Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tamar: What's a Girl to Do?

This is part 6 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life" 

Tamar is one of the most misunderstood women in the scriptures and I think she is often portrayed incorrectly and unfairly. This is because her story is, admittedly, very confusing. Yet I hope that as we discuss her story you will better understand this amazing woman, whose example of having her heart open to life made it possible for ancient promises to be fulfilled.

Her story starts with Judah (one of the 12 sons of Jacob and the son of Leah) who married the daughter of a Canaanite named Shuah. This woman bore Judah three sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er was grown Tamar was given to him as a wife. We don’t know how long Tamar and Er were married but they had no children. Eventually the Lord slew Er because he, “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” (Gen. 38:7). Er’s death put Tamar in a hard situation. She became a widow, which meant a drop in her social status, and the loss of the security and prosperity she expected when she married a firstborn son.

In ancient times many cultures had a practice, which later became known as Levitirate marriage, where if a man died without any children it was the responsibility of one of his brothers to marry his widow and conceive a child with her. It didn’t matter if he was already married because the child she conceived would not legally be his but would belong to the deceased brother, continue on his deceased brother’s name, and inherit the deceased brother’s property. This custom was for the benefit of the widowed woman and it was her right to demand it from her brother-in-laws. They could refuse her, but doing so was viewed as selfish and often resulted in public humiliation. If all the brothers refused the widow’s demand, of if there were no brother-in-laws, then it was the duty of her father-in-law to provide her with a child. Later, under the Mosaic law the Lord would forbid sexual interactions between daughter-in-laws and father-in-laws (Leviticus 18), but at the time of Tamar’s story there was no such provision.

As was custom Judah arranged for his next son, Onan, to provide Tamar with a child. Yet as Genesis 38:9 says, “Onan knew that the seed should not be his”. Onan knew that if Tamar remained childless then all of Er’s inheritance as the firstborn son—a double portion—would come to him. So when he was with Tamar he “spilled his seed on the ground, lest he should give it to his brother.” Onan was willing, and perhaps more than happy, to use Tamar for his sexual pleasure but when it came to actually creating life with her-- life that might make his financial situation harder-- he was unwilling. One can only imagine the hard place that Tamar found herself in; being used to gratify the lust of a man who was unwilling to allow for the life that might be created as a result.

We don’t know how long Onan treated her like this, but it may have been a long time. Eventually, though it seems that the Lord heard her cries because Genesis 38:10 says, “That the thing which he [Onan] did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” The “also” in this verse is interesting because it references the fact that the Lord also slew Tamar’s first husband, Er for wickedness. We don’t know what type of wickedness Er was doing but, if like his brother, he was also using his sexual power inappropriately it just makes your heart ache for poor Tamar.

At this point Tamar has reason to expect that because Judah’s only remaining son, Shelah, has not yet reached puberty that Judah will do his duty as her father-in-law and raise up seed to his deceased son. Yet, instead of doing what he should Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father’s house and remain a widow until Shelah is grown. Judah freely admits that he wants her to leave because he is afraid that if she stays Shelah might, “…die also, as his brother did.” Tamar didn’t have a good track history with men and it made Judah wary.

Being sent back to her father’s home, without releasing her from her marriage contract, made Tamar’s situation even more difficult; as a childless widow she was not free to remarry and she would have had no social standing, no economic security, and no future. Despite this disgrace Tamar put on her widow garments, went back to her father’s house, and waited. Yet when Shelah was grown he was married to someone else and it became obvious that Judah never had any intention of fulfilling his promise to Tamar.

At this point Tamar made a hard, but ultimately history changing decision. We can only assume that Tamar knew, deep in her heart, that she was suppose to bear a child. Perhaps she may have felt the spirits of her unborn children waiting and ready to come to earth. After all those years of waiting she felt her biological clock ticking and she knew what she needed to do, the only problem was that none of the men in her life were willing to do their part. They were interested in having sex with her, but not in fulfilling their responsibilities to her or to her unborn children. Tamar was in the same situation that many righteous women find themselves in today, they are willing to have children but the men in their lives are unwilling to make the financial, social, physical, or emotional sacrifices required to bring those spirits to the earth.

So, what's a girl to do?

Tamar decided that passive waiting and praying was no longer enough and decided to act. She heard that Judah’s wife had died and that he had gone to Timnath to shear his sheep. So she cast off her widow clothing, veiled her face, and dressed like a cult prostitute. As Diana Webb explains in her book "Forgotten Women of God",
“Cult prostitutes were common in the ancient Near East. They were women who offered their “services” to would-be-takers and donated their earnings to the temple. Genesis uses two different words to refer to Tamar on the road to Timnah. The word for harlot as we understand it today is zonah. This word is used first, and later the word kedeshah is used, which means “consecrated woman” and refers to a female associated with cult worship. Tamar probably knows that Judah is likely to visit a cult prostitute at shearing time. Apparently, he has adopted this custom in order ensure and increase in his herds duing his sojourn in Adullam. Tamar knows Judah well enough to now that the plan she has concocted will be successful. She presses Judah to do what he should have done by engineering events that will lead to his fulfilling the law.” (pg. 153)

When Judah saw Tamar veiled as a cult prostitute, he didn't recognize her and arranged to pay her a kid from his flock for her “services”. Tamar, being wise, required a pledge from Judah that he would pay his promise to her; she asked for his signet, bracelets and his staff. Obviously this was a common expectation and Judah readily agreed, “And he gave it to her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.” (Gen. 38:18)

Judah then went on his way and Tamar laid aside her prostitute clothing and returned home to her father’s house to again… wait. In the meantime Judah tried to find the harlot to pay his debt and recover his pledge, but no one seemed to know who he was talking about. When he was unable to find the harlot he made a public declaration that he had tried to pay his debt, but was unable.

Three months later word reached Judah that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant. Enraged by her lack of virtue (remember she was still considered to be a married woman) he ordered her to be brought before him and stoned. Yet when she was brought to him she held out the signet, bracelet and staff that Judah had given her and declared, “By the man, whose these are, am I with child.” (Gen. 38:25). Judah immediately recognized them as the pledge that he had given the harlot and understood what Tamar had done, and why she did it.

Surprisingly, instead of being angry with Tamar Judah was humbled. He knew that he had treated Tamar unfairly and that he had not done his duty to her as he should have. Her resorting to trickery in order to force him to live up to his responsibilities pricked him to his soul and opened his spiritual eyes. It is important to remember that in his father’s blessing Jacob blessed Judah that the promised Savior would be born through his lineage (Genesis 49:10). At this point in his life Judah was not living with his brethren, he had married outside of the covenant, and was not living by the principles his father taught him. To say the least, he wasn’t living up to his privileges. Yet, Tamar's actions awakened something in him and he freely admitted that, “She hath been more righteous than I.” (Gen. 38:2)  

After that Judah “knew her again no more” and nine months later Tamar gave birth to twin boys named Pharez and Zarah. Through the lineage of Pharez, the first born son of the house of Judah, came the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. In Christ’s lineage given in Matthew 1 Tamar is listed among the prominent women of Christ’s genealogy. Tamar was an instrument in God’s hand to ensure that his promise to Judah, that the Savior would be born through his lineage, would be fulfilled. It was her strong desire for a child and her courage to get the men in her life to live up to their responsibilities that made that promise possible.

Why her Story Matters

The story of Tamar is an important one, and I wish we talked about it more. Not only is it an example of a strong woman who takes the initiative to do what is right, but her story teaches important lessons about relationships between men and women, sexuality and the creation of life.

As I wrote in my earlier post one of the indications that a society (or a person) is turning away from God's laws are their attitudes towards the creation of life. One of the first ways in which this darkness is evidenced is when men begin to separate sex from the procreation of  new life. Tamar’s story is a prime example of this type of situation. All of the the men in Tamar’s story were willing to have sex with her, but none of them were willing to take responsibility for her well being or for the new life that might possibly come from that union. As a result Tamar was treated as a sexual object, where her greatest value was in being attractive and sexually available.

Sex is intrinsically linked with the creation of life, they are two sides of the same coin and you can not separate them. Human life can only be created through the sexual union of a man and woman, and while science can control the process to a certain extent, the basic fact of one egg and one sperm remains constant. Vice versa, every sexual interaction between men and women has the potential to create life. No matter what methods are used to try to prevent it (even sterilization) new life is always a possibility when men and women are sexually united.

This union between sex and the creation of life is a beautiful, powerful and deeply symbolic part of God's plan of salvation. It is important to remember that the pleasure part of sex and the procreation part are both good, and both parts are necessary for a healthy and righteous sexual relationship.

I think most of us would agree that a culture and a relationship would be very unhealthy if the only purpose of sex was just to create babies. There is so much more to a healthy sexual relationship than just the end result of pregnancy, and it is important that sex be loving and pleasurable. In fact, I think that any couple who has ever struggled to conceive can tell you that when sex is just about getting pregnant, it's really not much fun. God intended for sex between a husband and a wife to be an expression of love, trust and commitment. I think it is easy for us to see how a society or relationship where sex was just for procreative purposes, and love, trust and commitment were lacking, would be unhealthy and problematic for women and for men.

Yet the opposite is also true and that we should be equally worried about a culture or a relationship where the only purpose of sex was for pleasure or personal satisfaction, and the creation of life was seen as an unwanted mistake. I've heard someone describe this type of attitude towards sexuality as being a "no calories" diet, where you satisfy your appetite without worrying about the consequences. For example, the idea of being able to eat food that doesn't have any calories sounds like a great thing; you could eat as many brownies, ice cream sundaes, carbs, sugar, and fat as you wanted. You could be decadent and indulgent and never have to worry about getting diabetes or heart disease, which would be great... right?

Not quite.

This is because eventually eating food that had no sort of nutritional value would leave you starving, malnourished, and eventually dead. Having natural consequences to our appetites and passions is an important part of keeping them balanced or as Alma says in Alma 38:12, "to bridle" them. The same type of balance is important when it comes to sexual appetites. Both the pleasure/love and the procreation part of a sexual relationship are important and to cut one part out is not healthy for an individual, a relationship, or a society.

Yet the crazy part is that in our modern society it is completely normal for sex to be severed from procreation. Pornography is one of the biggest ways that this violation of God’s moral law is broken in our modern day. Pornography not only objectives women and degrades sexuality into something base and dirty but one of its biggest appeals is that a man (or a woman) can view images, watch videos, and read books that all gratify sexual urges without the accompanying responsibility to another person.  It's like eating food with no calories.

More and more we are living in a pornographic society in which men have been taught that it is okay, normal, and even to view sex as something that is purely for their own personal pleasure and self fulfillment. Sex is seen as a right, rather than a responsibility. Committing to a woman before having sex with her isn't important because  you don't have to take responsibility for her feelings or for the new life that might be created from the union.

When this mindset towards sexuality is the norm the result is a culture where things like rape, domestic violence, prostitution, abortion, poverty, and single mothers are common. When men begin to separate sex from the creation of life it doesn't bode well for women who often, like Tamar, become valued mainly for their attractiveness and their ability to be sexually available. This attitude towards sexuality opens the door to all sorts of violence and abuse towards women and to children, the worst being a total disregard for life-- born and unborn.

I think to a lesser degree even good and righteous men can fall into the trap of separating sex from procreation as well. It is something so pervasive in our culture that it can be easy for good men to buy into attitudes that are closed off to life, putting things like money, work, travel, sexual fulfillment, appearances, or even social status above their desire to father and nurture new life. In fact, I think that sometimes men have way more fear about fatherhood and childbirth than women do. I know that when I worked as a doula it always surprised me that it was often the men who were more nervous and scared about childbirth (especially natural childbirth) than their wives!

I think that this is the situation Judah was in. He had been taught truth and promised great things by his father, but he had chosen to live a secular life, among a secular people, and had adopted their attitudes towards sex and procreation. He was a good man who had been blinded by fear, worldly ideas, and selfishness to what was most important. It took Tamar, a woman whose heart was "turned" to her unborn children to wake him up to his responsibilities and to see things clearly.

His declaration to Tamar and his associates, that “She hath been more righteous than I.” (Gen. 38:2) was a changing point for him, and the Judah we read about in the rest of Genesis is a different man. Not only does he rejoin his family and reclaim his blessings, but when his brother Joseph (whom earlier he helped sell into slavery) threatens to imprison his younger brother Benjamin it is Judah who steps forward and offers to take the place of his brother (Genesis 44: 18-34). His heart had changed and it was now in the right place.

I think that like Tamar righteous women can have a strong impact on the men in their lives, helping them to keep their hearts soft and open to life. This doesn’t mean I think that women should trick their husbands into having children like Tamar did. Hers was an extreme case and I am sure she only acted after having received numerous spiritual confirmations of the course she was to pursue. Yet I think that what Tamar’s story does teach us is that a heart open to life is a powerful force for good in the world, and that when we "turn" our hearts towards heaven we bless generations. Furthermore, her story teaches us that God can change hearts and that when it comes to the creation of life God can work miracles.

He certainly did for Tamar.


  1. I loved this, especially learning about a woman I knew so little about. Your point about our modern society separating sex and procreation is so spot on. You specifically mention men being influenced by pornography and separating sex from procreation, and even righteous men being influenced in this way because it is so pervasive. I'm sure that you would agree that women are also affected by this pornographic culture that we live in. So often it is women themselves that allow their bodies to be objectified and they use their bodies and sexuality to gain power and even sell products. I think even righteous women in the church are deceived into separating sexuality from procreation when they buy into worldly practices like lingerie, boudoir photography, and physically altering their bodies to achieve a more sexually appealing figure. Women and men have an equal responsibility to protect and preserve the sacred nature of our sexuality.
    Thanks again for a wonderful, thought-provoking article.

    1. Yes you are so right! This is something that women are guilty of as well. I'll talk more about it in one of my next posts (I have three more till I'm done) and do thanks for pointing it out!

  2. What a fascinating article, Heather! I love learning about these ancient cultures - it really opens my eyes to so many insights. Our modern day, Western way of doing things is not the best way, or only way to live life. And yet, even within seemingly vast differences of culture, we can find women and men who touch our hearts and who could be our friends. I love it!

  3. I loved this. I am going through the Old Testament and always wonder about Tamar. I've never heard of cult prostitution. It's seems like an oxymoron to me, they donate what they earn from their "services" to the temple. Where would I read more about that? I would like to work it out in my mind.

    1. So just to clarify the temple wasn't the Jewish temple, but probably a temple associated with goddess worship or another type of idol worship. Diana Webb talks a little bit more about in her book Forgotten Women of God. But it is interesting that when Hirah, Judah's friend, tries to find Tamar he doesn't use the word "zona" the word for harlot I Hebrew but rather "qedesh" which means a "temple prostitute" which was supposedly a bit more respectable. I also think that Women's Rights in the Old Testament by James Baker talks about this as well, but it use to be all online and now it isn't. Though you still might be able to find it in the library.

  4. Wow. I just learned more in 10 minutes than I have all week. Thank you for this. It is nearly 5am and my baby is so wiggly inside I couldn't sleep. I have 2 weeks left of pregnancy and it has been so interesting to be pregnant while reading your thoughts and research. Thank you for everything you put into this amazing blog!

  5. This was fabulous. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Fascinating. I'd read this story a while back, but not understood most of it. And I certainly hadn't put it together that Tamar is one of the Lord's foremothers. Thank you for yet another great post!

  7. Wow, what a cool story. I agree; it must have been hard for Tamar to know the trickery, etc. was the right way to pursue this in order for the Savior to eventually be born. I think it's comparable to the Nephi and Laban scenario, where it was hard for Nephi to understand how killing Laban would be OK, but God had a plan to bless the lives of infinite generations and this was a necessary step.

  8. What an incredible lesson. Thank you for showing us how to see this story from Tamar's point of view. I learned so much.