The Prostitute Tamar: A Woman of Great Faith?

“And he did not sleep with her again.” Genesis 38:26

I’ve always thought it interesting how many people can read this story of Tamar and Judah and have no trouble believing at all that the “harlot” Tamar was never touched again, nor bore any other children than her twins, but yet so many cannot believe the righteous young Mary, the Mother of Jesus, would have remained untouched and never bore any more children after Jesus. Is it the harlot thing that makes us believe it is possible for one but not the other? Was it her unrighteousness that lead to such chastity among men like Judah, or was it something else?  It seems we are always so quick to decide for ourselves what is acceptable and permissible when it comes to the lives of others. Thankfully, for Tamar that was not so!

Many read this story of King David’s greatly descendant-grandmother as a sort of blip on the narrative of the line of Judah. The story is a mere chapter long, after all, and sandwiched between the patriarchal greats of Judah and Joseph. Many theologians and biblical scholars have accepted her narrative as the “harlot” throughout the centuries, casting her among the short list of women mentioned in the Bible as having the great fortune to be counted among the lineage of the Messiah, in spite of their “unsavory” character. I find this outlook to be a great travesty to the faithful and here’s why:

Tamar’s story is more than meets the eye. To a generation of readers that is familiar with prostitution and the morally degrading behaviors of men and woman in present day culture, it is easy to relate to this story like a 21st Century convert. But, what we ought to consider is how this story  was written to be read by a pre-first century Jew.

When we shift our lens from our now-worldly self and begin to view the Scriptures from that old-worldly context, we can see this great-descendant of the lineage of Jesus, not as the “harlot” or great deceiver but as a Woman of Great Faith. Tamar was a woman of tremendous loyalty, willing to faithfully do whatever was necessary according to the laws and customs of her people, to honor the vision of God at work before her. She was a co-laborer in the Redemptive Plan of God, a pre-figure of the New Eve to come, like Ruth, and Rahab, and the wife of Uriah, a shadow of the fully Redeemed Woman of God.  She is not at all like the world sees her upon first glance. Like Eve as she was designed by God before the fall, to know her beauty, we must look deeper. We must see her without our lens; we must see her as herself.

The first mention of Tamar in Scripture is Genesis 38:6 “And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar.”  Note here that it was Judah who chose Tamar for his son. Note also that her introduction comes immediately following the narrative of Judah having chosen for himself a Canaanite wife. An act that was seen as deplorable among the Israelites. Esau had done the same thing in defiance of Isaac and Rebekah’s wishes (Genesis 28:9). Canaanites were among the offspring of Ishmael and also the descendants of Canaan, who was the son of Ham, the wicked son of Noah. According to the Scriptures, Judah’s sons were wicked also.

It is not clear from the Scriptures whether Tamar was herself a Canaanite woman, although many scholars have found it compelling to name her as such in order to affirm the lineage of sinners in the Messianic Line.  I would argue this over site on the part of some biblical scholars has helped detract from the power of Tamar’s testimony more than it has helped. So if the Scriptures don’t mention it specifically, where can we go to confirm her origins and do we believe her nationality is the central point of significance in her testimony?

To find the answer, we have to consider the Keepers of the Story. The Jewish people are no strangers to keeping alive the Word of God. From a time long before paper and the written word was even possible, the Jewish people have been preserving the law and works of God through oral traditions. Those traditions, which are separate from the Torah, have been handed on in conjunction throughout the centuries in what is known as the Midrash. These are the sacred writings and revelations of the Jewish priests or Rabbis which are passed from generation to generation to help guide new generations of Torah readers in the process of understanding the Scriptures. Much like the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the personal and private writings of the saints, both dead and alive, these “Revelations” and understandings include not just the divinely inspired understandings of Scripture, as revealed to the person by the Holy Spirit, but also the historical facts and cultural language of the time.


It is interesting to read that the Midrash actually considers the possibility Tamar was not a Canaanite but from a devout Israelite family. Judah himself the son of Jacob, a patriarch of the Israelites, and having himself married a Canaanite woman, rather than a woman from his own Israelite tribe, has born a son, Er, from this iniquitous union and the Bible tells us he is wicked; And God puts him to death. Judah then betroths him in marriage to Tamar. Can you imagine the scorn Tamar and her family might have felt in her being given in marriage to such a union? Canaanite or Israelite aside, what family would want to see their daughter married to someone the Lord himself has marked as wicked?

Perhaps Judah sensed this in some way, he was after all the son of Jacob, a man known for his remarkable sincerity as well as reason.  Trying to live up to the image of his father and make it good with his tribesman by setting a good example as patriarch, Judah gives her to his middle son, Onan, and tells him to give her an heir that she may not be shamed. This was after all the levirate law, though it had not been officially given as the Law yet, it was the custom of the brother of the deceased to lie with his sister-in-law and conceive an offspring to carry on the inheritance.  Only, Onan, knowing this would mean his brother’s inheritance would be given to him directly, if no heir would come, purposefully does not allow his seed to spill inside Tamar, and instead ejects it onto the ground and let’s the seed die. How many times had Tamar layed with Onan knowing he would betray the life she had been promised? How many unions are there today where one partner refuses to offer themselves fully and are still withholding their seed?

This strong and obedient Israelite woman endured through the sin of another, and waited in hope for a promise fulfilled. And, the Lord saw that Onan’s action was wicked, and he put him to death also. You would think at this point that Judah would start to pray and maybe ask God himself,  What’s happening? Unfortunately, all those years with Jacob didn’t rub off here, and Judah, believing Tamar is accursed, and having no sight for the wickedness of his own sons, shames this Israelite woman by asking her to adorn the widow’s mark until his youngest is old enough to marry. To add insult to injury, he then sends her back to live in her own father’s house.

“Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.’ For he thought, ‘He may die too, just like his brothers.’ So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.” – Genesis 38:11

How many women have felt the scorn of being sent home again? Even this act of disgrace that was meant to discourage her from her promise, the Lord used for good. And in her father’s house, surrounded by people of her own Israelite faith, she continued to grow in strength and in wisdom. The Midrash says she likely stayed in her father’s home one to two years, even though Judah could have released her, making her a widow but free to marry again. Can you imagine her thoughts? How would you deal with such betrayal? How would you live out your days of imprisonment?

I believe this small, unmentioned part of Tamar’s journey speaks the loudest.  If Tamar were indeed a Canaanite woman, and a foreigner to the Israelite faith and customs, it would be conceivable that she might stupor in her hatred and bitterness, lying in wait and deceiving a treacherous plan to ensnare and ridicule her father-in-law (unless perhaps she shared the same virtues present in the Moabite Ruth). But if she were a devout Israelite, a woman of faith, who knew the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob then we might see something completely different. What would such a woman of faith do in her exile?

I believe the Lord begins to speak to her by revealing the intent of Judah’s heart, inclined toward rebellion and rejection of his own inheritance. An inheritance which was to include kings and redeemers. I believe Tamar received faith and grace for her next steps, not out of a place of bitterness and revenge but out of faithfulness to the will of Heaven. Surrounded by others who helped encourage and strengthen her faith, she prays and waits and grows in the wisdom and the knowledge of the Father, and at the appointed time, she is called to remove the garments of the past and embrace the garments needed to bring about not only her future, but the future of all Israel and even all mankind. 

“When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,’ she took off her widow’s clothes… For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.” – Genesis 38:13-15

With much courage and humility, Tamar rises up against the wickedness in Judah’s heart and sets out to stop him from going the way of his sons, which by his own treachery might also have resulted in death. When Judah’s Canaanite wife dies prematurely, (we are not told why, but perhaps it was that she too followed in the iniquity of her son’s in some manner of wickedness, something God tried to protect the Israelites from by admonishing them not to marry foreign wives in the first place, which Judah had ignored and now his own lineage was in jeopardy) we see Tamar act on her door of opportunity.

This Israelite woman of faith has devised a plan to call out the Redeemer in the line of Judah by saving him and his own lineage (much like Naomi will instruct later of Ruth). To do so, she disguises herself in the robes of a “harlot.” The Midrash lends some further explanation into the word “harlot” also, lest we are left to think of Judah or Tamar as completely depraved.  The NRSV translates this as “temple prostitute,” but the word is actually kedeshah; meaning a public woman, who might be found along the roadway (as virgins and married women should not be, but was permitted of widows). She could engage in sex, but might also be sought out for lactation, midwifery, and other female concerns.  They both were acting within the permission of their customs or niddah, as Tamar should have been made a widow except for Judah’s sinful deception. It is under this mantle of lowness and humility, not pride and haughty feminism (for who would dare to do such a thing against the son of Jacob without want of death) that Tamar allows this patriarch of Israel to bare within her womb the seed of all seeds; a seed which would bare forth the Kings of Israel and the Redeemer of all mankind.

Tamar steps in with wisdom and planning, she no doubt received while in her father’s house, saves Judah from shame, and gives him inheritance in a Name worthy to be praised. Not surprisingly, the roadway at the “entrance of Enaim” in Hebrew is called petah enayim; literally, “eye-opener”.

And, this is why Judah calls her righteous. Not because she sought his wealth or his title in a plot of revenge, but because this Israelite woman of faith sought after the inheritance she was promised; The inheritance all of Israel was promised. And she claimed it with all wisdom. And she was worthy to be praised. And she was righteous to never be touched by wickedness again.

“Judah recognized them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not sleep with her again.” -Genesis 38:26

Having performed the levirate (despite himself), Judah never cohabits with Tamar again. According to the Midrash, once she is pregnant, future sex with a late son’s wife would be incestuous.

The seed of the promise she was destined to carry was inside her waiting to break forth. If it weren’t for Tamar’s perseverance to see her given what was rightly hers, that seed would not have been made fruitful and born life. That seed would have died within her, and you and I would not have been given the fruit of that seed in Jesus Christ. How easy it would have been to simply allow the betrayal of Judah to occur, to spend her days as a widow and marred by bitterness, but just like Mary, and Ruth who would follow in her footsteps, Tamar knew her fiat was necessary for the Lord to do his work in her. Without her ‘Yes’ to do what was necessary the word could not come forth. And the Lord blessed her with double for her trouble.

“When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez. (The greatly descendant-grandfather of King David) – Genesis 38:27-29

Tamar’s was assertive of her rights and subversive of convention. She was also deeply loyal to Judah’s family. If she were indeed a Canaanite woman and not a Jew, it is clear she has earned her title among the matriarchs of Jesus, not because of her sinfulness represented by her foreign origins which might lend toward deceitfulness, but precisely all the more because of her virtue to faithfulness, patience, and hope. Virtues that are not unlike those found in the Moabite Ruth, or the Horite Rahab, even the wife of Uriah, and most definitely in the Jewish Virgin Mary.

When I read these stories of the Women of the Line of Judah, I don’t see their sinfulness, nor their foreign nationalities, as what qualifies them, I see their virtues.

The Bible is filled with stories of women who are called to appointed times. Women who had to give themselves over to the promises they were given. Women of great faith who are called for such a time as this. Women willing to do whatever it takes to see their promises break through. You are more than a blip in the story. You are the story. This is your time to take off the garments of your past and put on the garments of your future. This is your time to see your seed break out!


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4 thoughts on “The Prostitute Tamar: A Woman of Great Faith?

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