The story of the first woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: Tamar Genesis 38
Shame. That yucky feeling that makes us want to run and hide. Sometimes it makes us literally run and hide like a kid hiding under their bed to avoid punishment, but as adults we may do this too: move towns, change churches, stop calling friends. I think more often shame causes us to hide who we are to others. Shame distorts our own concept of identity by lying to us long enough and loud enough that its words sink into our hearts and grow into beliefs.
While I’m here to tell Tamar’s story, we must first tell the story of the man whose shame came in like a wrecking ball to Tamar’s life: Judah. Will he be exalted by Jacob and blessed on his father’s deathbed–yes(Gen. 49:8-12). But not before he lays in his sin and error pining.
And what’s his shame reaction to his sin? Judah’s go to defense mechanism in life thus far seems to be to suppression: he runs away so he can consciously forget his sin. We see this first when he leaves home for Adullam right after the whole “Joseph incident” (Gen. 37). We see this again when he sends Tamar back to her father’s house to “wait for son number three” to marry her after God smites the first two. And from all the things I’ve read it was not customary for a widow to go back to her household of origin. Here Judah’s fear just adds insult to injury.
Skim this: Whenever Judah sins he likes to either run from it (sound familiar Jacob???) or get it out of his sight like what he did with Tamar. We can assume this is shame talking here because of his hiding behavior.
So let’s rewind a bit and look at this story from Tamar’s perspective. We can assume by Judah’s lineage that he’s probably pretty wealthy. So score, Tamar marries the firstborn of a family who, on the outside looks like they can take care of her. We don’t know from the text if Er (hubby #1) is evil directly to Tamar, but he was bad enough for God to smite so I’m going to take a tiny leap and say he was not husband of the year. BUT no worries because Judah does the right thing (because it’s at no cost to him) and arranges for son #2 to “do his duty” and give her children that will bear his brother’s name.
But there’s a problem (at least in Onan’s eyes). In giving Tamar children in his older brother’s name, Onan would be diminishing his inheritance. You see, this was back in the day where the oldest son got the lion’s share of the inheritance. So if the firstborn dies without an official heir #2 now gets promoted. If Onan is thinking selfishly, he cannot let Tamar have an heir. If Onan is honoring custom (which will later become official levitical law), he will provide Tamar with the only form of social security back then: a child. And this child will inherit the lion’s share over him.
While Judah does do the right thing, Onan does (at least) 2 wrong things. First he agrees to his dad’s request with NO INTENTION of actually honoring it. In short: he deceives (sound familiar Jacob???). Second, he could have just lied and then not slept with her, but NO he uses her for himself (hear heavy euphemisms here) only to use the second oldest birth control method in the book. Bam. Smote.
[in case you’re wondering, first oldest method award goes to abstinence]
And here we have Tamar. Promised a good life. Given 2 rotten apples as husbands. Probably gathering a reputation in whispers around town being quasi-blamed for their deaths (it was a thing back then). She has no security (aka children). Traumatized. Marginalized. Labeled. Sent back to the manufacturer as a “defective product”.
Skim this: Judah seems to do the right thing by asking Onan to give her offspring, but remember this costs Judah nothing. Onan could have just not done his duty, but he uses Tamar and leaves her doubly-traumatized by (1)his actions, and (2)the label society surely was placing on her.
But here’s where the story gets good. Though she had effectively been labeled “bad goods”, she did not accept the identity society put on her. She knew her name. She knew she was now in Judah’s family–THE chosen family. She did not whither into a fragile recluse with the shame tapes sung by her society playing in her head. She waited. Then she used her marginalized status to her advantage.
If there’s one thing marginalized people know it’s that society has no problem using you, but they will not look you in the eye. So Tamar uses the only power that women had in her day to make Judah make good on his promise to give her children: she disguises herself as a prostitute and puts herself in Judah’s path. I wish I could know her mindset. Was it one of power or desperation? Maybe both? What I do know is she was smart.
So Tamar, cunning and clever, takes 3 identifying items from her “suitor” that are as good as having a signed confession in our day. Shocker: Judah again hides from his shame when he goes to pay the veiled lady but finds she had mysteriously vanished. Embarrassed and ashamed when he is unable to find her, he resorts to suppression and pretends like it never happened.
He then switches into another defense mechanism, reaction formation, when he finds out his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Like many externally pious men, he wants to burn Tamar at the stake for the EXACT SIN that he committed (like the actual exact same sin).
But, remember, Tamar was smart. She has evidence of his sin that is just as real and obvious as the evidence of her growing belly. And Judah finally has a different reaction. He could have run from town like he did after selling Joseph. He could have used his considerable power as a Wealthy. Man. to deny this harlotrous woman’s claims. But he doesn’t. He humbles himself and exalts the righteousness of Tamar.
Skim this: Tamar’s commitment to knowing her identity strengthened her resolve to get what that identity entitled her to: an heir. She used the only power a woman had in her day to accomplish it. In doing so, she was declared more righteous than the man who tried to deny her true identity.
It’s more typical for the story of Genesis 38 to be told in a way that Tamar is just a side story in Judah’s life. And true, it will be Judah’s name that gets spoken again and again throughout history and Scripture. But I want us to pause here today and consider this question.
Where would Judah be if it wasn’t for Tamar?
Until this point in his life his reaction to sin and shame was to run, hide, discard, cover it up at any cost. But when face to face with the woman he had humiliated, he is finally brought into humility.
We know that Jacob had no qualms about passing over blessing his first three sons due to their sin. What would have happened to Judah if he had continued his ways and broken one of the most echoed commands in the Bible: take care of the widow and orphan?
Tamar’s story is for anyone who has been dismissed or discarded.
Tamar’s story is for anyone who has felt used by others.
Tamar’s story is for those who have been blamed for other people’s evil. Tamar’s story is about holding fast to your identity when everyone else around you is calling you by another name.
I am so grateful Tamar is honored in Matthew’s lineage of Jesus. Her story tells us to anchor ourselves in our identity in Christ. Because God is the Good Father that Judah failed to be, we can rest in the fact that we will never need to prostitute ourselves to declare our identity.
I see Tamar in the way Jesus held fast to his identity.
I see Tamar in the smart and effective ways Jesus dealt with the Pharisees.
I see Tamar reflected in the humble beginnings of Jesus’ birth: marginalized in a manger.
Tamar did you know? Did you know that your fight to be recognized by your family name would lead to others being known by their true name: sons and daughters of God through Jesus our Lord–and your great great… great grand baby.