A Tale of Two Tamars, Part 4
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A Tale of Two Tamars, Part 4:
Tamar the Daughter-in-Law of Judah:
Copyright © May 4, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.
In this series of articles we have been examining the lives of two women in the Old Testament.
Both women were named Tamar. The first Tamar we investigated is actually the second in the historical
records. In these new articles we examine the life of Tamar from the patriarchal era in
Part 1: Judah’s Assimilation into Canaan, Genesis 38:1-11.
Joseph has been sold into servitude in Egypt. He is out of the picture, at least for this parenthetical
chapter in Genesis. The history set forth in chapter 38 interrupts the story of Joseph. But there is a
purpose for this that is vital to the author’s (Moses) intention. The story takes up the life of one of
the patriarchal clan (Judah) around the same time or shortly thereafter, that Joseph went into Egypt.
Judah had by this time separated from his family for reasons we are not told. He settled in the Canaanite
town of Adullam sponsored by a friend there named Hirah. The text says that he stayed with Hirah, so it is
possible that Judah was under some kind of apprenticeship, although that is just a guess. What his
relationship to Hirah was is not clear, but it does seem to be economic in nature. Hirah is probably a
business associate. Hirah appears to help Judah matriculate within the Canaanite society where he makes
his living. Judah is depicted throughout the chapter as a man of power and some wealth. This is no doubt
the result of Hirah’s influence. Judah is in complete control of every aspect of the story, until at last
he is thwarted by Tamar.
During his residency in Adullam Judah sees a Canaanite woman, takes a liking to her, and obtains her for
his wife from her father Shua. The Patriarchs of Israel were opposed to marriage with foreign women such
as the Canaanites, since this would likely lead to assimilation. (Gen 24:3-4; 26:34, 35; 27:46-28:1; 28:6-9).
While living in Adullam, Judah’s Canaanite wife bears two sons, Er, and Onan. After moving to another
Canaanite community, Kezib, she gives birth to Judah’s third son Shelah.
Judah’s weighty position within his adopted Canaanite society is evident again in his arrangement of marriage
for Er, his firstborn son. Er marries within the Canaanite community just as had his father. Since Er is the
firstborn, it is possible that this arrangement had economic or political motivations for Judah, who wanted
to solidify his influences within Canaanite culture, and probably hoped his son would carry on that work.
While we only know the name of Judah’s father-in-law, Shua, and not his wife’s name, we do not know the name
of Er’s father-in-law, but do know Er’s wife’s name: she is Tamar. This may imply that Shua was more prominent
in Canaanite society at that period of Judah’s life when he married, and that Judah had grown to a position of
much greater prominence by the time his son Er was ready to marry. It has been at least fifteen years or more
that Judah has been separated from his family, and living within Canaanite social circles.
Er and Tamar are married, but before Tamar conceives, Er is killed by Yahweh because he is wicked. Strangely,
there is no mention of Er ever having sexual relations with Tamar. This is particularly of interest when we
realize that sexual intercourse is specifically mentioned in both Judah’s relationship to his wife and in Onan’s
later relationship with Tamar.
It is not clear in what way Er was so wicked that God would put him to death, but it is probably related to the
influence of Canaanite culture in his family life. The most important distinction between Canaanite culture and
that of ancient Israel, including the Patriarchal era Judah lived in, was that of sexual immorality. (Gen 9:22ff;
19:5; 20:11. See Lev 18:1-30 and 20:9-21 for detailed lists of the sexual sins that Israel was commanded to
forsake. Deviant sexuality is called nebalah, foolishness, or perversity in the OT: Gen 34:7; Deut 22:21; Judges
19:23; 20:6 and 10; Jer 29:23. This same term – nabal – is used by David’s daughter Tamar [!] in her threat
against Amnon in 2 Sam 13:12. For more on the impure nature of Canaanite religion and culture see Walther
Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pp. 151-152 [and particularly footnote 1, p. 152], transl.
by J.A. Baker, Westminster Press, 1961.)
Judah’s next son in line, Onan, must now take Tamar as his wife in order to sire a son by her in her dead
husband’s place. This custom, known as levirate marriage, was widespread throughout the ancient near east and
in India and Africa. It is still practiced in some areas of the world today. It was later codified into Mosaic
law as a way of protecting the lineage rights of the husband who had died without leaving an heir.
(Deut 25:5-10. See “Marriage, Levirate.” in Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol 2, p. 1083.) Since the heir
was required to provide for his aged parents before they passed away, this law was insurance for Tamar of
protection in her later years. It was thus necessary for Onan to provide an heir on behalf of his brother to
whom the firstborn rights would pass.
Onan, not wanting to sire children by Tamar that would not legally be considered his own, purposely prevented
the consummation of their sexual activities so that Tamar would not conceive. Onan knew that if Tamar had
children by him, they would inherit the firstborn rights that belonged to his brother Er. If Er’s wife Tamar
were to remain childless, those firstborn rights would pass on to Onan’s family line. Thus it probably was not
the practice of contraception that stirred Yahweh’s wrath against Onan, so much as the attempt to prevent the
establishment of his brother’s lineage. This, we are told, was wicked in Yahweh’s sight, and so He also put
Onan to death.
Judah’s third son Shelah was still too young to perform the levirate duty, and so Tamar was told to return to
her father’s house until such time that he was grown. She goes back to her father’s house to live in widowhood.
Judah, most likely could not have performed the duty himself, since his wife was still alive. However, he did
not want his last son to have relations with Tamar fearing death may befall him as it did his brothers. Judah
has a superstitious fear of Tamar, possibly the result of years of dwelling amongst the pagan Canaanites. It
is likely that he considers Tamar to be the reason why his first two sons have died, and that Shelah may suffer
the same fate. He thinks there is, perhaps, a curse on her. She is a black widow as far as he is concerned, and
any man that marries her will likewise die.
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