Earlier we talked about what scholars call “type-scenes,” which I have dubbed “story frameworks.” We have already seen how Tamar’s tale fits into The Barren Woman. But with the conclusion of the story, discovering that the Royal and Messianic lines both pass through her, we realize that the woman humiliated by her second husband, and relegated to spinsterhood by her father-in-law, also portrays “The Rejected Cornerstone.”

You probably know the story. When Solomon built the Temple, he had all the stones cut and dressed at the quarry, so the building site remained quiet.  One stone didn’t seem to fit anywhere, so the builders set it aside. Some even say they rolled it into a nearby valley to get it out of the way. But when it came time to set the cornerstone, the most important stone, it turned out to be the one they had rejected. The Psalmist memorialized it thus:

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

This is a story framework beloved by many cultures. Indeed, we have multiple manifestations in western culture. Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling fits this framework. The bird condemned as ugly grows up to be an elegant swan. Even Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer fits in this framework. The reindeer ridiculed for his appearance becomes the one who “saves Christmas.”

Tamar, too, is rejected. She is not just barren–or, more accurately, not even barren. Her lack of children is not due to her infertility, but to her rejection by men unwilling to fulfill their responsibility to her. Onan pointedly spurns her, rejecting her as unworthy to carry his child. Judah then exiles her as essentially “bad luck.” But in the end, she proves her worthiness by her wisdom and resourcefulness, risking everything on her wits. And no less than God rewards her, by granting her twins like Rebekah, and by making her a progenitor of Kings, and ultimately of the King of Kings.

Why did God give such signal approval? I mean, prostitution, seduction, incest…. Again and again in Scripture, I find that God is amazingly practical. You read that correctly. God is practical. God recognizes that in a sinful world, sometimes we must choose the best available among a group of less than ideal alternatives. In fact, sometimes God confronted less than ideal choices.

Consider the “Bill of Divorcement.” God instructed Moses that a man must give his wife a “Bill of Divorcement.” But wait, doesn’t scripture say “God hates divorce?” Yes, he does. But there are things he hates even more. Like forcing an honest woman to choose between prostitution or starvation. As Jesus later made clear, one man-one woman-one flesh was always God’s plan.

But sin had marred that plan so badly that even his disciples on hearing that divorce was forbidden except for adultery, said, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). If the disciples, who had walked with the Son of God daily, who had the entire Old Testament to read, if they could not make the mental and psychological leap, then the Israelites in Moses’ day had no chance.

They had spent centuries in slavery, surrounded by Egyptian gods and ideas, and they did not have the written word. God realized they could not go from throwing women’s belongings out of their tents to lifelong monogamy in a single giant step. So he commanded the “Bill of Divorcement,” so a woman could prove she had not been unfaithful, and might then be marriageable. It was far from ideal. It was, however, a practical improvement for women.

What was Tamar to do? She had done no wrong. Under their laws she had a claim on Judah, which he was unwilling to pay. She did not force him to do anything at sword point. She did not attempt to take revenge. She did not lie to him. Had he not approached her, seeking her services, nothing would have happened. The ideal was not available to her, so she found a practical alternative. She did not ask for more children, or for money. She claimed no more than was her due.

Yes, Tamar engaged in sexual intercourse with her father-in-law. Yes, that is prohibited in Scripture–which had not been written when Tamar lived. She deceived Judah, but he had denied her every other means of restitution for her loss. It was not an ideal solution, but Judah had denied her that. Tamar did not make the rules. Men did. And when men denied her justice, she did what she could within their rules to achieve a practical justice, as Judah admitted. And in a final irony, Judah had hoped to secure his legacy through his third son, Shelah, by refusing to allow him to marry Tamar. But in the end, Judah’s great legacy as progenitor of royalty came through Tamar, and her son Perez. The woman the men had rejected becomes the cornerstone, the mother of Judah’s legacy.

And I believe this episode depicts Tamar as a woman of surpassing wisdom and faith. Yes, faith. Because there’s more than mere cleverness evident here. What are the chances that she would conceive from one sexual encounter? It took great wisdom on the part of Tamar to plan and carry out this whole enterprise; but it also took great faith on her part that God would reward her quest for justice. Only God could grant Tamar the gift of a child–much less twins, and being progenitor of the of the Royal and Messianic lines. And Matthew will not let us forget or overlook that truth. So, no matter how uncomfortable this episode may make us, we cannot deny that God honored Tamar’s faith and her actions–in signal fashion.

Next: The story of Tamar demonstrated what a single clever determined woman to do. The story of Jochebed, though she takes the lead and occupies the central position, shows what a group of determined and clever women can do when they work together.

Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.