the story of Tamar
Judah had already lost 2 sons and now his wife has died. So when word came that his eldest son’s widow Tamar was pregnant–the result of prostituting herself–it seemed that a solution for dealing with his widowed daughter-in-law had been handed to him. Without asking any questions, he quickly pronounced the sentence prescribed by the law: “Burn her at the stake!”
God’s wrath, as Judah saw it, had struck so many times. Perhaps stricter adherence to the requirements of the law would set things straight with God.
Then he received a signet ring, a rope and a staff with the words: “The one to whom these belong is the father of my child.”
Judah looks at them and knows that the ring, the cord, and the staff are not the only things that are his.
He also knows that his daughter-in-law Tamar was not the guilty one in all of this, but that he is.
He was the one who had failed to act in a faithful way. That she drew upon her own resourcefulness to secure her place in the family AND to continue her husband’s line, he knew was not sin. In fact, to him it was an act of righteousness. On all counts, he was the guilty one.
Here’s how this turn of events came to be: Judah and his wife had 3 sons. The eldest named Er married Tamar. Then Er died, and because Jewish custom dictated that a widow should marry one of her deceased husband’s brothers, Judah told his second son, Onan, to fulfill this duty. But Onan, knowing the offspring would not be his, saw to it that it did not happen. He died. The text says, “What he did was displeasing to the Lord and he killed him, too.”
There was one more son Selah, but Judah feared for him and told Tamar, “Remain a widow in my house…until Selah grows up.”
Tamar was in a very precarious situation. Her marriage had severed her father’s responsibility for her. She had become the property of her husband when she married him. But he had died before there were children, and so, though she was now Judah’s responsibility, there were no sons to care for her. Tamar was in limbo, connected to a family now only because Judah told her to remain a widow in his house. And that did not solve her primary concern to carry out the line of Judah’s eldest son her late husband.
Though in time the third son had grown up, Judah the patriarch still had not given Tamar to him in marriage.
Then Judah’s wife died. After the period of mourning, Judah and a friend headed to a place down the road called Timnah. When Tamar learned of this, she exchanged her widow’s clothes for a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at a place beside the road Judah was about to travel on his way to Timnah.
Judah didn’t recognize her as his daughter-in-law and approached her as a prostitute, promising her a goat from his flock. But she wanted collateral and asked for his ring, his cord, and his staff.
A day or two later, back at the ranch, Judah tried to send the promised livestock to the woman so that he might retrieve his things, but it was reported to him that she was nowhere to be found. “Well, let her keep the things,” Judah said, “or we’ll become a laughingstock.”
Three months later he has learned that his daughter-in-law is expecting a child and that the child is his. He says, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her in marriage to my son Selah.”
There is a double standard here, so glaring that it is not even acknowledged. They thought Tamar was engaging in prostitution, the penalty for which was death. Judah was guilty. But there is no mention of punishment for him.
We do have to give Judah some credit here. He acknowledged that he hadn’t been fair to her in failing to honor the rule of levirate marriage.
But righteous? That Judah considers her actions righteous is rather difficult for us to understand.
It might help to remind ourselves that at the core of the biblical understanding of righteousness is loyalty to relationships. It is about honoring our responsibilities toward God, family and neighbor; and the definition of “neighbor”, Jesus makes clear, extends much further than we think.
Righteousness is not an abstract code of conduct. Righteousness in the Judeo-Christian faith can only be truly and fully understood in the context of relationships. The ten commandments are not simply a code of conduct to be posted publicly. They put the actions of God’s people in the context of their relationship with God: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Therefore, you shall have no other gods before. You shall not make a graven image, you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, you shall keep the sabbath holy…” We can only hope to honor God’s commandments WITHIN a covenant relationship with God and the whole family of faith. That relationship calls upon us to bring others into that family of faith, not impose our covenant agreement with God on them apart from such a covenant. It’s at the heart of who we understand ourselves to be, not righteous in and of ourselves but with God’s help and in covenant relationship with God.
Tamar was trying to honor her commitment to her deceased husband by insuring that his line continued, which was Judah’s line as well. Judah saw righteousness in that and not simply from a selfish angle.
Matthew’s gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus. And there, only one of four women listed, is Tamar. Neither she nor any of the other 3 women needed to be listed in a lineage of males only. But they are listed. And their life situations would not have passed the litmus test of virtue, according to conventional standards. Three are not even Jewish. And yet here they are in the genology of Jesus which Matthew uses to show that the intentions of God to bring salvation to all extends far back in time and does not depend on our assessments of what is required in order for God to act on our behalf NOR our ability to do that…thank God that it does not.
William Willimon: “There are those who realize that it is God’s will for them to survive, to thrive, and to triumph. … Tamar doesn’t whine about her circumstances, nor does she quietly resign herself to her situation.
Rather she takes matters in hand and, in spite of her circumstances, possesses resources to find a way into a more hopeful future.”
Most religious people would condemn her actions out of hand. But the word used in Genesis 38 for Tamar’s act is sadeqa (righteous). That the book of Genesis considers it so in this instance by no means declares that action to be righteous in all cases. But the passage declared it to be a way of doing justice to a relationship. Paul speaks harshly against taking God’s grace as license to do as we please.
Jesus told a parable about a steward who was fired for mismanagement, but before he turned over the books, he reduced the bill of all his master’s debtors, thereby making friends for himself and retrieving some of his master’s receipts. In jesus’ parable the steward was commended for his actions by his master.
It’s the difficult passages that force us to think outside the box.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways” says the Lord, according to the prophet Isaiah.
Jesus’ breaking the Sabbath to heal someone was an example of breaking a law in order to fulfill God’s intention behind the law.
Jesus told the Pharisees: “the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Martin Luther: “Love God and sin boldly,” meaning that though the law is good, our hearts must ultimately determine our actions.
“Oh, I’ll just go to hell,” said Huck Finn, refusing finally to obey the law requiring him to turn his friend a slave named Jim into his owner.
Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. On these 2 commandments hang all the the law and the prophets.”