The Curious Story of Tamar

Matthew begins his gospel by breaking the rules.

It’s not so much that he includes a boring genealogy that breaks the rules—although from a storytelling perspective, starting with a boring genealogy certainly breaks the storytelling rules. To the ancient Jews, genealogies were very important, and they pop up throughout the Bible.

Rather, it’s the way that Matthew tells his genealogy that’s likely to raise eyebrows.

For one thing, he names several women, which is definitely against the rules. The last was Bath-Sheba; King David murdered Uriah in order to steal her for himself. And in David’s ancestry, he mentions Ruth, who was a Moabite. And before that, Rahab, the whore from Jericho. And before that, Tamar, the mother of Peretz and Zerach, of whom you may never have even heard.

She is not to be confused with King David’s daughter Tamar, raped by her half-brother Amnon, who was then murdered by her other brother Absalom. (Sheesh! Being in a royal family sure does result in a lot of drama, doesn’t it?) That Tamar has a different story.

This Tamar’s story begins in Genesis 38, with Judah, the son of Jacob. This is the same Judah that had convinced his brothers not to murder Joseph, but to sell him into slavery instead.

A place in this world

Then Judah moved away to Adullam. He married a woman he met there, and had three sons: Er, Onan, Shelah. And when Er grew up, Judah got him a wife named Tamar.

Now, we don’t know how or why Judah and his other sons came to hate Er and his wife Tamar. Yes, Tamar was an outsider, a foreigner; but so was Judah’s wife, their own mother.

Palestinian refugees (British Mandate of Palestine – 1948), making their way from Galilee in October-November 1948

Maybe Er cheated old people and stole candy from babies, or beat up little kids wearing glasses. Or maybe he was the Fredo of the family. Or maybe Tamar continually embarrassed them at family functions, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

All we know for sure is that Er met an untimely end, and it was reportedly his own fault: he “was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.”

So it fell to Er’s younger brother Onan to raise up an heir for Er. Judah told Onan, “Have sex with Er’s wife, and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up a child for your brother.”

But Onan didn’t want to raise up a child for his dear departed brother. He had sex with Tamar, yes, but every time just before he ejaculated, he withdrew, so that she wouldn’t get pregnant.

We aren’t told what Tamar’s feelings were. But we know she wanted a baby—because of what happens later in the story. She probably saw it as her duty, as a female human being, to bear an heir for the family. Denying her this right would leave her barren, and there were few shames as bad as that.

I don’t know whether Onan hated Tamar herself, or hated what she represented. Or maybe he just let his jealousy and egoism get the better of him. For all I know, maybe Tamar hated him, too. But if she wanted a baby, this was the way to get one, and she was obviously going along with the plan. Practically speaking, she had little choice.

They say coitus interruptus is only 96% effective. That is, out of every 100 women whose partners correctly use this method of birth control, 4 of them will get pregnant each year. Even so, I guess it was effective enough for Onan to avoid giving Tamar the child she wanted, and that she deserved. So God struck him dead, too.

At the time, Judah’s last and youngest son was still only a boy. So Judah told Tamar to go back home and live with her father, and when Shelah had come of age, he would send for her, and we would try again, one last time.

But he never did send for her. And after many years, Judah’s wife passed away. And after he had grieved for her, it just so happened that he went on a business trip, up north, to Timnah, where his sheep shearers worked. And when Tamar heard about this, she executed a plan of her own.

Are you lonely tonight?

“German prostitute,” Erotikakademie Berlin, c. 2001, Julica da Costa

Prostitution in those days was one of the only ways for a woman to take some measure of control of her own life, her own career, and her own body. (In some ways, and in some places, it still is.) But it wasn’t a life for every woman, only for those who turned to it as a last resort.

Tamar also went to Timnah—or more precisely, to a village on the outskirts of Timnah—along the way that Judah would have to pass. And knowing that he was lonely, and horny, she dressed up like a shrine prostitute, with the dark veil and everything.

And she waited.

When Judah came along and saw her, he walked up and said, “Let’s go away someplace, and let me sleep with you.”

She replied in that soft, seductive undertone that loses a man his mind: “And what will you give me to sleep with you?”

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock.”

“Agreed,” she said. “But give me your seal and your staff as collateral, until I have payment in hand.”

So they went off together, and he slept with her. But he never looked at her face, and never recognized her voice, and never realized that it was her.

The next day, Judah sent his friend back with a goat, as agreed. But she was nowhere to be found. She had absconded with his staff and his seal, and when his friend asked about the shrine prostitute, everyone said, “Shrine prostitute? There’s no shrine prostitute here!”

Judah just let it go, probably just wanted to forget it, for fear that he would look like the idiot he was, having been taken in as he had been.

And the winner is…

Fast-forward several months into the future.

It has become clear that Tamar is pregnant. And Judah is livid, ready to execute her for sleeping around. But she still has his seal and his staff.

“I know who the father of the baby is!” she protests, as the men are dragging her from her home. “See if you recognize whose seal and whose staff these are!”

It was okay for Judah to sleep with a prostitute. It was even okay for some women to work in prostitution… just “not in my family.” And most shockingly of all, when it came to giving Tamar a child, Judah saw it not just as a nice gesture, but as a moral duty commanded by God.

“She is more righteous than I,” he says, “since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”

And that was the last time Tamar ever had sex.