I have been reeling and grieving over the past week. The Brock Turner rape case, the burning of Pakistani women, the shooting of Christina Grimmie, and the shooting of fifty LGBTQ people has weighed on my mind and shoulders and heart.
In the midst of grieving, I also read the story of Tamar last week, and felt a familiar sense of loss, but also some liberation.
Take a moment to think about Tamar. What do you recall about her? Before I studied for this post, I honestly knew more about Onan, a man who appears in only three verses of Tamar’s story, than I knew about her. I remember hearing pastors use the story of Tamar and Onan (the one who “spills his seed on the ground” in Gen. 38:9) to discuss Christian sexual ethics. Other than that, Tamar pretty much went by the wayside.
If you want to read Tamar’s full story, you can click here; otherwise, this is a summary of the incredible life she lived:
Tamar married Judah’s eldest son Er, who died early and never impregnated Tamar (Gen. 38:1-7). That was a big issue in her cultural context, because sons provided what we now call insurance, social security, savings, and retirement. To protect childless widows, a cultural norm existed that instructed the brothers of the deceased man to impregnate the widow. The family and culture understood any of the children she then birthed to be the deceased brother’s children, rather than the brother who stepped in to create them.
So Judah instructed Onan, another of his sons, to have sex with Tamar in an effort to give her a son. Onan recognized that the children she would birth would not be his (which creates implications for the distribution of inheritance), and he therefore “spilled his seed on the ground” (v. 8-9). God watched him deny Tamar an heir, which angered God to the point that he killed Onan (v. 10).
That is literally the end of Onan’s story, and yet if we keep reading, we see the true import of Tamar’s:
After Onan’s death, Judah promised Tamar that she would marry his son Shelah when he was old enough. Over time, Tamar watched Shelah grow up, and realized that Judah wasn’t giving her to Shelah, and that she still had no heirs to offer the protection and security she needed (v. 11-12). So she took matters into her own hands.
She dressed as a prostitute and met Judah while he was shearing sheep. He propositioned her, and as payment she requested his signet ring, cord, and staff. In that time, those items were like his driver’s license, ATM card, Social Security card — she held the markers of his identity in her hands. When she returned home, she re-adorned her widow’s garb, and Judah’s servant couldn’t find the “prostitute” who had Judah’s ring, cord, and staff (v. 13-23).
After 3 months, people realized that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah suggested that they burn her because of her dishonorable pregnancy (a similar practice happened just this past week in Pakistan). In that moment, she carried out the ring, cord, and signet, and declared, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant” (v. 25). Judah acknowledged that the items were his, and admitted, “She is more in the righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26).
Tamar then birthed twin sons, thereby overcoming social and familial obstacles, and gaining the protection and security she required from the beginning.
Tamar’s story is one of liberation and strength within her social context. She stands up to power, both within her family and within her society. She not only calls Judah out for not offering her the protection that he should have provided her, but also proves that she is the righteous one in the face of her culture trying to kill her. And ultimately, Judah humbles himself and accepts his part in Tamar’s subjection, and the society backs down from their intended punishment. In fact, they acknowledge that she is more righteous than the leader Judah who had proposed the punishment.
In light of the violence that our world has witnessed this week, and in light of the grief that all of us will continue to feel, perhaps we can see Tamar as one small light of hope: that even the stories that don’t get told often enough, the stories that get silenced, can offer strength and encouragement; that those who have gone before us, even in the ancient world, found ways to protect themselves and to stand up to power.
Genesis 38 offers us a perspective on how God feels about marginalization and accountability, and in this narrative we find justice. We find liberation for a childless widow, whose gender and lack of reproduction made her one of the most vulnerable individuals within society. And while we may not see justice today, while we may still feel the weight of violence and subjection, perhaps we can look to Tamar to find hope for a more just, empowered, and peaceful tomorrow.