September 7, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Story of Judah and Tamar

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

There are three women with the name Tamar in the Old Testament. Two of them were David’s daughter and granddaughter.

But this is the story of the first Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons and the man for whom Judaism and the kingdom of Judah were named. The story, which is in Chapter 38 of Genesis, tells about some of the practices of the Israelites.

Judah married a Canaanite woman by whom he had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er grew up, Judah got Tamar for him as his wife. Er died before he and Tamar could have children. Therefore, Judah told Onan that it was his duty to have children with Tamar in his brother’s name. This was the law of levirate, which the early Israelites considered important.

Onan, though, knowing that their children would not be counted as his, “wasted his seed on the ground” whenever he had intercourse with Tamar. Because this act “greatly offended the Lord,” God took his life.

Next Shelah was supposed to take his turn, but he was still a young boy. So Judah told Tamar to wait until Shelah grew up. Besides, Judah was afraid that Shelah would die as his brothers did.

Years passed without Judah giving Shelah to Tamar. Judah’s wife died, leaving him a widower. Then one day Tamar learned that Judah was going to a town called Timnah for the shearing of his sheep. She put on the clothing of a harlot, covered her face and sat along the road on the way to Timnah.

When Judah came by and saw the harlot, he propositioned her. She asked for a payment and Judah offered her a kid from his flock. She agreed, but asked for a pledge of some kind—his seal and cord and the staff he carried—until he sent the kid. Judah agreed. They had intercourse and Tamar conceived. When Judah sent his servant with the kid, naturally he couldn’t find a harlot.

Three months later, it became obvious that Tamar was pregnant. When word got to Judah, he cried, “Bring her out! She shall be burned!”

As they were bringing her out, Tamar sent word to her father-in-law, “It is by the man to whom these things belong that I am with child. Please verify whose seal and cord and whose staff these are.”

Naturally, Judah recognized them as his. He said, “She is more in the right than I am, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

Tamar bore twins who were named Perez and Zerah. All three are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 1:3).

The law of levirate (from the Latin levir, brother-in-law) was still recognized at the time of Jesus when the Sadducees tried to trick Jesus. They posited the idea that seven brothers married a woman, but all died without children and asked whose wife she would be at the resurrection (Mt 22:23-33). †

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