Judah declared Tamar “More righteous than I,” but, given his conduct through this whole episode, that’s faint praise. What was God’s verdict? Often in biblical narratives, especially this early in the Bible, God’s verdict is enacted rather than announced. And so it is here.
Tamar, impregnated in that single encounter, gives birth to twins. Twin boys. She receives the ultimate award: two sons to care for her, and through her the Royal–and Messianic–line will pass. It’s difficult to imagine what more she could have wished for. Especially when we consider the special circumstances. Of the first four generations of Abraham’s line, two women have twins: Rebekah and Tamar. And in each case, there is something unusual about the birth of the twins. So Tamar is being likened to Rebekah.
And there’s the whole question of why this story, this strange story, of Judah and Tamar has been placed in the middle of the dramatic and strategic Joseph narrative. As we saw earlier, Judah’s behavior is being compared to Joseph’s–that’s why this episode fits here, between Joseph sold into slavery, and Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife.
As mentioned, Judah “left his brothers,” and had been responsible for Joseph leaving his brothers via slavery. They used the blood of a goat to persuade Jacob that Joseph had died. Tamar uses the signet and staff given in place of a goat to persuade Judah that he is the father of her twins. Judah, when he encounters someone he believes to be a prostitute, indulges the flesh. Joseph when presented with the opportunity to indulge the flesh, refuses.
Considering Judah alone, one would conclude that this episode is one in a series of episodes depicting the moral education and growth of Judah. He goes from being one who would sell his brother Joseph into slavery, to the one who offers to go to prison so that his brother Benjamin might remain free. It is a long and arduous journey, but eventually Judah emerges as a worthy patriarch of the Royal line. Even in this sorry episode, he confesses his guilt. It is a step forward, after all.
But this story is not about Judah alone. Indeed, he is not the central character. He is not the one who drives the action, who determines the outcome. That honor belongs to the clever and resourceful Tamar.
Whatever we think of her approach, it is difficult to conceive of an alternative that would succeed. Judah was not going to give her another son as her husband. He would not have voluntarily impregnated his own daughter-in-law. We know this because after she revealed his paternity we are told:
…he did not sleep with her again.
Tamar’s dilemma embodied the words of renowned author Joseph Conrad:
Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.
And deal with them she did. In fact, in a marvelous irony, she bested men at their own game. As Lindsay Hardin Freeman remarked:
When Judah refused to give her his third son, as mandated by Jewish law, she seduced him to get her due: a child of her own. Throughout the Old Testament, men most often saw women as vessels to bear children. Here that order is reversed: Tamar uses Judah as a family vessel to deliver sperm.*
So, what about Tamar? How does she compare with famous men in the Bible. What male character displays Tamar’s level of wisdom, cleverness, and resourcefulness? Who is her match?
Judah does not fare well. Judah will be the progenitor of the eventual Royal line, but this episode dramatically demonstrates that he is not ready for such responsibility or such honor. As mentioned above this is one installment in a series which ends with Judah willing to sacrifice his own freedom for his brother, but he is not that man here.
By contrast, Tamar’s shrewd action and initiative portray one who is already royalty. She may be multiple generations previous to wise Solomon, but the inspired author’s account of her ingenious solution to her predicament brings to mind an eerily parallel event early in that King’s reign.
In 1 Kings 3, Solomon confronts the problem of two prostitutes (!), both claiming maternity of a single child. Only the two women know for certain whose child it is. One of them is lying, but which one? By his ingenious and famous dictum to cut the child in half, Solomon determines maternity by discovering which woman really has maternal feelings for the child.
And this story occurs in 1 Kings as a testament to Solomon’s wisdom
When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
In the encounter of Judah and Tamar, she masquerades as a prostitute. Only they two know what happened, and Judah could not–did not–identify his sexual partner. Except for Tamar’s insistence that Judah leave identifying possessions, he could have denied paternity. Indeed, every part of this intricate plan has to work, or Tamar may lose her life. She must prove his paternity, even though he is unaware of it!
Tamar’s task is far more difficult than Solomon’s. And the stakes in this case are far higher. If Solomon is mistaken, the wrong woman gets the child. If Tamar does not succeed, she and her child will die!
You might object that Solomon didn’t pretend to be a prostitute. No, but he either pretended to want to slice a baby in half–or he actually meant to do it! It’s difficult to see how feigning murder is morally superior to feigning prostitution. You might object that Solomon didn’t engage in sexual… Wait, wait; Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Probably shouldn’t go there.
Of all the great men in the Bible, Solomon is Tamar’s match. Given the interesting parallels in the two stories–two prostitutes versus one pretended prostitute; disputed maternity versus unknown paternity; and the protagonist successfully establishing parenthood in both cases–they certainly appear similar. But given the greater difficulty and higher stakes in Tamar’s case, it would be inaccurate to call her “the female Solomon.”
Indeed, there is every reason to turn it around. Tamar is Solomon’s ancestor, and she solves a more difficult and more urgent mystery than Solomon does. In every point, the comparison favors Tamar. Yes, Solomon prayed for wisdom. But at least part of the answer to that prayer may have come in his DNA. He appears to have been born in the deep end of the gene pool, inheriting a shrewd and logical mind from his truly great grandmother–great nine times over. Of course, Tamar’s shrewdness, and her two sons, were a gift to her. So, rather than ranking them, let us just say they are a match.
Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.
*Freeman, Lindsay Hardin (2014-09-07). Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (Kindle Locations 1127-1128).