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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Women in the Old Testament: Tamar

In a previous post, I commented on the subordinate status of women in much of the first part of Genesis. Things changed as time went on. Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and Abraham did so. Rebekah was given a choice--did she want to stay home, or go far away to be the wife of Isaac, a man she had never seen? It was her choice (Genesis 24). Later, perhaps at God's direction, she interfered with Isaac's plans for Esau, so that Jacob, her favorite, got the blessing, and had to leave home, which is how he found Leah and Rachel, his wives. Clearly, Rebekah was a strong woman, and one who had the chance to play a part.

The story of Tamar (Genesis 38) is, if anything, even more remarkable. She, too, was a woman who took things into her own hands, perhaps at God's direction, to right a wrong. Judah's first son, her husband, was evil, and God killed him. In those days, a surviving wife was supposed to produce an heir for her dead husband, with the help of one of his close male relatives. Onan, her husband's brother, did not do what custom required. He practiced coitus interruptus, getting pleasure out of his sister-in-law without the chance of her becoming pregnant. So God killed Onan, too. (As I understand it, Catholics use this story as one justification of their rejection of birth control methods. Some Protestants believe that Onan was killed because he was selfish, and used his sister-in-law as a sex object, not because he practiced birth control.)
Judah didn't send his third son to Tamar, blaming her falsely for the death of his first two sons. She then dressed herself as a prostitute, and placed herself on a route that Judah would travel. Judah took the bait, used her, and she became pregnant, which was her intention. This sexual activity took place without Judah recognizing the voice, or anything else, about the woman who had married his son. Judah, if not chaste, was just. When he wanted to have his daughter-in-law stoned to death for her adultery, (Even though he had, at least once, coupled with a woman not his wife--double standard) Tamar proved to him that he had been the father. He did not have her stoned. Her twin sons were born, and he accepted them as his own.

It is difficult to know for sure (previous post) but I'm guessing that Tamar was one of those who went into Egypt with Judah and Jacob, during the famine that Joseph saved his own people from. The Bible makes it clear that this strong woman was one of the ancestors of David, hence of Jesus, through one of those twins. Sarah and Rebekah were also ancestors, of course.

For links to some other posts on women in the Old Testament, see here.

Thanks for reading.

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