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Subversion in Scripture: Tamar and Judah

School of Rembrandt Judah and Tamar
School of Rembrandt, Judah and Tamar, c. 1650-1660 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Back at the end of March, I launched a new recurring series on subversion in scripture. In this series, I want to highlight how the bible repeatedly undermines our expectations about power and authority. The incarnation and then then death of Jesus exemplify this subversion best: the creator of the universe became a helpless child and then died at the hands of a great empire. But through his life and death, Jesus conquered a much greater power and evil than any earthly empire and, in so doing, upended our comfortable notions about how power works.

And yet, in America in 2018 we Christians are often far too ready to place our trust in power, our hope in influence, our confidence in our political stances and leaders. It’s easy to point fingers at the 81% of evangelicals who supported Trump, and I certainly think that this part of the evangelical church needs to reexamine its relationship to nationalism and politics.

But those of use who aren’t evangelical, or aren’t sure if we’re still evangelical, or who are evangelical but not Christian nationalists, still need the reminder that the first shall be last, that a little child shall lead them, that the foolishness of Christ humbles the wise.

I need the reminder that God is at work in and through the seemingly weak and marginalized, that I will find Jesus where I least expect, that God does not need our achievements or our perfection.

And I also need the reminder that God is a God of justice who will right the wrongs done by the powerful to the weak.

We find this God who does justice and humbles the powerful in the story of Tamar and Judah. This story, told in Genesis 38, is one of the many odd Old Testament stories, narratives that leave us slightly puzzled about why they were included. In the narrative, Tamar marries one of Judah’s son — Judah, who is the eldest son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Judah’s son, Tamar’s first husband, dies; Tamar then becomes the wife of Judah’s second son, Onan. This second son, however, refuses to father a child with Tamar since that child would be considered his brother’s rather than his.

God sees this refusal as wicked, so Onan also dies. At this point, Judah’s third son is too young to take a wife, so Tamar lives in Judah’s house as a widow in the expectation that she will be given a third husband.

A brief history break here: in the patriarchal culture of the Old Testament, women had few individual rights and thus needed men to care for them. A father, then a husband, then a son: without this progression of men in her life, a woman risked poverty and worse. Without a son, Tamar’s future is bleak and even her present is tenuous, since she depends entirely on the good will of her father-in-law Judah.

And so, when Tamar sees that Judah’s third son is old enough to marry and Judah has made no move to marry the two of them, an inaction that prevents Tamar from having a son, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Disguised as a shrine prostitute, she sleeps with Judah himself and becomes pregnant, keeping Judah’s seal as payment — although Judah does not know who she is.

When Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant, he furiously orders her execution. But confronted with the evidence that Tamar’s child is his, Judah reverses his judgment and declares that Tamar “is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:26, NIV).

That “more righteous than I” should give us pause. Typically, disguising oneself as a prostitute in order to get pregnant by ones' father-in-law is frowned upon, both now and centuries ago. And yet Judah not only acknowledges her cleverness in securing a child for herself, he declares that her decision to take this action is righteous.

It’s righteous because, despite her low status as a childless widow in her father-in-law’s household, Tamar takes steps to address the injustice Judah has committed by denying her a husband and thus a son. Judah recognizes that Tamar has corrected his wrong, and he praises her for doing so.

Moreover, God blesses Tamar’s subversive action. She gives birth to not only one son, but two. And in another scriptural oddity, as Tamar gives birth one twin sticks his hand out first and is designated the firstborn — but then he withdraws his hand and his brother is actually born first. I don’t envy Tamar’s labor, but she ends up with essentially two first-born sons: a doubled blessing from God and doubled promise of a secure future.1

Tamar’s story is fascinating for its glimpse into ancient customs and the status of women — a status that led Tamar to take a dangerous risk as she sought justice for herself. She’s a woman from scripture whose bravery and determination are worth hearing more about.

But wait, there’s more.

In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew names four women in his genealogy of Jesus. The first of these women? Tamar (Matt. 1:3).

Yes, Tamar makes it into the genealogy of Jesus by tricking her father-in-law into sleeping with her. Which is not to say that she is somehow more sinful than the men in the genealogy: the line from Abraham to Jesus is full of men whose actions are far from ideal. But with only four women listed to the forty men — and listed alongside, not in place of, the fathers and sons — we must ask why Tamar makes Matthew’s list.

From the Genesis account, what we learn about Tamar is that she holds a powerful man accountable for the injustice that he has done to her. Her methods may be unorthodox, but Judah himself cannot fault them: she was driven to such drastic action by his own failure and inaction, as he himself recognizes.

Judah recognizes Tamar’s righteousness; God blesses her with two sons; the writers and editors of Genesis include her story as an integral episode in the lives of Israel’s patriarchs; and finally, Matthew lists her in the genealogy of Jesus.

Tamar is a woman who rights the wrong done to her, who stands up for justice when no one else will. In so doing she humbles the powerful Judah — and earns his respect. She is one of the least of these, living on the margins of her household as a widow in her father-in-law’s house. But scripture shows us through the birth of her sons and through her inclusion in both Genesis and Matthew that God was on her side, on the side of the weak and the powerless.

Let Tamar be an example to us: an example of the extremes people may be driven to in order to right an injustice, and an example of how God honors the seemingly insignificant by raising them to a place of honor.


  1. Tamar’s twins are also another story of the expected order subverted: like Jacob, who takes his elder brother Esau’s birthright, or Jacob blessing Joseph’s son Ephraim as the firstborn even though Manasseh is older. Tamar’s son Perez is not the one who put out his hand first but the one who was born first, and he is the son who is in the lineage of Jesus.