Judging Tamar

Week eleven: Genesis 37–41

As a young single adult in college, I remember grocery shopping and noticing a young mom with many preschoolers. Two toddlers were fighting in the shopping cart while the baby in the carrier was crying. A judgmental thought came into my mind: Why wasn’t this mother taking better care of her children? Five years later, I was in the same situation as that young mom with two fighting toddlers and a newborn crying in a carrier, and my judgmental thought came vividly back to my mind. I realized how wrong I had been in judging that young mom. Instead, of judging her, I should have helped her. It is easy to make judgements about someone when we only see the outward manifestations of their actions. We cannot judge their hearts, their situation, nor the way the Lord sees them.

This principle is illustrated in the story of Tamar. As you read her story, you might find yourself quick to judge this woman. She could be labeled as an adulteress or a trickster. Yet, in the Gospel according to Matthew, she is highlighted in the genealogy of the Savior. Judah had three sons and the oldest son, Er, married Tamar but he died without having children.[i] Judah told Onan, the second son, to marry Tamar and raise up seed to his brother.”[ii] Onan decided that he did not want to fulfill this responsibility and died soon after making that decision. Judah told Tamar that she would remain a widow, until Shelah his youngest son was grown.[iii] Poor Tamar knew that she was stuck as a widow.[iv] Tamar’s situation was critical: she was a banished, childless foreign widow without any property. She was homeless, helpless, lacking security and dignity.[v] As a woman, Tamar was at the whim of her father-in-law who had abandoned her.[vi] The only way for a widow to find independence in this Old Testament world was to have a son who would inherit his father’s goods. Because she was the widow of Judah’s firstborn son, Tamar’s child would also inherit the birthright.[vii]

In the process of time, Judah’s wife died[viii] and Judah sought “comfort”[ix] in the arms of a harlot.[x] Tamar found this out and, determined to have a son, she decided to sit veiled in an open place, which a reputable woman would never do, especially a young widow.[xi] When Judah saw her, he assumed she was a harlot and offered to send her a kid to pay for her services.[xii] In return, she wanted a pledge to make sure that she would receive her payment.[xiii] Tamar was smart and asked for a pledge that was unmistakably from Judah. She asked for his signet, his bracelets, and his shepherd’s staff.[xiv] These were all symbols of his standing as the leader of the tribe. He gave it all to her thinking that she would return the pledge, which she would eventually do at the right time. When she returned home after her encounter with Judah, she put back on her widow’s garb.[xv] When Judah sent the kid to the place where the harlot had been, the woman was gone.[xvi] 

Three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy was discovered, and she was branded as being “with child by whoredom.”[xvii] Judah commanded that she be brought before him, intending to have her burned as punishment for her sin.[xviii] Judah’s view of Tamar’s sin was ironic given the fact that he had been adulterous himself. When she arrived, she showed him his pledge and said “By the man, whose these are, am I with child…. Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet and bracelets, and staff.”[xix] Of course, Judah and those around him sitting in judgment immediately knew whose they were. Judah acknowledged the pledge and commented, “She hath been more righteous than I….”[xx] “And he knew her again no more.”[xxi] Tamar was blessed with twin boys, Pharez, who would receive the birthright from Judah, and Zarah.[xxii] Pharez would become an ancestor to King David and the Savior. 

In the New Testament, Matthew highlighted women rather than men in tracing the Savior’s genealogy. As a hated, and often misjudged publican, Matthew would have had sympathy for women who were wrongly judged by society or misused by men of power.  Tamar, the mother of Phares, is listed as one of these women.[xxiii] Jennifer Stasak commented that “Jesus came from a family filled with unlikely people, including outcasts and harlots. Through this, Jesus tells us that he celebrated and loved the unlikely people – ones he can turn into unlikely heroes.”[xxiv]  Tamar, not Judah, was the heroine of this story. She was favored by God to continue the line of Judah, revealing God’s love for women, especially women who are abused by society and by adulterous men.

We can also learn from Tamar’s story that we must not be judgmental lest we be judged ourselves. In the New Testament, when the adulterous woman is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, they judged her and were going to stone her to death. Jesus’ answer to their judgement was “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”[xxv] “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one …. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” [xxvi] Jesus condemned the men who hypocritically accused the woman of adultery and forgave the woman of her sins. How similar this story is to Tamar’s! We should view others the way the Savior sees them – with charity and with mercy. The Savior warned: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” 

Elder Soares taught us: “The expression of compassion for others is, in fact, the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a marked evidence of our spiritual and emotional closeness to the Savior.”[xxvii]

May we find joy in the Lord this week and see people as Christ sees them.  [xxviii]

[i] Genesis 38:2, 6-7

[ii] Genesis 38:8

[iii] Genesis 38:11

[iv] Chi Wai Chan, The Ultimate Trickster in the Story of Tamar form a Feminist Perspective, 24 Feminist Theology 93, 94 (2015),

[v] Id. at 98.

[vi] Jennifer Stasak, Unlikely Heroes: The Women of Matthew 1, Wyckliffe Bible Translators (December 1, 2020) https://www.wycliffe.org/blog/posts/unlikely-heroes-the-women-of-matthew-1.

[vii] Chi Wai Chan, The Ultimate Trickster in the Story of Tamar form a Feminist Perspective, 24 Feminist Theology 93, 97 (2015). “The society in the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite history was androcentric and the father was the legal head of the household. Woman was the possession and under the authority of man, first her father and then her husband. Woman together with her sexuality was owned by her husband.” Id.

[viii] Genesis 38:12

[ix] Genesis 38:12

[x] Genesis 38:16

[xi]Chi Wai Chan, The Ultimate Trickster in the Story of Tamar form a Feminist Perspective, 24 Feminist Theology 93, 97 (2015).

[xii] Genesis 38:17

[xiii] Genesis 38:17 “And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And  She said, Wil thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?”

[xiv] Genesis 38:18 “And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her….”

[xv] Genesis 38:19

[xvi] Genesis 38:22

[xvii] Genesis 38:24

[xviii] Genesis 38:24

[xix] Genesis 38:25

[xx] Genesis 38:26

[xxi] Genesis 38:26

[xxii] Matthew 1:3 “And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar….”

[xxiii] Jeffrey Kranz, Matthew’s Genealogy: 5 Subtle Clues Modern Readers Might Miss, Overview Bible (Nov. 30 2018) https://overviewbible.com/matthew-genealogy-jesus/

[xxiv] Jennifer Stasak, Unlikely Heroes: The Women of Matthew 1, Wyckliffe Bible Translators (December 1, 2020) https://www.wycliffe.org/blog/posts/unlikely-heroes-the-women-of-matthew-1.

[xxv] John 8:7

[xxvi] John 8:9-11

[xxvii] Ulisses Soares, The Savior’s Abiding Compassion, GC Oct. 2021.


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