Tuesday 16th June 2020 – Judah and Tamar
from Genesis 38
It happened at that time that Judah … saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’ But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.”’ Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’
About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.
Levirate marriage (from the Latin meaning husband’s brother) is practised in patriarchal societies. The practice of the brother of a deceased man marrying his sister-in-law stems from a legitimate desire to protect women in societies where they are dependent on men for shelter and security (of course allowing women freedom in their own right would eliminate the need for this). In Old Testament Judaism the practice took place if the widow was childless; children would be seen as the descendents of the deceased brother. Inheritance would be safeguarded and the widow provided for. As today’s disturbing passage shows, however, it was not a practice that was popular with surviving brothers!
Judah may have been a tad superstitious as Tamar had been married to two of his sons – both of whom died. One can, therefore, understand a certain reluctance to marry off his third son to the same woman. In the meantime Tamar had been sent back, presumably in disgrace, to her father’s house but was determined to secure her rights. So in disguise, she prostituted herself and fell pregnant by her father-in-law who was, later, ready to have her put to death for “whoredom.” Of course Judah wouldn’t see that he had to be put to death for using a prostitute but double standards rarely trouble patriarchs.
Tamar is an early example in our Scriptures of a woman who stood up for her rights, who realised she was being cheated and did something about it. She turned the tables on Judah and on his deadly assumptions – something he had the wit to realise. Most interestingly Tamar is listed in St Matthew’s genealogy as an ancestor of Jesus. Talk about skeletons in the closet!
When we are tempted to judge others on appearances, to have double standards and to collude with patriarchal oppression let’s remember Tamar who turned the tables and found her rights and security through seduction.
God of Tamar,
help us to build a world where men no longer abuse women,
where women no longer need to sell their bodies,
and where the rights of all are cherished.