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Tamar: Bible

by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tamar, whose story is embedded in the ancestor narratives of Genesis, is the ancestress of much of the tribe of Judah and, in particular, of the house of David. She is the daughter-in-law of Judah, who acquires her for his firstborn son, Er. When Er dies, Judah gives Tamar to his second son, Onan, who is to act as levir, a surrogate for his dead brother who would beget a son to continue Er’s lineage. In this way, Tamar too would be assured a place in the family. Onan, however, would make a considerable economic sacrifice. According to inheritance customs, the estate of Judah, who had three sons, would be divided into four equal parts, with the eldest son acquiring one half and the others one fourth each. A child engendered for Er would inherit at least one fourth and possibly one half (as the son of the firstborn). If Er remained childless, then Judah’s estate would be divided into three, with the eldest, most probably Onan, inheriting two thirds. Onan opts to preserve his financial advantage and interrupts coitus with Tamar, spilling his semen on the ground. For this, God punishes Onan with death, as God had previously punished Er for doing something wicked.

Although the readers know that God has killed two of Judah’s sons, Judah does not. He suspects that Tamar is a “lethal woman,” a woman whose sexual partners are all doomed to die. So Judah is afraid to give Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah. As a result, Judah wrongs Tamar. According to Near Eastern custom, known from Middle Assyrian laws, if a man has no son over ten years old, he could perform the levirate obligation himself; if he does not, the woman is declared a “widow,” free to marry again. Judah, who is perhaps afraid of Tamar’s lethal character, could have set her free. But he does not—he sends her to live as “a widow” in her father’s house. Unlike other widows, she cannot remarry and must stay chaste on pain of death. She is in limbo.

Ostensibly, Tamar is only waiting for Shelah to grow up and mate with her. But after time passes, she realizes that Judah is not going to effect that union. She therefore devises a plan to secure her own future by tricking her father-in-law into having sex with her. She is not planning incest. A father-in-law may not sleep with his daughter-in-law (Lev 18:15), just as a brother-in-law may not sleep with his sister-in-law (Lev 18:16), but in-law incest rules are suspended for the purpose of the levirate. The levir is, after all, only a surrogate for the dead husband.

Tamar’s plan is simple: she covers herself with a veil so that Judah won’t recognize her, and then she sits in the roadway at the “entrance to Enaim” (Hebrew petah enayim; literally, “eye-opener”). She has chosen her spot well. Judah will pass as he comes back happy and horny (and maybe tipsy) from a sheep-shearing festival. The veil is not the mark of a prostitute; rather, it simply will prevent Judah from seeing Tamar’s face. And women sitting by the roadway are apparently fair game. So Judah propositions her, offering to give her a kid for her services and giving her his seal and staff (the ancient equivalent of a credit card) in pledge.

Judah, a man of honor, tries to pay. His friend Hirah goes looking for her, asking around for the kedeshah in the road (Gen 38:21.). The NRSV translates this as “temple prostitute,” but a kedeshah was not a sacred prostitute; she was a public woman, who might be found along the roadway (as virgins and married women should not be). She could engage in sex, but might also be sought out for lactation, midwifery, and other female concerns. By looking for a kedeshah, Hirah can look for a public woman without revealing Judah’s private life. The woman, of course, is nowhere to be found. Judah, mindful of his public image, calls off the search rather than became a laughingstock.

But there is a greater threat to his honor. Rumor relates that Tamar is pregnant and has obviously been faithless to her obligation to Judah to remain chaste. Judah, as the head of the family, acts swiftly to restore his honor, commanding that she be burnt to death. But Tamar has anticipated this danger. She sends his identifying pledge to him, urging him to recognize that its owner is the father. Realizing what has happened, Judah publicly announces Tamar’s innocence. His cryptic phrase, zadekah mimmeni, is often translated “she is more in the right than I” (Gen 38:26), a recognition not only of her innocence, but also of his wrongdoing in not freeing her or performing the levirate. Another possible translation is “she is innocent—it [the child] is from me.” Judah has now performed the levirate (despite himself) and never cohabits with Tamar again. Once she is pregnant, future sex with a late son’s wife would be incestuous.

Tamar’s place in the family and Judah’s posterity are secured. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah (Gen 38:29–30; 1 Chr 2:4), thus restoring two sons to Judah, who has lost two. Their birth is reminiscent of the birth of Rebekah’s twin sons, at which Jacob came out holding Esau’s heel (Gen 25:24–26). Perez does him one better. The midwife marks Zerah’s hand with a scarlet cord when it emerges from the womb first, but Perez (whose name means “barrier-breach”) edges his way through. From his line would come David.

Tamar was assertive of her rights and subversive of convention. She was also deeply loyal to Judah’s family. These qualities also show up in Ruth, who appears later in the lineage of Perez and preserves Boaz’s part of that line. The blessing at Ruth’s wedding underscores the similarity in its hope that Boaz’s house “be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). Tamar’s (and Ruth’s) traits of assertiveness in action, willingness to be unconventional, and deep loyalty to family are the very qualities that distinguish their descendant, King David.

Bibliography

Bos, Johanna. “Out of the Shadows: Genesis 38; Judges 4:17–22; Ruth 3.” Semeia 42 (1988): 37–67.

Friedman, Mordechai. “Tamar, a Symbol of Life: The ‘Killer Wife’ Superstition in the Bible and Jewish Tradition.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature Review 15 (1990): 23–61.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Victors, Victims, Virgins, and Voice: Rereading the Women of the Bible. New York: forthcoming.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Niditch, Susan. “The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38.” Harvard Theological Review 72 (1979): 143–149.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick “Tamar, Qedesa, Qadistu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia.” Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989): 245–265.

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7 Comments

Your site is an absolutely outstanding resource for deep Bible study. Thank you so much for your fine research and for sharing it. Blessings and Shalom, ML

I still wonder why Matthew lists her in the genealogy. By the way Oyindamola, you are pretty.

Thanks so much for clearing up so many misconceptions about Tamar. I had earlier thought of her as a greedy woman who didn't want to remarry another man because of the wealth in Judah's house. Thanks a lot for sharing this, God bless you.

Thank you so much. You made very clear what I thought this story was all about. I love how God can create righteousness in an not-so-right world. Only He can take a wrong and make it right. Again, thank you.

This was very deep. I've heard of Tamar, David's daughter and while reading this I found I this Tamar, "a deceitful widow," was what the commentation labled her as, but I felt compassion for her on so many levels. To have been rejected, lied too and criticize, this woman was not trying to bring shame upon her household, but she wanted to produce children, and God blessing her with twins. Our God is gracious, loving and forgiving. Jesus' lineage was not sqeaky clean, these were a bunch of flawed humanbeings. God used Tamar and Judah, David and Bathsheba, to fulfill His purpose and he can and will use us! Thank you for this! God bless you.

Great writing.

i do not see where Er's death is punishment for evil. Accidents are not punishment by God. I note this all took place in 20 years. Judah born in 1770bc when Nimrod died at 500, is only 20 when Hamurabi dies and they sell 17-year old Joseph. Thus there are only 20 years until the famine of 1730bc. If Judah got married at 18 (2 years before selling Joseph), this means Er is under 21 when he dies with Judah under 41. It means Onan is less than 21 when he has his stroke or heart attack practicing edging and withdrawal on a bad cholestral diet, And if this law of age 10 is thus the 3rd child, that places Shelah as 10 when Judah is between 30 and 41, born some time after he was 20 selling 17-year old Joseph to 31. Ever wonder Jacob's thinking who sees twin Esay marry at 40 like father Isaac at 40, and then doesnt himself; marry until 84, after 7 years work at 77? As for Shelah, i didnt know Judah had a Shelah (Shiloh); i came across this because i have found Chinese chronology that could only be twisted from Genesis if Shiloh (Shelah came) to give astral data to Ur's founder his grandson Peleg, and 6-year old Reu sat in and became blessed by Shiloh (Shelah). Thus Peleg (Pheleg /Phallic /Xia) made his son king of Ur at 32 when Serug was born in the name of saying he was chosen by Shiloh (Shelah).

Thus i guess that if cousin John anoints Jesus, and cousin Mordecai presented Esther, and Elijah cursed Israel's queen Jezebel, and Mordecai warned of cursing Esther if not complying, then i guess i too am the one who has that job of those three. The queen has been warned, and if God used chosen Mordecai to prepare Esther, and Esther chooses not to, then i guess it is I who now says the complying by the queen (bride of Jesus) is at question; so who is ready to be chosen should she reject he being Lamb as her husband to save God's children in a greater disaster than mere Romans on a city Jerusalem

How to cite this page

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Tamar: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/tamar-bible>.

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