On Fridays: Tamar.

This post is part of a Friday mini-series, looking at the 5 women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel. You can read Part One here.

At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel there is a long genealogy of Jesus. There is also a genealogy in Luke’s Gospel, but the special thing about Matthew’s (compared to Luke’s, and every other genealogy of the time, and the rest of scripture) is his inclusion of five women.

Women didn’t usually get a mention in those kind of lists, because they weren’t considered important enough to warrant it, so it’s pretty significant that they’re featured there. But, as well as that, these women are not the kind of ladies that a good First Century Jewish chap  would necessarily want to be associated with, never mind a good Jewish chap who’s claiming to be the Chosen One.

They’re unexpected ladies to feature in such an esteemed list, but then, Jesus is a pretty unexpected Saviour too.

The first of the five is Tamar.

“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…”

Matthew could have mentioned Sarah (Abraham’s wife), or Rebekah (Isaac’s wife), or Leah (Jacob’s wife), or even Shua (Judah’s wife), but he doesn’t. He chooses Tamar instead.

Those other women weren’t perfect characters, by any means, but Tamar?

Last week I was studying this story with a couple of students in Durham. There we sat, in the Student Union cafe, overlooking the river, and I asked one of them to read the chapter out for us, before we got going. If you want to go and read the story for yourself then you can find it in Genesis 38.

'Judah and Tamar' by Arent de Gelder | 1667

‘Judah and Tamar’ by Arent de Gelder | 1667

So, she started to read, and everything was fine until she got to about verse 15, when she stopped, broke off reading and just said:

“I’m sorry, but this is awful!”

Of course it is. Horrible, awful, dreadful, shameful, and sad. And yet, for some reason, Matthew wants us to associate this story with Jesus.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Old Testament. If you’ve got a spare hour or two I’d love to sit down with a cup of coffee or three, and tell you all about it. And, as it happens, Genesis is a particular favourite of mine.

This chapter though, is a bizarre little episode in the book. The first 12 chapters are really big picture stuff: God creates the world and people to live in it, they mess things up, almost immediately, and we get a few chapters of murder, mayhem, and a massive flood. Then in chapter 12 the camera zooms in on one man and his family: Abram (later, Abraham) and his wife, Sarai (later, Sarah). They’re old, and Sarai is barren, but God promises to give Abraham many, many descendants, to give him a land, to make his name great, and to bring blessing to the whole world through him. 

The story starts pretty slowly. Despite promises for many descendants, no children are immediately forthcoming, and the ageing couple try and come up with a plan to sort it out on their own. It does not go well.

But, eventually, God comes through on his promises and Isaac is born. He gets married to Rebekah, and they have a couple of sons: Esau and Jacob. Now, Esau, we’re told was ‘skilful hunter, a man of the field’, whereas Jacob was ‘quiet man, living in tents’ (read: mummy’s boy). So, who’s going to be the next leader of this promised ‘great nation’ of God’s? Obvious, right? Esau all the way.

Well, no. Jacob wins the blessing of his father, and the inheritance that should have been Esau’s, in a couple of incidents that give us an unpleasant glimpse of life in Israel’s ‘First Family’: stupidity, favouritism, trickery, and one of the worst displays of sibling rivalry going. And with this dubious start to his life as the leader of God’s people, Jacob runs away, marries a couple of sisters, and has a bunch of kids with them (and their maids).

Finally, it seems, God’s great nation is beginning, with 12 sons (and a daughter), and as we arrive at Genesis 37, it seems pretty clear who’s going to be the new big man in the story. Here we meet Joseph, the oldest son of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel. He’s handsome and clever, Jacob loves him most, and he’s got a fancy coat and the dreams to prove it. And then, right in the middle of the exciting story of Joseph’s life we get the bizarre and horrifying interruption that is Genesis 38.

Why? Because, once again, God’s plans are not what we expect. His plan to bless the whole world isn’t going to come through Joseph, as impressive as he might be. No. He’s going to use Judah, and Tamar.

So. Genesis 38.

Judah, marries a Canaanite women named Shua, and they have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for his eldest son, Er, a girl called Tamar. And immediately we’re told that Er was so wicked that God puts him to death.

We’re not told what he does that is so awful. But the fact that his wickedness is drawn attention to by the author of Genesis is pretty unusual, and if God strikes you down dead for your behaviour, indications are, you were pretty flipping bad.

So, Judah marries Tamar off to his next son, Onan. Now, to our ears that seems pretty bizarre, but if we understand the culture and customs of the time it makes a little more sense. You see, lines of inheritance were important, and as the eldest son, Er was Judah’s heir, but here he has died without producing an heir of his own. Custom allowed that a close relative marry his widow, and give her a son, who would be regarded as Er’s son and heir, and so, Judah hands Tamar over to Onan.

However, rather than doing his duty, Onan chooses to ‘spill his seed upon the ground’. It is assumed that he’s not keen on providing his dead brother with an heir, because if that state continues, then he (Onan) will inherit instead, but rather than just refusing to take Tamar as his wife, he uses her, utterly selfishly, and so, God kills him too.

Tamar has now been widowed twice and, as if to add insult to injury, her father-in-law sends her back to her father’s house. He says that this is just a temporary measure until his third son is old enough to marry her, but the narrator tells us that Judah has no intention of actually giving her to Shelah, because he’s afraid that this will cause him to lose his last heir.

Now, perhaps we might think: well, bearing in mind that her first two husbands were evil, surely Tamar would be happy enough not to have to marry their brother as well?  But again, we need to think a little about the culture of the day. Much like a great deal of the world today, women were not held in high regard in 20th century BC Canaan. Tamar had no rights or status of her own, she was utterly dependent upon men for her protection and security. Her job was to have sons to continue the family line, to return to her father’s household without a son was to return in disgrace. With the empty promise of a future marriage to Shelah she was unable to marry anyone else, so she remained as a financial burden to her father, and without a son of her own, she had no one to speak for her or defend her rights.

There she stayed, no husband, no sons, and staring at years of the same to come. Desperate and desolate.

Now, it’s fair to say that the men in Tamar’s life have not treated her well, or behaved in any way that could be regarded as morally upright, up to this point, and, just to warn you, things are not about to improve. But, I guess it’s also worth pointing out that Tamar’s next decision is not going to go down in history as the finest one ever made. Because, if she’s gained nothing else from being married into the Family Israel, she has at least picked up her in-laws penchant for concocting poor solutions to problems. So, off she goes, dressed like a prostitute, to sit at the side of road and wait for her father-in-law to stroll on by.

Judah does indeed wander by, and seeing a prostitute (and needing absolutely no hint of persuasion) he purchases sex, with the offer of a goat as payment, and hands over his seal, cord, and staff as a guarantee in the meantime. They sleep together, Tamar becomes pregnant, and returns home to her father’s house, and Judah continues on his way.

And then comes the moment in the story that is both brilliant and awful.

It’s a few months later, and news is brought to Judah that his daughter-in-law has been discovered to be pregnant. In a statement that is positively drowning in both cruelty and hypocrisy, old Judah demands that this woman (who he essentially abandoned, some years before) be brought out and burned to death as punishment.

And then the moment of pure genius in the recounting of the story: as she’s being dragged off to her death, Tamar sends a message to her father-in-law, along with the seal, cord, and staff, which she has been holding onto, presumably in anticipation of this very moment. I love the way that the NIV puts it, you can almost hear the sarcasm in her voice:

“I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”


Saved in the nick of time. And, as the icing on the cake, Judah declares, in an instance of utter humility and honesty: ‘She is more righteous than I.’

Notice, he doesn’t absolve her. There’s no hint that what Tamar did was the right thing, but, at least what she was doing was for the right reasons. She had prostituted herself in order that she might bear Er’s heir, whereas Judah had failed to do that (by giving her to Shelah) and had slept with her purely for his own satisfaction and pleasure.

In the immediate, Tamar’s story ends happily enough, with twin sons, (and, from an Old Testament perspective, there aren’t many stronger signs of blessing than twin boys); but, as the Great Story continues to unfold, Tamar’s story grows bigger and happier. We’ll see in a couple of week’s time that by the time we get to Ruth’s story, Tamar’s name has become a catchword for blessing; but more importantly, here we find her in this list of names in Matthew 1.

God uses this ugly, sordid, little interlude as part of his plan to bring blessing to the whole world. From these inauspicious roots, comes the great and glorious King Jesus. And he’s not ashamed of her story being part of his story. On the contrary, our attention is drawn to her. We are called to remember her and what she did, because of what that tells us about how he sees us.

He’s not looking for perfect people. He’s not looking for clean people. Or righteous people. Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. He comes to heal and save broken people: people like Tamar; people like you and me.

And, not only does he save us. He uses us.

As my colleague, Hamish put it:

“God, from this family that would be rejected by Jerry Springer, raises up finally His own dear Son. That is how radical God’s grace is: huge comfort to anyone about the forgiveness and restoration offered in the gospel.”

And that’s the story of Tamar, sorry that it’s been a long one, but it turns out that when it comes to this topic I’m just not capable of being succinct.

Come back next week to hear about Rahab. And please make this a conversation – I love these stories, I’d love to hear what you think of them!

In summary: Tamar.

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  • Reply fiona lynne May 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    This is really so good. You should write these longer pieces more often because they are so helpful and illuminating.

    • Reply ellidhcook May 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm


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