This is one of those chapters where a PhD in Ancient History would really help. It's the story of Judah and Tamar. No...it's not a love story. Judah's rebellion against his family takes him away from home into the land of the evil Canaanites where he marries Shua and has three sons by her. The oldest son marries Tamar, but because of his extreme wickedness, the Lord puts him to death. In keeping with the customs of the age, Tamar is then married to the second son who is now responsible to give her children who will, when Judah dies, inherit the lion's share of the family wealth. This second son doesn't want to be cut out of the will, so he spills his semen on the ground whenever he lays with Tamar. For this deceipt, the Lord puts this second son to death as well.
Judah tells Tamar to go live as a widow in her father's house and, when son number three is old enough, he will send for her again so the youngest boy can marry her and fulfill the duty of giving her a son and heir. Except Judah fails to ever send for her. After a long time, long enough for Judah to recover from his grief over the loss of two sons and for the youngest son to grow up, Judah heads to town for the sheep shearing. On the way he stops for a little hanky panky with a roadside prostitute. Except the prostitute is really Tamar in disguise. She has grown tired of waiting for Judah to do the right thing and has taken matters into her own hands.
But Tamar is no dummy. She knows she could be burned to death for prostitution (although Judah doesn't seem to fear this same punishment even though he is paying for a prostitute himself...but I digress). She demands a pledge of payment for her services in the form of Judah's personal seal and cord until he can send the promised goat. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, his righteous indignation kicks in and he calls for her death. As she is being brought out to be burned (think dragged brutally), Tamar sends Judah, her accuser, his seal and cord back saying, "I'm pregnant by the man who owns these. Any chance you recognize them, my dear father-in-law?"
Ooops! Judah can't deny it on two counts. First, it is HIS personal seal and cord. There would be no mistaking it. He has used it to conduct legal transactions for years. It is the equivalent of a signature on a contract...one of a kind. Second, Judah sent a friend to retrieve the seal and cord. This guy hauled a goat all over the city asking about the prostitute and he would bear witness to Judah's involvement. Talk about being caught with your hand in the cookie jar. In response, Judah says, "She is more righteous than I."
Huh? How is it "righteous" to dress like a prostitute and have sexual relations with your father-in-law? This is where that PhD comes in. Tamar, as the wife of Judah's first born, is entitled by law to being the mother of the heir apparent. It is a legally recognized position of status and was purchased with her dowry. Without an heir, however, and living as a widow in her father's house, she is not getting what her family paid for. She is also left unprotected in a world where there were no Social Security benefits or retirement funds. The men worked until they died, and the women were protected and cared for by the men in the family - husbands, sons, and grandsons. By forcing the issue, Tamar has simply taken what was within her legal rights.
This incident is a turning point in the life of Judah. He and his household later become pillars of Jewish faith; his tribe being one of the two left when God divides the Kingdom in punishment for their unrighteousness. Jesus comes from the tribe of Judah and is, in fact, a direct decendent of Tamar's son, Perez.
Okay...so what? What lesson can we learn from Tamar? Why does God include this story in the Bible? It isn't just so we have a little insight into the geneology of Christ. I think it's God's way of cheering on a woman who refused to be treated disrespectfully. In a time when sex wasn't about love but about progeny and inheritance, Tamar found a way to get what was rightfully hers - a place of honor as the heir's mother. When the men in her life failed her (because what was her father doing about Judah's lack of honor), she forged her own justice. God isn't impressed with sissy women. It took tremendous courage for Tamar to stand up in what amounted to a court of law and say, "I am right."
God bless women like that.
Until next time,