“But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” Romans 5:20
Tamar is an interesting study. We don’t know much about her, and what we do know doesn’t show her in a very good light. However, she is one of the few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus!
Jacob and Leah’s 4th son, Judah, married a Canaanite woman by the name of Shua. Shua gave birth to 3 sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Once Er was grown, Judah found a wife for him – Tamar. Er, however, was a wicked man, and the Lord killed him.
Er did not yet have any children when he died, and it was the custom in those days that when a man died, his brother would marry the widow in order to produce an heir for the deceased man. Therefore, Judah had Onan marry Tamar in order to produce an heir for Er.
Onan was also a wicked person, and did not take well to the thought of producing an heir that was not his own. The Bible says that he made sure he did not by “emitting on the ground” rather than risk impregnating Tamar. This greatly displeased the Lord, and He killed Onan, also.
Shelah was the next in line. Apparently, he wasn’t fully grown to manhood, so Judah sent Tamar home to her father’s house to wait until Shelah was grown and could take her as a wife. However, Judah was afraid that his youngest son would be the next to die if he married Tamar, so he did not follow through on his promise when Shelah was grown.
Judah’s wife, Shua died, and, after the period of mourning for her was over, he decided to go visit his friend who lived near Tamar’s family. When Tamar heard that he was coming and realized that it wasn’t likely that she was going to be given to Shelah as a wife, she took the matter of producing an heir to her first husband into her own hands. Tamar took off her widow’s garments and dressed herself as a prostitute, complete with a heavy veil so that her identity could not be known, and positioned herself along the route she knew Judah would travel. Sure enough, Judah came by, assumed she was a prostitute and asked for her services, promising a young goat in payment. Tamar wanted assurance of payment, however, and asked for a pledge, or security deposit. She didn’t want just anything, but she wanted something that would positively identify the owner. She asked for his signet ring and cord and his staff, something that has been compared to a modern-day person leaving their drivers’ license and credit card. He apparently complied without hesitation.
Once Judah left, Tamar removed the prostitute’s veil and put on her widow’s garments, continuing her life of waiting in her father’s home. When Judah’s friend came with the promised payment of the goat to exchange for the signet ring, cord, and staff, the prostitute was no where to be found. He even asked the locals where she was and was told that there was no prostitute in that place. Judah decided to be content with leaving his security deposit as payment, feeling he had done what he could to pay what he owed.
After 3 months, however, it was evident that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah was told about it. Having no idea who the father was (and possibly thinking he could now get rid of the problem of having to give her to his youngest son), he was furious with his daughter-in-law and ordered that she be brought out and burned for her obvious adultery. However, Tamar brought out the signet ring, cord, and staff that she had been given as a security deposit and asked Judah to identify them, saying that the owner of those items was the father of the child she carried.
Judah was stuck, and acknowledged that she had been more righteous than he had been, for she had been trying to raise up the rightful heir to her husband while he had neglected to follow through on his promise to have his youngest son produce that heir.
As it turned out, Tamar was actually carrying twins. When she was giving birth, a hand was the presenting body part, and the midwife quickly tied a scarlet thread around the hand to identify the firstborn. However, the child pulled his hand back, and his brother was born first. The surprised midwife exclaimed that he had “breached” or broken through, so he was named Perez (meaning “breach” or “breakthrough”). Afterwards, the baby with the scarlet thread was born and was named Zerah (meaning “scarlet”).
In spite of the very wrong way that Tamar went about doing the right thing, the Lord in His grace honored Tamar in a very significant way. To start with, her great-great-great-great grandson married Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered the Israelite spies in Jericho, and together they had Boaz, who married Ruth the Moabitess. When Ruth married Boaz, she was given the following blessing: “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman.” (Ruth 4:12) (Stay tuned – we’ll cover Rahab and Ruth in the near future, Lord willing!) Boaz and Ruth were great-grandparents to King David.
The most important descendant, though was Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior. How wonderful it is to serve a God who is merciful enough to use us for His glory in spite of our shortcomings!