Widow or prostitute. The Bible story that brings the vulnerability of women into stark relief

Most of us would know the story of Joseph from the Old Testament book of Genesis (and I’m written about it previously here). But slap bang in the middle of the Joseph story is Genesis 38 – the story of Tamar and her father-in-law Judah who was the fourth son of Jacob and one of Joseph’s older brothers. The placement of the story is odd, breaking as it does into the Joseph story. But the story itself is weird and it’s meaning to us is opaque. We need to get into the weeds to bring out what is has to say to us.

Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. Er was wicked in God’s sight so God has him put to death. In accordance with the law, Judah gives Tamar to his second son Onan. Onan sleeps with Tamar but deliberately “spills his seed” on the ground – what we would call the withdrawal method – to stop her becoming pregnant. This is wicked and God also puts him to death. Judah has a third son who is too young to be married so Judah sends Tamar back to her family to wait until Shelah is old enough. But Judah is worried to lose his third son and doesn’t send for her. When it’s clear she will not be sent for, Tamar dresses as a prostitute, covers her face with a veil and traps Judah into sleeping with her. She becomes pregnant with twins. Judah hears his daughter-in-law in pregnant and insists she be put to death for prostitution – until he finds out he is the father and then he states that she is more righteous than he. The twins are born under strange circumstances and we go back to the Joseph story.

Huh? What is the point of this? And what does it say about men and women? In a story that sounds to our ears as though they are going to say something bad about women, it appears to say something bad about the man. And why is it even here?

The logistics of this story hinges on levirite marriage. This is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:5-6 – “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

It’s about property and name and legacy. But it’s also about protection of the widow. In fact the weight of benefit is in the woman’s side in this arrangement. The surviving son becomes son number one and would be in line for the greater inheritance. But if he gets the widow pregnant and she bears a child, the child would take the dead husband’s name and inheritance. So, given the second son would lose out on more inheritance, there isn’t an enormous incentive for him to fulfil this duty.

Except for honour and shame. Deuteronomy 25:7-10 states what will happen if the brother will not marry her. “If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.”

There is every incentive to try and cheat the system. Now of course, Tamar and Judah are pre-Deuteronomy. But every indication is that this reflects the laws of the Canaanites and Hittites. Hittite law #193 “If a man has a wife, and the man dies, his brother shall take his widow as wife. (If the brother dies) his father shall take her.” So this is in the cultural milieu in some form before the formal Israelite law.

Er’s brother Onan deliberately takes measures to avoid impregnating Tamar. This is cheating the system and breaking the law. This means he wants to sleep with her for sexual pleasure but is not willing to provide her with the means to secure her position in the community – a child. This is basically just using her for sex.

Judah also cheats her. To be fair, Judah did not know that his sons were taken by God and there could be some superstition that Tamar is the cause of the loss of his sons. However, he does not release Tamar to marry anyone else. He sends her home as a widow to her own family to wait for the third son Shelah to be of marriageable age. As a widow and wife-in-waiting, she is still under the authority of Judah and is essentially engaged or betrothed to Shelah. This means that Tamar is not free to marry anyone else. She is a widow and extremely vulnerable. We can see how vulnerable widows were by the number of times they are singled out with the poor and the foreigner for special care and protection (cf. Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 7:6).

Judah leaves her husband-less and childless, vulnerable and with no position in society. Tamar has a choice – she can remain in her limbo with no hope of ever having a husband and a family, or she can take matters into her own hands.

She chooses the latter. This is where is gets confusing. Although after our period, Leviticus 19:29 states “Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.” Even here though, the burden of responsibility is on the father as the leader of her house – with the added layer of her activity being a mirror for cultural wickedness.

Judah is forcing Tamar to act apparently immorally. But she is, in fact, acting in pursuit of her levirite rites. She is not going out to deliberately prostitute herself with anyone. Her activity is not an echo of turning from the Lord and is not a signal of cultural depravity. Her activity is forcing Judah to turn to God and fulfil his responsibility to his daughter in law. She is seeking conception of a child by the one man who owes her those rights already.

This is why, when Judah finds out she is pregnant by him, he declares her more righteous than he is.

This story is an elevation of the woman as the righteous one. Her pursuit of her rights is a rebuke to the man for seeking his own path, rather than the path of God.

But furthermore, Tamar’s story is significant because the very children borne of this act, are the line of David and Jesus. God has chosen these people and this line to be the chosen line of descent.

Is that why it breaks into the Joseph story? Sort of. The story definitely fits within the overall narrative of Joseph. There are literary clues within the story that echo the broader narrative. Principally, the key turning point in the Joseph story is the revelation of identity. Joseph’s identity is revealed as he and his brothers are reunited. The turning point in the Judah and Tamar narrative is the revelation of Judah’s identity as the child’s father. Then that strange brith narrative – the elder twin is Zeriah who pokes his hand out first during the birth. But then Perez, the younger twin breaks out and is born first. This narrative prepares the reader for the younger child to take precedence over the elder, which initially Joseph does, and then Judah’s line is prophesied to do in Genesis 49.

So, this story shines a light on a particular period of Bible history and the cultural fragility of the position of women. But it also shows us the strength of women, and their place in demonstrating obedience and furthering Gods plans for his chosen people, not just in the immediate circumstances, but in the coming of the Jesus and God’s broader salvation plan.

I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people, particularly to do with women. Other blogs in this grouping include:

If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!

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