initiative and her courage and she became pregnant with twins. Judah was correct when he said that she was more righteous than he was. Judah failed in his obligation to keep Jewish law and provide for her, his twice widowed daughter in law. And he failed again when he angrily accused her of acting like a prostitute when he himself had just used one.
Perez and Zerah were Tamar’s newborn twin boys. They were God’s gift to Tamar. Perez, her first-born is in the lineage of Christ.
Friend, this is good news. Tamar was not a bad girl but an exceptionally gutsy and brave girl. She didn’t stay passive, victimized by situation outside her control. She did what she could and trusted God with the outcome. And God showed her, he was more than capable of doing the rest.