The Story of a Righteous Harlot

I’m writing a series this year called Women of God: Harlots, Tricksters, Judges and Queens. It publishes on the first Thursday of each month at Keeping It Personal. The series is about women in the Bible and what their stories teach us about our hope in the gospel.

The story of Tamar is a shocking story but not unlike stories that happen every day all over the world.  Some of the people involved in these stories are Christian believers and yet God does not abandon them. This gives me great hope but there is a mystery to it that is puzzling.

Why is it hard to believe that God calls a prostitute righteous?

Tamar’s life is very similar to yours and mine. She marries into a family wants to bear children. She marries Er, the first born of Judah. Marrying the first-born is an honorable position and it has special privileges and rights. The law of levirate marriage says that if anything happens to her husband, one of his brothers is supposed to take her as his wife and produce heirs for his brother.

Er dies and his brother, Onan, the second son, is supposed to act as levir and produce heirs for Er. It seems that Onan doesn’t like the idea of his child being called the son of Er and receive all the wealth of Judah. Possibly he wants the inheritance of his father for himself as the next son in line. He insures that he doesn’t produce an heir with Tamar. You can read about it here, Genesis 38:8-10. The account qualifies for an R rating so I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own. For his disobedience as levir, he dies. Tamar is now twice widowed and has no son and heir.

What ought to happen next?

The next son is obligated to take Tamar and provide an heir for her. Judah is responsible to give his third son, Shelah as levir but he is reluctant. The law of levir is just as binding to Judah as a marriage contract is to us. Judah and Shelah are bound to provide Tamar with an heir who will receive all the wealth, property and Judah’s name when he passes away. Shelah is too young to marry at this point. Maybe Judah sees this as a way around his responsibility. At any rate he doesn’t help Tamar, he sends her back to her father’s house as a widow. It is clear Judah doesn’t plan to give his third son to her.

What’s going on in Judah’s mind when he shirks his obligations?

He’s probably thinking she’s cursed and he’s afraid he will lose his third son if he acts as levir. Instead of reflecting on his sons’ lives and seeing how their actions led to their deaths, or even reflecting on his own heart and that maybe he is the possible cause, he blames Tamar. Isn’t this what we saw about Eve in our last study?

What’s going on in Tamar’s mind when Judah rejects her?

Tamar has not been a bad wife or a difficult daughter-in-law. We are not shown in any way that she deserves this kind of treatment. When I put myself in Tamar’s place I feel cast away, rejected. I feel shame because in my culture everyone knows that I am supposed to be given an heir and instead, I’m sent away as a widow. The neighbors shun me because they understand what it all means. I’m sad too. I have to leave my home that I had decorated. I arranged the home to provide comfort to my family. I feel small. As the wife of the first-born I had position and respect. I’ve lost my status as the intended mother of the future head and heir of my household. I face an empty life as everyone around me surely suspects that Judah thinks I’m cursed. I’m angry and frustrated. My future is bleak. Who will want to marry a cursed woman?

<em>“God, what am I supposed to do?” I cry.</em>

Even in the midst of a heart waging war between her emotions and duty Tamar feels a sense of obligation toward her husband and a sense of duty toward God. Her response leads me to this opinion.

<strong>Tamar’s Response</strong>

Time passes and Judah’s wife dies. He isn’t a perfectly pure and upright man. He loves the ladies and Tamar knows this. As a Canaanite woman she knows what the shrine prostitutes wear so she dresses up like one and carefully, so that she is seen only by him, shows up at the right time and the right place. Judah is interested in her and wants to buy what she has to sell. Before she allows him to receive his wares Tamar cleverly asks him for a pledge of assurance for the sale. Judah must give her his seal, the cord on which the seal hung and his wooden staff wrapped in leather or she will not sell her goods. To read the story in detail, read Genesis 38:12-19.

<strong>The Trial<a href=””><img class=”size-full wp-image-1999 alignleft” title=”fire” src=”” alt=”” width=”269″ height=”187″ /></a></strong>

Three months later, Tamar begins to show. Judah is told that his daughter-in-lawis pregnant and everyone concludes she is guilty of immorality. Judah’s response, “Bring her out and let her be burned.”

Picture a crowed, public place. Ugly names are being thrust at her. Fingers are wagging and people spit on her. I imagine Tamar willingly accompanying the men who escort her. Along the way she sends a message to Judah with the pledges he gave her.

In public, Judah cannot refute the pledges because a man’s seal and staff is personal and individualized; recognizable by others as belonging to him. He identifies the pledges and says, “She is more righteous than I.”

Judah understands the requirements God places on the family. He sees that Tamar is willing to follow God’s plan at all costs. He quickly makes a comparison between his actions and hers and calls her righteous. We are not asked by the Word of God to approve her deception, her disguise, or her actions as a prostitute. We are asked by the Word of God to honor her faithfulness and her readiness to fulfill her obligations, which is accounted to her as righteousness. She points us to our great need to believe God.

<strong>God’s Response</strong>

Our Savior, the Lion of Judah, is a descendent of Tamar, a woman who was faithful in her sense of responsibility to God’s law.

Even though Tamar is weak and sinful and makes choices that are far from ideal, God is faithful.

<strong>What about you? Can you relate to Tamar? I can.</strong>

<strong>What do you think about her story?</strong>

<strong>What do you think about God’s feelings for her, calling her righteous?</strong>



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  1. I was unaware of Tamar’s story, but find it sad that she was shunned for no reason of her own doing. That’s they way her culture is and so she had to accept it, but as a modern woman it angers and frustrates me that she didn’t have a voice. There was no other option for her. How did she feel being handed down from son to son? Sad and tragic.

    I once wrote a paper on Mary Magdalene from a modern perspective and how she would be accepted and treated if Jesus walked the earth in this day and age. It was fun to write a ‘what if’ paper, but what it really did for me was illuminate how far women have come since biblical times.

  2. Ali Dent says:

    You are right Tameri. Her situation was dismal. What I love the most is the strength she showed in her actions. She took charge of her life and did what was right. Women in bad situations who are willing to fight their way out are my heroes.

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