Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria