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

8 thoughts on “Tamar Was Righteous

  1. Could you elaborate on what Iron’s might have meant with Tamar sleeping with “Judah as a surrogate for Shelah” and that it wasn’t sexual immorality? Shelah was the legal husband, and Judah is a different person. How would it not be wrong?

    Thanks for the post!

  2. My question: If someone is quoted in Scripture, does that mean that their statement is theologically accurate and sound, on the same level as if Christ had said it or Paul had written it?

    Because the Holy Spirit inspired the author to include Judah’s quote, does that fact make the theology of the statement valid? Or is the statement included because Judah indeed said it and it furthers the narrative? Or did the Holy Spirit inspire Judah to make this statement, which was then included in Scripture?

    Thank you!

  3. Great post. I totally agree with you about the Tamar/Christ parallel.

    Regarding righteousness (justice) I think the key is to see that justice and goodness (morality/ethics) are two different things. As Gregory of Nyssa says: “Justice, separated and taken by itself, is not goodness.” (Address on Religious Instruction). 

Goodness refers to purpose, justice refers to promise. Goodness refers to creation, justice refers to covenant. The consistent outcomes of violating goodness/morality/natural law are destruction, corruption, perversion, and privation within the world. On the other hand, the consistent outcomes of violating justice/rights is that there will be restitution and retribution from the justice system, whether that is God or the state.

    When we say something is unjust, we are saying that a promise made to us has been broken. Covenants, contracts, constitutions, and laws—the standards we appeal to when appealing to what is just—are simply promises we make to one another about how we will behave. Civil laws are promises we make to one another about how we will consistently behave. When someone breaks the law, they are behaving unjustly because they are breaking their promise to us of how they would behave. “Rights” are benefits we believe are promised to us based on a covenant or contract. Divine rights refer to promises God has made. Civil rights refer to promises people have made. Justice refers to the promises made by persons to uphold and restore the good, but justice is not goodness itself.

    It is easy to see the distinction between goodness and justice when considering grace, that is, good that is undeserved. Forgiveness, mercy, generosity, charity, are all goods that are by definition undeserved. It is evil to withhold them from people, but by definition not unjust, for people do not deserve those goods from us.

    Those with the “normative” understanding which equates justice with ethics or morality have inherited that definition from Greek philosophy and then projected it onto God as a divine attribute. They then make statements about what God “must” do or “needs” to do in order to be just, such as “God must judge our actions by His perfect and merciful standard in order to be just.” Rather than the proper Biblical understanding that God rules over us by His perfect and merciful standard because He has graciously promised to do so. We are not entitled that a perfect king rule over us. God could leave us to destroy ourselves by our own sinful self-destruction. God’s grace is the foundation for his gracious promises by which He judges the world according to His perfect and merciful standard. Without such a standard, we would judge one another by our own sinful standards, which would be far worse.


Lastly, note that when God introduces the all important concepts of mishpat and tsedek (how to create a fair and just society) in Genesis 18:17-19, He introduces it as the means by which the Abrahamic promise to bless all nations will be fulfilled. Justice is that which is according to promise.

  4. Hey, Gabe, I’m just seeing a notification here on my phone.
    1. I’ll just say, first, I’m guessing you’re being tongue-in-cheek here about responding to this, but like, just realize some of us have a lot going on day to day.
    2. I actually have been working on this issue a bit myself. I think you’d enjoy looking into Herman Bavinck’s account in the Reformed Dogmatics. It’s not exactly similar, but he took uses covenants as the important context within which God’s righteousness is seen, according to which we have “rights”, etc. He goes into various other helpful distinctions made in the tradition all the while engaging the dominant paradigm in Biblical studies which still exercises a lot of influence today (the Cremer thesis). Which is to say, he solved it a good hundred years ago. 😉
    3. I will add, though, the split between justice and goodness needs to not be absolute, or rather, God’s justice by way of covenant needs to have a rooting in God’s nature, God’s character. So the Reformed typically spoke of distinctions between God’s internal v. external justice (internal rectitude of his will v. its outward going effects in both governance and distribution–both remunerative and retributive). The one needs to flow from and be consistent with the other or we run the risk of a hard voluntarism. God’s freedom must be protected, yes, but God’s external justice must echo or be self-consistent with his internal justice, or perfect character.

    • Totally being tongue in cheek—respond at your leisure. I just dropped a note because on my original post I didn’t click the little notification box.

      “the split between justice and goodness needs to not be absolute.” Justice and goodness can often be used synonymously because God has promised to bring every evil act into judgment. So in that sense, every evil act is also an injustice. However, the Bible is very concerned with legalism and works-righteousness, that is, acting justly without being good. The Bible is also very concerned with grace, which is goodness that is undeserved. So while the two can be used synonymously, by definition goodness and justice are two different things. Goodness refers to purpose and order, and justice refers to the promises made to uphold and restore the good.

      “internal justice, or perfect character.” Using the term “internal justice” to refer to perfect character is a category error, I would argue. Again, that’s confusing justice and morality. Any time we are talking about the “right order of things” we are talking about goodness or morality. “Character” is the priority of various or competing desires/inclinations within a soul, so we if we are talking about the right order of those priorities within God, we are simply talking about His goodness. But justice is not a right order of things. Justice refers to the promises made to achieve that order.

      Here’s a concrete illustration to show the distinction between goodness and justice. Say I want to convince Bob not to do something evil, say murder his neighbor. There are really only 3 categories I can appeal to in order to motivate him not to:

      1) Good and evil (evil is the privation, perversion, or destruction of what is good). “Bob, murder will destroy your neighbor, be destructive to your own soul, and be destructive towards society.”

      2) Divine justice (God has promised to enact retribution for evildoers and restitution for innocent victims, ultimately in the afterlife). “Bob, if you murder your neighbor, God has promised to punish you for that act.”

      3) Civil justice (The state has promised to judge certain evils).  “Bob, the state will punish you, for abortion is a violation of the baby’s right to life given by the people.”

      To motivate Bob not to murder, I can appeal to good and evil, or I can appeal to the justice of God or the state. Note that when I appeal to justice, I am appealing to promises made by God or the state to uphold and restore what is good. Justice is that which is according to promise.

      This is relevant to our culture because we are in a rights invention crisis. People think they have the objective or fundamental “right” to a sex-change, healthcare, an AR-15, abortion, marrying whoever, assisted suicide etc. This crisis is downstream from sloppiness and Biblical unfaithfulness in Western philosophy regarding the terms “rights” and “justice.” We think that we have a right to something if it is good, and something is good just because we want it. In reality, something is not good unless it is in accordance with God’s created order, and something is not a right (not just) unless someone (God or the state) has promised it. Sorry for the length.

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