Tamar’s Story: Desperate Measures

Read: Genesis 38

And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” As [Tamar] 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….” (Genesis 38:24b–26a, NRSV).

If you don’t remember this story from Sunday school, there is probably a good reason for that. Tamar’s story is not for the squeamish. Yet it has a lot to say about the qualities that God admires. The fact that Tamar’s name makes it into Jesus’ genealogy signals that her story is worth remembering (Matthew 1:3). So, let’s “pull up our socks” and see what Tamar has to say.

The following is an imagined interview between “R” (a reader) and “T” (Tamar).

R: What were you thinking when you set out to trick your father-in-law into sleeping with you?

T: Well, I was desperate. And as the saying goes—desperate times call for desperate measures! I know it may be difficult for someone from your time to imagine, but I really had no agency. I was triply disadvantaged: I was a widow, I was childless, and I was an outsider. When it became clear to me that Judah was not going to make good on his promise to marry me to his youngest son, I decided to get creative.

R: I’d like to hear more about that, but first tell me more about this “levirate marriage law” where widows are expected to marry their brother-in-law. I believe it’s based on Deuteronomy 25….

T: Well, I couldn’t quote you chapter and verse. I suppose I shouldn’t judge it on the basis of my experience which, as you know, was particularly disappointing. It was designed as a kind of “social security” for women with no means of support. But to tell you the truth, it always seemed more about perpetuating the line of the man than protecting the woman.

R: I see what you mean. Plus, it couldn’t have been easy as a grieving widow to have to sleep with your brother-in-law!

T: You’ve got that right! And in my case…well, don’t even get me started on my brother-in-law, Onan.

R: Agreed. So, moving along to your decision to trick your father-in-law into giving you a child. What motivated you to ask for that pledge before the “transaction?” I mean, from a modern perspective, it was the equivalent of asking for all his major credit cards!

T: Yes, that was brilliant if I do say so myself. But I had no reason to trust him, and I had to make sure I had evidence of his identity. And as it turned out, it was a good thing I did.

R: You must have been terrified when he ordered you to be burned for “playing the whore.”

T: Well, obviously. But I wasn’t so terrified that I couldn’t appreciate the irony. I did pretend to be a prostitute, after all, albeit for a good cause. I also enjoyed the fact that the deceiver had been deceived. If you want the back story on that, just read about how Judah and his brothers tricked their father into believing their brother Joseph was dead.

R: Yes! I believe that’s in Genesis 37. They used Joseph’s blood-soaked robe; you used Judah’s signet, cord, and staff. I like that—“the deceiver deceived.”

T: I’ve come to think God has a keen sense of irony as well as a keen sense of justice.

R: And you got justice, Tamar!

T: I did. You can’t imagine how relieved I was when Judah said, “She is more in the right than I.” I give him a lot of credit for that. He could have tried to lie his way out of it. Powerful men often do.

R: Thank God he didn’t. And you ended up giving birth to twins!

T: Yes—I think you’d call that “an heir and a spare.”

R: Indeed. Speaking of heirs, does it surprise you that you are named in Jesus’ genealogy?

T: It does a bit. Women aren’t usually mentioned in genealogies—which has always struck me as hilarious, since people could hardly get from one generation to another without women.

R: Maybe it’s God’s sense of irony again. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that God values things like courage, creativity, and chutzpah!

T: Well, I hope so. But I also like to think that God values those things wherever God finds them. If my story illustrates anything it’s that God’s love knows no borders.

R: Preach it, sister!

Ponder: How does Tamar’s story empower you? Convict you?

Pray: Help me to value what you value, gracious God. Then give me the courage, creativity, and chutzpah to act on those values.


Women in Waiting Series Introduction

In this short series we will look at the women named in Jesus genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. We’ll conclude with Mary, Jesus’ own mother.

Women don’t usually get mentioned in biblical genealogies, so the presence of these women in Jesus’ genealogy is especially interesting. What can we learn from their inclusion?

Genealogies tend to tell a lot about the people who treasure them. We like to brag about our ancestors, after all! So, why did the early Christian community feel it was important to name these women? They aren’t necessarily the women we would expect. They are not the traditional “matriarchs.” What’s more, at least three of these women are “foreigners.” Most would never make the list of the rich and powerful. Lastly, all of their stories intersect with sex somehow. This doesn’t make the women guilty of anything. (It’s a genealogy, for heaven’s sake—there must have been sex involved!) It does, however, make it even more surprising that a male dominated culture would consider them “worthy” of inclusion.

So, why are they here? What can we learn about them, about the values of the early church, and about ourselves by listening to these women’s stories?

I have chosen to explore these questions by using a first-person interview format. This will require me to read between the lines a bit—imagining what each of these women might say to those of us reading their stories centuries after the fact. I have tried to keep as close to the details of the text as possible, however, and the interview format makes these stories sparkle.

I hope you enjoy meeting these “Women in Waiting.” They have a lot to say!

Carol M. Bechtel