Justice / Theology

Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute (Part 1)

*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Carolyn’s piece is published below. Part 2 can be found at this link.

“Warring Brothers” is an appropriate subtitle for the book of Genesis.

Fierce sibling rivalry among brothers dominates the entire Genesis storyline. Jesus warned that there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). History has played out exactly as he said with warring brothers on a personal and global scale. Even America’s Civil War is often described in family terms as “brothers against brothers.” That reality is no more evident than in the book of Genesis: Cain vs. Abel, Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and the all-out-war among Jacob’s sons.

Tamar, a young Canaanite girl, enters the Genesis narrative during a dangerous time in redemptive history (Genesis 38). The covenant family of promise (only in its fourth generation) is in disarray — torn apart by a bitter rivalry between Jacob’s ten older sons and Joseph (son number eleven). Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, is the ringleader when the brothers plot to murder Joseph — the son their father loves best and the younger brother who inflamed their resentment by bragging of dreams in which his whole family bows down to him. 

The brothers abandon their murderous plan, instead selling seventeen-year-old Joseph as a slave to a group of Midianites (Genesis 37:12-36). A cover-up follows. The brothers shred, then soak Joseph’s royal robe in goat’s blood, present it to Jacob, and let their father interpret the evidence. 

Jacob is inconsolable. In Egypt, the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard.

Literary Misjudgment or Tactical Decision?

Then, just as the Joseph story reaches a fever pitch and readers are on the edge of their seats, instead of following Joseph into Egypt, the narrator follows Judah away from his family into Canaanite territory and into a salacious R-rated story involving prostitution with his daughter-in-law Tamar. From a literary perspective, the narrator’s choice seems counterproductive — an irritating disruption. From a pastoral perspective, this sordid story is problematic, unsuitable for a G-rated, family audience, devoid of any spiritual value. Pastors often skip it. 

In his Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann explains the problem, 

This peculiar chapter stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic…It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might be of value for theological exposition.1

Recent Old Testament scholarship has produced evidence that, far from being a literary gaffe, the narrator’s decision to include this “enigmatic” episode is strategic — that Genesis 38 is actually the hinge that holds the Joseph story together. It bridges Jacob’s destructive favoritism and the searing father wound Judah suffers with the climactic meeting between Judah and Joseph in Egypt where warring brothers finally make peace. Events in this often-neglected chapter and Tamar’s role in particular actually hold the key to understanding the story it seems to interrupt. 

A strong case can be made to vindicate Tamar and demonstrate she has been unjustly vilified. Not only does she play a heroic, redemptive role that benefits Judah and his immediate family, the impact of her controversial actions ripples out globally to advance God’s redemptive purposes for the world. The royal line of Jesus is at stake. Her story is one of many remarkable instances recorded in Scripture when God raises up a woman to advance his purposes. Tamar plays a heroic, redemptive role that benefits Judah and his immediate family. The impact of her controversial actions in Genesis 38 ripples out globally to advance God’s redemptive purposes for the world. Click To Tweet

Contrary to pastoral hesitations, Genesis 38 contains rich fodder for pastoral application and is especially relevant for today’s church and world.

Vindicating Tamar and restoring to her the honor she rightfully deserves as a courageous agent for God’s purposes begins by considering three questions:

  1. What evidence does the Bible present that warrants us to reconsider Tamar’s story in the first place? 
  2. How does the patriarchal cultural context of the Ancient Near East shape the Tamar/Judah narrative and the larger Joseph story?
  3. What pastoral and theological relevance and wisdom does the Tamar/Judah story offer us today? 

Reasons to Reconsider Tamar

In the court of religious opinion, the word “prostitute” governs our view of Tamar as a loose, vindictive woman who stoops to selling her body for sex in her desperation to have a baby or to get even with her father-in-law. Interpreters and preachers alike find it impossible to see her in any other light. One pastor thundered accusingly from his pulpit, “Tamar corrupted the line of Christ!”

It should, however, give us pause to note that this isn’t how her descendants or other biblical writers view her. 

First, Tamar is named in a beautiful blessing to honor the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). At a sacred moment like this, it hardly seems appropriate to bring up a shameful skeleton out of the family closet. 

Second, both King David and his son Absalom named their daughters Tamar. In the Hebrew culture, parents gave their children names to cause their children to aspire. 

Third, in an unusual departure from standard genealogies, Matthew in the New Testament names Tamar in Jesus’ royal genealogy (Matthew 1:3) — along with three other women (Rahab, Ruth, and Solomon’s mother, a.k.a. Bathsheba) whose stories should also be re-examined. 

But the fourth, and by far the most compelling reason to reconsider Tamar, comes from Judah himself. He publicly vindicates Tamar by calling her “righteous” (Genesis 38:26).  By far the most compelling reason to reconsider Tamar, comes from Judah himself. He publicly vindicates Tamar by calling her 'righteous' (Genesis 38:26) This is consistent with how her descendants or other biblical writers view her. Click To Tweet

The Patriarchal Context

Contrary to Brueggemann’s assessment, Tamar’s story doesn’t exist in isolation. It is embedded within the Ancient Near East patriarchal culture and nested within layers of dysfunctional family history — both Judah’s family of origin and the family he fathers. Understanding both contexts is essential to make sense of her story. 

The importance of patriarchy as a hermeneutical tool is hard to overstate. As Americans and Westerners, we interpret these ancient biblical narratives at a significant disadvantage, for we are culturally as far removed from the patriarchal world of the Bible as you can get in today’s world. Tamar’s story doesn’t exist in isolation. It is embedded within the ancient patriarchal culture and nested within layers of dysfunctional family history. Understanding both contexts is essential to make sense of her story. Click To Tweet

The fact that patriarchy appears on virtually every page of the Bible has led to the mistaken conclusion that patriarchy (at least a softer version) is the God-ordained way for us to live. In my book Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood, I submit that:

“Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular — much better than we do — if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”2 

To understand Tamar’s story clearly, we must grasp the reality that at least three aspects of full-fledged patriarchy existed in biblical times and still have a pernicious hold on our cultural worldview today.

  1. First, patriarchy (“father rule”) invests men with priority, power, and authority over women. 

Patriarchy relies on female submission and deprives women of agency, voice, and legal rights. Women are essentially the property of men.3 This creates a chilling power differential between men and women. Marriage between Tamar and Judah’s firstborn makes Tamar the property of Judah’s family. Judah exercises life-and-death powers over her when he orders an honor killing for her prostitution. Patriarchy’s disempowerment of women puts them at risk and places an exclamation point beside Tamar’s audacious actions. 

  1. Second, primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) ranks sons by birth order. 

The firstborn son is crown prince in the family with primacy and authority over his siblings, plus a double inheritance. Primogeniture intensifies the outrage of Jacob’s ten older sons beyond ordinary jealousy, when their father bestows firstborn privileges on Joseph, son number eleven. Jacob’s favoritism takes on physical dimensions when he gives Joseph a royal robe — hard evidence that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (Genesis 37:3). 

The Bible repeatedly overturns primogeniture — most often by God’s decree, choosing Abel, not Cain; Isaac not Ishmael; Jacob not Esau. Still, primogeniture is deeply ingrained in the Ancient Near East culture and in the Abrahamic family’s DNA in particular. It wreaks havoc in Judah’s family of origin and creates conflict among his sons. 

It is entirely possible that Judah felt entitled to firstborn rights. His three older brothers disqualified themselves by dishonoring their father — Reuben by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine, Simeon and Levi by slaughtering the Shechemites. Judah, son number four, was next in line. This may explain Judah’s leadership among his brothers and also his intense hatred of Joseph.

  1. Third, under patriarchy, wives were responsible to produce sons for their husbands. 

It is not possible to overstate the pressure this obligation placed on women. A woman’s value was determined by counting her sons. Barren women in the Bible are desperate for sons, not daughters. The urgency of producing sons meant puberty signaled a girl’s marriageability. Presumably Tamar was a young teenage girl when Judah acquired her for his firstborn son, Er.

The greatest calamity for the ancients was for a man to die without a male heir. It was tantamount to being erased from history. This happens to both of Tamar’s husbands and is central to what motivates her deception of Judah. Levirate practices (later formalized under Mosaic Law) required the surviving brother to marry the dead brother’s widow to father a son to take the deceased’s place on the family tree, including his inheritance. It was a matter of family honor.

Tamar clearly felt the weight of family honor and was ultimately willing to risk her life to fulfill her duty to produce a male heir for her dead husband.

Part 2 of this article is found at this link. Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. Click To Tweet

*Editorial Note: This article was originally presented in an earlier form at the release of Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Sandra Glahn, PhD, editor (ETS, November 16, 2017). The Narrative Analysis participants were biblical scholars who contributed chapters focusing on women in the Bible whose stories raise eyebrows. Carolyn’s chapter is entitled “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute.” Judah’s story is found more fully in Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood. 


Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author who thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. Her books include Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (2022 edition), Finding God in the Margins (2018), Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (2015), among others. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Her speaking and writing ministry is dedicated to addressing the deeper needs which confront both women and men as they endeavor to extend God’s kingdom together in a messy and complicated world. She is an adjunct faculty member at Missio Seminary in Philadephia and a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. She also serves on the Board of Advisors for Logia, an initiative of the LOGOS Institute of the University of St. Andrews, UK committed to seeing women academics become more visible and valued in the academy and the church. Carolyn is a Leading Voice of Missio Alliance.


Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, ed. James Luther Mays, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 307-308. 

Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 31.

Contrary to Genesis 2:24.

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