Why is this story in the Bible? Tamar’s husband dies and so Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, son of Joseph, promises her his next son when he grows up. But it doesn’t happen. So Tamar dresses up like a prostitute, Judah acquires her services leaving his staff, a cord and his signet ring as a guarantee of payment to come. Then sleeps with her and gets her pregnant. Tamar returns to “normal” life and when Judah finds out she is pregnant, he sets out to kill her for acting loosely. But she sends back the staff, cord and signet ring and says, “I’m pregnant by this man.” Judah repents.
Alright, let’s just put this out there. This story is awful. Yes, there are some cultural elements to it. It was a high value that the lineage continued via a child. Really high. If a man died leaving no children, that man’s brother was supposed to impregnate his brother’s wife (widow) so that his brother could have a child in the family name. It was called a Levirate marriage and is still practiced in some places today. Also it fell to Judah to make sure another son was provided for her daughter-in-law and while he promised, he didn’t deliver. It was violation of a sacred offense. So Tamar took action.
It’s important to note that the Bible is unique of all the Holy Writings in that it tells the good, bad and the ugly of all people. Genesis is a historical account of God’s working through creation and the people of Israel, and every facet is not meant as a moral teaching. Judah and Tamar’s act was wicked. Yet it was redeemed as Tamar became an ancestor to the Messiah.
So why this story?
- The Motif of Faith vs Faithlessness – From the beginning of Genesis we see faith compared to faithlessness. We see the faith of Abel compared to the faithlessness of Cain, Noah remained faithful in a culture of profound faithlessness, Abraham’s faith compared to the faithlessness of Lot, Jacob’s faith against the faith of Esau who sold his blessings and birthright, and now the faith of Joseph compared to the faithlessness of his brothers and a brother Judah who refused to fill his duties of taking care of his daughter-in-law by giving his son Shelah to her.
- The Theme of the Faithfulness of God in spite of Human Rebellion – Man sinned in the Garden and immediately the Lord promised a Redeemer, Abraham and Rachel couldn’t have children but in their late age God provided, Isaac and Rebekah couldn’t have children but Isaac prayed and the Lord opened her womb, Esau wanted to kill Jacob but the Lord took him away until both brothers had a turning of the heart, Rachel couldn’t have children thorugh the family line but finally the Lord opened her womb and she had Joseph (and Benjamin), Joseph was sold as a slave but the Lord hand preserved his life by having him sold to the Midianites.
From one generation to the next it seemed like the promises of God would not be fulfilled. And they couldn’t at least by man. Although they kept trying in their own power on multiple occasions. God kept his promises to preserve the family line.
On a side note reading this it made me think of how often the woman is expected to be pure for her marriage, but the purity of man is not kept in the same high regard even though the Scripture speaks of both. In many cultures, if not every culture, a man is almost pressured to be loose with his sexual mores, but demand a woman’s purity. In some places, it is even death if not very shameful if she is not a virgin on her wedding day.
Jesus addressed this issue also in John 8 where a woman was about to be stoned for adultery. Then he confronted the men and told them the one without sin should be the one who threw the stones. They all left.
So what can we glean from this writing?
Primarily that God is able to keep his promises. So many times it looks absolutely impossible. Seasons come and seasons go, yet still the fulfillment lingers. And yet there’s God, ready to amazing things to fulfill his Word.
As I write this I still feel things unfulfilled in my life. You sometimes wonder if you should make it happen on your own. But look how disastrous that turned out when Abraham and Sarah did that. Even today the sons of Isaac (the Jews) fight with the sons of Ishmael (the Arabs).
At the end of the day our faith has to outgrow out immature levels of patience.