In this article, we will explore the story of Tamar from Genesis 38 as a transforming woman from the Old Testament. After her husband dies, Tamar appears to be a helpless woman, but she knows that she has a right to have a son and does not easily give up on the idea despite the intentional oppression she receives from her father-in-law. Tamar’s appearance in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus demonstrates the importance of this woman in the story of salvation (Matt. 1:3). She transformed the narrow and oppressive ways of thinking surrounding her through her courage.
How I understand Tamar’s story is influenced by philosopher and ethicist Martha Nussbaum’s notion that by participating at a political, social, and economic level, people can change cultures that are male-dominated and oppressive of women. She believes that “even in societies that nourish problematic roles for men and women, real men and women can also find spaces in which to subvert those conventions, resourcefully creating possibilities of love and joy.” Tamar’s actions can be understood in this same way; women can subvert society’s expectations for them to find justice.
Tamar's Transformation For Justice
In the story, Tamar’s qualities as a heroine and the role of God’s providence are accentuated when she is chosen to maintain the line of Judah (Gen. 38). Tamar makes evident the transforming role of a woman living in a patriarchal society. In fact, “Tamar can be considered as the forerunner of others in later times who found that the only way to move a society dominated by males was to do the unusual thing.” The “unusual thing”1 that Tamar does is obvious, but it raises the question of whether doing an “unusual thing” is the only way for women to change their situation or alter aspects of a society dominated by men. In contexts of injustice and oppression, are women always condemned to do unusual things? To address this question, we will analyze Tamar’s story and discuss the specific obstacles Tamar has to contend with, the way she overcomes them, and the values that motivate her.
Analyzing Tamar's Story
Tamar’s story takes place in Canaan prior to Israel’s settlement in the land. Israel’s people live side by side with the Canaanites and intermarry with them. Judah marries a Canaanite woman who gives him three sons. For Er, the elder son, Judah chooses a wife called Tamar who lives in the region. Er dies at the hand of God. Onan, the second son refuses to fulfill the duty of levirate marriage toward his brother’s widow (one brother must marry his dead brother’s wife if they do not already have a son, spelled out in Deut. 25:5–10), presumably because he would have to support a child that is legally someone else’s. Onan dies too, and Judah is now reluctant to surrender his third son Shelah. Judah instructs Tamar to remain a widow until Shelah grows up. Tamar goes away as a widow, but she is still “engaged” and therefore not free to remarry.
Tamar is left in an awful predicament: “She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage” (Gen. 38:14, NRSV). She has no freedom to remarry into another family, and she has not been provided with another husband from the family she had married into, despite one being available.2 Tamar has become the victim of the absolute power of her father-in-law over her. Through Judah’s unjust decision, she has been denied the means of performing her duty toward a husband who has died. She has been robbed of the chance of achieving a sense of self-worth through giving birth to a child, and thereby she has also been prevented from gaining an honorable status in her community and a child to support her as she ages.
Years pass by and Judah’s wife dies. When the period of mourning is over, Judah, now a widower, goes to attend the shearing of his flocks at Timnah, in the hill country (Gen. 38:12). Shearing is a time of eating, drinking, partying, and indulgence.
As for Tamar, she has by now realized that she has been doomed to a life of permanent widowhood by her father-in-law. She also “knows her father-in-law well enough, too, so that when the word gets to her that he is going to the sheep-shearing, she knows what sort of things he has in mind.”3 So, Judah’s journey becomes Tamar’s chance to takes matters into her own hands and to act. Her plan, however, is bold and dangerous. She will use her own sexuality in a cunning way to get for herself what has been wrongly denied to her: the desired status of a mother.
She intends to turn a situation of an accidental physical relationship into an opportunity to get pregnant and have the child that has been denied to her. The irony here is that the child’s father will be the very man who has wronged her. One can detect revenge in Tamar’s decision to entrap Judah into having a physical relationship with her disguised as a prostitute.
Tamar’s choice is hazardous in many ways. On a personal level, the only means for rectifying the injustice done to her is for Tamar to use her own body and sexuality. She does not participate in prostitution by free choice.
On a social level, by choosing to prostitute herself, Tamar becomes a “legal outlaw,” stepping not only outside the acceptable moral norms expected of a woman but also outside the more general norms of social order. Tamar accepted that she would become an ostracized and despised woman.
Legally, Tamar is bound to chastity by her status as a “chained” widow. She is promised to Judah’s third son through the institution of levirate marriage, and as such she cannot engage in sexual activity with any other man. So when Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant, he punishes her for unfaithfulness: “let her be burned!” (Gen. 38:24).
Discovery and Recognition: Tamar’s Vindication
Tamar’s shame is made explicit when her pregnancy becomes public and she is condemned. She is exposed and condemned to death by Judah, the patriarch bearing authority. Tamar’s capital offense is adultery (Deut. 22:23–24) since she is still betrothed to Shelah. But Tamar carefully makes her defense using the pledge (signet, bracelet, and staff) that Judah had left with her, which will justify her.
In this climactic scene of discovery and recognition (Gen. 38:24–26), Judah, the figure of authority and stern judge, is confronted by the evidence of his breach of promise as head of the family, of his blindness as a lover, and of his incest and fatherhood. This is a scene which is heavy with moral recognition. While Judah was seeking to further exert his power over Tamar, she forces Judah to confront the meaning of his action. Judah has to acknowledge: “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (38:26).
A couple of moral points are made in this sentence. First, Judah recognizes that “she was not guilty in fact of harlotry. On the contrary, by playing the harlot, Tamar was only making clear to Judah that he (and his sons) had long been treating her as a harlot, as a woman to be used for pleasure rather than a wife celebrated for fruitfulness.”4 Second, this statement is an acknowledgment that Tamar has taught Judah “multiple lessons about right and duty: the justice of keeping promises; the justice of treating all sons equally (upholding the levirate duty) . . . ; the duty of fathers to care for all their descendants and not only those they prefer and love.”5
Tamar Challenges and Alters an Injustice
By Breaking the Boundaries of Patriarchy
Bearing children is part of the expectations and requirements of the patriarchal system for women. As a result of this pressure, Tamar is led to do quite an unusual thing. Taking matters into her own hands, she steps outside what is considered a moral life in her society. By this action, Tamar risks much, but it is also true that she has little to lose, as two attempts to provide her with a husband have failed.6 Since justice is the primary goal of Tamar, James McKeown’s evaluation seems quite correct: “Genesis does not portray women as weak and defeated, but shows that, given the opportunity, they are not at all inferior and often outwit the men.” This comment definitely applies to Tamar who, in her own way, challenges the patriarchal system.
By Affirming Her Right to Be a Mother
Tamar has been wronged by her two husbands and her father-in-law, and she has become a troubled woman who was at odds with society’s expectations for her. Due to circumstances beyond her control, Tamar’s options in life have become nonexistent, as she is without a husband, children, and ultimately without the support of the family she had married into. Judah had failed to fulfill his responsibilities to Tamar as a father-in-law, and in God’s wisdom, for a better purpose ultimately, Tamar was prevented from mothering a child to either Er or Onan. By taking the desperate step of becoming a prostitute, Tamar affirms her right to become a mother.
By Following Her Own Moral Code
The whole story of Tamar is an account of the conflict between a woman and a man who has absolute authority over her. She does not feel it is her place to obey and support the patriarchal authority of Judah by conforming to his demands, nor does she feel that she can conform to the law of society. Against her role as a woman and the rules of her society, Tamar has an inner moral code that leads her to challenge the injustices done to her. Although it is not openly stated in the story, she must have been evaluating and questioning the authoritative decisions in the light of her own values and desires. In this way, Tamar could be considered to be a champion for many women who live in a male-dominated society and who bring about change by doing the unexpected.7
Tamar Seeks to Uphold Justice
“Genesis shows that women living in a patriarchal society face many challenges. Their lives seem to be a constant struggle for recognition.”8 But Tamar subverts the usual expectations of her society to earn recognition in several important ways. Tamar seeks to protect her right to bodily health and the ability to have children. She maintains her bodily integrity by refusing to follow the order of Judah and deciding to do whatever is needed to have a child. Tamar refuses to accept needless suffering and she takes action to change a life that would have been characterized 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.
So back to the question we asked earlier, “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 transformation. We must work to remove the societal challenges that prevent women from achieving the justice that Tamar gained.
This article appeared in “Freedom to Flourish: Aligning Christian Faith and Women’s Equality with Humanitarian Work,” the Summer 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
1. Ronald S. Wallace, The Story of Joseph and the Family of Jacob (Grand Rapids/Edinburgh: Eerdmans/Rutherford House, 2001), 24.
2. Wallace, Story of Joseph, summarizes the situation well: “He (Judah) kept one bound whom he intended to defraud,” 23. Gordon Wenham also observes: “until this point Tamar has been a passive object, acted upon—or alas not acted upon by Judah and his sons . . . now a clear perception of injustice done here is ascribed to Tamar (v. 14),” Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 367.
3. David M. Gunn, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 38.
4. Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 537.
5. Kass, Beginning of Wisdom, 537.
6. McKeown observes rightly that “Genesis shows that women living in a patriarchal society face many challenges. Their lives seem to be a constant struggle for recognition,” Genesis (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008), 348.
7. F. Van Dijk-Hemmes, “Tamar and the Limits of Patriarchy,” in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, ed. Mieke Bal (Sheffield: JSOT/Almond, 1989), 135–156.
8. McKeown, Genesis, 348.