“Warring Brothers” is an appropriate subtitle for the book of Genesis.
Fierce sibling rivalry among brothers dominates the entire Genesis storyline. Jesus warned that there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). History has played out exactly as he said with warring brothers on a personal and global scale. Even America’s Civil War is often described in family terms as “brothers against brothers.” That reality is no more evident than in the book of Genesis: Cain vs. Abel, Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and the all-out-war among Jacob’s sons.
Tamar, a young Canaanite girl, enters the Genesis narrative during a dangerous time in redemptive history (Genesis 38). The covenant family of promise (only in its fourth generation) is in disarray — torn apart by a bitter rivalry between Jacob’s ten older sons and Joseph (son number eleven). Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, is the ringleader when the brothers plot to murder Joseph — the son their father loves best and the younger brother who inflamed their resentment by bragging of dreams in which his whole family bows down to him.
The brothers abandon their murderous plan, instead selling seventeen-year-old Joseph as a slave to a group of Midianites (Genesis 37:12-36). A cover-up follows. The brothers shred, then soak Joseph’s royal robe in goat’s blood, present it to Jacob, and let their father interpret the evidence.
Jacob is inconsolable. In Egypt, the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard.
Literary Misjudgment or Tactical Decision?
Then, just as the Joseph story reaches a fever pitch and readers are on the edge of their seats, instead of following Joseph into Egypt, the narrator follows Judah away from his family into Canaanite territory and into a salacious R-rated story involving prostitution with his daughter-in-law Tamar. From a literary perspective, the narrator’s choice seems counterproductive — an irritating disruption. From a pastoral perspective, this sordid story is problematic, unsuitable for a G-rated family audience, devoid of any spiritual value. Pastors often skip it.
In his Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann explains the problem,
This peculiar chapter stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic…It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might be of value for theological exposition.1
Recent Old Testament scholarship has produced evidence that, far from being a literary gaffe, the narrator’s decision to include this “enigmatic” episode is strategic — that Genesis 38 is actually the hinge that holds the Joseph story together. It bridges Jacob’s destructive favoritism and the searing father wound Judah suffers with the climactic meeting between Judah and Joseph in Egypt where warring brothers finally make peace. Events in this often-neglected chapter and Tamar’s role in particular actually hold the key to understanding the story it seems to interrupt.
A strong case can be made to vindicate Tamar and demonstrate she has been unjustly vilified. Not only does she play a heroic, redemptive role that benefits Judah and his immediate family, the impact of her controversial actions ripples out globally to advance God’s redemptive purposes for the world. The royal line of Jesus is at stake. Her story is one of many remarkable instances recorded in Scripture when God raises up a woman to advance his purposes.
Contrary to pastoral hesitations, Genesis 38 contains rich fodder for pastoral application and is especially relevant for today’s church and world.
Vindicating Tamar and restoring to her the honor she rightfully deserves as a courageous agent for God’s purposes begins by considering three questions:
First, what evidence does the Bible present that warrants us to reconsider Tamar’s story in the first place?
Second, how does the patriarchal cultural context of the Ancient Near East shape the Tamar/Judah narrative and the larger Joseph story?
Third, what pastoral and theological relevance and wisdom does the Tamar/Judah story offer us today?
Reasons to Reconsider Tamar
In the court of religious opinion, the word “prostitute” governs our view of Tamar as a loose, vindictive woman who stoops to selling her body for sex in her desperation to have a baby or to get even with her father-in-law. Interpreters and preachers alike find it impossible to see her in any other light. One pastor thundered accusingly from his pulpit, “Tamar corrupted the line of Christ!”
It should, however, give us pause to note that this isn’t how her descendants or other biblical writers view her.
First, Tamar is named in a beautiful blessing to honor the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). At a sacred moment like this, it hardly seems appropriate to bring up a shameful skeleton out of the family closet.
Second, both King David and his son Absalom named their daughters Tamar. In the Hebrew culture, parents gave their children names to cause their children to aspire.
Third, in an unusual departure from standard genealogies, Matthew in the New Testament names Tamar in Jesus’ royal genealogy (Matthew 1:3) — along with three other women (Rahab, Ruth, and Solomon’s mother, a.k.a. Bathsheba) whose stories should also be re-examined.
But the fourth, and by far the most compelling reason to reconsider Tamar, comes from Judah himself. He publicly vindicates Tamar by calling her “righteous” (Genesis 38:26).
The Patriarchal Context
Contrary to Brueggemann’s assessment, Tamar’s story doesn’t exist in isolation. It is embedded within the Ancient Near East patriarchal culture and nested within layers of dysfunctional family history — both Judah’s family of origin and the family he fathers. Understanding both contexts is essential to make sense of her story.
The importance of patriarchy as a hermeneutical tool is hard to overstate. As Americans and Westerners, we interpret these ancient biblical narratives at a significant disadvantage, for we are culturally as far removed from the patriarchal world of the Bible as you can get in today’s world. The fact that patriarchy appears on virtually every page of the Bible has led to the mistaken conclusion that patriarchy (at least a softer version) is the God-ordained way for us to live. In my book Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood, I submit that:
“Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular — much better than we do — if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”2
To understand Tamar’s story clearly, we must grasp the reality that at least three aspects of full-fledged patriarchy existed in biblical times and still have a pernicious hold on our cultural worldview today.
First, patriarchy (“father rule”) invests men with priority, power, and authority over women.
Patriarchy relies on female submission and deprives women of agency, voice, and legal rights. Women are essentially the property of men.3 This creates a chilling power differential between men and women. Marriage between Tamar and Judah’s firstborn makes Tamar the property of Judah’s family. Judah exercises life-and-death powers over her when he orders an honor killing for her prostitution. Patriarchy’s disempowerment of women puts them at risk and places an exclamation point beside Tamar’s audacious actions.
Second, primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) ranks sons by birth order.
The firstborn son is crown prince in the family with primacy and authority over his siblings, plus a double inheritance. Primogeniture intensifies the outrage of Jacob’s ten older sons beyond ordinary jealousy, when their father bestows firstborn privileges on Joseph, son number eleven. Jacob’s favoritism takes on physical dimensions when he gives Joseph a royal robe — hard evidence that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (Genesis 37:3).
The Bible repeatedly overturns primogeniture — most often by God’s decree, choosing Abel, not Cain; Isaac not Ishmael; Jacob not Esau. Still, primogeniture is deeply ingrained in the Ancient Near East culture and in the Abrahamic family’s DNA in particular. It wreaks havoc in Judah’s family of origin and creates conflict among his sons.
It is entirely possible that Judah felt entitled to firstborn rights. His three older brothers disqualified themselves by dishonoring their father — Reuben by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine, Simeon and Levi by slaughtering the Shechemites. Judah, son number four, was next in line. This may explain Judah’s leadership among his brothers and also his intense hatred of Joseph.
Third, under patriarchy, wives were responsible to produce sons for their husbands.
It is not possible to overstate the pressure this obligation placed on women. A woman’s value was determined by counting her sons. Barren women in the Bible are desperate for sons, not daughters. The urgency of producing sons meant puberty signaled a girl’s marriageability. Presumably Tamar was a young teenage girl when Judah acquired her for his firstborn son, Er.
The greatest calamity for the ancients was for a man to die without a male heir. It was tantamount to being erased from history. This happens to both of Tamar’s husbands and is central to what motivates her deception of Judah. Levirate practices (later formalized under Mosaic Law) required the surviving brother to marry the dead brother’s widow to father a son to take the deceased’s place on the family tree, including his inheritance. It was a matter of family honor.
Tamar clearly felt the weight of family honor and was ultimately willing to risk her life to fulfill her duty to produce a male heir for her dead husband.
By the time Tamar enters the story (Genesis 38), Judah is in a spiritual nosedive. He has left the covenant family, moved into Canaanite territory, married a Canaanite, and is behaving like one. This dark, sinister figure was capable of murder and guilty of human trafficking and a cruel cover-up. Before the story ends, he will solicit the services of a prostitute — an evil act that reigns down judgment on Tamar, but for some reason, slides by Judah, although his present depraved moral state is evident.
The Patriarchal System of Primogeniture
Judah fathers three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Judah acquires Tamar as a bride for his son, her father placed her in the power of evil men. The Bible describes Judah’s first two sons as evil men who lose their lives in divine judgment. Thankfully, Scripture spares us the details of what Tamar may have suffered in marriage to her first evil husband. The truth comes out with respect to Onan, son number two, who marries Tamar allegedly to produce a son to replace his deceased brother Er. It is an objective Onan has no intention of fulfilling. Primogeniture (“the firstborn son’s right to inheritance”) reveals his motive.
Under a patriarchal system, a father would divide his estate by the number of his sons plus one. Judah had three sons, and so would divide his estate into four portions. Two portions (the double portion) would go to his firstborn. Each of his younger sons would inherit one fourth.
When Judah’s firstborn, Er, died, firstborn rights transferred to Onan. Onan’s inheritance skyrockets from one-fourth to two-thirds. Fathering a son with Tamar to replace Er will come at a major cost to Onan, shrinking his inheritance back to one-fourth. Clearly, Onan understood the math. It was a sacrifice he was unwilling to make. So he feigned loyalty to Er and family duty by marrying Er’s widow Tamar, allegedly to produce a male heir for his dead brother. But Onan repeatedly abused Tamar, using her for his pleasure, but spilling his semen on the ground to prevent impregnating her. God intervened. It cost Er his life.
Now bereaved of two sons, Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait for Shelah (son number three) to reach marriageable age. Time passes, and Tamar realizes Judah’s promises are worthless.
By then Judah’s wife had died, the mourning period was over, and he was going to the annual sheep shearing — a festive time of food and drink. That was when Tamar, aware of Judah’s deception, posed as a prostitute and stationed herself in Judah’s path. (It says a lot about Judah that Tamar could count on him taking the bait, which he does.)The deed is done, and Tamar walks away with his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge of payment — the equivalent of his passport and driver’s license. No paternity test is necessary to identify the father of her child.
Tamar may even have been within her legal rights. Ancient Hittite and Assyrian laws permitted a father-in-law to marry his son’s widow if no brother fulfilled the family duty.4
When Judah and Tamar Collide
On learning that Tamar is pregnant with a child from prostitution, with blinding speed and shocking hypocrisy, Judah orders her to be burned to death (Genesis 38:24). Neither the horror of that moment nor his flagrant double standard should escape our notice.
Judah is a dark, violent, angry, utterly lost man. But that is about to change. The watershed moment for him comes when Tamar produces evidence exposing Judah as the man by whom she is pregnant.
Judah’s response has interpreters scratching their heads and fishing for explanations. Several translations [NIV, NKJV, ASV, ESV] depict a chastened Judah making a comparative statement, “She is morerighteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, emphasis added).
It strains credulity to imagine Judah exonerating himself as “righteous,” when Tamar has publicly exposed him as a hypocrite and a solicitor of prostitution.
Gordon Wenham’s translation reveals an absolute contrast: “She is in the right, not I.”5 Bruce K. Waltke, agrees, translating “She is righteous, not I” or “She is righteous, I am not.”6 These more accurate translations of the Hebrew text compel us to re-examine our assumptions of both Tamar and Judah.
This is the moment when the prodigal looks in the mirror, sees the man he has become, and comes to his senses. And Tamar is bold enough to hold the mirror.
The radical impact this has on Judah shows up in Egypt when he meets Joseph again during a devastating famine (Genesis 44). A terrible crisis erupts when Joseph’s cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, planted there by Joseph who is now tormenting his older brothers. Benjamin, Joseph’s only full blood brother, is now Jacob’s youngest, and newly favorite son.
Judah commands the spotlight in what is one of the most powerful scenes in all of scripture (Genesis 44:18-33). With a throbbing unhealed father wound, without realizing he’s talking to Joseph — the brother he wanted to kill and sold into slavery twenty years ago — with his father still playing favorites and talking as though Judah, his mother, and brothers don’t exist, and with Benjamin now heading for the living death Judah once chose for Joseph,
Judah stepped forward and said,
“Please, my lord, let your servant say just one word to you. Please, do not be angry with me, even though you are as powerful as Pharaoh himself.
My lord, previously you asked us, your servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we responded, ‘Yes, my lord, we have a father who is an old man, and his youngest son is a child of his old age. His full brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’
You said to us…’Unless your youngest brother comes with you, you will never see my face again.’
…Later, when [our father] said, ‘Go back again and buy us more food,’we replied, ‘We can’t go unless you let our youngest brother go with us.’ . . .
Then my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned…Now if you take his brother away from me, and any harm comes to him, you will send this grieving, white-haired man to his grave.’
And now, my lord, I cannot go back to my father without the boy. Our father’s life is bound up in the boy’s life. If he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We, your servants, will indeed be responsible for sending that grieving, white-haired man to his grave.
My lord, I guaranteed to my father that I would take care of the boy. I told him, ‘If I don’t bring him back to you, I will bear the blame forever.’“So please, my lord, let me stay here as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I return to my father if the boy is not with me? I couldn’t bear to see the anguish this would cause my father!”7
Genesis 38 may be the most neglected chapter in Genesis — but it is where the gospel breaks through to Judah, and is simultaneously the turning point in Joseph’s story. Judah’s transformation ultimately reconciles warring brothers, bringing peace to generations within the entire family.
Judah ultimately vindicates Tamar (Genesis 38:26), and Yahweh blesses her with twin sons who replace her two undeserving husbands (Genesis 38:27-30). Bruce Waltke describes Tamar as “a heroine in Israel because she risks her life for family fidelity.”8 Her courageous actions rescue Judah and her two dead husbands, bringing peace to Jacob’s family. Tamar also secures the royal line of Jesus which moves forward through her firstborn, Perez.
Reflections on Tamar’s Story for Faith Communities Today
Here are some final reflections for pastors pondering how to connect this ancient story with twenty-first century faith communities:
- The power of hope — God loves the unloved and the unlovable. He has the power and desire to rescue, redeem, and radically transform prodigals.
- The power of wounds — They can destroy or make us into people who reflect the God who redeems our stories.
- God calls his daughters to be bold agents for his purposes— to do what is right, even if we have to do it alone. Tamar is far from the only biblical example of courageous females who shed patriarchy’s restraints to advance God’s kingdom and bless their believing brothers. Women and girls in the church desperately need to hear these narratives – and so do men and boys!
- In the ongoing #MeToo / #ChurchToo epidemic, Tamar’s story gives pastors a call to courageously engage domestic abuse. Tamar is a #MeToo story.
*Editorial Note: This article (currently published in 2-parts at www.MissioAlliance.org) was originally presented in an earlier form at the release of Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Sandra Glahn, PhD, editor (ETS, November 16, 2017). The Narrative Analysis participants were biblical scholars who contributed chapters focusing on women in the Bible whose stories raise eyebrows. The article below is based on the chapter I contributed: “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute.” Judah’s story is found more fully in Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, ed. James Luther Mays, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 307-308.
2 Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 31.
3 Contrary to Genesis 2:24.