The first woman in the genealogy is Tamar (v. 3), the mother of Perez and Zerah; her story is found in Genesis 38. Though not much is known about her, it’s assumed she was foreign and might have been a Canaanite. As we get to know Tamar and her story, we will see her true value.
To fully comprehend Tamar’s unique situation, it is important to understand the cultural context of her dilemma. Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, leaves his family and marries a Canaanite, disregarding what Abraham has told Isaac never to do (Gen. 24:3). Judah’s oldest son, Er, marries Tamar, but verse 7 explains that Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.”
Er’s death leaves Tamar a childless, foreign widow without a secure place in the family. But Judah asks his second-oldest son, Onan, to fulfill the Levirate marriage — which takes place when a man dies without an heir; his surviving brother marries his childless widow to give her a child to continue the deceased brother’s line. If Onan and Tamar produce an heir, he likely would get the firstborn’s inheritance.
Continuing the line of Judah
Onan was greedy, so he prevented Tamar from getting pregnant so he could claim the firstborn’s inheritance himself. But just like Er, “what [Onan] did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and He put him to death also” (Gen. 38:10).
Judah doesn’t know God put his sons to death, so he blames Tamar. He promises that when his third son, Shelah, comes of age, she can marry him, sending her away to live as a widow in the meantime. Because Shelah still lives and is promised to her, Tamar is trapped in limbo, unable to remarry.
As time goes on, Tamar realizes Judah is not planning to keep his word, but she is determined to secure her place in Judah’s family and continue Er’s line. Wearing a veil to disguise her identity, she waits for Judah on the side of the road. He mistakes her for a prostitute and sleeps with her, afterward giving her a signet, cord and staff as pledges for payment. Later Judah searches for the woman, but gives up when he’s unable to find her.
A few months go by, and others find out Tamar is pregnant. Being the head of the household, Judah declares she is to be burned for her unfaithfulness. But Tamar sends Judah the pledges to prove he is the father. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah, and the line of David continues through Perez.
Courageous and blessed
By all standards, Tamar could be considered sinful for getting pregnant outside marriage. However, the Lord saw Tamar’s determination and loyalty to Judah’s family, blessing her by giving her twins and a secure place within the family. Tamar had no way of knowing the Lord would use her struggles to continue the line of David.
The world considered her reckless, some shaming her decision, but God considered her courageous, blessing her beyond measure. Her methods were unconventional and could have had great consequences. What would have happened if Judah still denied her?
Miss the introduction to this series? Check it out here.