The story of Tamar in Genesis is one that we may have some difficulty with, in our present day. It's tough to "get our heads around" a story of prostitution and fornication. It's tough for us to imagine the world of a childless woman of that era, even though we touched on it in the story of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. We need to dive in and explore this, for her story is another that we can learn from!
I'd like to ask you to read Tamar's story in Genesis chapter 38, and then come back to our study. We'll wait right here. I promise.
All done? OK, let's dive in!
You remember Judah, don't you? He was one of Jacob's sons, and was party to their sending Joseph off to Egypt as a slave. But perhaps by now he was a little nicer, no? He was married, and had three sons now; he arranged a marriage for his eldest son, Er. The passage told us that Er was wicked in the sight of God, and that he died, leaving his wife, Tamar, childless. That left her pretty low in the pecking order of the tribe. Let's re-visit Deuteronomy 25:5-10, shall we?
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son,
his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother
shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.
The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that
his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not
want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town
gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s
name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.”
Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists
in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to
him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face
and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s
family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the
Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Wowser. They considered it very important to keep a family line going, right? Well, think about this: remember the genealogies in the Bible? Do you pass over them and resume reading after the list is done? (Grin) They are actually pretty interesting, and there's a point to be made here. In Matthew's gospel, he lists the genealogy of Christ Jesus -- there are forty-one male ancestors listed. There are also five females . . . . three of those have stories that are colored by details such as incest, prostitution, murder, and more. Tamar is one of them.
The passage in Deuteronomy provides for two things. First, all of the members of the tribe, or family, would be provided for -- whether their father or husband was alive, or not. Secondly, it was considered a right for women to have children. These are the two cornerstones of Tamar's story. . .
Under the law laid down in Deuteronomy, Onan, Er's younger brother, was obliged to give Tamar a child. Judah sent Onan to Tamar in good faith, trying to be the father-in-law that the law guided him to be. But Onan was crafty. Any child that he fathered with Tamar would be considered Er's child, and would participate in the inheritance from Judah when he died. Possibly because he'd rather have his own children inherit from Grandpa Judah, instead of his brother's children, he "spilled his seed on the ground" and did not impregnate Tamar.
Now, Onan did avoid the public confrontation that was laid out in the law. It doesn't seem like much to us nowadays, but it was a public shaming at the time, and would have been extremely humiliating. (The disgrace would have been remembered for quite a while, perhaps even after his death.) But, Onan was guilty of two things -- he didn't fulfill the obligation of the law, and he also disobeyed his dad.
He died, and the Bible notes that it was for his wickedness.
When Tamar came to Judah and reminded him of his duty, he told her that Shelah, his third son, was way too young to do that duty, and she needed to go home to her family and wait for him to mature. At this point, Judah may still have been operating in good faith. But as time went by, and Tamar waited patiently in her widow's garments, it began to be clear to her that Judah had changed his mind. Perhaps he thought of her as a jinx -- after all, two of his sons were dead -- the same thing might happen to his son Shelah!
Enough time passed for Tamar to be convinced that Judah was not going to obey the law.
She's going to take matters into her own hands.
Join us next time and we'll continue to study Tamar's story!