Out-Of-The Box Actions
Some might condemn her methods. But perhaps Tamar is one of those examples that prove the adage: desperate times require desperate means.
Tamar’s story is found in Genesis 38. Judah’s daughter-in-law appears only briefly on the pages of history but that appearance is significant.
Several years ago the Book Club that I hosted read Carolyn Custis James’ book, Lost Women of the Bible. It was a revelation, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a different perspective on some of the people that history often overlooks.
Here’s the background to the story. The custom of the time (later to become part of Levirate Law as noted in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) was that if a man died without an heir his brother was required to marry the widow and produce a child who would inherit the dead man’s estate. It is recorded in Genesis 38 that Judah had three sons. The eldest married and died without issue. The widow, Tamar, was then married to the second son, who also died without providing the heir to his brother’s estate.
Judah promised Tamar that when his third son was old enough she would be married to him and then be able to produce the necessary heir (38:11).
But he didn’t keep his promise.
As the time passed Tamara realized that her father-in-law was not going to marry her to his son.
Judah had lost his wife (38:12). When his period of mourning passed he left his home to visit the place where his sheep were being sheared. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and, arriving ahead of him, placed herself in a strategic spot to catch his attention. While such an action is normally worthy of condemnation, it was also the custom of the times that if there were no other son for the widow to marry, she could become wife to her widowed father-in-law and provide the heir to his estate. But it appears Judah wasn’t about to do that either. Did he fear that God would judge him as He had judged his sons—after all, he had sold his brother, Joseph, into slavery?
The question arises: How did Tamar know that her deception would work? We can only speculate that she knew her father-in-law well.
When it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, Judah wanted to have her burned to death for her adultery (38:24). Anticipating some such reaction, Tamar had accepted two pieces of identification—Judah's symbols of authority—during their encounter (38:18). These she now produced.
What is not often mentioned when this story is told (which is not often) is how Judah responded. Genesis 38:26 tells us: “Judah recognized them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.’”
As James points out in her chapter on Tamar, the Scriptures don’t toss the word, righteous, around as though it were unimportant. She writes: “The prophet Habakkuk linked righteousness to faith in God. You can’t have righteousness without also having God. Righteous living—doing the right thing in God’s eyes no matter how much it costs you—is a sign that you belong to him. ‘The righteous will live by their faith’ (Habakkuk 2:4 NLT)….Judah couldn’t have paid Tamar a higher compliment than to call her righteous. He wasting, ’She has done the right thing. She has done what pleases God. And I have not.’” (page 114).
James goes on to remind her readers that twice it is said that God took the lives of Judah’s two sons because they had done evil—one in particular for wasting the seed that would have produced the promised heir. Judah was willing to waste his on the woman he thought was a prostitute. But on Tamar’s actions, “…the heavens are strangely silent” (page 115). In fact, Tamar is elevated in the story of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:17) and highlighted in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 1:3).
James’s “bottom line” is this: “She wasn’t called righteous for her quiet and gentle spirit. She was righteous by being strong and assertive. She was a godly leader. She confronted Judah, the future leader of Jacob’s family, for turning his back on God’s covenant, and her courageous actions led him back to God….Although her tactics wouldn’t work today, the principles she represents do, Women are called to think about where men are leading, to stand against wrong, and to be leaders for God’s purposes. Tamar shattered the traditional definition of what it means to be a woman by standing up to the most powerful man in her life—her father-in-law and the tribal patriarch. For a time, she takes the symbols of authority away from the man who tells her whom to marry and where to live—a man who can sentence her to death without answering to anyone. Before she returns the articles Judah had given her, she pointed Judah back to the God of the covenant, the only true authority over both their lives.” (pages 117-118).
This analysis has probably raised the ire of many. But while Tamar's act is not something likely ever to be repeated, it does remind me of the importance, as Peter tells us in Acts 4:19, to obey God rather than man, even when that obedience is difficult, dangerous, and downright “out-of-the-box.”