Saturday 26 November 2022 Tamar, Seeker of Justice Genesis 38
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. Shewas in Chezib when she bore him. Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 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 in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’ But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, 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 her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.”’ Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’
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.’ 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.’ Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.
When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. While she was in labour, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, 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.Afterwards his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.
Tamar’s story is one that would, in our modern time, be branded with a “not safe for work” warning. It’s a sordid tale of grief and depravity. And that’s what makes Tamar’s inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus so very interesting. This story is also an account of the conflict between a woman and a man who has absolute authority over her.
Genesis shows that women living in a patriarchal society face many challenges. Their lives seem to be a constant struggle for recognition. Referring to Genesis 38, in that culture, it was customary for a woman to marry the brother of her deceased husband to be provided for and remain a part of the family. Tamar experienced significant loss at the hands of wicked husbands who mistreated her and faced abandonment by Judah. This led her to do some questionable things. But it was Tamar’s pursuit of justice in Judah’s abandonment of his promise that allowed her to be a part of Jesus’ family. Tamar refuses to accept needless suffering and she takes action to change a life that would have been characterised by fear, anxiety, and worry. She seeks to preserve her self-respect and dignity; she refuses to be humiliated as a childless widow and wants to be treated as a woman with some rights in the patriarchal system.
In contexts of injustice and oppression, are women always condemned to do unusual things? Tamar’s story makes us inclined to answer with a yes. The fact that there continues to be injustice and oppression in the world does not mean that transformation will never happen. On the contrary, women’s voices, like Tamar’s, need to be heard, and society needs to naturally pay these women respect for who they are before they look for unusual ways to accomplish the transformation. We must work to remove the societal challenges that prevent women from achieving the justice that Tamar gained. Tamar’s circumstances and the presence of immorality in her story would have us all believe that she would not be celebrated by Scripture. And yet, Tamar was given the honour of being the first woman included in Jesus’ genealogy. The pain, loss and sin she was subjected to would ultimately be redeemed by the Messiah in her family tree.
O Lord God, Grant us, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Rev’d Margaret Nilanjana Ali, is the minister of Islington and Rectory Road URCs in London.