Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Paiting by Richard McBee (permission sought)

And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
Genesis 38:14-15

The story of Tamar is awkwardly sandwiched between two episodes in the life of Joseph, seemingly disconnected to both. It's purpose appears to be purely genealogical (Tamar's son, Pharez is listed in the book of Ruth as the earliest ancestor of David, and this story fills in the gap back to Abraham) but it is a fascinating story on its own merit, adding to the collection of stories about women, starting with Eve, that seriously confront or undermine the strict patriarchy inherent in the pervading culture of the time.

I recommend reading the whole story.1 It is brief, just thirty short verses. In essence, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute to trick Judah into fathering her child, thus she gains the status in his house that he has unjustly denied her. Tamar is not willing to be cast aside as defective property, and through this trickery—using Judah's own lust as her tool—asserts her rights as a woman and an equal. Even so, Judah reluctantly admits, "She hath been more righteous than I".2 Whether this is from shame or a new-found respect it is not clear, but the pattern of the woman outwitting the man, and the man conceding is reprieved linguistically in the story of Jesus and the Syrophenician woman in the gospel of Mark.3

It is generally accepted that the New Testament, especially the gospels of Mark and Luke, show women in a more equal light, and indeed this equality was an essential part of Jesus's mission, a core aspect of confronting the status quo. Less noted is the strength and independence of women in the Old Testament, but it is certainly present throughout. Sarah and Rebekah both ensure it is their favoured son, the second-born in each case who becomes the heir, thus doubly undermining the traditional patriarchy. Eve, as previously noted,4 was the instigator of humankind's independence and autonomy, and now the minor character, Tamar takes matters into her own hands, with the effect of establishing the lineage for Israel's greatest king. There are plenty more stories to follow, stories of women rising above oppression and establishing their personage.

Tamar's story is also the first hint that King David's ancestry is neither pure nor honourable, lending credence to the thesis that God chooses not the perfect and noble to be His chosen people, but the flawed, fearful, wilful and sometimes morally suspect instead.5 The narrative of the entire Old Testament is essentially one of imperfect people who consistently fail, and are nonetheless redeemed. Love reaches far beyond obedience.

1 Genesis 38
2 Genesis 38:26
3 Mark 7:25-29
4 Autonomy, Genesis 3:6
5 Further reading on Tamar: i) Tamar as the Unsung Hero of Genesis 38 by Marina H. Hofman; ii) Putting Tamar in her Place by Rosalie Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh