Should Tamar be Your Favourite Woman in the Line of Jesus?
Should Tamar be Your Favourite Woman in the Line of Jesus?
At Christmastime, one topic that gets a lot of attention is the four women in the line of Jesus, in Matthew's genealogy. There may be more written about them, especially at Christmas, than about most of the other male names in that list. But there is one name of the four which is mentioned less often. While the “scandalous” backgrounds of these women are often mentioned, and Rahab’s description as a prostitute is often brought up, Tamar tends to get neglected. This may be because we don’t know what to do with her. Rahab’s background as a prostitute is somewhat incidental to her story—it adds a little colour to her but it doesn't affect her actions. Tamar, on the other hand, pretends to be a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law, gets pregnant by him, and this turns out to be the reason she is included in the genealogy of Jesus.
Yeah, most people are not sure what to think about her.
So her story goes like this. She is married to one of Judah's sons, who dies, and so she is married to the next one of Judah's sons, who also dies. She is promised to Judah's youngest son, but because Judah describes him as too young, she is told to wait and marry him sometime in the future. Of course, Judah doesn't seem to intend to keep this promise, and Tamar realizes it once his youngest son starts getting older and older. So she dresses as a prostitute and hangs out in a place she knows Judah will be, and just as she hopes, Judah doesn't realize who she is and sleeps with her. She gets pregnant, but because she retained proof that it was Judah who'd slept with her, she is able to prove the child is his. In the end, Judah declares, “she is more righteous than I!”
Tamar: Pivotal in Judah’s Life and Jesus’ Lineage
“More righteous!” That's quite something to declare after being deceived in such a way. But most commentators point to this as one of those big, pivotal moments in biblical history, one that Tamar contributes to. Up to this point, Judah appears quite callous (the previous story describes his role in selling his brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, not to mention how he promises Tamar something and then refuses to grant her what was promised). But this exclamation shows he could humble himself when the wrong he did was brought to his attention. It appears in this moment he is confronted with his behaviour, and instead of avoiding it or getting angry, he accepts the ugly picture it paints of himself. He sees he is not righteous. And his actions later on in the Joseph story (Genesis 43) indicate that he acts differently in the future.
Tamar's role in ensuring that the “line of the promise” continues—the line that eventually leads to the birth of Jesus—is another point that is often discussed. Judah is in the line of the promise, and because of her actions his line continues when it looks like his actions might lead to him having no heirs at all.* Her actions are so significant that when her sons (twins) are mentioned, she is frequently mentioned with them (see Ruth 4:12 and 1 Chronicles 2:4). Some commentators go so far as to say she knew Israel was God's chosen nation and that she took action to preserve them and unite herself to this chosen nation. She certainly shows tremendous determination to stay within Judah’s family, and she has very little reason to, after how Judah treated her. If this is the case, she could hardly have done anything that would guarantee her name would be mentioned in connection with Israel and the line of the promise, more than what she did.
Tamar is indispensable in biblical history because of how her actions affect Judah’s story, and the line of the promise itself. And so she is mentioned in Matthew 1.
But despite this, we are still often uncomfortable with the actions she took. It’s not a story we tell children, or include in children's Bible storybooks. We struggle with the application of a story with no clear hero, villain, or moral lesson.
Thinking About How to Apply Tamar’s Story
Tamar is an active female character, a character who takes action to change her destiny. (Sadly, in this way she stands in direct contrast with the other Tamar, the daughter of King David, who plays a very passive role in her story). She takes the future into her own hands. She bears a lot of similarity to her grandfather-in-law, Jacob, who also fought tooth and nail for what he'd been promised. Jacob begins his life in a struggle with his brother, grasping his heel and trying to pull him back. He continues by taking advantage first of his brother’s hunger and later of his father’s old age and blindness, to get what he wants from them. And he ends by wrestling with God himself, refusing to let go until God blesses him. This quality of being willing to strive for what they want is what makes both Tamar and Jacob interesting characters, but they are not necessarily people we’d want to be friends with.
The simple fact is, sometimes God does give us what we struggle for. Sometimes God doesn’t hold the messiness of our actions, deceiving our father or deceiving our father-in-law, against us but instead he upholds the “rightness” of our cause. Like the parable of the persistent widow in the New Testament, God does at times reach through the haze of messy human actions and give us what we struggle for. Even Tamar’s twins reflect the Jacob and Esau story, with her two sons striving with each other in her womb, but in her case the eldest (Perez) does succeed in being born before his brother despite his brother extending his hand from the womb first.
We sometimes feel if we’re struggling and striving for something, it must mean God doesn’t want us to have it. We imagine God plays games with us, holding what we want just out of reach to teach us not to want it too much. But we forget who our God is when we feel this way, imagining him in the image of the capricious Greek and Roman gods rather than our loving father.
But is the message, then, just take initiative? Is it, just do whatever, the ends will justify the means, it’ll work itself out “because God “?
Moral or Immoral Tamar
We have a tendency to interpret biblical stories as stories of “what we should do.” This is probably related to the way we’re taught these stories as children, as morality tales.
This leads us to hasten to explain, excuse, or praise the actions of every one of the characters in the story — I mean, to look at another example, the discussion around the Rahab story also gets sidetracked by whether she was right to lie or not. Here, the story plainly isn’t trying to discuss the morality of Tamar’s actions. We can get really tangled up about the morality of Tamar’s actions, but I don’t think we need to be.
Several characters are called wicked in this story, but none of them are Tamar. Tamar’s first husband, Er, is called wicked before he dies. Her second husband, Onan, is also called wicked before he dies. And while Judah isn’t explicitly called wicked, he recognizes at the end of the story that he is not righteous. He knew the punishment for a prostitute in Israel all too well, and he called for it to be brought on Tamar while knowing that he himself had used what he’d thought was a prostitute for his own desires. The story isn’t written to try the morality of her actions, but it is making a strong judgment on Judah’s.
As theologian Abraham Kuyper puts it, “Neither before nor after the incident is anything disparaging said of Tamar.” (p 46)
You can, of course, take a look at the rest of the Bible and put together that Tamar committed several sins. But in order to wrap our heads around how the story frames her, it might be helpful to look at Kuyper’s words about the next woman in the line of Jesus, Rahab. He writes that many biblical commentators downplayed her prostitution, unable to believe a woman of her character could have had the faith to do what she did. But, as Kuyper writes, “‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace.’ That is the significant truth that must be kept in mind... a truth which applies to all alike, to Rahab, of course but also to the most virtuous woman we may happen to know... Naturally, such standards are revolting to humanistic conceptions of virtue. But they are the only standards of Holy Scriptures all the same.” (p. 68-69)
“Rahab was not a harlot first and a woman of faith after that. She was both at the same time.” (p. 69)
I will not go so far as to say Tamar was a woman of faith, as her faith is not explored or explained in the text. But the fact Judah would call her “more righteous” indicates she had some orientation towards righteousness, and that it was possible for her to have that orientation towards righteousness even in those actions she took. She has some small beginnings of righteousness while doing deeds we shrink away from. She had both at the same time.
But aren’t we all? Aren’t we always both saints and sinners, striving for righteousness one moment and indulging ourselves the next? We try to do things in our lives, sometimes focusing very hard on what God wants from us and not being sure if we do it quite right. Other times we forget to think about God and rely on our own schemes and plans, only later worrying if any of what we did was godly. If we weighed all our actions on the scale, it would be wanting, and if we waited until we were absolutely sure our actions were the perfect course of action, we would do nothing. But instead we can have confidence in the God who sent his Son to fill up what was lacking in us.
Why is Tamar mentioned in so many biblical genealogies, including the genealogy of Jesus? Because the writers feel it’s important to remember her.
It’s about remembering what she did and what effect her actions had. It’s about God’s plan unfolding and where this vulnerable human female fits in his story.
Her actions, actions we’d criticize from end to end, landed and made an impression on Judah. God didn’t wait for a pure, well-behaved example of virtue to get through to him. Tamar got through, in all her realistic human struggle.
The genealogy of Jesus says more about God than about us. It’s not about which of his ancestors we should or shouldn’t imitate. It’s a line of people like us that have some idea of where they’re going and what is the right thing to do, but constantly wobbling around as they strive to get there. And God takes all these crooked lines and makes them straight.
*note: Judah's youngest son, Shelah, does end up having a clan in the tribe of Judah (Number 26:20), but this likely occurred after the business with Tamar was cleared up, as Tamar's story makes no mention of him being married to another.
Another resource on Tamar can be found in this sermon by Rev. George van Popta!