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Faith & Wisdom

Who is Tamar in the Bible? Story and Meaning

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There were two women in the Bible who were named Tamar, and both suffered because of forbidden intimate acts. 

However, Tamar, the surviving spouse, is the one that’s most known and talked about.

Written in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis, the story itself is one of the most strange and complicated in the Bible. 

How and why did these scandalous events happen, and why were they included in Scripture? 

The answers reveal much about human sinfulness, as well as the goodness of a God who can make something bad into something good.

In this article, we’ll discuss who Tamar is, as well as the significance of her story.

Who was Tamar in the Bible?

In the Bible, Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob, left his father and brothers and married a Canaanite woman named Shua. After Judah and Shua's oldest son, Er, reached marriageable age, they found him a spouse named Tamar. 

However, according to Scripture, “Er was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life,” making Tamar a widow (Genesis 38:7).

In levirate marriage, brothers were required to father an heir with the widow of their brother to take over the brother's name and inherit the estate (Deuteronomy 25:5). In this case, it was Er's younger brother, Onan, who was responsible. 

Despite taking Tamar as his wife, Onan refused to have a child that he couldn’t call his own. So instead of conceiving a child with Tamar, Onan “wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother.” 

It was a vile act that displeased the Lord, and so, “He (the Lord) took his life also” (Genesis 38:10).

Tamar was now twice widowed and childless. Another of Judah's sons was expected to marry Tamar and care for her. 

But rather than offering up his third son, Judah refused, telling Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. I'm afraid that he too may die like his brothers” (Genesis 38:11).

a sad woman pressing her forehead against a window

Despite Judah's argument that he wanted to wait until Shelah was older, it seems clear that he didn't intend to marry another son off to Tamar, which would be a neglect of his duties as father-in-law. Additionally, Judah wrongly assumed that Tamar had caused Er and Onan's downfall, failing to acknowledge and deal with his own sins.

After that, the story takes an even more bizarre turn. After the death of Judah's wife, Tamar disguised herself and offered herself to him as a harlot without his knowledge of who she really was. 

Tamar's pregnancy was discovered by Judah three months later, and he demanded Tamar be punished. 

To prove Judah's parenthood, Tamar brought Judah's staff, seal, and cord, which he had given her on the night of their encounter. As a result, she'd forced Judah to fulfill the duties his sons were supposed to carry out.

Judah, burdened with guilt, recognized his sin and acknowledged his lack of provision for his daughter-in-law, confessing, “she's more righteous than I, inasmuch as I didn't give her to my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26). 

The public confession of Judah's sins is one of the earliest examples of confession recorded in Scripture.

Tamar conceived twins whose names were Perez and Zerah. In an ironic twist, both King David and Jesus Christ, the Messiah, were descendants of Perez (Matthew 1:3). 

This is an example of God's prevailing mercy. For God can use and bless the worst of men not due to their merit but due to His grace and the power of repentance.

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The meaning of the story of Judah and Tamar

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The literal translation of Tamar’s name is “palm tree.” 

Tamar deceived Judah into sleeping with her by claiming to be a prostitute, resulting in the birth of the two twins. 

Humanity's dramatic narrative is woven around Tamar's story. This shows God's compassionate and redemptive heart. In the same way that Ruth wasn't a part of God's chosen people, Tamar also was not. Still, she's one of four women whose names appear in Jesus' genealogy. 

a woman in a veil watching another woman walk away

While we are created in His image, God doesn't favor anyone over another, and Jesus came to save us all. 

The world we live in is a fallen world, and although Tamar and the ancient people in her story are a long way away, we suffer from the consequences of our own actions and the actions of others every day. 

It doesn't matter what dysfunctional mess we're in, Jesus loves us. Even if our genealogy is twisted, our past is filled with addiction, or our record is overflowing with crime, he never loves us any less. 

Jesus' love is still pure, despite painful consequences. Forgiveness is always there, and the love is never lessened.

How is Tamar related to Jesus?

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Perez, the twin son of Tamar and Judah, figures prominently in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. 

“Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez, the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram” (Matthew 1:1-3). 

Several verses later, as the genealogical list continues on, is verse 16: “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who's called Christ.”

When we study Tamar’s story, we’re reminded of the baby in the manger who came to pay for our sin later down the line. Instead of being shocked that Tamar is part of Jesus' family tree, we're glad that Jesus was sent to deliver sinners like us.

Christ the redeemer

In Jesus' family tree, we see the hope of Christmas — that the immaculate beauty of the babe born in Bethlehem will cover our immoral shame.

Jesus' earthly family line includes many stories like Tamar's. In a remarkable way, He chose a dysfunctional family line to learn about and understand humanity. 

On some level, we're all dysfunctional. Whatever our ancestry, human beings are all related. 

However, God loves us despite our shortcomings. We're His creation. It was He who rescued us. Tamar didn't know the full meaning of her life on earth, just as we don't know ours. There’s a purpose to everything that the Heavenly Father does, and no life is wasted.

According to God's grace, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or less. Having that assurance is of great comfort to us.

We’re all imperfect people

When studying certain unsavory Bible stories, it's natural to ask: Why are these scandalous stories included? 

And more importantly, why do those responsible for harming others, even their own families, get to be included in the Messianic line? 

God may simply want to show us that even when we're unrighteous, His purpose is accomplished. Because these people believed in God, their faith was credited to them as righteousness.

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