The Necessary Triumph of Tamar
Genesis 38 is a difficult passage to read and no walk in the park to preach. Why is this story here? I think there are two reasons, the simplest being– it happened– and it further illustrates the decline of the covenant family into corruption. The second reason, and the most important one, is that from this ungodly situation, the family line of the Messiah is preserved. The story opens with Judah choosing a Canaanite woman to marry. What do we know from the patriarchs about the covenant people of God choosing to marry Canaanites? Right, it was forbidden. But Judah does so anyway, and we are told his never-named wife gives Judah three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah, an unfortunate name for a boy. He learned to fight; had to.
Judah chose a wife for his firstborn, Er, and her name was Tamar. But we are told that Er was so wicked in the sight of the Lord that the Lord put him to death. Tamar was a childless widow, and the Levirate custom of the day demanded that her husband’s closest brother be given to her so that she could produce an offspring to carry on her dead husband’s name. And so she would have children to support her in her old age. This would become law in Deuteronomy 25, and if a man’s brother refused to perform his duty, the elders of the city would take him before the widow, and she would pull off his sandal and spit in his face. You see that in the story of Ruth when the closest kinsman redeemer refused her and pulled off his own sandal. She spared him the spit, happily married Boaz, and eventually became grandmother to David.
Back to Tamar and her dead husband. Onan, the second born son was called to fulfill this obligation on behalf of his brother. And he was happy to play the part with Tamar and go through the motions several times, but he made sure that he did not help her have a child. Why? Moses tells us, “because he knew that the offspring would not be his.” I told you, it’s a sick and sordid tale. This selfishness of Onan was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life as well. The action God took against Er and Onan, Kidner writes, “emphasizes the steep moral decline in the chosen family, which only the outstanding piety of Joseph would arrest for a while. This tendency to an immediate plunge from grace, whenever faith is no longer an active force, is evident more than once in Genesis, but the pattern is most explicitly worked out in the book of Judges.” There is one bright spot in this story. Tamar. But she was told by Judah to go home and wait until his third son, Shelah, was ready to marry her and carry on the family name.
Tamar must have spent years wearing a widow’s garment, waiting for the time when Shelah would be old enough and that time had come and passed. Tamar knew that Judah would not keep his word and give his third son to her. He had deceived her, so she planned to deceive him. Tamar changed out of her widow-wear, put a veil over her face so she could not be recognized, and went to a place where she knew Judah would be traveling. Tamar knew enough about Judah and his character that if she posed incognito as a harlot, just for him, she would be successful. But she was also risking her life. Allen Ross writes, “Tamar qualifies as a heroine in the story, for she risked everything to fight for her right to be the mother in the family of Judah and protect the family…She did what justice and the death of her husband demanded of her—but by a very dangerous scheme.” Did I tell you this was a sordid story?
Judah gave her his seal and his staff as a promise that he would send her a goat in exchange for her services. But she had no use for the goat, which is why she wasn’t in the same place when Judah’s man came looking, dragging a kid goat behind him. It was the signet she had wanted, and it was the signet of Judah that would save her life. Allen Ross writes, “It is not appropriate to judge her by Christian ethics, for in her culture at that time, her actions, though very dangerous for her, were within the law.”
When it was discovered that Tamar was three months pregnant, Judah heard about it and called for her to be burned to death. Bring her out! Set her on fire for this terrible sin! As they dragged her out to be burned, Tamar sent word to her father-in-law that the man who was responsible for the baby she was carrying is the owner of this signet, cord, and staff. Judah’s gear. It was then that her exoneration came. Judah said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son, Shelah.” Yes, Judah, she was! If it were left up to Judah, the covenant family of God would have assimilated with the Canaanites and been destroyed. Tamar was the rescuer.
God’s plan is perfect and it is eternal. When Peter wrote to the “elect exiles” in his first letter, he says they are (we are!) elect exiles “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” The foreknowledge of God with regard to his people does not mean that God looked down the long corridor of time in eternity past and said, “Hmm, there’s a couple of good ones. Tamar is good. Ruth is good. I will save them.” No, these were broken women in a corrupt and broken world! Same as you and me. To be foreknown by God means that Tamar and Ruth and you and me who are saved and co-heirs with Christ were the objects of God’s affection and loving concern from all eternity, along with God’s own Son!
Ruth’s rally and Tamar’s triumph helped secure our victory over sin and death through their descendant and our only Savior, Jesus Christ.