Jacob’s son had married a Canaanite woman who bore him three boys — Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er grew up, Judah chose a wife for him.1 “And in those days Judah went to the house of Shem and took Tamar the daughter of Elam, the son of Shem, for a wife for his first born Er” (Jasher 45:23). She was a woman of integrity and what stands out most about her is the character she possesses.2
Tamar’s marriage to Er ended quickly, “And Er, Judah’s first born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord slew him” (Gen. 38:7). Tamar was left childless.1
Er practiced some form of birth control, probably by withdrawing before ejaculation, and he was punished by God for this action – people at the time saw withdrawal as a crime against Nature and God. Tamar suffered a double tragedy; her husband Er died, and she lost the chance of having a child.
Judah then commanded his second son, Onan to marry Tamar and have children on behalf of Er. This was commonly referred to as a Leverite marriage. A man would marry his brother’s childless widow and have a son by her. The child would then be considered the son of the deceased brother, thus ensuring a continuation of the family line.1
Like all Hebrew women, Tamar yearned for children of her own. She also believed she had an obligation to produce a son who would inherit her dead husband’s name.
This law was expressed in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a man died, and his wife had not yet had a child by him, she could go to his brother and demand that he marry her and give her a child who would inherit the property of the dead husband. This practical law was about two things:
Under Levirate law, Er’s younger brother Onan was obliged to give Tamar a child. But he refused to do so, probably because any child born to Tamar would carry Er’s name, not Onan’s, and when their father died the child would inherit the dead brother’s portion of the estate. He practiced the same form of birth control, and Tamar did not conceive.
Onan thus failed to carry out the Levirate obligation to Tamar, and disregarded his father’s command. He died, and his death at such an early age was seen as punishment from God.
Deuteronomy 25:9-10 describes the punishment for a man who refused to obey the Leverite law: the woman went up to him in a public assembly, pulled his sandal from his foot, spat in his face, and said “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” To us the punishment does not sound very much, but in the context of the time it meant public disgrace. The action in verse nine had symbolic meaning: the foot symbolized the male genitals, the sandal the female sexual organs, and the spittle, the semen. The woman’s action publicly humiliated the man, and his family’s disgrace was remembered long after he himself was dead. Public shame was often used to enforce the law in ancient times.
When Onan died without giving Tamar a child, she looked to the third son of Judah to be her husband. But he was only a boy, too young to be a father. So Judah sent Tamar back to her family, promising to send for her when Shelah, the third son, was old enough.
Judah began to look on Tamar as a jinx, in some way responsible for the deaths of his two eldest sons.
At that point, Tamar faced a dilemma. Should she consent to the moral degeneracy evidenced by Er, Onan, and Judah and just forget the whole thing? Perhaps even marry into a completely different family? Or should she take matters into her own hands and do the right thing by trying to perpetuate Er’s family line? She chose the latter. Many might say as a woman she overstepped her boundaries, however, she had NO husband; she was trying to stay in submission to her Heavenly Father at this time.1
Tamar Claims Her Leverite Rights
Having heard that Judah had become a widower, she deceived him into believing she was a prostitute. Not recognizing her, Judah requested her services and paid her with his signet ring, among other things (Gen. 38:18). Later to be retrieved with the payment of a goat. These were symbols of authority and marks of identification. But when Judah sent a Canaanite friend back with the goat and instructions to retrieve his belongings, the woman could not be found. In fact, nobody had even heard of her. Much to Judah’s unsuccessful attempt, he had to let the whole matter go, “lest we be shamed” (Gen. 38:23).1
Shrine prostitutes usually kept themselves heavily veiled before and during the act of intercourse, an attempt to create the illusion that the participant was actually engaging in the sexual act with the goddess herself. This practice worked in Tamar’s favor, giving her the perfect disguise so that her father-in-law would never recognize her. 2
Tamar Is Accused Of Promiscuity
Three months later, Judah learned Tamar was pregnant. Since she was a widow and unmarried, everyone assumed she had acted immorally. Judah’s judgment was severe and to the point: “Bring her forth, and let her be burned” (Gen. 38:24).1
But when Tamar arrived, Judah had a surprise waiting for him. “By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff” (Gen. 38:25).1
Judah was caught red-handed. It was a shameful moment, somewhat like that of a later scene between King David and Nathan, the prophet, following David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:1-14). Like David, Judah had been quick to pronounce judgment on someone else until he was confronted with his own sin. To his credit, however, he acknowledged Tamar’s virtue and the error of his own ways. “She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah, my son” (Gen. 38:26). Judah released Tamar and did not have relations with her again.1
For her righteous stand, God blessed her and gave her not one son, but twin sons-Perez and Zerah. In fact, the name of Perez became great in Israel and was later invoked as a channel of blessing in the book of Ruth: “And all the people who were in the gate, and the elders, said,.., let thy house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore unto Judah” (Ruth 4:11-12). Most significantly, through the ancestry of Tamar and Perez, the Messianic line continued, culminating with Jesus Himself (Lk. 3:23-33)–a noble reward for a young woman who stood for what was right.1
The Birth of Tamar’s Twin Sons4
Tamar’s insistence on her rights was rewarded by the birth of not one, but two children!
‘While she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson threat, saying, “This one came out first.” But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore, he was named Perez.
Tamar’s sons were called Perez and Zerah. Perez would be an ancestor of King David.
Tamar’s actions were unorthodox by modern standards. But in a way she “redeemed” Judah. She saved him from doing what was wrong, and was thus a pre-figure of Jesus, who was one of her descendents.
In an odd sort of way, Tamar was more loyal to the tribe of Judah than he was himself. She knew she had a duty to produce an heir to her husband, and she was determined to do so, come what might. Despite her somewhat unorthodox methods, she was a woman of integrity who risked her life to fulfill her duty to herself and her family. She knew she had the right to a child, and she knew that her first husband, Er, had the right to an heir. So she acted to make this happen. Once again, God’s plan continued to unfold through the unorthodox actions of a woman.
That’s the beauty of this story. God’s power to bring positive things from the negative, even sinful, events of our lives is just as much at work now as in Tamar’s day. We may not see it today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, but we can trust the God we love to do what he loves; bring blessing to us in spite of ourselves.2
Examples of God’s Promises – Three Cycles God takes us through in response to receiving God’s promises made in faith.
Judah promised Tamar that his third son would marry her when he became of age. Tamar agreed and trusted in his words. She waited patiently for Shelah.
Problem: Judah had no intention of giving Tamar to Shelah, in fear that he would lose his last living son. Tamar eventually realized that she would be without a husband. She must of thought long and hard to decide what to do.
Provision: God’s purpose was to line up the lineage for the coming of Jesus Christ. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who was used as God’s vessel because she was willing and persistent. God blessed her with not one, but two boys.
Tamar became an ancestor of King David and the Savior Jesus Christ.5
Judah’s sons had emotionally abused and used Tamar; and Judah had cast her out, broken his promise, and abandoned her. But now, she was grafted into the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Without Judah knowing it, he gave her a child. His seed was planted in her and she had her place among the people whom the God of all creation had chosen to be His own. The child was a son, and became her deliverer.3
Her ethnicity is no barrier for her to seek true God and be blessed by Him. Her faith and obedience and her soul seeking to know true God becomes the basis for our salvation.3
Not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed (Joshua 23:14)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to this purpose (Romans 8:28)
Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? (Psalm 77:13)