The Courage of Tamar (Gen. 38)

Tamar carefully removes her widowed clothing and puts on clothing and a veil that will signify to others that she is available for prostitution. She then walks to the entrance to Enaim to wait for her father-in-law, Judah. She is nervous as she waits, but this seems like the only option available for her. She is tired of waiting and being locked away in her father’s house hoping that someday Judah will remember his promise to marry her to his son, Shelah. She is trapped and without any future hope. Judah must not understand what it is like to have to live out her young adult years as a widow. Will Judah ever send for her? How long must she continue to wait? Why hasn’t Judah kept his word? Doesn’t he realize that she was not to blame for the death of both her former husbands, his sons? Didn’t Judah realize that his sons were not honorable men? Why is she being punished for events beyond her control? Her only hope for a future is to bear a son who will take care of her when she is older, but Judah is denying her the opportunity for a future.

As Tamar continues to wait, she wonders if Shelah is a grown man yet? Will he be traveling with his father? Judah has recently been widowed and so she is hopeful that he will be seeking comfort from a woman for hire. Though this is not the path she wants it is the only way available to her to conceive a child. This is the most difficult thing that Tamar has ever done, and she is taking a huge risk, but she can no longer wait for someone else to see to her future; she must take a risk to make a future for herself.

Finally, she sees Judah in the distance as he is approaching Enaim. Tamar also sees that she was correct, Judah has deliberately abandoned her to remain a widow forever; his son Shelah is with him and he is a full-grown man. Judah lied to her; he obviously had no intention of ever marrying her to his youngest son. Though she suspected it, Tamar feels a sharp pain of betrayal in her heart. She must push down her feelings and stay focused. Now is the time for courage; she must grasp this chance to change her future. As Judah draws near, Tamar wonders if he will approach her. Will she be able to go through with her plan? She must be strong.

Her plan has worked, Judah asked to have sex with her. Playing the part of the prostitute, she asks for payment. When Judah offers to send her a kid from his flock, she asks him for some personal items as a pledge until he can come back and pay her. Tamar returns home after her encounter with Judah and waits to see if she has conceived a child. Judah did not know it was her that he propositioned, but he will have to find out if she becomes pregnant. His personal items are the only thing that may save her life. Weeks later, Tamar clings to Judah’s personal items while she awaits the coming confrontation with him when her pregnancy becomes known.

After three months, the face to face meeting that Tamar has been dreading arrives. Judah has demanded that she be brought to him to answer for her indiscretion. Tamar gathers the items that Judah gave her and braces herself to confront him. Judah intends to punish Tamar, but he is halted from doing so when she presents his own items to him to reveal that it was he who got her pregnant. In response Judah states, “She is more I the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:26 NRSV).

Tamar is presented as the more righteous of the two despite her deception and actions. We find here that Tamar took the initiative to improve her circumstances instead of continuing to allow Judah to treat her unjustly. She did the only thing she could do to seek out justice for herself. She displayed an immense amount of courage and risked her life so that she might truly experience a life worth living. While we may want to question her approach, we see that she is not condemned for what she did, in fact it is Judah who realizes his unjust treatment of her. Additionally, it is Perez, a son of Judah and Tamar, who is an ancestor of Jesus (Luke 3:33).

One thought on “The Courage of Tamar (Gen. 38)

  1. Thanks for sharing this. The “shame” element of prostitution and sex in general has been on my mind lately. Sex outside of marriage carries so much shame in our culture, but I am really wrestling with this. Is that perspective God-ordained, or culture-driven? It’s interesting that in this story ultimately neither Tamar NOR Judah are condemned for their sexual actions. Judah condemns himself for not giving Tamar his son in marriage, but not for sleeping with what he thought was a prostitute. Why is that? Perhaps it simply wasn’t the moral of that story, but perhaps there’s more to it. Whatever the reason, Tamar was clearly extended grace for her “less than ideal” decision based on her circumstances and as you point out, her courage. I would even argue that Judah gives dignity and value to her decision by calling her “righteous”. Why was it not dignified for her to earn a living in one of the only ways a woman could in that time, prior to knowing her unfortunate circumstances? Why does that same dignity not translate today in situations where woman make decisions they feel they need to make to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

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