Where's the Hope for Tamar?
I’ve sat around dinner tables when friends have sarcastically competed for the “most broken family” as they half-mockingly, half-lightheartedly told childhood stories. Many stories were enough to make you sick to your stomach and bring tears to your eyes even though they were told with a laugh.
The reality of pain and scars from family is a self-evident reality. Family can be the Trojan horse, expected to be a gift but bringing wounds instead. There aren’t quick salves for the pain and brokenness that comes from families.
But as I read through the Bible, I’m thankful that God communicates about painful families. His Scriptures don’t communicate about perfect TV sitcom families (which we’ve learned over the years are just contrived anyway).
And if anyone could compete in that story-telling dinner, Tamar could. Genesis 38, Tamar’s story, is a mess. No one wants to preach or teach it. What do we do with this? Where do you find the grace? Where’s the hope? Oh, but it’s there. God is there.
The Scene of This Family
So Judah has just seen his brother sold into slavery. It was his idea, actually, and he has watched his father mourn over the loss. The deception must be eating him. Immediately after, Judah leaves his brothers, finds a friend, and decides to live like someone who does not know the Lord God. His corruption is a stark contrast to how the brother he cast off will respond to temptation in Egypt in the next chapter.
The storyline of Genesis so far has given us hope that God would one day bring a child who would reverse the curse from sin. (Gen. 3:15) This child would bless all the families of the earth. (Gen. 12:3) The line would bring kings. (Gen. 35:11) The promise has been traced from Eve, to Abraham, and now to Jacob and one of his sons. The emphasis on Judah in this chapter gives us a hint—he’s the son. He’s the one who will bring the descendant who gives hope to the world. (Later confirmed in Gen. 49:10) So we lean forward and pay attention to Judah.
So even in Judah’s evil choices thus far, we watch for his children. He marries, but the Lord puts his first son to death because of his wickedness. Judah rightly tells his second son marry the widow, Tamar. But for his great selfishness (not wanting another heir), the Lord punishes the second son. He also died.
According to the rules of family responsibility, Judah should give his third son to Tamar and provide for her, or he should release her to marry someone else. Judah does neither. He tells her to return home, so he abrogates responsibility to care for her. Yet he won’t release her to marry another. She’s stuck, still bound to Judah’s family but without a husband. So she waits. She waits to be provided for and to marry the last son.
But times passes, and she is not given to her promised husband, Judah’s sole living child. During this period in history, a husband cared for you by protecting you. So, because of Judah’s decision, Tamar is not only denied the hope of children, but also protection, for who knows how long her father will live. She is in a desperate situation. She can have no husband other than Judah’s son, or by Canaanite law, she could be given in marriage to Judah himself.
This family has already seen the consequences of wickedness in deaths, and now a man’s choice to ignore his responsibilities has left a widow desperate. To add to the misery, there is no child, no descendant from this family yet, and though they may not know it, the entire world is relying on this child to come. These are the broken family stories that could be told at Tamar’s dinner table.
Tamar is stuck, desperate. Thus, she turns to deception and dresses herself in a veil to meet Judah. He offers to pay her for sex and impregnates her. In Tamar’s mind, perhaps this is exactly what she planned. After all, by the laws of the land if she cannot have the third son, he is next in line as her husband. But we don’t know what her plan was. Much of the stories of Bible are descriptive. They aren’t endorsed by God, but they tell you the mess as it happened. The moral of the story here is not to deceive family to have a baby, but it is to show that God still saves.
We get a taste of his salvation when we realize that there is a child coming! We can almost feel the audience gasp when they recognize a baby’s imminent arrival so that the line will continue. But the danger doesn’t end there. Now the man who put Tamar in her hopeless position in the first place threatens her life in the most brutal of ways—by burning her alive. Our breath is held again.
But she is saved. The truth comes out and at the climax of the story, Tamar is not burned. Rather she is finally given a safe place, a formal place in Judah’s family, and twins are born. A breach has been made, push and shoving and pain and wounds, but look! There is not just one child, but two!
God Welcomes the Rejected
Tamar lost her husband, was rejected by the second son, Onan, and then rejected by Judah himself. She had no hope, and the family who was designed to care for her brought only pain. But God saw her and was working to welcome her.
We may not see God’s hand explicitly mentioned in the text after the death of Onan, but he is there. Just like in the life of Ruth, even in the pain of death and desperation, God can work to bring salvation. That is exactly what he did with Tamar. He brought her to a permanent place in Judah’s family with provision and protection. (Gen. 38:26) Then, he gave her the crucial children.
Because many years later, Ruth would marry the great, great, great, great grandson of that first twin. And Ruth’s child would be the great grandfather of David. The line would continue. The line would lead us all the way to Matthew 1:3 where we see Tamar’s name with both her children, ancestors of the Hope of the world—Jesus Christ. God brought a child into Tamar’s life to bring her a family. He also brought that child to bring her salvation—Her Savior would come ultimately from the baby she held. The rejected woman was welcomed not just into Judah’s family but into the family of God.
So, what do we do with Tamar’s story? The Israelites would have read this text from Moses and seen a broken family, the disobedience of Judah, and the deception of Tamar, and they would have learned that God works to bring salvation even in the midst of brokenness, disobedience, and deception.
Pain from families is real and scarring, but the R-rated story of Tamar shows that it does not keep God from working and bringing salvation. Jesus’ genealogical tree portrays the kind of people he came to love, heal, and welcome into his family. You may be able to tell some shocking stories at my dinner table, and know that my heart would break. Even still, God is here to work for salvation, and, because of the Son from Tamar’s broken home, he welcomes you and me into his family.