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A Family of Cheaters
Written June 30, 2017

As a mere woman, I had no say in the matter.  But had it been my choice, I never would have married Er.  He was a cad.  God thought so too.  It is written that “Er was wicked in the Lord's sight, and the Lord took away his life.”  [Genesis 38:7]

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Tamar.  I'm the mother of Perez, son of Judah.  However, Judah is not my husband.

A prophetess once told me that after nine generations, a descendant of my son Perez will be a great king over our land.  [Ruth 4:12, 18-22]

That great king will name one of his daughters “Tamar” after me.  Tragically, this beautiful princess will be raped by her brother.  [2 Samuel 1:1-22]

Then, more than 1,700 years from now, one of my descendants will be called the Messiah.  [Genealogy at Matthew 1:3]

I don't know about all that.  It's far in the future.

But let me tell you what I do know.  Perhaps the story of Tamar will someday become part of God's holy word.  Like all scripture, it will be useful for teaching righteousness.  Or at least discussing it.  [2 Timothy 3:16]



Setting Out on His Own

You've undoubtedly heard of Judah, one of the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob.  The province of Judea gets its name from his tribe.  [Genesis 32:28]

As a young man, Judah left his brothers and traveled south to Adullam.  There he married a Canaanite and fathered two sons.  Then the family moved to Kezib, my hometown, where a third boy was born.  [Genesis 38:1-5]

Some people think that when men and women are paired, it should be because they love each other.  But that's not what the ancient scripture teaches us.  When the institution of marriage was ordained by God, the purpose was not romance but rather procreation.  Adam chose Eve because she was available to bear his children.  [Genesis 4:1]

Thus it was that when Judah's eldest son, Er, was ready to take a wife, Judah inquired around Kezib for a suitable bride and selected me.  For a price, my father gave me in marriage, and I dutifully submitted to my new master Er.  I was now a part of his extended family household, a member of the tribe of Judah.  [Genesis 38:6]

I hoped, of course, that I would give birth to a son of my own.  As the firstborn of Judah's firstborn, my boy would someday inherit the leadership of Judea, and I would be his honored mother.  I already had picked out the name I wanted to give him, “Zerah,” meaning “brightness.”

But Er, as I said, was a cad.  He never succeeded in impregnating me.  He behaved like some of his uncles, who seduced their stepmothers and abused animals and killed men in anger.  [Genesis 49:4-6]   He was out of control, and finally he got killed himself.  [Genesis 38:7]

I was left without a husband and without children.  As long as I remained childless, Er's property didn't belong to me but reverted to Judah and his other two sons, Onan and Shelah (the youngest).


A Brother's Duty

The people of Israel have a custom called “levirate marriage.”  I once thought it was named for Levi, one of Er's uncles, but the term really comes from the word levir or “husband's brother.”  According to this law, one of the dead man's brothers (or perhaps his father) must marry the widow to keep the family together, even if he already has other wives.

You may find this strange, but the law also serves to protect the widow.  A woman isn't self-sufficient, you know.  At first she is the property of her father, who then sells her to her husband.  She always requires a man to provide for her, as well as sons to support her when she grows old.

To quote God's holy word:  “When brothers live together and one of them dies without leaving a son, his widow is not to marry outside the family.  Her husband's brother should take her in marriage and do his duty by her.  The first son she bears will perpetuate the dead brother's name so that it may not be blotted out from Israel.”  [Deuteronomy 25:5-6]

It was Judah's responsibility to assure offspring, so he ordered his son Onan to marry me and raise up children in his brother's name.  [Genesis 38:8]   My first son would receive my late husband's share of the inheritance, which was a double share because Er had been Judah's firstborn.


Evading the Obligation

Onan wasn't happy about this, of course.  He realized that if I bore no heir to Er, he himself would eventually inherit that double share.  So he only pretended to fulfill his duty.  He made love to me as ordered, but he cheated.  Just before he reached climax, he pulled out, and his semen spilled on the ground.  [Genesis 38:9]   I never received any of his sperm, and I never conceived.

Some consider this to be a method of birth control, calling it coitus interruptus, while others consider it shameful.  I myself never complained that Onan was wasting his seed.  He proved night after night that he had plenty to spare.  But I did complain that he wasn't actually giving it to me.

Before long, Onan too was dead.  [Genesis 38:10]   That served him right, the greedy chiseler.


Will the Third Man Succeed?

Now the levirate law called for me to marry Judah's third son, Shelah.  But Shelah was only a boy.  Would I be the death of him as well?

The wedding was postponed.  Judah ordered me to wait until his son became a man.  He sent me back to my original family to live in my father's house, dressed as a widow.  [Genesis 38:11]   Exiled from Judah's house, I did not yet have any tribal inheritance rights.  Yet because I was betrothed to Shelah, already bought and paid for, I wasn't allowed to marry anyone else.

I waited patiently.  But even after Shelah had grown up, Judah still refused to let him father my child.  [Genesis 38:14b]   I think he hated me because of the loss of his other two sons.  But it was his sons who were the problem, not me!

Finally, I decided to make Judah do the deed himself.  This was lawful, you know.  Not only were my late husbands' brothers authorized to carry on the line, but so was my late husbands' father.

Nevertheless, Judah would not voluntarily impregnate me.  I would have to trick him into it.  You might think this immoral, but what was I to do?  I was desperate. 


Impersonating a Professional

My opportunity came in the spring, when the sheep-shearing festivities were held at Timnah.  From what I've heard, this event is a wild party.  After a long, hot day cutting the wool off the sheep and the goats, the men come into town, looking for wine and willing women.  Maybe I could be one of the women.

One morning in Kezib I saw Judah setting out on the road to Timnah.  Hirah, his old friend from back in Adullam, was with him.

They were already laughing and drinking and didn't seem to be in a hurry.

I quickly took off my widow's robes, borrowed a donkey, and headed north myself.  I managed to get ahead of them at the Enaim crossroads and stationed myself on a rock.  I had covered my face with a veil, and as hard as it is to believe, when Judah and Hirah came along they didn't recognize me.

I simply sat there provocatively and let them think that, because I was sitting at the crossroads, I was advertising my services as a prostitute.  (As you know, harlots serve the fertility gods at local shrines.)

Judah looked me over, and just as I had hoped, he said, “Let me lie with you.”  He seemed to know how these matters were customarily arranged.

I didn't have any experience, but I did know I was supposed to ask for payment in advance.  “What will you give me?” I asked.  I didn't need money, of course.  To myself I was thinking, “I hope he gives me a son.”

“Perhaps,” he offered, “I could give you a kid.”

“A what?”

“A young goat from my flock,” he explained.

“What flock?” I asked.  “I don't see any goats.”

“My shepherds have already driven them to Timnah for the shearing.  When I get there, I promise I'll send a kid back here to you.”

“I cannot accept mere promises, sir,” I answered, continuing to play my role as a member of the oldest profession.  “Give me something to hold as security until I receive the young goat."

“What pledge should I give you?”

I wasn't in the mood to do Judah any favors, so I demanded his personal identification:  the seal with which he signed documents and the patterned cord from which it hung.  And his personal walking stick, as well. 

No one in his right mind would surrender those things to a stranger, but Judah wasn't in his right mind.  His sexual appetite had taken control, and he couldn't wait to have me.  (Of course, he'd insisted I should wait for years as a childless widow.)

He handed over the pledge items, and we lay together.  After he was finished with me, he continued on to Timnah, and I quietly returned home.

The next day, Hirah brought the promised goat to the crossroads.  He couldn't find me.  He asked around, but the local people didn't know anything about a prostitute.

When Judah heard this, he decided to let the matter drop.  He had lost his seal and his staff, but he couldn't admit that he'd been outwitted by a harlot.  [Genesis 38:12-23]


The Deception Revealed

Back in Kezib, I was still unmarried, but it soon became apparent that I had become pregnant.  It was rumored I'd been playing the whore.  Everyone wondered who the father was, but our tribe had no povich to consult.

This gave Judah an excuse to get rid of me.  I had evidently committed adultery against Shelah, his only living son, whom I was engaged to marry.  If I were out of the way, Shelah could marry someone else.  So Judah ordered me to be burned to death!

I objected, of course.  As they were bringing me out to be burnt, I sent a message to Judah:  “The father is the man who owns this seal and this staff.  Recognize them?”

He was embarrassed, of course, and admitted everything.  “Tamar is more in the right than I am,” he said, “because I didn't give her to Shelah as the law requires.”  For my part, I had deceived him, but only to make him do his duty.  However, he never had sex with me again.  [Genesis 38:24-26]


Who's Out First?

A few months later, it came time for me to give birth.  There were twins in my womb.  One of them put out a hand, and the midwife took a red thread and tied it around his wrist so we could tell them apart, saying “This one appeared first.”  That meant he would be the one to inherit the double portion from his father Judah.  I bestowed upon him the name that I had chosen long before, Zerah.

But then Zerah pulled back his hand, and his brother was the first to actually emerge!  The midwife exclaimed, “How did you break out?”  So I named him “Perez,” meaning “breakout.”  [Genesis 38:27-30]


Bending the Rules

So the ancient code of primogeniture has been violated once again.  Consider our family's history.

Abraham's firstborn was Ishmael, yet it was Isaac who carried on the line. [Genesis 21:9-12]

Isaac's firstborn was Esau, yet Jacob took the birthright from Esau by trading him a bowl of soup.  [Genesis 25:29-34]   Later, with his mother as an accomplice, Jacob lied to his father to receive the blessing meant for Esau.  [Genesis 27:1-37]  

Jacob's firstborn was Reuben [Genesis 29:32], yet it was Judah to whom his brothers had to bow.  [Genesis 49:2-10]

Judah's firstborn was Er, yet he was wicked in God's sight and died.

Then Judah's leviratical “firstborn” was Zerah, yet Perez elbowed him out of the way and preceded him from the womb.

I wonder.  If God's people are going to include liars and cheats like Jacob and Judah and Er and Perez — and me — why do we have rules anyway?



Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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