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Justice and Righteousness: Tamar’s Story

July 13, 2019

This past May while hiking in Rocky, we came across this Mama Elk who was grazing. She seems to be standing up in strength as she prepared for the birth ahead. The strength and resilience of our wild neighbors never ceases to amaze me!

It is this similar sort of strength and resilience which stood out as I began exploring Tamar’s story in Genesis 38:6-30. Tamar’s story is not found in the Lectionary Cycle. It is a story that is somewhat controversial and with its content and the fact that the men in the story don’t look so great and Tamar takes her quest for Justice in a radical direction most likely led the “men” who put together the Lectionary to put it aside. However, just as in her story, men can try to hide or bury her, but her voice will and indeed must be heard!

With the blatant and out in the open resurgence of misogyny and the #MeToo movement, it is apparent at least to this Padre, that voices long silenced and shamed need to be heard. The message isn’t comfortable and there is enough guilt to go around for every living male and males in the past. So, when I began to listen to the voice of Tamar, it wasn’t easy. But my sister has taught me a lot about myself, society, and Women’s rights this past week as I have listened to her voice and her story.

Before we look at the passage from Genesis 38 regarding her story, we need to look to the previous chapter in Genesis. In this story, the brothers of Joseph, hatch their plot to kill their little brother who was Dad’s favorite. One of those brothers was Judah who became the Father-in-Law of Tamar. While one could argue that Judah had a change of heart. He was the one who said to his brothers: “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27). Yet Judah was still all about abandoning his little brother to the slave traders. The story of Tamar is inserted immediately following the dark tale of Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers. The story of Joseph opens a portal to glimpse into the family dynamics into which Tamar would marry and the questionable actions of her Father-in-Law.

One of the radical things about Tamar being in Jesus’s Genealogy is the fact that she is an outsider. Jacob settled in the land of the Canaanites where his father (Isaac) had lived as an alien. Did you catch the subtle difference? Isaac had lived there as an outsider, but Jacob (and in turn, his son Judah) put down roots. They had become a part of the culture and it made sense that they would marry local women. Judah did marry a local Canaanite woman and they had children. Their sons were Er, Onan, and Shelah.

Judah, was on the lookout for a suitable wife for his oldest son, Er. This portion is truly difficult for those of us in the 21st Century Western European culture to understand. Women were sought out as brides… they were sold by their fathers for a bridal price. They were property! That was the way they did things back in that time and culture. However, you don’t have to ponder it for too long to realize that Tamar was marrying into a shady family to say the least. Judah had his own shady past which included selling his brother into slavery because of jealousy!

The story continues that Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and God killed him. So here is poor Tamar, a widow and now being forced to endure another one of the cultural wonders of being property and not a human being. Under a very common custom (the levirate — in the Latin, Husband’s Brother) Tamar was to be given to the next oldest son. She was given to Onan so that he could impregnate her and carry on the family line of Judah and Er. However, Onan doesn’t do his “due diligence” (spills his seed on the ground) and Tamar remains without child. But the really ugly thing is that Onan essentially turns Tamar into a sex object for his own gratification! That displeased the Lord and Onan was put to death by God.

The whole issue of God killing people for not “doing God’s will” or being, in the words of Monty Python, “naughty in God’s sight,” is a whole different subject for contemplation and discussion at another time! The deal here is the treatment of Tamar at the hands of the family of Judah.

After the death of son number two, Judah was afraid to marry Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah. So, instead of doing what would have been customary (having the widow of his eldest son and middle son live in his home as a widow) Judah sent her back to her father. She was sent back as a cursed woman (after all, wasn’t it her fault that Er and Onan had died?) so that Judah didn’t have to look at her and quite possibly so that she would just simply go away.

Sadly, this reminds me of King Henry VIII of England. Henry had wives either divorced or executed because they wouldn’t produce a male heir for the lecherous monarch! It was obviously (insert a HUGELY sarcastic voice) the woman’s fault! Why not, after all, men were far superior to women in those days. Ugh!

So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father in disgrace and her father would have received her in disgrace as would be the custom of those days. So, do you see why there is a significant issue of justice and righteousness here? Tamar was literally all alone. No one was standing up for her or empowering her to have her own life. The law was set up so that she could not marry anyone outside of the family of Judah.

Next we read that Judah’s wife died. It is also something to note that his wife doesn’t even have a name recorded in this tale. She is simply known as the daughter of Shua. As I reflect on that cultural issue, it occurs to me that this makes the fact that Tamar is even named in Jesus’s Genealogy a miracle!

So, Judah, in the eyes of one commentator, following a suitable period of mourning for his unnamed wife, goes to town to attend a sheep-shearers convention! More than likely, after throwing off the period of mourning, did Judah go to have a few drinks with the boys and see what would happen? Well, if he was looking for a prostitute on the way back from the convention, it appears that his intentions were anything but honorable!

It is at this point where Tamar makes a bold, completely outside of the box move to claim the justice that was hers as the widow of a father’s son. Judah had failed to keep the levirate custom as Shelah, his youngest son, was of marrying age now and was not being married to Tamar as the law and custom required. So Tamar covers her face with a veil and goes to the town entrance. Did you notice how the story says she covered her face. It doesn’t say she dressed up intentionally as a prostitute. No, it says that Judah saw her and thought her to be a prostitute! While she may have been putting on a charade to get Judah’s attention, it was Judah who thought she was a prostitute. This sort of reminds of how Eve takes the fall for eating the forbidden fruit while Adam gets a free pass even though he heard God say loudly and clearly what fruits were forbidden in the garden!

Tamar takes as a pledge for Judah’s “needs” his signet and his cord which were symbols of his authority. They would be returned to Judah once he had paid her “properly” by bringing her the kid he had promised. Isn’t that interesting? He sold off a kid-brother for his own gain years ago and was selling his own honor by selling off a young sheep!

When Judah’s servant couldn’t find the mysterious woman he had “bought for the evening,” Judah was in a quandary. His signet and his cord were missing signifying that his “official” symbols were at large and could come back to haunt him as a result of his actions.

Three months later, Tamar is pregnant and immediately is accused of playing the whore. Had she deceived him? Yes. Had she played the part of a prostitute to regain her proper place in Judah’s household? Yes. But why was she called a whore while Judah wasn’t called anything — can you say john? Anyway, the end result is that as Judah called for Tamar’s burning at the stake, the truth came out. Finally, Judah admits rather sheepishly (sorry, couldn’t help the pun… in all actuality, Judah was more of an ass) that Tamar was more in the right than he was.

In the end, I believe it was Tamar’s bold and audacious action that secured her place in the history of the people and in Jesus’s Genealogy. Being declared righteous and obtaining the justice which had been denied her was a radical thing in her day.

Tamar has taught me a lot about how the treatment of women today is rooted deeply in our world. She has also taught me that sometimes you have to take risks and act boldly when you are seeking justice for the oppressed and the voiceless. May we learn from her story as we give voice to the women of today who are treated like property or sex objects by men of power and privilege. May her voice be heard loudly and clearly today!

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