We begin where Matthew began. The first woman in Matthew’s genealogy and the first woman in scripture who seizes the initiative and receives God’s approval for doing so–even though, in this case, decidedly without the permission of the man supposedly in charge of her. We begin with Tamar.

There are many stories in the Bible that are suitable for children. This is not one of them. In fact, this is a story adults rarely talk about with each other. At best, it’s troubling. It speaks frankly about episodes and actions rarely discussed in polite company.

A short summary of events

You can read the whole story in Genesis 38. Here is a short summary of the sequence of events. Judah marries and has three sons. They grow up, and the oldest son, name Er, marries our heroine, Tamar. He dies, leaving Tamar childless. According to custom, Judah gives his second son, Onan, to Tamar to give her children to be raised up in the dead Er’s name. But Onan reneges on his responsibility in a particularly offensive fashion, what we call coitus interruptus, and God kills him. Now fearful for his own legacy, Judah delays, declaring his third son, Shelah, too young marry, and sends Tamar back to live with her father.

Time passes. So much time that Judah’s wife dies, but still he does not offer Tamar relief from her predicament. She realizes that Judah has no intention of giving her another husband, so she decides to achieve through stratagem what she had been denied through petition.

She disguises herself as a prostitute, and places herself so that Judah will encounter her. He does so and, not recognizing her through her disguise, seeks her services. He has no money to pay her, but promises a goat kid to be sent later. No fool, Tamar demands he leave personal items with her as a guarantee the promised payment will be made. He agrees, and they, shall we say, consummate the deal.

Time passes, and Judah sends a goat kid to where he had met the prostitute, but she cannot be found. Three more months pass, and Judah is informed that his daughter-in-law—the one without a husband—has become pregnant.  He immediately insists she suffer the extreme penalty, death by burning.

As she is being summoned for that penalty, she presents the personal items Judah had given the “prostitute” as guarantee for payment. “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong,”[i] she says. Recognizing them, Judah said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”[ii]

Really  uncomfortable

So there we have it. Talk about discomfort: coitus interruptus, pretending to be a prostitute, a patriarch having sex with (he thinks) a prostitute, but who is in fact his twice widowed daughter-in-law in disguise. The daughter-in-law becomes pregnant by the patriarch, and the patriarch, whose descendants will be the royal line of Israel–and eventually will include Jesus himself–declares his deceiving daughter-in-law “more righteous” than himself? As the young people would say, “Ewww!” More than a few sober saints wonder out loud what such an episode is doing in scripture.

And it’s not just our discomfort with the content. The episode’s placement, right in the middle of the story of Joseph—seems odd. This episode is described by A. Speiser, in his fine Genesis volume in the Anchor Bible series, as “a completely independent unit,” having “no connection with the drama of Joseph, which it interrupts at the conclusion of Act I.”[iii]

But there it is. Right there in Genesis. It’s not an oversight. The inspired author of Genesis thought it important enough to be relayed, in detail. Matthew highlighted it in his Gospel.

The more I study biblical narrative, the more impressed I am with both the marvelous artistry and meticulous craftsmanship of the biblical writers. I grew up with the idea that the Bible writers were essentially inspired stenographers, simply taking down everything that the characters in their story did, recording those actions, but otherwise not shaping the narrative. But of course that is not how God works with human beings, and it is not how anyone can write a story.

To begin with, a moment-by-moment recitation of a person’s actions would bore the reader to tears, and obscure the important events and actions under layers and layers of minutia. Of necessity, authors must select the most important moments, and tell them in a way which reveals their significance. And if we believe the Bible to be inspired, as I do, then we must accept that the authors—both human and divine—knew what they were doing.

Two inspired authors thought this story mattered, so it’s up to earnest Bible students to see if we can understand why. But a mere recitation of the events, as I did above, leaves out precisely the factors most important in our effort to come to grips with this passage: the way in which the author tells the story. For he does not just relay the events.

The Bible writers are so economical with their words, and so skilled in their portrayals of important events and characters, that their stories merit our full attention to carefully examine precisely how the author wrote the story.

He emphasizes some details and ignores others. He repeats phrases, compares and contrasts characters, events, and words. He names some characters and only describes others. In scores of little ways, the author shapes his tale to communicate the wonder of how God relates to merely human, even deeply flawed, human beings.

Next time we will continue our journey into the meaning of this troubling yet important story, and the larger theme of how God relates to women who seize the initiative. Read Tamar–Part 2.

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

[i] Gen 38:25

[ii] v. 26.

[iii] Genesis, The Anchor Bible (New York, 1964), p. 299, cited in Alter, Robert (2011-04-26). The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.