Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In Genesis 38 is the story of Judah and Tamar.  It’s one of the racier stories in the Bible.  (By the way, reading Genesis to young kids is a real adventure.  One has to either edit quit a bit on the fly or do a lot of sex ed while reading!)  Basically, Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er, but Er was wicked and died without leaving Tamar any children.  As was the custom of the time, Onan slept with Tamar to give her children that would pass on Er’s name.  But, Onan didn’t want Tamar having his children who would get Er’s name, so he “spilled his seed” which angered God, so he also died.  (Another aside – this passage has given rise to all kinds of prohibitions, most notably masturbation and birth control.  It seems to me, though, that Onan was punished for being disobedient.)

Tamar then lived as a widow and was supposed to marry Judah’s youngest son, Shelah, who was not yet of age.  Judah, though, didn’t want them to marry, because he was afraid that Shelah, too, would die.  After Judah’s wife died, he took his sheep near where Tamar lived.  Tamar dressed herself as a prostitute with her face covered and solicited Judah.  Judah gave her his seal, cord, and staff as pledge for a goat so he could sleep with her.

Tamar became pregnant by Judah.  When Judah sent the goat to the “prostitute”, no one knew what he was talking about, so he didn’t get his cord, seal, and staff back.  Several months later, he was told that Tamar was pregnant, so he said that she should be taken out and burned according to the law.  As she was being brought out, she showed the seal, cord, and staff and said that the owner of those items was the father.  Judah admitted his guilt and did not sleep with her again.  Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah, and she is one of the four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.

You might be wondering what the heck this all means.  Well, me too!!  Were Tamar’s actions right or wrong?  Is she a heroine or villain or something else.

In that time and place, women’s status centered around childbirth.  Tamar was sentenced to a very low status by not being allowed any way to have children.  Her situation was worse than infertility.  Her first two husbands had died, but the man who should have been her third husband had not been allowed to marry her because his father (Judah) was afraid that he (Shelah) would die as well.  Without children, who would take care of Tamar in her old age?  Without children, who was she?  In that culture, a woman was no one without children.

Tamar took matters into her own hands.  She knew that the only source of power for her in her society was pregnancy and childbirth.  She also knew that childbirth outside of wedlock meant death.  So, she decided to deceive her father-in-law to get pregnant.  He could prevent the death sentence as well as give her a husband and a name.

But, was she right or wrong in what she did?  I have no idea!  How dire were her straits?  She had certainly been wronged and had no one to stand up for her.  This is one of the more frustrating Bible stories.  We are told a story, but not really given a “lesson”.  Tamar was clearly important because she figures into Jesus’ lineage.  She was also a woman with some backbone who wasn’t willing to settle for the status quo.  She knew her only source of power and used it.

What do you think?  Is there a moral to this story – for women, at least?  How would you evaluate Tamar’s actions?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But isn't it interesting that there was already a prescribed punishment for that type of disobedience? For refusing to "give your brother offspring"?

Under the law the punishment for failing to do the duty of a brother in law was public humiliation. (Deut. 25:7–10). God didn't randomly lose his temper on this. He doesn't do that. So the "death penalty" must have been for something else. The scripture says for spilling his seed. From there we have to determine why spilling seed is wrong enough for God to impart death as a punishment.

Christians believed that it was because he violated the natural law regarding sex. Until 1930 every single Christian church agreed that this included a prohibition against birth control (and masturbation, homosexual sex, bestiality, and other violations agains the natural law.)

I wouldn't dismiss the traditional understanding of this passage too quickly.