Tamar, Unsealed

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse,
And Jesse the father of King David.
Matthew 1:1-6

Over the last year, the United States has awakened to the dark malignancy of sexual abuse. In a sea change some have called “the Reckoning”, bravely-told stories of harrassment and assault have beamed truth and light onto long-shadowed social ills.

The results have been astonishing: Powerful celebrities have fallen. Established politicians have resigned. Previously-trusted physicians have been exposed. Even clergy have been called on the carpet.

I applaud the women of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, for adding their voices to the effort. In a document entitled #WeAreSpeaking, a team of talented female leaders acknowledges the church’s uneven record and articulates the RCA’s commitment to valuing women and girls in new and life-giving ways. The expanding list of signatories suggests that an honest and hopeful sentiment is rising among my colleagues. I’m glad for that.

For generations, efforts to address the harrassment of women have been curtailed by spurious assumptions and entrenched power structures.  It has required the courageous and catalytic work of strong female leaders to bring these injustices to light. In a sense, those resolute women and girls are spiritual daughters of an often-overlooked heroine from the Old Testament book of Genesis.

Her name was Tamar.

That’s she’s named in the above genealogy is the reader’s first clue to strength and significance of Tamar. Most ancestral records focus exclusively on father-to-son lineage. But Matthew’s is different. Before beginning the story of Jesus, Matthew wants us to know that we don’t get from Abraham to David without Tamar*.

Tamar’s story is often overlooked by students of the Bible. Many readers, eager to learn about about Joseph’s fate in Egypt, hopscotch from Genesis 37 to Genesis 39. But it’s no exaggeration to say that the story of redemption hinges on chapter 38.

Let’s consider it again.

The tale – while it has a whole lot to do with a man named Judah – actually begins Judah’s son, Er. That’s not a typo; the guy’s given name was a two-letter syllable more commonly associated with first-date stuttering. As was custom in those days, Er’s marriage was arranged; dear old Dad managed to procure a wife for his boy in the person of Tamar.

As it turns out, Er might as well have been spelled with a second “r” because the Genesis 38:7 says that his life was one mistake after another. It got so bad, and Er was so “wicked in the Lord’s sight,” that God put him to death.

Whether or not poor Tamar was happy to be rid of her famously lousy husband we don’t know. But what is clear is that abrupt widowhood placed her in a precarious social position. She was cut off from day-to-day financial support and had little hope of inheriting her late husband’s estate.

Now, if we’re going to have any hope of understanding what happens next, we have to appreciate the family and legal expectations of Tamar’s day. At this point in history, justice called for the deceased’s brother to step in – all the way in – and help the widow become pregnant. This honored the departed and provided an heir to materially support the dead man’s wife.

So all eyes turned to Er’s kid brother Onan. But Onan, Genesis says, proved to be just as wicked as Er. Sparing us little room for imagination, verses 9-10 report that brother number two was happy to engage in the sex but that he wanted no part in the responsibility.

See, the way that Onan saw it, if he didn’t produce a child for Tamar, then Er’s share of the inheritance went right back into the family purse. Long story short, this meant that Onan’s slice of the pie would be bigger. So Onan assumed the pleasures of Tamar’s body, but he refused to help her conceive a son.

God, it’s worth noting, was not amused with this little adventure. So Onan met the same fate as Er: Lights out.

Tamar’s situation was becoming dire.

The Bible says that after Onan died, there remained one brother from Er’s house. Shelah. According to Judah (and he might have been telling the truth), Shelah wasn’t of age to do what the law expected him to do. Not enough hair on his chinny chin chin, probably. So Judah contacted his grieving daughter-in-law and suggested she head back to her parents’ place until Shelah becomes old enough to sire a child.

But before long, it becomes clear that Judah is never going to give Shelah to Tamar. Perhaps Judah observes a pattern: Tamar is with Er, Er dies. Tamar is with Onan, Onan dies. Maybe the common denominator, he muses, is the woman.

Blame the victim, right?

That, or the man is just so stingy with his estate that he just won’t allow justice for his daughter-in-law. Better to send the woman back home than to parcel out any of the family’s inheritance for her.

Regardless of Judah’s motive, Tamar remained victimized, helpless, and alone. And at this point, she could have mailed it in. She could have clammed up, shouldered the pain, and conformed to the patriarchical system that ruled the day.

But Tamar was in no mood to take this thing lying down. It was time for action. So Tamar rose up, witted up, and went out in search of justice.

Now, let’s be clear. God was in this thing all the way. The plan she devised was such a longshot that without a little help from heaven, it never would have worked. But God was in this thing, fully invested in helping Tamar justify herself and fully committed to shaping a nation at the same time.

So how did Tamar pull it off?

Well, it seems as if her years spent as an in-law among Judah’s clan clued Tamar in to Judah’s family’s relentless appetite for sex. So Tamar’s aimed right at the old man’s weak spot. Setting up by the side of the road, she shrouded herself in the garb of a shrine prostitute and enticed Judah to purchase favors from her.

Judah, reckless and lusty, was an easy mark. The only question was the price.

Patting his pockets with embarrassment, Judah realized that he had, once again, forgotten to grab his wallet before leaving home. With no cash, MasterCard, or traveler’s check to speak of, Judah suggested that maybe a goat would be sufficient for the evening.

Because apparently that was the going rate.

I’ll pause while we all wait for our skin to stop crawling.

Okay. One goat it would be. But this would have to be on credit; evidently Judah hadn’t brought Fluffy with him into the chamber. So Tamar shrewdly asked for collateral. And according to the story, she asked for the most valuable collateral she could think of – Judah’s staff, cord and his seal.

It’s probably not too much to say that this was like asking for a man’s passport, his driver’s license, and the keys to his pickup all at the same time. Judah, if he had any sense in his head at all, should have called off the deal and walked away.

But for whatever reason, Judah agreed to Tamar’s price. Handing over his old-world ID cards, Judah made the trade and climbed in to sleep with a veiled, faceless body. The whole thing was commoditized, transactional. In, out, over.

And that’s it. The narrator says that Judah moved on to shearing some sheep.

But the story was far from done. Because their little rendezvous had produced twin boys in Tamar’s womb.

Pregnant with her father-in-law’s children, Tamar took off her veil, headed back to Mom and Dad’s place, and bided her time. Three months went by.

Then, at first hint of a baby bump, the rumor mill began to churn: Tamar is expecting.

For many of us who’ve grown up in the church, “Judah” has positive connotations. The name means praise. Judah is David’s tribe. Jesus is called the Lion of Judah. Again, good connotations.

Well, those connotations don’t arise from this chapter. Because the Judah of Genesis 38 is blackhearted and ruthless.

When he hears that Tamar is pregnant, the dude goes nuclear. Though he probably had no thought of ever pairing Shelah with the widow, Judah explodes with fury because Tamar hasn’t reserved her body for his son. In his rage, he orders that Tamar be burned at the stake. The Hebrew text presents Judah’s command as seething and spare: Take. Burn. 

Tamar’s story looks like it will end in ashes and despair. But the abused and terrorized young woman won’t go down this easily.

Showing incredible restraint, Tamar holds on to the evidence until the last minute. Then, just before the community is ready to throw her on the pile, she draws out the staff, cord, and seal. “I am indeed pregnant!” the resolute single mother declares. “And the father is the owner of these!”

This has to be one of the ultimate pin-drop, plot-twist, shock-and-awe moments in all of the Old Testament.

See, when Tamar produced these tokens, she was doing more than playing gotcha with her frisky father-in-law. Tamar was pulling back the curtain on generations of mistreatment and sin. Tamar was upending the system.  Tamar was taking control back. She revealed herself as the prostitute, but it was Judah and his wicked sons who were unmasked. And with the community looking on, Judah is forced to acknowledge the truth: “She is more righteous than I” (38:26).

Now, in light of modern sensibilities, you can question Tamar’s methodology. But you can’t second-guess her courage. Violated, humiliated, and robbed of what was rightfully hers, this fearless woman went out for justice. She outsmarted and outlasted the men who had shamed her. And in the critical moment, when her life – and the future of the nation – was about to go up in flames, it was Tamar who spoke most decisively.

Thank-you, women of courage, for helping me and so many other men to understand your experience. Thank-you for naming what we have so long overlooked. Continue to teach us. Show us our cords and seals.

Let’s grow together, ensuring that future generations of women never face the grief and heartache that so many before us have endured.

Perez…the ancestor of David…the ancestor of Jesus…had a mother named Tamar.



*Nor to Christ without Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary!


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