*Editorial Note: Part 2 of Carolyn’s piece is published below. Part 1 can be found here.
By the time Tamar enters the story (Genesis 38), Judah is in a spiritual nosedive. He has left the covenant family, moved into Canaanite territory, married a Canaanite, and is behaving like one. This dark, sinister figure was capable of murder and guilty of human trafficking and a cruel cover-up. Before the story ends, he will solicit the services of a prostitute — an evil act that reigns down judgment on Tamar, but for some reason, slides by Judah, although his present depraved moral state is evident.
THE PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM OF PRIMOGENITURE
Judah fathers three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Judah acquires Tamar as a bride for his son, her father placed her in the power of evil men. The Bible describes Judah’s first two sons as evil men who lose their lives in divine judgment. Thankfully, Scripture spares us the details of what Tamar may have suffered in marriage to her first evil husband. The truth comes out with respect to Onan, son number two, who marries Tamar allegedly to produce a son to replace his deceased brother Er. It is an objective Onan has no intention of fulfilling. Primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) reveals his motive.
Under a patriarchal system, a father would divide his estate by the number of his sons plus one. Judah had three sons, and so would divide his estate into four portions. Two portions (the double portion) would go to his firstborn. Each of his younger sons would inherit one fourth.
When Judah’s firstborn, Er, died, firstborn rights transferred to Onan. Onan’s inheritance skyrockets from one-fourth to two-thirds. Fathering a son with Tamar to replace Er will come at a major cost to Onan, shrinking his inheritance back to one-fourth. Clearly, Onan understood the math. It was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make. So he feigned loyalty to Er and family duty by marrying Er’s widow Tamar, allegedly to produce a male heir for his dead brother. But Onan repeatedly abused Tamar, using her for his pleasure, but spilling his semen on the ground to prevent impregnating her. God intervened. It cost Er his life.
Now bereaved of two sons, Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait for Shelah (son number three) to reach marriageable age. Time passes, and Tamar realizes Judah’s promises are worthless.
By then Judah’s wife had died, the mourning period was over, and he was going to the annual sheep shearing — a festive time of food and drink. That was when Tamar, aware of Judah’s deception, posed as a prostitute and stationed herself in Judah’s path. (It says a lot about Judah that Tamar could count on him taking the bait, which he does.) The deed is done, and Tamar walks away with his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge of payment — the equivalent of his passport and driver’s license. No paternity test is necessary to identify the father of her child.
Tamar may even have been within her legal rights. Ancient Hittite and Assyrian laws permitted a father-in-law to marry his son’s widow if no brother fulfilled the family duty.4
WHEN JUDAH AND TAMAR COLLIDE
On learning that Tamar is pregnant with a child from prostitution, with blinding speed and shocking hypocrisy, Judah orders her to be burned to death (Genesis 38:24). Neither the horror of that moment nor his flagrant double standard should escape our notice.
Judah is a dark, violent, angry, utterly lost man. But that is about to change. The watershed moment for him comes when Tamar produces evidence exposing Judah as the man by whom she is pregnant.
Judah’s response has interpreters scratching their heads and fishing for explanations. Several translations [NIV, NKJV, ASV, ESV] depict a chastened Judah making a comparative statement, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, emphasis added).
It strains credulity to imagine Judah exonerating himself as “righteous,” when Tamar has publicly exposed him as a hypocrite and a solicitor of prostitution.
Gordon Wenham’s translation reveals an absolute contrast: “She is in the right, not I.”5 Bruce K. Waltke, agrees, translating “She is righteous, not I” or “She is righteous, I am not.”6 These more accurate translations of the Hebrew text compel us to re-examine our assumptions of both Tamar and Judah.
This is the moment when the prodigal looks in the mirror, sees the man he has become, and comes to his senses. And Tamar is bold enough to hold the mirror. Gordon Wenham’s translation reveals an absolute contrast: ‘She is in the right, not I.’ This more accurate translation of the Hebrew text compels us to re-examine our assumptions of both Tamar and Judah. (1/2) Click To Tweet This is the moment when the prodigal looks in the mirror, sees the man he has become, and comes to his senses. And Tamar is bold enough to hold the mirror. (2/2) Click To Tweet
The radical impact this has on Judah shows up in Egypt when he meets Joseph again during a devastating famine (Genesis 44). A terrible crisis erupts when Joseph’s cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, planted there by Joseph who is now tormenting his older brothers. Benjamin, Joseph’s only full blood brother, is now Jacob’s youngest, and newly favorite son.
Judah commands the spotlight in what is one of the most powerful scenes in all of scripture (Genesis 44:18-33). With a throbbing unhealed father wound, without realizing he’s talking to Joseph — the brother he wanted to kill and sold into slavery twenty years ago — with his father still playing favorites and talking as though Judah, his mother, and brothers don’t exist, and with Benjamin now heading for the living death Judah once chose for Joseph,
Judah stepped forward and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant say just one word to you. Please, do not be angry with me, even though you are as powerful as Pharaoh himself.
“My lord, previously you asked us, your servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we responded, ‘Yes, my lord, we have a father who is an old man, and his youngest son is a child of his old age. His full brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’
“You said to us…’Unless your youngest brother comes with you, you will never see my face again.’
“…Later, when [our father] said, ‘Go back again and buy us more food,’ we replied, ‘We can’t go unless you let our youngest brother go with us.’ . . .
“Then my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned…Now if you take his brother away from me, and any harm comes to him, you will send this grieving, white-haired man to his grave.’
“And now, my lord, I cannot go back to my father without the boy. Our father’s life is bound up in the boy’s life. If he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We, your servants, will indeed be responsible for sending that grieving, white-haired man to his grave.
My lord, I guaranteed to my father that I would take care of the boy. I told him, ‘If I don’t bring him back to you, I will bear the blame forever.’ “So please, my lord, let me stay here as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I return to my father if the boy is not with me? I couldn’t bear to see the anguish this would cause my father!”7
Genesis 38 may be the most neglected chapter in Genesis — but it is where the gospel breaks through to Judah, and is simultaneously the turning point in Joseph’s story. Judah’s transformation ultimately reconciles warring brothers, bringing peace to generations within entire family.
Judah ultimately vindicates Tamar (Genesis 38:26), and Yahweh blesses her with twin sons who replace her two undeserving husbands (Genesis 38:27-30). Bruce Waltke describes Tamar as “a heroine in Israel because she risks her life for family fidelity.”8 Her courageous actions rescue Judah and her two dead husbands, bringing peace to Jacob’s family. Tamar also secures the royal line of Jesus which moves forward through her firstborn, Perez. Genesis 38 may be the most neglected chapter in Genesis — but it is where the gospel breaks through to Judah, and is simultaneously the turning point in Joseph’s story. Judah’s transformation ultimately reconciles warring brothers. Click To Tweet
Reflections on Tamar’s Story for Faith Communities Today
Here are some final reflections for pastors pondering how to connect this ancient story with twenty-first century faith communities:
- The power of hope — God loves the unloved and the unlovable. He has the power and desire to rescue, redeem, and radically transform prodigals.
- The power of wounds — They can destroy or make us into people who reflect the God who redeems our stories.
- God calls his daughters to be bold agents for his purposes — to do what is right, even if we have to do it alone. Tamar is far from the only biblical example of courageous females who shed patriarchy’s restraints to advance God’s kingdom and bless their believing brothers. Women and girls in the church desperately need to hear these narratives – and so do men and boys!
- The self-sacrificing form of masculinity the gospel produces – Ultimately, Judah embodies this sacrificial gospel, seeking to bless others.
- In the ongoing #MeToo / #ChurchToo epidemic, Tamar’s story gives pastors a call to courageously engage domestic abuse, human trafficking, sexual assault, and violence against women. Tamar is a #MeToo story.
*Editorial Note: This article was originally presented in an earlier form at the release of Vindicating the Vixons: 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.
4 Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 511-512.
5 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1994), 364.
6 Waltke, 513.
7 Genesis 44:18-33, NLT, with edited excerpts my own editorial choices in order to sharpen Judah’s reflection.
8 Ibid, 513-514.
*Editorial Note: Footnotes are numbered as a continuation from Part 1 of Carolyn’s article.