(Judah’s Daughter in Law – Painted by Marc Chagall)
Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here
Read Part 4 here
Joseph Campbell once said, “Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.” Clearly he hasn’t focused much on the stories of the women in the Bible.
From the very beginning, we see a theme of men who refuse to take ownership of their actions and, instead, deflect blame onto women. Remember Adam, who was right there with Eve during the entire incident with the Serpent? He then tells God, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” It’s all HER fault. Well, when it comes to the women in Scripture, the men seem to think it’s always HER fault. This is perhaps most true in the story of Tamar.
I haven’t heard lots of sermons on the story of Tamar, but each one that I have heard goes exactly like the first hit on my google search. Here are some quotes from the first page I clicked on.
“So what did Tamar do? She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited for Judah to come by. Judah falls for the ruse and in that encounter, Tamar gets pregnant.”
Then, the website addresses the fact that Tamar shows up in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Matthew.
“that a person of shame is used in the account can show the way of God in using that which is shameful regularly to fulfill His purposes. Many people wonder how God could use them, and the genealogy can indicate to us that anyone can be used. Also, not only can we be used, but our sinful actions can be.”
The moral of the story (and of any sermon I’ve heard on Tamar) is that she is a dirty, shameful sinner who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her. DISGUSTING! Yet, Jesus can take this rotten low life and still use her for something. Because, of course, it’s all HER fault.
But is that actually how the story is told?
First, a little background.
At the beginning of this story, in Genesis 38, we read about Judah. Judah is one of the 12 sons of Jacob. His little brother is Joseph, the one with the technicolor dreamcoat. Previously, in Genesis 37, Judah conspires with his other brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, and then lie to their father that he was eaten by a ferocious animal. This is a real stand up guy.
As we get to chapter 38, while Joseph is enslaved, and his father is mourning the loss of a son, Judah moves away, gets married, and has three sons of his own.
His oldest son, Er, gets married to a woman named Tamar, but suddenly, our story takes a dark turn.
Genesis 38: 7 – “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.”
What?! I have a lot of questions here. What was he doing that was so wicked? Put to death how? Unfortunately, none of those questions are answered for us.
A little more background:
In that time, the Israelites practiced something called Levirate marriage. If a woman’s husband died without leaving behind a son, that man’s brother was to take in the widow as his wife and provide a son for her. In this way, the woman would have someone to take care of her (this was not a culture where a single woman could just get a job and provide for herself) and her dead husband would have a way for his name to be carried on. Once the woman conceived, this child would be viewed as her dead husband’s son, not as the son of dead husband’s brother. Did you follow all of that?
This is why, after Er dies, Judah goes to his next oldest son, Onan, and says
“Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” (Genesis 38:8)
So Judah is a guy that would sell his own brother and then make his father falsely grieve a death. His first son was so wicked the Lord put him death. And when it comes to Onan, it seems that bad dudes just run in the family. Onan knows that if he gives a son to Tamar, the largest part of the inheritance (which belongs to his dead older brother) will be given to the son. Onan doesn’t want that. He wants to keep the inheritance for himself. So what does he do?
Genesis 38:9 – so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.
Onan is more than willing to receive sexual pleasure from Tamar, but he’s not willing to take on the responsibility of fathering a child, and he definitely isn’t going to foot the bill for this kid. This sounds like some guys I know today. So what happens?
Genesis 38:10 – What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
At this point, Tamar has lost a husband, has been used sexually, has not been given the protections she is owed by the law, and she still has no one to take care of her. Thankfully, Judah still has one more son who can make this all right. So what does Judah do?
Genesis 38:11 – Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.”
Instead of fulfilling his legal obligation to Tamar, he sends her back to her father to live as a widow. Why? Because so far he is 2 for 2 on sons dying with Tamar and Judah believes it’s all her fault. Because it’s always HER fault right? Apparently it has nothing to do with the fact that Judah raised two wicked sons. Surely those men couldn’t have been responsible. Clearly Tamar is to blame.
Judah tells Tamar that when his third son is older, he will give that son to Tamar as a husband. However, we will find later in the story that this is a complete lie. So Tamar is cast out, and a long time passes. After awhile, Judah’s wife dies.
Word gets to Tamar that Judah is coming into town. Tamar also finds out that Judah’s third son has grown up, yet has not been given to her as a husband. So Tamar puts on a disguise to confront him. When Judah sees Tamar in disguise, he thinks she is a prostitute, and he says to her
“Come now, let me sleep with you.”
By the way, Judah sure seems to have forgotten about his dead wife real quick. Not only does he proposition prostitution (already a big no no) we will find out later that he thought she was a shrine prostitute. That means, he didn’t just want to have sex with her, but he wanted to have sex with her as a way of participating in pagan idol worship. You can’t make this stuff up.
Judah tells this woman, whom he thinks is a prostitute, that he will pay her a young goat for sex, but he doesn’t have one on him right at the moment. So Tamar takes his staff and his seal and says, “you can have these back when I get my payment.”
They have sex, and she gets pregnant.
Now, before we go any further, let’s take a running count on Judah. He sold his brother into slavery. He lied to his father about Joseph dying. He did nothing to address the wickedness of his sons. He throws out his daughter in law instead of giving her the protections that he legally owes her, and now he worships idols through sex with a prostitute as a way to rebound his wife’s death. Did I forget anything?
Well, word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and how does Judah respond? Does he rejoice that she finally will have the child she is owed? Is he thankful that she will finally have someone to care after her? Is he moved to apologize for abandoning her?
Of course not. Because it’s always HER fault. Judah is ticked that she got pregnant with someone who is not his son…EVEN THOUGH HE REFUSED TO GIVE HER HIS SON!
How can Tamar win? It doesn’t matter. It’s HER fault. So Judah says,
Genesis 38: 24 – “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
Nevermind that Judah has not been punished a single time for any of his wrong doings. Tamar is at fault and she must be punished. What is ironic is that, even though Judah assumes it is Tamar’s fault, who is the one that got her pregnant?
In one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Scripture, Tamar is brought to Judah for this punishment and she pulls out his staff and seal that she’s been keeping. Suddenly, Judah realizes what has happened, and his tune of “it’s all HER fault” changes.
Genesis 38: 26 – Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I...”
This story reads way different to me than the whole, “Tamar is a dirty, shameful sinner, but thankfully God is still willing to use low lifes like that.” Maybe the reason that Tamar is present in the genealogy of Jesus is not to show how God uses shameful people, but rather because she is the one in the story who was actually righteous. Is that not what Judah says?
But for us to see that, we would have to admit that it’s not HER fault. We would have to admit that, actually, Judah is the one to blame here. Literally everything shameful that happens in this story is the result of Judah and/or his sons. But so many readers are content to say that it must be Tamar’s fault. I mean, she was dressed like a prostitute. She was asking for it right? Judah couldn’t have controlled himself. He only acted that way because of her seduction. It was all HER fault. Good thing stuff like this only happened in Bible times…oh wait
I see too many women who are treated by men similarly to how Tamar is treated by Judah. I see too many men who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and who are quick to place the blame on women. I’m tired of seeing men who only will admit to wrongdoing when the staff and seal that their victims present are so condemning they have no other option.
Maybe we need to learn a new phrase. Instead of saying “it’s HER fault”, let’s also learn to say “She is more righteous than I.”