Written by Alannah Jeune, Doctoral student in History, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
I was ten when prostitution became legal in New Zealand, my home country. I remember the debates and news coverage surrounding the decision and the sudden increased visibility of street prostitution in my part of the city. My understanding of prostitution was very limited – largely derived from biblical passages and stories, and I think I had assumed it was something that only happened in ‘olden times’.
I can only faintly recall hearing the story of Tamar in Church, and the little I did remember was that she was characterised as a prostitute. But Tamar is far from the deceptive temptress that this label implied – her story is that of a remarkable woman who was to become one of only four women named in Jesus’s ancestral line.
Tamar’s story falls in the middle of the Genesis account of Joseph and his brothers. Chapter 38 begins with Judah and his three sons Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar is married first to Er:
But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.Genesis 38:7
Judah then instructs his second son, Onan to marry Tamar according to levirate custom. This custom stated that any children born to the couple would be legally Er’s and inherit on his behalf. Therefore, Onan ensured that Tamar would not become pregnant, with the result that he too was put to death by the Lord.
Judah, probably a little nervous about Tamar by this point, ordered her to return to her father’s house telling her to wait there until Shelah was old enough to marry. Tamar does this and lives as a young widow in her father’s household, but Judah does not send for her once Shelah is grown.
By this point Judah’s own wife has died, and when Tamar hears he is going on a journey to Timnah, she decides to take control of the situation. She dresses herself as a prostitute and sits at the entrance of Enaim, a town on the way to Timnah. Judah propositions her, sleeps with her, and leaves his signet and staff as a pledge till he can send a young kid to her as payment. However, Judah is unable to find the prostitute when he returns to recover his identifying belongings.
Meanwhile, Tamar has become pregnant by Judah and this is soon noticed. Judah is informed and he orders that she be brought out and burned. Tamar shows Judah his own signet and staff and tells him she is pregnant by the owner of these items.
Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘she is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’Genesis 38:26
The tale concludes with the birth of Tamar’s twins: Perez and Zerah.
Tamar’s story is messy. She is passed as property from one man to another, from her father via Judah to Er then to Onan, then back to her father. At no point does Tamar have any choice or control. Her future is bleak – as a childless widow she has no societal standing, nor the security of someone to care for her in her old age. Hers is a situation in which women across the generations have found themselves caught – in a patriarchal society, the worst thing to be is a woman alone.
While emotional details are scant, Tamar’s story reveals a lot about her relationships with the men who control her life. Tamar’s first husband is put to death by the Lord for wickedness… it is no stretch to assume that this was not the happiest of marriages for Tamar, and that she may have suffered at his hands. But being married to a wicked man and all the trials that comes with such a union, was preferable to no marriage at all. And her father-in-law not only cheats her out of a marriage with Shelah, but seems to have been a man of questionable morals – Tamar chose the disguise of a prostitute implying she knew that Judah would be likely to use such services.
This is not a family anyone would choose to join willingly, but Tamar has few options so takes control of her own future through the only means she has. She has nothing to barter with but her own body, and her capacity to bear children, so this is the way provides herself with some security.
And yet this dysfunctional family is one that God has chosen to bless. Matthew’s gospel recounts Jesus’ genealogy and there in verse 3 is Tamar:
and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron thefather of AramMatthew 1:3
Tamar could not have known that through her son Perez, she would be an antecedent of Jesus. Her actions were designed only to ensure her own survival in a deeply patriarchal world – with few options open to her, she makes a difficult choice and tries to gain some control over her life. She changes her narrative from that of a desperate victim of circumstance to a woman who is praised for her righteousness by her family.
Tamar’s story is difficult, but that is why it is powerful. The Bible does not edit out the difficult parts, just as we cannot edit out the painful, messy and difficult parts of our lives, no matter how much we might want to. Because God is there in the difficulties, in the mess. He works through imperfect and flawed people like Tamar and her family, just as he works in our lives in both the bad times as well as the good.
It is easy to feel God with us and working through us when things are going well – when we are succeeding, loving our neighbours and full of hope. But Tamar reminds us that He is also with us in the depths of our despair, in the lowest moments of our lives or those times when we feel we are falling short.
Tamar’s story does not belong in ‘olden times’, she embodies the female experience of so many women around the world who live under oppressive political or social systems. But she also embodies that hope for us all – that even in the worst of times, God is with us and working through us.
A Prayer for International Women’s Day (which is tomorrow)
God of all, God of hope,
We pray for women and girls today.
That they will be all they can be.
Give us courage to speak and work
For equality and justice
Until the earth is filled
With righteousness and love.