Tamar - Women of the Bible

This week presentation of "Women of he Bible" is Tamar. Tamar = Palm tree

The story describes the way a widow, Tamar, obtained a child for herself and an heir for her dead husband’s inheritance. It shows a virtuous woman who risked everything, her life and her reputation, to get what was rightfully hers.

It is part of the continuing Jewish preoccupations with social justice. The story also shows one of the main themes of the Book of Genesis: God’s promise to continue the Jewish people, through many generations, against all odds.

The story of Tamar contains four different episodes:

1 Tamar married, but remained childless, Genesis 38:1-11. Tamar married into the family of Judah, first to Judah’s son Er and then, after his death, to Onan his brother. Because of Onan’s actions, she did not become pregnant. For a Jewish woman, this meant disgrace, because people thought that being childless was a punishment from God.

2 She claimed her Levirite rights, Genesis 38:12-19. Eventually, Tamar had to trick Judah in order to obtain a child. By ancient Hebrew standards, her actions were legal and morally right.

3 She was accused of promiscuity, Genesis 38:20-26. Because she did not name the father of her child, it was assumed that she had been promiscuous, and Judah sentenced her to be burnt to death. But she saved herself by a clever ploy.

4 She bore twin sons, Genesis 38:27-30. Her tenacity was rewarded with the birth of sons, one of whom would be the ancestor of King David.

Tamar marries, but remains childless

As a young woman, Tamar married Er, eldest son of Judah and an unnamed daughter of Shua. It was a good match and things should have gone well, but Er practised some form of birth control, probably by withdrawing before ejaculation, and so Tamar was childless. God punished Er - people at the time saw withdrawal as a crime against Nature and God. Tamar suffered a double tragedy: her husband Er died, and she lost the chance of having a child.

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan ‘Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’

1727 B.C.

Genesis 38) 1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite (= justice of the people), whose name was Hirah (= a noble race).
2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite (in this was Judah's sin. Cp. 24:3; 26:35; 27:46; 38:1. Ex.34:16. Deut. 7:3. A warning, and a revelation of the human heart. Note who these Canaaanites were!), whose name was Shuah (= wealth); and he took her, and went in unto her.
3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er (= watchful).
4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan (= strong).
5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah (= a petition): and he was at Chezib (= lying), when she bare him.
6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar (= a palm tree).
7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the eyes of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.
8 And Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to your brother." (a law before Sinai, "The Code of Khamurrabi". Cp. Deut .25:5-9, Ruth 4:10, Matt.22:24. An old and present Eastern law)
9: And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
10 And the thing which he did was evil in the eyes of the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.
11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, "Remain a widow at your father's house, till Shelah my son be grown:" for he said, "Lest perhaps he die also (Judah, an unnatural brother, is punished in his own children), as his brethren did." And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

Widowed and without children, Tamar was low in the pecking order of the tribe. But there was a way out:

Here's something to do: Tell the story from the point of view of each character, one at a time. You'll see how rich, how complex the story is.

This law was found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a man died, and his wife had not yet had a child by him, she could go to his brother and demand that he marry her and give her a child who would inherit the property of the dead husband.

This practical law was about two things:

the woman's right to have children, and

keeping property within the family.

Under Levirate law, Er’s younger brother Onan was obliged to give Tamar a child. But he refused outright to do so, probably because any child born to Tamar would carry Er’s name, not Onan’s, and when their father died the child would inherit the dead brother’s portion of the estate. He practiced the same form of birth control, and Tamar did not conceive.

Onan thus failed to carry out the Levirate obligation to Tamar, and disregarded his father's command. He died, and his death at such an early age was seen as just punishment from God.

Deuteronomy 25:9-10 describes the punishment for a man who refused to obey the Levirate law: the woman went up to him in a public assembly, pulled his sandal from his foot, spat in his face, and said 'This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house'. To us the punishment does not sound very much, but in the context of the time it meant public disgrace. The action in verse 9 had symbolic meaning: the foot symbolized the male genitals, the sandal the female sexual organs, and the spittle, the semen.

The woman’s action publicly humiliated the man, and his family's disgrace was remembered long after he himself was dead. Public shame was often used to enforce the law in ancient times.

When Onan died without giving Tamar a child, she looked to the third son of Judah to be her husband. But he was only a boy, too young to be a father. So Judah sent Tamar back to her family, promising to send for her when Shelah, the third son, was old enough.

Judah began to look on Tamar as a jinx, responsible perhaps for the deaths of his two eldest sons.

Tamar claims her rights

Tamar waited patiently, but after a while it became clear that Judah did not mean to give her his third son Shelah as a husband. He refused to keep the Levirate law.

When she saw that she was to be left a childless widow, she decided to act. She did not blame ‘the system’, but took the initiative to obtain what was rightfully hers.

She dressed in the special clothing of a prostitute which included a veil across her face that disguised her identity, waited for Judah at the city gates, and persuaded him to have sexual intercourse with her.

The city gates described in the story would have been similar to the gates of Dan: massive mudbrick walls with a small gateway that could be easily bared against an enemy, and closed at night for security. Here men congregated to carry on the city's business. Here also the city prostitutes waited for customers.

‘She put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.’

Genesis 38:12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheep-shearers to Timnath (= portion), he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, "Behold your father in law goes up to Timnath to shear his sheep."
14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place (Heb. = "in the entrance to Enaim", Enaim = double fountain), which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him to wife.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
16 And he turned to her by the way, and said, "Go to, I pray you, let me come in unto you;" {for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.} And she said, "What will you give me, that you may come in unto me?"
17 And he said, "I will send you a kid from the flock." And she said, "Will you give me a pledge, till you send it?"
18 And he said, "What pledge shall I give you?" And she said, "Your signet, and your bracelets, and your staff that is in thine hand." And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.
19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. (9 widows mentioned in Scriptures,#9 = finality of judgment)

'She knew that Judah used the services of prostitutes, so she disguised herself as one of them. Then she waited for him at the side of the road and solicited him as he passed.'

Tamar asked for payment from Judah. He promised to send her a kid from his flock, and in the meantime, as a guarantee, he left his seal, cord and staff, all of which were personal items that could be identified. Then she took off the special clothing of a prostitutes, dressed herself again in her widow’s clothing, and returned home.

The seal, cord and staff were symbols of a man's identity, items of great personal worth, and it is surprising that Judah gave them up. Judah's seal may have been a cylinder seal similar to clay seals found in a number of archaeological excavations, particularly in the Mesopotamian area. Herodotus gives a description of the staff made specifically for each person, with a personal emblem carved on the top of it. But to Tamar these items meant much more: they symbolised the son she would have, the son who would succeed Judah.

This famous incident has been recorded by a number of painters.

Tamar is accused of promiscuity

When Judah’s friend came to make payment to the unknown prostitute and reclaim Judah’s seal, cord and staff, the woman was nowhere to be found. Tamar had gone home, without telling anyone who she was. But through this one act of sexual intercourse with Judah she had become pregnant, a fact that was soon evident to the people around her. Judah, who already blamed her for the deaths of his sons, thought the worst when he heard that she was pregnant. She was accused of ‘playing the whore’.

And Judah said “Bring her out and let her be burned”.

Genesis 38:20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.
21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, "Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side?" And they said, "There was no harlot in this place."
22 And he returned to Judah, and said, "I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place."
23 And Judah said, "Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and you have not found her."
24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, "Tamar your daughter in law has played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom." And Judah said, "Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." (This was strictly in accordance with the "Code", which was then in force throughout Canaan)
25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, "By the man, whose these are, am I with child:" and she said, "Discern, I pray you, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff."
26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, "She has been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son." And he knew her again no more. (But God remembered her-Matt.1:3).

Now Judah, as head of the tribe, had the right to pass judgment on her, and to condemn her to death. The Code of Hammurabi, law 129, reads ‘If the wife of a man has been caught while lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water. If the husband of the woman wishes to spare his wife, then the king in turn may spare his subject’. Deuteronomy 22:22, the Hebrew law code, recommends death for both the man and the woman.

Judah pronounced that Tamar should be burnt to death, a particularly cruel way to die. But Tamar was not beaten yet. She sent the seal, cord and staff back to Judah, with the message that they belonged to the father of her child, and Judah, confronted by the evidence, had little choice but to acknowledge that she was in the right, and that she had been acting according to the law.

The birth of Tamar's twin sons

When Tamar went into labor, she was the center of a tight little band of kinswomen and villagers: a midwife, her relatives and her friends. She knew what to expect, having seen other village women giving birth.

Tamar’s insistence on her rights was rewarded by the birth of not one but two children!

‘While she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson threat, saying “This one came out first”. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore he was named Perez.’

Genesis 38:27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb. 28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, "This came out first."
29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, "How have you broken forth? this breach be upon you:" therefore his name was called Pharez. (= breach)
30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah. (= a rising light, offspring, or dawn. Both Pharez and Zarah, together with their mother Tamar, are in the genealogy of Christ - Matt.1:3. This is why this parenthetical chapter is inserted here. It come historically, before chapter 37.

Tamar’s actions were unorthodox by modern standards. But in a way she ‘redeemed’ Judah. She saved him from doing what was wrong, and was thus a pre-figure of Jesus, who was one of her descendents.


In an odd sort of way, Tamar was more loyal to the tribe of Judah than he was himself. She knew she had a duty to produce an heir to her husband, and she was determined to do so, come what might. Despite her unorthodox methods, she was a woman of integrity who risked her life to fulfill her duty to herself and her family. She knew she had the right to a child, and she knew that her first husband Er had the right to an heir. So she acted to make this happen. Once again, God's plan continued to unfold through the unorthodox actions of a woman.

Satan worked over Judah's mind. Satan tells him, "it will be alright, just go shear sheep, and get a whore. This was not in God's plans, nor was it what Tamar would settle for. God gave the woman Tamar the ability to reason things through, and in the end, both God's will, and Tamar's desires were satisfied.

Satan has a way of working on the minds of human beings, and all human beings have a way of responding as human beings. Though we are talking of the great Judah, or David, or any human being, we can find where their actions are not all pure, however there is a time when their faults come to the light, and the men and women of God will repent of their sins, and set themselves on the right course as God would have them.

Within this story we can see the hand of God. God will allow certain things to fall upon his elect, and those chosen to do His tasks, and when they fall short of that responsibility God will intervene in their lives and make the corrections necessary. When this should happen in your life, that is the time to repent and thank God for His divine hand in changing you.