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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

TG 2: Tamar, the Righteous

Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the genealogy in Matthew 1. She is known for being called צדק "righteous". About her Judah said,

'She is more righteous than I' צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי Genesis 38:26.

Tamar was not known as a prostitute, in spite of Driscoll's slip.

Of course, there is a prostitute in the genealogy, but it is Rahab and not Tamar. However, Rahab herself was remembered, not for being a prostitute, but for being חסד, kind or loyal, and this is the identical defining trait that we associate with Ruth.

Ruth was called חסד for her act of choosing to bear a child to Naomi by one of Naomi's kinsmen, when she could have married someone else younger. She was loyal or faithful, she fulfilled her obligation to Naomi to bear her an heir. She was חסד because she chose to offer herself to Boaz, a relative of Naomi's, instead of to a younger man. Ruth loyally served Naomi's reproductive rights and gave Naomi her first born child, whom Naomi named Obed. This is a story of friendship and loyalty between two women.

חסד can be translated as obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, etc. also unity, solidarity, loyalty. We can, of course, always hope that the story also contains a romance, but it is first and foremost about the baby which Ruth presented to Naomi.

Tamar was righteous because she actively pursued her own reproductive right to bear a child for her deceased husband, Er, by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. She was a widow and her father-in-law was a widower. Although this seems irregular to us, Judah realized the justice in the situation and called Tamar righteous.

If Ruth was courageous and admirable, Tamar was even more so. Without the evident support of a friend or advisor, Tamar was able to produce an heir for her deceased husband by gaining access to her father-in-law as progenitor. She did this by pretending to be a prostitute. But she was acquitted of being considered a prostitute. Let us not forget that.

Some have suggested that Ruth and Tamar were included in the genealogy because they acted with resolution and initiative outside of the patriarchal structure. (For Ruth this is seen in her act of giving the first child to Naomi to be named.)

However, there are two other women in the genealogy. Rahab, as a prostitute, did act outside of the patriarchal structure, but we must assume that her child was born within her marriage to Salmon. And Bathsheba was not in a position to act with either initiative or resolution.

Overall, Tamar and Ruth demonstrate the flip side of ancient patriarchy. Unlike patriarchy which is occasionally recommended today, women didn't have a duty to bear children, nor was it a privilege, it was a right. Additional phrases in the Hebrew scriptures, like Gen. 31:48 and 2 Sam. 13:32, indicate that patriarchy today is missing other offsetting elements.

Of course, an alternate way to read the Hebrew scriptures is simply to gain insight into what life was like back then without actually trying to reenact the patriarchy it reflects, as Kostenberger recommends here,
    For example, marriage and the roles of both husbands and wives is grounded in Genesis and then traced through the entire Old Testament. Husbands are to love and cherish their wives, to bear primary responsibility for the marriage union and to exercise authority over the family, and to provide the family with necessities for life.

    The wife, on the other hand, is to present her husband with children, manage her household with integrity, and provide her husband with companionship. Contemporary readers may be shocked by the candor of Kostenberger's presentation, but he grounds his arguments directly in the biblical text.
When we remember women of the Hebrew scriptures, let's not forget Tamar, who stood up for herself when no one else did. She was called righteous.


At Thu Jan 11, 02:10:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"Bathsheba was not in a position to act with either initiative or resolution." Maybe not when she first appears in the story. But in 1 Kings 1 she acts with initiative and resolution, and outside the patriarchal structure by appearing before the king uninvited (compare Esther 4:11), to ensure that her son Solomon inherits the throne, rather than Adonijah who was trying to usurp it. In this way she preserved the line of Christ. So this is enough to deserve an honourable mention in the New Testament.

At Thu Jan 11, 06:38:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

At least this much can be said about Tamar as a prostitute. She either acted as a prostitute or in her actions lied to Judah in order to deceive him into thinking she was a prostitute and thus doing something that would have been wrong, as far as he could tell. Maybe the ends justify the means here, and she could then be doing something honorable instead of wrong, but that's going to take a pretty strong argument.

We know from the NT that doing something one believes to be sin is sin even if the action wouldn't otherwise be sin. Therefore, she led him to sin, whatever else is true of her in terms of her motivations. He hired someone he believed to be a prostitute and then had sex with her. I think a good argument can be made that she did engage in one act of prostitution, since she did accept payment in exchange for sex.

In the eyes of the later laws, this would also have been illicit incest, since she was knowingly sleeping with a man and his son (in this case multiple sons). That's a much weaker argument given that Abraham did what would have violated what become the law later on also in marrying his half-sister, but it's something that I'm sure the author of Genesis would have been thinking about.

I agree with you that she may have had honorable motives, but one way or the other I think a good case can be made that she did something wrong in pursuing that proper end. Maybe she is to be excused. Surely she should be forgiven. Judah did at least one of those two. But does that mean she was honorable in doing the action? I don't see how that follows.

At Thu Jan 11, 09:43:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tamar's action needs to be judged in the light of the (admittedly later) law according to which Judah had an obligation to sleep with her, or provide someone else (e.g. Shelah) to do so. This obligation surely has precedence over the law that she should not sleep with a man and his son (not multiple sons; Onan refused to consummate his marriage with Tamar and Shelah was never given to her). So in fact what she enticed Judah to do was not wrong, although he thought it was. (This is hardly comparable with enticing someone to go against their conscience, the context of Romans 14:23.) Also she didn't accept payment, only a pledge which was supposed to be returned and in fact was returned. And none of her recorded words are untrue, so she can't be accused of deceiving Judah, although perhaps she wore clothes which made Judah think she was a prostitute; or perhaps it was just where she sat. If, as a modern analogy, an honest woman stands on a street corner in a red light district, some people will think she is a prostitute, but, although she may be very unwise, it is hardly fair to say that she is being deceptive.

So, while I would not argue that her she was totally sinless, it is hard to pin any specific sin on her.

At Thu Jan 11, 10:28:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wait a minute Peter, Gen 38:8 refers to the obligation of a brother-in-law to take in his deceased brother's wife, but nowhere is there anything stated or implied that Judah (as father-in-law) would have had the same responsibility. In the case of no more brothers, the woman would merely be sent back to her original family, which was the case here even though there was a much younger brother.

Further, if an honest woman were to stand in a red light district and want others to think she is a prostitute and then follow through with the role of a prostitute, that is certainly deceptive.

At Thu Jan 11, 03:21:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thank you for mentioning more about Bathsheba. I will leave her until later.

I acknowledge that it was strictly speaking against the law for Tamar to have intercourse with her father-in-law. However, in view of the fact that she was called "righteous" I am somewhat taken aback by the responses here.

She was a widow, dressed as a prostitute, having sex with a widower, who was her father-in-law. She did not take payment - that is clear. She took evidence.

I think that what she did would be considered morally abhorant today, but by the standards of the patriarchy in which she lived, I think she was morally justified and she was declared righteous.

Either she was righteous or she wasn't. The scriptures are clear. Women who live in a stark patriarchy are justified before God when they stand up for their own rights.

We should not let modern day standards intrude on our perception of scriptures. Unpleasant, yes, prostitution, no.


Deceit is found elsewhere in the scriptures to gain a blessing. That is not unusual.

I believe that Tamar was honoured for giving birth to Perez. I would not want to copy her actions, but I think that the principle is clear. Women made their own decisions and were honoured by God for their initiative. They were not always able to depend on the men who were supposed to be responsible for them.

I cannot agree that being "excused" or "forgiven" is the same as being declared righteous. Is a pardon the same thing as being found "not guilty" in the first place? Can someone comment on this?

At Thu Jan 11, 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The book of Ruth certainly implies that the obligation to marry the widow of a relative applied more widely than just to a brother, in fact to the nearest male relative, although it is explicitly applied only to a brother in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

However, I should not defend this concept of levirate marriage, given that my own Church of England is founded on the premise that it is not applicable to Christians. For those who don't know the details, Henry VIII (in fact before he came to the throne) was given special permission to marry Catherine of Aragon, who was the widow of his older brother Arthur, the excuse for this breach of the church's normal rules being that this was a levirate marriage. Many years later, Henry sought the annulment of his marriage with Catherine on the grounds that this marriage was irregular, but the Pope, under string pressure from Catherine's relatives, refused. Henry was persuaded that the Pope was in error on this, and split from Rome, hence the start of the autonomous Church of England.

Tamar didn't want anyone except Judah to think she was a prostitute. Actually she wanted him to think she was his wife, but prostitute was second best!

At Thu Jan 11, 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

There is a short article here which gives some more insights.

At Thu Jan 11, 04:27:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Suzanne, my reaction was less to Tamar's actions and more toward Peter's analogy relating to a definition of deception.

And for what it's worth, Rahab was deceptive to the townspeople of Jericho who came looking for the Israelite spies, but this is seen as an act of faith and she is even included in Heb 11.

At Thu Jan 11, 04:37:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Okay. I see what you mean.

At Fri Jan 12, 02:22:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Surely we should not say that all forms of deception or disguise are necessarily wrong. Rick gives the example of Rahab not giving away the spies. Jesus didn't reveal his divine nature but "pretended" to be an ordinary man; and on the road to Emmaus he seems to have hidden his identity and pretended not to know what had happened (Luke 24:17,19); John 7:10 also implies that Jesus disguised himself; was that deceptive? Similarly, it was not deceptive for Tamar to take on another identity, for a good purpose.

At Fri Jan 12, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Peter, Tamar was deceptive (defined in the Oxford American Dictionary as "giving an appearance or impression different from the true one; misleading"). That goes back to my original disagreement with your red light analogy.

The real question is whether or not such deceptiveness is always wrong. In the cases of Tamar, Rahab, and Jesus described above, evidently it's not.

At Sat Jan 13, 11:32:00 AM, Blogger Chelsea DeArmond said...

Just some miscellaneous notes about Bath Sheba, Rahab, Boaz, and Judah:

Bath Sheba is the only person mentioned in the Bible that Solomon bowed down to (2 Kings 2:19).

Rahab is praised for both her faith (Heb. 11:31) and works (James 2:25). In both cases, she is called Rahab “the prostitute.”

Boaz's kindness to Ruth consistently exceeds his legal obligations. For example, the next-of-kin was obliged to redeem the property of his family (Lev. 25:25) and a surviving brother was obliged to marry his deceased brother's widow (Deut. 25:5-6). Boaz fulfills these laws though he is not Naomi's closest relative let alone her brother-in-law.

By making Ruth his wife, he also exceeds the requirement that an alien should be given the respect due a native citizen: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shalled not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Lev. 19:33-34).

However, there is one law he did not keep: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendents shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord….You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live” (Deut. 23:3, 7).

There is no legal precident for Judah’s command that Tamar be burned at the stake after she is accused of prostitution. In fact, the law stipulated that in adultery cases and incest cases between a man and his daughter-in-law, both the man and the woman were to be stoned (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:21; Lev. 20:12). Their actions are only acceptable under the levirate provision. Tamar’s actions turned Judah's adultery/incenst crime into fulfilment of the law he (and his sons) had thus far failed to honor. In doing so she saved both of them from oblivion.


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