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Tamar the righteous

Tamar’s story is the stuff of a Broadway show with its costumes and mistaken identity. It’s also the stuff of nightmares, this woman rejected by two husbands, refused any financial means, and purposely ‘forgotten’ by the only man who could give her any.

We find this story in Genesis 38. Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. He left his brothers and went down to Canaan where he married and had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Later on, Er married a Canaanite woman called Tamar — not an Israelite. Er was an Israelite by blood but his actions were not the actions of a good Israelite. He did wrong and so God killed him (v.7). Judah told Onan, Er’s brother, to sleep with Tamar to give her a son to continue the line of Er. Onan went to Tamar but he didn’t want to fulfil the obligation, so he spilled his seed. This was also did evil in God’s eyes and so he also died (v.10).

Judah knew that he should give Shelah to Tamar so she could bear a son but he was afraid. He saw that his two sons had died after sleeping with Tamar. Was she cursed? Was she a witch? Why risk his third son? So Judah sent Tamar to return to the home of her Father. His first mistake was that he assumed Tamar was the one who was evil. In actual fact, it was his sons. His second mistake was that he did not give Shelah to Tamar. Tamar was a widow without children to look after her. This is a terrible situation, especially at this point in history. Judah failed to fulfill his responsibilities to give Tamar children and security.

So, what was Tamar to do? She was a woman without a husband or children or status or money. She had no power and no voice. She wasn’t even an Israelite – remember she was from Canaan. She is very much on the margins, without help or hope.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She figures if Judah won’t give her a child, she’ll trick him into it. She veils herself like a prostitute and waits by the side of the road, knowing Judah is about to pass by. He’s got no money so she negotiates with him for his ring, rope and staff to identify him so she can collect it later. They sleep together, she gets pregnant unbeknownst to Judah, and she returns home in secret.

Three months later when the pregnancy’s starting to get obvious, Judah’s ready to have Tamar burned for prostitution, but she produces the ring, rope and staff to show that the child (or children as we’re soon to find out!) is Judah’s. She has procured from him what he refused to give.

When Judah refused to follow through on his God-given responsibilities, Tamar hatches a plan to see them come to fruition. Judah’s lost sight of God’s plan. He fails to ensure the good of his family as God commanded. He does not care for Tamar. But what is obstructed by Judah, Tamar fulfils. This is why Judah says, ‘Tamar is more righteous than me. It’s true, for I refused to marry her to Shela.’ With her intelligence and cunning, she resolves the mess left by Judah’s unrighteousness.

Tamar shows us that righteousness is often where you least expect it. Tamar wore the clothes of a prostitute and yet she was more righteous than Judah, a father of the nation of Israel. I remember meeting with a Sudanese refugee in Melbourne. He was wearing a poorly fitted suit, and wore glasses because one eye had been injured while he was a child soldier. In his broken English, he spoke of his wartorn country and then shocked me with this statement: ‘You Australians and your democracy. You think it means you can control things, that you are in charge. Do you think the sun would rise tomorrow if God did not make it rise?’ His point was not that we should abandon democracy, nor about the science of sunrise! His point was about how we have squeezed God out of life, how like Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ death, we forget that every breath comes from God. Like Judah who was content in his own status while ignoring his obligations to his daughter-in-law, we live as though our freedom and wealth is a birthright, not a gift to be shared. This man was a refugee struggling to make sense of life in Australia. He had no power or social connections or influence. He is not the man from whom you would expect to hear a prophetic word of rebuke. And yet, that is who God used. God is at work on the margins. Let us listen for his word, and may it lead us in his way.


Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here

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