Horizons 2 — “What My Grandmothers Taught Me”

Lesson 2: Tamar

The trickster is a common character in folk tales around the world. Whether the character is Bugs Bunny in “Looney Tunes” or the court fool in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the trickster is a character without much or any power who manages to get out of difficult situations through cunning and wits. Rabbits don’t have much power against guns, but Bugs Bunny outsmarts Elmer Fudd. Court jesters could not challenge a king directly, but through humor they can reveal the truth. Midwives in ancient Egypt could hardly defy Pharaoh, but in Exodus 1 the midwives outwit Pharaoh to save the Hebrew baby boys. Tricksters cross societal norms to challenge, expose the truth, entertain and bring about change.

Tamar, in Genesis 38, ends up as the trickster. But, for much of the time, she is the pawn of her father and father-in-law. It is a disturbing story. Tamar is given in marriage to one of Judah’s sons, Er. Er dies. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 commands a surviving brother to marry his brother’s widow. The first-born son is then named for the dead husband so that his name does not die out. The practice was called levirate marriage. The law had a merciful and practical function, ensuring that a young widow was not left destitute with no male protection in a time of marauding tribes.

After Er’s death, Tamar is married to Er’s brother, Onan. Onan willfully fails to fulfill his obligation. God is not pleased and Onan dies too. There is one brother left, Shelah, and he is too young to marry.

Tamar is left in limbo. Sent back to her father’s home, she is not free to marry again because she still belongs to Judah’s household and to the third son. Several years pass, but Judah fails to orchestrate Shelah’s marriage to Tamar. Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies.

Word gets around that Judah and his buddy, Hirah, are going off to Timnah to shear sheep. Tamar accurately sees that Judah could be up to more than shearing. Removing her widow’s garb, she renders herself unrecognizable in a cloak and a veil and goes to a crossroad on the way to Timnah to fleece Judah.

Judah comes upon Tamar, thinks she is a prostitute, asks for sex and offers her a kid goat as payment. Tamar shrewdly asks for something of his until he sends the goat: his official seal and cord and staff. (The seal would be equivalent today to any official identification like a passport or driver’s license.) Judah sends his payment, but the woman at the crossroads has slipped away. Tamar becomes pregnant. Tamar’s bold and extremely risky behavior is done to provide for herself a place of worth.

Desperate women all over the world go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves and their families. Kurdish women took up arms and became excellent soldiers to fight Isis (and all Isis soldiers would do to them) during the Syrian War. In the United States, women risk homelessness, poverty and greater violence when they flee a brutal partner. With an extreme lack of affordable housing in the U.S., many of these women have no place to go. In Central America, women walk hundreds of miles to the U.S. border to escape poverty and drug cartels. If only they could turn the tables as Tamar did.

Tamar, the trickster, completely upends the status quo. In learning of Tamar’s pregnancy, Judah commands, “Burn her” because she has “played the whore.” She sends the seal, cord and staff to Judah, saying, “I am pregnant by the man whose items these are.” Hit full in the face with the evidence, he declares that Tamar is more righteous than he is. He did not keep his promise of Shelah marrying Tamar. Tamar finds an ingenious way to fulfill the purpose of the levirate marriage law.

“Righteousness” means to be in right relationship with God and neighbor. Perhaps in listing Tamar as one of the ancestors of Jesus, we are alerted to the unexpected forms that righteousness can take. In the parables of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus topples common notions of who is justified in God’s sight with the despised tax collector and Samaritan doing what is right. In the face of those who keep the letter of the law while robbing the law of its humanity, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before they do (Matthew 21:28-32).

Tamar’s story invites us to empathize with people who are powerless and to judge kindly those who will do anything to survive. Her story also challenges our notions of who is worthy.

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