In terms of modern-day feminism (which, I assure you, is not the focus of this blog!) Tamar is about as close as you’re going to get. A woman wronged and out to defend her rights is not something we often come across in the Bible, particularly in the patriarchal society of the Old Testament (wronged, maybe, but certainly not fighting back). Yet rather than being an annoying, naïve girl jumping on the band-wagon of the ideal world with no real idea of how to achieve it, Tamar comes across as a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and is willing to actually do something in order to stand up for what is right!
How many of us bear grudges for the wrongs done to us and yet can’t seem to find the voice to speak out or explain ourselves. It’s so easy to let ourselves be stamped into submission by people we see as superior to us (more often than not simply because we are told so, rather than by any real merit) – I’m as guilty as anyone of suffering in silence because I am too afraid or feel too insignificant to defend myself.
The law of the time stated that if a man should die without any children then his brother must marry his wife in order to provide children to carry on the first brother’s name. Having been sent away from her family home to marry Er, the eldest son of Judah, at around 13 years old, Tamar had to deal with the death of not one but two husbands – the second being his brother Onan. She put up with two husbands who refused to give her children by practising contraception, and by the time it came to the third of their brothers she would have been utterly humiliated by the fact that she had not had the chance to carry out the one role of a Jewish woman in a society which viewed childlessness as a punishment from God. To add to that humiliation, rather than give her his final son in marriage (which was her right under Levirate law), Judah sent her home to ‘live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up’ (Genesis 38:11, NIV). Once married, a woman was no longer part of her own family but belonged to that of her husband. To be turned away from that family was the ultimate degradation.
When years went by and Judah did not fulfil his promise to offer her his youngest son, Tamar had every right to want to hide away in shame and crumble under the weight of her rejection. But instead she showed her allegiance to the family which had given her no such courtesy by vowing to still continue her husband’s line. In fulfilling that duty she would also be claiming what was rightfully hers – a child, and a position in the family. Tamar was cunning – when she heard that Judah was on his way to the city of Timnah ‘she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself’ (Genesis 38:14, NIV) and tricked him into believing she was a prostitute. She accepted his identity seal as assurance of later payment which she later – once Judah discovered his daughter-in-law was pregnant and ordered her to be burned alive – used as evidence that the child was his.
Yes, Tamar deceived Judah. But Judah had also deceived her when he promised her his youngest son and didn’t deliver. Tamar stood up for her rights, and God rewarded her by giving her a part in the lineage of Jesus Christ. Life does not have to be lived by a series of strict rules based on what society deems to be acceptable. Sometimes showing initiative and finding your own way can reap the most benefits. Tamar was a woman wronged, but rather than sit back and accept her fate she showed great courage by doing something about it.
Tamar was a woman who refused to be a victim. Rather than letting the enemy slip into our heads in the form of rejection and insults from others, we must remind ourselves that God values us infinitely more highly than that, and that fact alone gives us all the permission we need to proudly take our place among the people of God. She was sold to marriage as a commodity, rejected by her new family and humiliated on all levels, and yet Tamar refused see herself as useless despite being told so constantly. God doesn’t want us to lie down and take the beating. He wants us to embrace his love for us and profess it with self-assured confidence rather than conceit. Most of all, He wants us to know that we are His children: each one of us equally as important and valuable as the others.