Times were hard to say the least, help seemed far off and options few. Folks left home in the morning and never returned again due to some unforeseeable act of God. When this happened to her the first time the ancient custom kicked in and she was married to her husband’s brother. The plan was for the brother to take care of her, giver her children, grant her security in the cold brutal world. Only this man was no good, he paraded around, took the accolades, let everyone pat him on the back for doing the right thing-- the hard thing, but in secret he was using her for his pleasure and denying her any hope of a future.
Her name, Tamar, means little palm tree. She was a Canaanite girl likely married into the family of Israel-the one who struggles with God-at the tender age of twelve or thirteen; wed to Judah's son Ur and widowed shortly thereafter. Her second husband Onan, more wicked than his elder brother, took the praise of being Tamar’s goel, deliverer, redeemer, but deceived the entire community every night when he took her and spilled his seed on the ground ensuring that Tamar’s child wouldn’t usurp his inheritance (Gen.37).
After Judah’s second son was struck dead Judah was through with the black widow Tamar and he sent her packing back to her father’s house where they said, “What are you doing back here, we don't need another mouth to feed?” “We told you not to get involved with those people!” She endured her life as a desolate woman and waited for the chance to marry Judah’s third son but word never came and soon she knew Judah never intended to send for Tamar. It was at this point Tamar had to choose between two evils, to remain in her father’s house as an image of shame and failure that in her culture would bring down the entire family or she could find a way to make it back into the family of God.
And then here is where it gets sticky, and why it's hard to share this passage at women’s conferences, the reason we skip this whole beautiful and terrible narrative on our syllabi in Bible courses, because there is too much sex and semen and outright prostitution. But to skip over this piece of hope is to fail the consideration of the whole counsel of God and if we are going to take passages restricting the roles of women in leadership we must also consider the texts where God is on the side of the prostitute.
Tamar's story is dirty, harsh, unsavory and the truth is we want clean, gracious good wives as heroines so we sanitize the Scriptures and create idols of what we wish were in the text, what is permissible to say in Sunday School and refuse to embrace the miracle of the text that is.
What’s true is Tamar did the only thing she thought she could do, she dressed up like a prostitute and lured her father in law into sexual relations with her. When it became known that she was with child and they stormed her tent to drag her out into the street to burn her alive she was able to produce Judah’s staff and seal and prove he was the father of the child. Then-and only then-Judah did the first decent thing in his life, he testified to her righteousness and his sin and took her in as his own.
And so this lovely, inglorious story has a remarkable and redeemed end in that God blesses Tamar’s risk, somehow understands the desperation of her life, takes account of the men who have used and abused her and grants her with not one, but two sons and a place in the story of Jesus. Tamar becomes then one of the five named women in the genealogy of Christ—women who were known to their communities as harlots and whores, forgotten, desperate and soiled (Matthew 1). In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is not only the son of Abraham but also son of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah's wife and Mary the Virgin.
Perhaps this Christmas it helps us to reflect on the women God used to birth forth Christ, to reckon with the truth of their less than perfect lives and to see what God sees in the broken, the left out, the displaced and forgotten, the shamed and the lowly. Maybe this Advent we can adjust our gaze and see what is true in this blood soaked weary world, God is with and for those whom the system has turned away, the ones whose safety net has failed. God who could have come to us by any means chose to do so through women abandoned and betrayed.
So it was and may it ever be.