Saturday, September 03, 2005


[By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.]

Hi! I’m Tamar. (waits for reaction) What? Never heard of me? That’s not surprising. I’m not exactly a popular stop in the lectionary. But oh, mine is such an important story! I simply must tell you. You have to know – all you Gentiles out there – you must be told that you are not forsaken by the Almighty!

You can find me in Genesis 38. Oh, go ahead, you can look it up if you don’t believe me. I don’t show up in any of the musical versions of my more famous relative Joseph’s story, despite the fact that my tale falls right in the middle of his – and I think I’d inspire some very interesting songs!

So why is my story in the middle of Joseph’s tale? Well, it has some parallels. In the chapter, Joseph goes down to Egypt (unwillingly) with the Midianite slave traders. Jacob goes down into the depths of depression after losing Joseph. And my tale begins with Judah going down from his brothers to make merry with the locals.[1] Later, I “go down” in a way also – by compromising my honor for a higher purpose.[2]

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The important thing for you to know about me is that I’m not Judah’s relative. I may or may not be officially a “foreigner” – but at the least I’m definitely an outsider to the chosen family. Judah decides to marry outside his clan, you see, and his son Er follows suit by marrying me (oh, my, Father Abraham and Mother Rebekah would most certainly not approve!) After his brother Joseph has been sold to outsiders, Judah buys into his surrounding culture. By his action, I get to join the ranks of Melchizedek, Jesse, and Balaam by connecting with and influencing the chosen people.

Israel has a tenuous relationship with outsiders, but we are not always seen as bad. I like to think that our positive contributions to the chosen people inspired El Shaddai to consider the outsider when making laws. He goes so far as to command that “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” in Leviticus 19:34 and, in Deuteronomy 24:17, warns his people not to “deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice.”

But back to my story. Er was struck down by the Almighty for his wickedness. This was my introduction to the God of the Patriarchs. Yikes! I was a little surprised…and a lot relieved. I always liked younger brother Onan better anyway. You see, there’s this thing – “levirate law” – and it says that Judah had to keep giving me his sons unless they were married to someone else, so that I could bear an heir for the family. So Onan was next in line. But what a loser he turned out to be! Oh, yes, he was plenty happy to use me for sex – but he wouldn’t do his duty of giving me a child![3] He was not respecting the divine mandate to be fruitful, and worse, he was squandering God’s blessing by not producing heirs! Well, this time I was in the cheering section when the Almighty struck again. God acted on my behalf, I like to think. And I decided I’d get on board with God’s plan for this crazy mixed-up family, even if it meant marrying Judah’s youngest son, little Shelah (who hadn’t even hit puberty yet). This was a powerful God and I wanted to be part of his work in the world.

But Judah saw things differently. He assumed I must be at fault for his sons’ deaths. So he lied to me to get me away from Shelah. I bought his little ruse at first. Then about twenty years passed and I realized that Papa was not cooperating – I was still sitting around in widow’s garments instead of wearing maternity clothes. As it turned out, Judah was more worried about his reputation and sexual needs and business concerns than about taking care of his obligations to family (both Shelah and I were stuck without futures).[4] Judah was even working against the Almighty by not continuing the chosen people.

You are probably wondering why I cared so much. Shouldn’t I have been relieved to be released to go home and be rid of this wacky family for good? But no, you see – I was not free. As long as Shelah was alive and unmarried, I would commit adultery for remarrying (legally I belonged to him). And regardless of whether he took me, without children no one would provide for me in my old age (my own family had sold me and I no longer was their concern). Without having a child… “it’s like being without an identity…without status or position. We [women] feel we have nothing to offer the community, and no part in history. Without children, we make a name neither for ourselves nor for another. They are a life-and-death matter for us!”[5] I was trapped with no recourse or protection without a husband or a son. That’s when I sprung into action.

Like my foremother Rebekah, I fancy myself quite the chess player. And I’d figured out these men by now. They’re just fine with using a woman for pleasure without commitment.[6] I knew Judah would fall right into my trap. Like his father before him, Judah was hoodwinked by a woman in a veil who sleeps with him – a woman he conceivably should have recognized by voice! Of course, my voice was so unimportant to him that he didn’t even recognize it – I just hide my face and he had no clue.

You know what really gets me? Judah immediately condemned me upon learning of my pregnancy. What a hypocrite! Fortunately, I was clever enough to secure my future not only by getting pregnant but also thinking ahead to prove my child’s paternity.

My main problem with Judah was that he wasn’t acting as my redeemer, playing his proper role in the family. You are familiar with the story of another foreign woman in our line, Ruth? Now that Boaz – that’s a man who knows his place! I had to force Judah to do the very thing that the customs and later laws expected: to redeem my position and save me from perpetual widowhood and childlessness.

He did own up to that eventually, but only because I forced him to. Thank God I’d demanded so much of him during our little encounter! He’d certainly demanded plenty from me by that point (and I’d always complied). I wasn’t even asking him to do anything but fulfill his obligation. He was the one preventing the continuation of his family line – scandalous! Like silly Onan, spilling his seed. These guys did not get it – El Shaddai was working through their family – but they had to keep having children to keep the promise going. There I was – ready and willing to make babies for them, and they totally dumped me. Damn straight (imitating Judah) “She was more righteous than I!”

You know, I never did get an apology from that man. Not even for demanding that I be burned! He confessed, and my plan worked, but he still kept his self-righteousness intact. That burns me worse than the fire could have done. Judah never did take the Almighty seriously, not really. But I did. And I joined (or maybe I should say, “wrestled my way into”) the blessed family.

Judge me for poor morals if you want to, but theologically I was right in line with God’s intentions – I, the outsider, the woman, the widow, fulfilled El Shaddai’s plan for this family. I was willing to “go beyond social convention and even to risk [my] life” because I saw the worth of this family’s promise. It wasn’t just about saving my own skin – it was about preserving the future of the family in which God Almighty was “deeply invested”.[7]

So you may wonder whatever happened to me. I had the twins, but then we don’t hear if I am ever married or have any more children. Did I just fade away after my role as “walking womb” had been fulfilled? Much has been made of my “disappearing act” at the end of the story, as if it somehow belittled me as a person.

Friends, I don’t think so. I am one of four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus! I most certainly did not shrink from remembrance, and thanks to dear Matthew, have been given my rightful place in the salvation story of the world. Not only was I incorporated into the chosen people, I was part of bringing forth the ultimate Redeemer of all people.

Like Joseph, I “preserve life.” (Genesis 45:5) “Regardless of what might have been ‘meant for evil’” in my story, “God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20)[8] I kept God’s chosen people on track. And he rewarded me richly for my boldness and righteousness by putting me in his peoples’ line of kings and ultimately, making me an ancestress of the King of kings. Gaining that blessing was hard work – but it was completely worth it.

[1] Shaw, 27.
[2] Ibid, 31.
[3] Spina, 42.
[4] Ibid, 48-50.
[5] Shaw, 42.
[6] Spina, 45.
[7] Ibid, 50.
[8] Ibid, 50-51.


Aschkenasy, Nehama. Woman at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), pp. 79-92.

Shaw, Suzanne. “Letters to the Editor of Genesis” from First Person: Essays in Biblical Autobiography, edited by Philip R. Davies (Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 26-36, 41.

Spina, Frank Anthony. The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), pp. 35-51.


Sarah said...

We need more of this kinda thing, baby!!!!
Tell it!

Being Shielded said...

Love this kind of thing... For more, try anything by Katarina Whitley. By far, the best is "Speaking for Ourselves."