The Courage to Risk Everything
Family strife isn’t unusual, but Tamar’s marriage brought her into a family whose wicked and abusive actions went above and beyond the typical melee of married life.
Her father-in-law Judah had previously sold his own brother to a caravan headed to Egypt, making him a human trafficker. Then, her husband—Judah’s firstborn son Er—proved so wicked that God struck him down.
Instantly, Tamar’s life turned upside down. Now that her husband had gone, who would provide for her? She was a childless widow—the epitome of shame for a woman in her day. This was a culture oppressive toward widows, not just occasionally or even frequently, but systematically—it permeated the whole of society down to each and every law and regulation.
Levirate marriage—the legal solution—dictated that a dead man’s brother would take the widow as his own wife. This offered protection for the widow and the chance to restore honor through producing an heir who would carry on the deceased man’s line. While not ideal, it was perhaps the best solution until a time when the unjust system could begin to be undone.
Judah instructed his second son, Onan, to follow the legal custom and go to Tamar, but Onan had no intention of producing an heir for his brother. Instead, he used Tamar’s body for his own pleasure, and then made sure to spill his semen outside her body.
God was not pleased, and Tamar soon found herself a widow once again. But this time, Judah sent her back to her father’s house on the pretense of sending for her when his third son grew older. Judah, fearful for his third son’s life, had no intention of following through.
Tamar allowed some time to pass and then sprang into action. She went from a passive recipient in two arranged marriages to playing an active role in her plight. Her sacrificial actions were motivated by the desire to preserve the family line of Er—something of paramount honor and importance in her culture. It wasn’t without risk, including the possibility of death, but she was willing to risk everything to claim what was her legal right—the chance to carry on her deceased husband’s branch of the family tree.
Hearing that her father-in-law was going up to Timnah to shear sheep, she donned a veil and waited for him on a public road. Thinking she was a prostitute, Judah had sexual relations with her—leaving behind his signet ring and staff as a pledge that he would send payment of a young goat. When he sent the goat as payment, Tamar was nowhere to be found.
Three months later Judah found out that Tamar was pregnant. He planned to burn her with fire, but when she produced his personal effects Judah suddenly realized he was the father. The very thing he sought to condemn was brought about through his actions.
A reckoning had finally come for Judah as, perhaps for the first time, he acknowledged his own sin: “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26). Or more literally, “She is righteous; I am not.”
Judah knew he had failed to live up to his legal obligations. He did not permit Tamar to marry his third son, a violation of the levirate marriage law. With no other recourse for justice, Tamar had pursued the only legal option left— procuring seed from her father-in-law. She could have stayed in her own father’s house, but instead she risked her life to bring honor to her dead husband through birthing a child (even though he had been so wicked God struck him dead).
Judah came face to face with Tamar’s selfless actions, and he was stunned. He experienced a transformation of epic proportion, demonstrated several chapters later by his life-giving speech to Joseph—the same brother whom he had callously sold (Genesis 44).
One author writes, “His story fuels our hope that even the most dark and hardened human beings—those with murder in their hearts, who are willing to traffick other human beings, to exploit women, and to carry out an honor killing—are no match for the gospel.”
As Genesis chapter 38 concludes, God gifted Tamar with twins. Her efforts to carry on the family line were doubly blessed and her name passed down as worthy of emulation in Jewish blessings (Ruth 4:12). The biggest honor accorded her, however, was that her family line became a royal line leading to the birth of Christ.
The result of her sacrificial plan yielded manifold redemption—she herself received justice and honor, the name of Er carried on, Judah experienced transformation, and our Redeemer Himself came through her seed.