The Underserving

Tamar’s was an arranged marriage, set up by Judah for his oldest son, Er. According to the account in Genesis 38, Er was a wicked man and as a consequence, God killed him. The reader is not given any details as to what Er’s misdeeds might have been that made God want him dead. Judah then gave Tamar to his next born son, Onan. According to the law in force at the time, since Er had died childless, Onan’s firstborn son would be counted as Er’s son, and would then inherit all of Er’s property. If, on the other hand, Tamar remained childless, Onan would get to keep Er’s property for himself. Therefore, Onan made certain, whenever he had sex with Tamar, that she would not get pregnant. This greedy behavior attracted God’s wrath as well, and so God killed Onan.

Judah promised Tamar that when his next boy, Shelah, came of age, that he would give her to him. But when the time came, Judah gave Shelah a different wife. Tamar realized that Judah was not likely to fulfill his obligations toward her and so she decided to take matters into her own hand. According to the law, if a brother wouldn’t fulfil his duty to marry the widow of his other brother, then it was the duty of the next nearest relative to do the job. In Tamar’s case, that next nearest relative was Judah himself. His wife had recently died and so she knew it wouldn’t be too difficult to force his hand. She dressed up as a prostitute and then positioned herself along the side of a road she knew Judah would be using. Judah came along, took notice of her, negotiated a price and gave her his staff, cord and seal as security, and then had sex with her. Afterward, Tamar put on her normal garments and went back home to go about her business.

When her pregnancy became known, Judah’s reaction was typical of the era: she’d obviously behaved wrongly and needed to be excecuted. But then Tamar sent him his own staff and cord and seal and told him that she was pregnant by the man those items belonged to. Judah cancelled the execution and announced that she was more righteous than him. He recognized that his behavior had been inappropriate.

For the reader of the story, it is clear that the inequity Tamar’s situation, the injustice she faces on all sides, is the whole point of the story. Judah is perfectly willing to pay a prostitute for sex, but if his daughter-in-law were to engage in prostitution, then that’s deserving of a death penalty? Not quite fair. With this story, the author intends to make his readers reconsider their views about the status of women in society.

Prostitution in the Bible is not put forward as a profession to be chosen, but it is inescapable that prostitutes play important roles. Judah treats his daughter-in-law as a prostitute, but she is described then as righteous; and one of the twins born as a consequence of her encounter with her father-in-law is an ancestor of David. A prostitute, Rahab, hundreds of years later will save the Israelite spies, thus helping the Israelites in their conquest of the Promised Land. Then in the New Testament, during the life of Christ prostitutes and other “damaged” women will play significant and pivotal roles. It is the underdogs, the downtrodden of society, those who suffer the worst of life, that God seems very concerned about. He uses them often to serve him and do great things. God does not restrict himself to those who,from a human point of view, seem more honorable and “deserving.” The undeserving are the ones on whom God pours his grace. The concept of favoritism, of treating some better than others because of their social status, their wealth, or any other reason, comes to be rejected by the early Christian community.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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