In one of the strangest chapters in all of scripture, we have the story of Tamar. More than any other, it highlights the cultural differences between our day and the ancients. But before we get confused and befuddled, let’s focus on Motherhood. This is a story about a culture that values being a mother.
Now there are two ways to interpret that cultural tenet. The world’s way would be to discount the significance of having children—to make a mock of the practice by asking, “Is that all that women are good for is to have children?” The world champions the accomplishments of women in every theater but the home. The kinder and more understanding approach would be to consider the story of Tamar in the context of a woman who places posterity above all else. She is a champion of Motherhood in a strange way.
Tamar wanted to be a mother in Israel. Again the curse of barrenness seems to be the single worst thing that could ever happen to a woman. This is a recurrent biblical theme: Sarah was barren (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah was barren (Gen. 25:21), Rachel was barren (Gen. 29:31), and Hannah was barren (1 Sam. 1:2). But Tamar wasn’t barren by infertility—that’s not the issue! Tamar’s problem is that she married into a family of men that won’t fulfill their responsibilities to help her become a mother. Effectively, she is barren and fertile at the same time. In a way, it is more unfair than being barren by infertility. The biologically barren woman can call upon God to give her children. Tamar had to appeal to the men of her family—a less righteous and less responsive group.
Genesis 38:2 Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite… and he took her
Abraham made a big deal about getting a non-Canaanite wife for Isaac; Isaac made a big deal about getting a non-Canaanite wife for Jacob, and he also wanted the same for Esau. Well, if you were Jacob, who had to spend 20 years in servitude to marry Rachel and Leah, the price of sending sons to Haran to get wives becomes just too much. So that is where the pattern ends. Judah marries a Canaanite. While his children can marry their cousins or second cousins, Judah has no other options. It is hard to find fault with him and imagine that his brothers probably did the same thing. The key for them was to keep the idolatrous traditions of their Canaanite wives from affecting their families.
Genesis 38:3 she conceived, and bare a son; and he call his name Er
Er is the heir of Judah. He is the one through whom the royal line of Israel should come, including King David and Jesus.
Genesis 38:6 Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar
This sounds like an arranged marriage. Was it Er’s choice or Judah’s?
“In biblical times, people were married in early youth, and marriages were usually contracted within the narrow circle of the clan and the family. It was undesirable to marry a woman from a foreign clan, lest she introduce foreign beliefs and practices.
“Negotiating a Match: As a rule, the fathers arranged the match. The girl was consulted, but the ‘calling of the damsel and inquiring at her mouth’ after the conclusion of all negotiations was merely a formality.” (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Relationships/Spouses_and_Partners/About_Marriage/Ancient_Jewish_Marriage.shtml)
Genesis 38:7 Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord
The law of primogeniture, or inheritance of the firstborn son, is often mentioned in a biblical context. But it seems to be the exception and not the rule. Think about it; Ishmael was the firstborn before Isaac, Esau was the firstborn before Jacob, Reuben was the firstborn before Judah, and Manasseh was the firstborn before Ephraim.
Er was the firstborn before Onan or Shelah but he was the most wicked of the whole group. He is the only one whom “the Lord slew” for an undisclosed wickedness. While we are not told, it must have been pretty bad. Had he been righteous, the entire convoluted story of Genesis 38 would have never occurred. Er and Tamar would have given birth to children and the Messiah would have come through their line.
Genesis 38:8 Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother
Anciently, under a Levirate marriage of the Abrahamic Law, a widow was provided for by the family of the deceased. Specifically, it was the duty of a brother-in-law to marry the widow and provide for her. This practice may seem strange to us but it is part of the Lord’s way of providing for widows. In addition, any children the brother has with the widowed woman would, in the eternities, belong to the deceased brother. The practice is based on the divine principle that with an eternal marriage, the covenant is not broken in death—a widow is still sealed to her first husband—they belong to each other, and all the children she bares belong to their covenant relationship in eternity. It also underscores the idea that when a woman marries her husband, she effectively leaves her nuclear family to become a member of her husband’s family. While this may seem sexist to some, it is the only pattern which makes sense in the patriarchal covenant of Abraham. Therefore, if the husband died, the widow could not return to her nuclear family—she no longer belonged to that family, but to the family of her dead husband.
Even under the Law of Moses, the Lord commanded that this practice be observed, “the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.” (Deut. 25:5)
This principle was understood and practiced after the Restoration as well. Willard Richards had married several women. Before his death he had asked his nephew, Franklin D. Richards, to take care of his wives if he died.
“On the 6th of March, 1857, Nanny [Longstroth] was married to Franklin Dewey Richards, Willard’s nephew. Willard and Franklin were devoted to each other and Willard had asked Franklin, in case of his death, to marry his wives to protect and provide for them and to raise up posterity to him (Willard). Franklin and Nanny were the parents of three children—Minerva, Edmeresa, George Franklin and Frederick William—thus fulfilling his promise to Willard.” (Life of George F. Richards, 2)
The ancient Israelites had a very peculiar law among them, and yet it was a very proper law, namely, that if a man died, his brother was to take his wife and raise up seed to him. That would be a curious kind idea among the world, where they did not believe anything of that kind; singular kind of a doctrine; but it was a thing that was practiced among the Israelites, and it is a thing we ought to be practicing among us (the saints were practicing polygamy at this time). That is, if a man has a brother dead who has left a widow, let the woman left in that kind of a position be just as well off as a woman who has a husband… If a man should die and leave a wife and she should be childless, why not her be taken care of as well as anybody else? Would not that be just? Would not that be proper? Would not that be right? Yes. But says the man, “I do not know about that. I would rather raise up seed for myself.” Perhaps you might do both… We do believe, you know, more or less in this principle. (Journal of Discourses, 26:71-72, Nov. 30, 1884)
Understanding this principle is important for the New Testament as well. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. They were familiar, at some level, with this doctrine of raising up seed to a deceased brother’s name. They used this idea to make a mockery of the doctrine of the resurrection asking Jesus:
Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise.
And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also.
In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? For the seven had her to wife. (Mark 12:20-23)
Jesus doesn’t answer by explaining the higher law of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage because they were making a mockery of it. The preparatory law, the Law of Moses, in this case foreshadowed the principle under the new and everlasting covenant. Since the Israelites under Mosaic Law did not perform temple sealings, none of the marriages would be of force in eternity. Hence, Christ’s answer doesn’t try to dignify their question. He declares, “when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven” (Mark 12:25). He then rails on the Sadducees for not believing in the resurrection.
He could have answered, “she will be the wife of the first,” but that was the trap the Sadducees had laid for Jesus. He was too smart to fall into their trap as they intended to make a mockery of a holy principle.
Genesis 38:11 Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown
Judah is trying to take care of Tamar under this practice of caring for widows. He goes so far as to promise that one of his young sons will perform the duty of a brother when he is old enough to marry Tamar. Perhaps Shelah, the younger son, would not have been too excited about this idea. It turns out, that Judah forgets his promise to Tamar, leaving her alone in her father’s house. In this respect, Tamar feels slighted by Judah. She feels she belongs to the house of Judah, not her father, for she was married into the family through Er, Judah’s firstborn.
The way Tamar goes about proving her point to Judah is hard to justify but she makes her point nonetheless (see verses 12-25). So much so, that Judah is left to exclaim, “She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son.” (v. 26)
Genesis 38:14 she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself
Tamar played the harlot, it’s true. But she did not have more than one customer. She was not out there because she longed for a sexual partner. It was not for lust, nor was it for money. She wasn’t looking for any random stranger. It was a trick specifically designed to get Judah to fulfill his responsibility to her, “for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.” Her sin was much less than a common prostitute. Ancient law doesn’t find fault with her. Once Judah knows what happens, he doesn’t find fault with her either (see v. 26).
Genesis 38:15-16 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot… and he turned unto her
For Judah, who earlier in the chapter is shown to be following the principles of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, to go in to a harlot is unjustifiable. Unfortunately for Judah, his indiscretion was preserved for all of his descendants to read. The Lord forgives and forgets. Bible students do not. His was a great lineage; the Messiah would come from his loins; yet, he broke the law in going in unto this harlot. The story leaves the impression it was a regular practice for him (see v. 21-23)—not a one-time occurrence—as if the behavior would have been acceptable if only the harlot weren’t his daughter-in-law. This notion, of course, is unacceptable.
And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot and subtil of heart…
I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt.
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. (Prov. 7:10-18)
…keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman.
Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids…
Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?
Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? (Prov. 6:24-28)
Genesis 38:18 What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet
“A ‘signet ring’ impressed a person’s distinctive seal into clay or wax, functioning much like a signature on a legal document today. Tamar was shrewd to insist on keeping Judah’s signet ring as a guarantee of payment for her services. Her possession of the ring was undeniable proof of his involvement in her pregnancy.” (The Apologetics Study Bible, T. Cabal [Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007], 63)
Genesis 38:21 Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side?
Can you imagine asking a buddy in the ward this question? “Hey, didn’t there used to be a prostitute on this corner? Whatever happened to her?” Unthinkable! Such an open question suggests that among Judah’s associates, visiting an occasional harlot was no big deal. He sent his servants to inquire for him, “Hey guys. We need to find that harlot. Our master needs to pay her for the trick she turned the other night. Has anyone seen her?”
Judah had a great sense of honesty. He wants to pay for the services rendered. After all, he is not a thief. He may be an adulterer but he is NO THIEF!
Genesis 38:23 Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed
To paraphrase, Judah concludes, “Let’s just let her keep the signet, bracelets, and staff. It is too embarrassing to expand the search. Besides, you guys are my witness that I fully intended to pay her with the kid, we just couldn’t find her to give it to her.”
Genesis 38:24 Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot… and Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt
“The double standard of morality illustrated by this incident has always been abominable in God's sight. The manner in which men have glutted their passions on women only to abandon them to the merciless judgment of a hypocritical society is beneath contempt. It is of just such men that Jesus spoke when he said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ God does not judge men by their actions alone (as we are prone to do), but by the thoughts and intents of their hearts. For this reason Jesus could tell the self-righteous Pharisees who rejected him, ‘Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.’ This was not mere prophetic hyperbole.
“Brigham Young declared: ‘When the books are opened, out of which the human family are to be judged, how disappointed the professedly sanctified, long-faced hypocrites and smooth-tongued pharisees will be, when the publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom of heaven before them; people that appeared to be full of evil, but the Lord says they never designed to do wrong; the Devil had power over them, and they suffered in their mortal state a thousand times more than you poor, miserable, canting, cheating, snivelling, hypocritical pharisees; you were dressed in purple and fine linen, and bound burdens upon your weaker brethren that you would not so much as help to lift with your little fingers. . . .
“‘You have fared sumptuously all your days and you condemned to an everlasting hell these poor harlots and publicans who never designed an evil. Are you not guilty of committing an evil with that poor harlot? Yes, and you will be damned while she will be saved.’
“Tamar bore Judah twin boys, Pharez and Zarah. Such is the origin of the tribe of Judah. Regardless of how one judges the conduct of Judah and Tamar, it seems providential that the posterity of Judah are descended from Tamar's sons rather than those of Shuah the Canaanite woman.
“And so by the unsavory acts of two desperate women was that lineage established through which came the purest of ‘chosen vessels’—Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ! Truly, the great Jehovah ‘descended below all things’ in taking upon himself mortality and the sins of the world. How gracious he is toward the weaknesses and foibles of the human family!” (Rodney Turner, “Woman and the Priesthood” [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972], 190-191)
Genesis 38:26 Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I
“There is also some satisfaction to one's sense of justice in that a self-righteous man, who was willing to have his daughter-in-law punished for adultery, had to face up to his own sins.” (Ellis T. Rasmussen, A Latter-day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament [Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1993], 70)
Genesis 38:27-30 And it came to pass… that, behold, twins were in her womb… Pharez… and… Zarah
“To many readers of the Bible, it must seem strange that this story is inserted in the midst of the narrative of Joseph. It is like an alien element, suddenly and arbitrarily thrust into a record which it serves only to disturb. Certainly few people would choose this chapter as a basis for teaching or preaching.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. by G. A. Buttrick et al [New York, Abingdon Press, 1952] vol. 1, p. 757)
“Why was the Tamar story included in the Jacob-Joseph cycle and why was it preserved with such careful attention to detail?
“Perhaps the intriguing nature of the incident played a role, but the major reason does not lie in historical, literary, or dramatic factors. The chief figures are Tamar and Judah, and Judah is the ultimate preserver of the house of Israel. From the union of the tribal progenitor and his daughter-in-law, Perez is born, and from him will descend the person and the house of David. The Tamar tale thus became an important part of the David saga, just as the Book of Ruth did in later days. We are told that Ruth and Boaz would be forebears of the king and that Boaz traced his line to Perez, son of Tamar and Judah (Ruth 4:12-22).
“Both accounts together emphasize that King David stemmed from a strange and non-indigenous line: Tamar and Ruth were not Israelites, both were widows, and both claimed a son by dint of the levirate tradition. David thus arises out of the most unlikely configurations. After tragedy had marred their lives, it appeared that Tamar and Ruth would remain childless, but God in his wisdom turned fate to His own design. The Judah-Tamar interlude is, therefore, not merely an old tribal tale but an important link in the main theme: to show the steady, though not always readily visible, guiding hand of God who never forgets His people and their destiny.
“In this story, Tamar is His unlikely tool. She is a Canaanite, a daughter of the very people against whom Abraham had warned and whom the Children of Israel would later displace. Tamar is treated with respect; her desperate deed draws no condemnation from the Torah. What she did fulfilled the requirements of Hebrew law and, in addition, appeared to serve the higher purposes of God.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut [New York, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981], 253)