Genesis, the first book of the Bible, seems to have more than its fair share of tricksters – both male and female. And, some of the most unlikely of persons end up practising all kinds of misdeed, even desperately and purposefully playing the one-off harlot.
One such person is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Now, Tamar seems to be one unlucky-in-love lady. Her first husband dies. Well, that sounds a bit passive. Actually, Genesis 38 says that the sons of Judah, Er and Onan, were wicked men, and the Bible says, the Lord killed them.
“Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7)
“What Onan did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.” (Genesis 38:10)
So here is Tamar, twice widowed and childless. Not an enviable position to be in. She devises a plan to disguise herself as a harlot and trick her father-in-law into having sex with her. Out of this one-night stand, she ends up being with child. Talk about shame and disgrace in the family! In this Bible soap opera drama/reality show, Tamar is nearly put to death by her baby daddy who, at that point, did not even know that he was the culprit.
However, as Fr Sean Major-Campbell points out, it is this same Tamar who has the distinct place of being the first woman to be named in the genealogy of Jesus, according to Matthew.
So let’s take a quick look at Tamar’s husbands. In accordance with the tradition of Levirate marriage, Er’s brother, Onan, had a duty to impregnate Tamar and raise that child as in his dead brother’s name. Onan, however, did what Father Sean polishes and calls “coitus interruptus” and Tamar was still without a child to carry on the lineage of Judah. Tamar was sent back to her father by Judah, supposedly until his youngest – and last son – Shelah comes of age to marry her.
“Judah treated with Tamar as if she was cursed, and withheld his son Shelah. Tamar belonged to a culture in which a woman’s worth was dependent on her capacity to bear children. Remember now that Tamar was actually promised Shelah. She, however, had no say in the matter. She could not demand that Judah send Shelah to her. After all, she lived under patriarchal rule,” Fr Sean notes.
He adds that while Tamar was not a career sex worker, she knew what time it was. She knew that as a woman, she could wield her sexual and reproductive capacity, and show the world that she could carry on the lineage of Judah. Is it that she knew of some weakness or habit on the part of the patriarchs to secure sexual services while away from home?
Tamar planned well. She knew that as a woman, she would have been vulnerable to condemnation even unto death. Her plan, therefore, exceeded the quest to become pregnant. Only a woman of intellectual acuity could have carried our such a plan. Tamar secured the debt owed to her with the Judah’s seal, staff, and cord. She must have known how irresistible she was!
Fr Sean notes, “Look how quick the revered patriarch Judah was, to condemn her to death, when she was accused of prostitution. Can a woman do prostitution solo? Can a woman commit adultery all on her own? However, throughout religious history, women are often condemned with the charge of prostitution or adultery, while male hypocrites pontificate in giving sentence.”
Tamar, he points out, is a lesson in quiet wisdom. She did not have the power to judge, condemn, or execute. However, she had the intellectual capacity to use the symbolic tools of patriarchy, the personal and valuable possessions of Judah. She also knew that even more valuable would have been the offspring to come from her womb.
Truth is a great silencer of self-righteous bigotry. What a story! According to Genesis 38:24, about three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”
Who would think that this man was not above employing the services of a sex worker? Who would guess that Tamar could possibly outsmart her father-in-law?
Tamar presented evidence. In Genesis 38:25 Tamar did her version of Maury Povich when she presented: As she 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.”
Through the ages men have sought to control women and to legislate matters of sexual and reproductive concerns. Might it be that power of seduction, the lure of sexual gratification, and mystery of new birth are nature’s signature hold on men from time immemorial? And this power quietly held by women. Has this informed some degree of latent fear and manifested misogyny in the traditions of patriarchy?
Judah is faced with blatant truth. Judah is faced with himself. Judah can only declare, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Tamar’s decision challenged the ethical expectations of her day. Tamar’s decision also led to her being included in the account of Jesus’s nativity within the prophesied lineage of David.
As Fr Sean concludes, “Maybe a deeper reflection on these unorthodox decisions and actions on the part of women in the midst of their political, economic, and negotiating limitations, is a reminder of how necessity, especially on the part of the oppressed, knows no law.
“It is of significance then that we note Tamar’s place in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. She is among the four women named in Jesus’ genealogy. Interestingly, all four women are sexually suspect. One was a prostitute. One disguised as a prostitute. One, although a widow was brazen in her search for a man, and the other was caught in adultery. Hmm…. yet all part of the Jesus story. Maybe the Christmas story is a reminder of humanity in all its colours.