Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
A Story of Tamar as a Persistent Widow (Gen 38:1-30)

Story of Tamar as a Persistent Widow

(Gen 38:1-30)

Don C. Benjamin

Arizona State University

Although the Teachings of Joseph are not ancestor stories, they do include at least one ancestor story: The Story of Tamar as a Persistent Widow (Gen 38:1-30). The protagonist, however, is not the man Joseph, but the woman Tamar who is celebrated for her persistence.  Her antagonist is Judah who fails to provide Tamar with a legal guardian to conceive an heir for her deceased husband (Deut 25:5-10; Ruth 4:1-12; MAL 30, 33, 43, 45).[1]  The Story of Tamar as a Persistent Widow expands a reference to Judah in the Teachings of Joseph (Gen 37:2--Exod 1:6).  Judah saves Joseph's life by selling him as slaves instead of letting the other brothers murder him (Gen 37:25-36).   In return for protecting the household of Joseph from destruction, Tamar protects the household of Judah from destruction. Stories with an eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth motif, called the talion (Latin: talis), are popular in the Bible. 

The ancestor story celebrates Tamar for her courage in becoming a liminal (Latin: limen) woman.  She acts above and beyond the call of duty in order to give birth to a child.[2]  Tamar moves from sterility to fertility, from shame to honor.  Although Judah is a man without a household at the beginning of the story and a man with a household at the end, it is Tamar, not Judah, who acts to accomplish the change. Throughout the story, Tamar acts to prevent Judah from destroying his household.

In the first episode Tamar marries Er, who dies without an heir.  The words: ...Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Yahweh; and Yahweh slew him (Gen 38:5) seem to portray the divine patron of Israel as savage, but, in the world of the Bible, these carried connotations of primary causality.  Primary causality is a world-view which emphasizes divine power.  Anything which happens, good or bad, happens only because Yahweh decrees it.  Yahweh is the cause of everything.   This world view is not the result of ignorance, but of choice.  The Hebrews knew that premature death was the result of secondary causes like war, crime, accident or disease, but they chose to describe an untimely death was always a divine sentence. When the Hebrews were confronted with evil, they affirmed that everything was still firmly under the control of Yahweh who is good, not under the control of a devil who is evil.

In the second episode, Judah appoints Onan, Er's brother, as Tamar's legal guardian to have a child with her who would be his brother's heir.[3]  Onan realizes that if Tamar remains childless while he appears to be carrying out his obligations, then he and his brother, Shelah, will divide Judah's inheritance two ways rather than three.

Onan’s sin is not masturbation, but social injustice.[4]  Ruth's legal guardian publically resigns his position because he cannot afford to support his own household and that of his covenant partner (Ruth 4:6).[5]  Onan publicly accepts the responsibility and then defrauds Tamar while continuing to enjoy the usufruct of her property.  Ostensibly, Onan’s practice of coitus interruptus fulfills his responsibility to Tamar, but in fact, he is sentencing her to death as a widow without a husband or a child.  He is also denying his dead brother his right to have his name (Hebrew: sem) or inheritance preserved.[6]  Tamar cannot charge Onan before the village assembly for his crime because there are no witnesses, but, like all widows, orphans, and strangers, Yahweh is her legal guardian (Deut 24:17-22).  Unable to be delivered by the village assembly, she is delivered by the divine assembly.

Now Shelah becomes Tamar's guardian. While the death of Onan delivers Tamar from his control, Judah considers it an indictment of Tamar as a femme fatale, a woman whose divine lover kills her human husbands.  This motif also appears in the book of Tobit, popular among Greek speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt (Tobit 3:7-17).  Consequently, Tamar is banished.[7]  Judah returns Tamar to the household of her parents, which marks her with a label of shame. 

Once a woman has become part of her husband's household, her ties and loyalties are then broken with the household of her father (Gen 24:58).  To return to her parental household suggests that she is giving up her legal rights (Judg 19:2), casts a legal question of whether her marriage was originally valid (Deut 22:13-21), and lowers her status to that of childless widow rather than a wife and mother of an heir.[8] 

By ordering her back to the household of her father, Judah deprives Tamar of two important legal rights.[9]  First, he treats her as if she is legally a widow (Hebrew: 'almanah) without a legal guardian, when, in fact, she is not.  Only widows without legal guardians return to the households of their fathers or mothers (Ruth 1:6-14).  Second, by confining her to the household of her father, he is depriving her of her freedom of movement, which is certainly the most fascinating and legally the most powerful right of a widow in the world of the Bible (MAL art 33).

Judah deprives Tamar and her deceased husband of the honor due them by endangering the possibility that she will ever produce an heir, when he fails to arrange a marriage between Shelah and Tamar.  Again Tamar has no legal recourse to the village assembly.   Technically, Judah is fulfilling the responsibility of his tribe to provide her with a guardian.  In reality, however, he has condemned Tamar to death. Therefore, Tamar goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect the household of Judah from destruction. Dressed as a sacred woman, Tamar tricks Judah into having sexual intercourse with her and so fulfilling his responsibility as her legal guardian.[10]

 The shearing was the round-up or rodeo in the world of the Bible (Gen 38:13).  At the shearing the old world of breeding and grazing came to an end. Livestock, milk, cheese, meat, and wool were sold.  Debts were paid.  Likewise, at the shearing, the new world of breeding and grazing began.  Covenants for breeding and pastures were negotiated.

 Judah is not engaging in an act of sexual indiscretion with a prostitute when he has intercourse with Tamar, he is ratifying a covenant with her.  In order to finance the breeding and grazing expenses for the coming year, livestock owners like Judah borrowed from sanctuaries.  Judah approaches Tamar as a sacred woman (Akkadian: naditu) for a loan and notarizes their agreement by having sexual intercourse.  The reproductive ritual pronounces a blessing of fertility on the coming year. 

Tamar is wise, meticulous and efficient in her dealings with Judah.  She sets her commission as a share of the coming season's herd and collects Judah's staff and seal as collateral before providing him a loan. 

Judah is a fool who does not even recognize that his patron is, in fact, his daughter-in-law.  Judah's foolishness is even further displayed in the incompetence with which he negotiates with her for the coming season.  Judah recognizes his lack of good business sense when he tries to repay the loan and the sacred woman is gone.  His irresponsibility in negotiating and repaying the loan with the woman of Enaim summarizes his irresponsibility to Tamar and the household of Er. Instead of restoring the household, Judah's actions have placed it in greater jeopardy.

When Tamar formally announces her pregnancy, Judah does not recognize her.  He charges Tamar with adultery and sentences her to be burned to death.[11]  Tamar is able to save her life by producing Judah's staff and seal and proving that he is the father of her twins.  Judah's acknowledgement of Tamar's innocence accomplishes two things.  First, it fulfills Judah's legal obligation as the guardian of Er's household.  Second, it restores Tamar's honor as a wife whose concern for Er's inheritance has driven her to take extraordinary measures.[12]

While there is seldom more than one episode in the climax of an ancestor story, its denouement or conclusion, like its crisis, often has several episodes.  Each demonstrates the protagonist taking possession of her goals. 

In the first episode in the story Tamar formally sues Judah for recognition and he publicly acknowledges her as the mother of his heir (Gen 38:25-6).  In the second, she gives birth to twins.  She celebrates their birth with a hymn reflecting their adoption by Judah.  As in the Stories of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:21-4; 4:1-2), and the Stories of Lot and his Daughters (Gen 19:30-38), the birth of twins here signifies the beginning of a new world in which fertility is abundant.  For every pregnancy, there are two births.  As in the Stories of Cain and Abel, the twin motif here also reflects a tradition in the world of the Bible that sibling rivalry is the root of all evil.  Onan's refusal to complete his legal obligation had led to his death, and yet, ironically, Tamar had produced a heir for both Er and Onan.[13]  Although the father of one household was dead, the right of his household to land and children remained intact.[14]  Even though the legal guardian had a household of his own, the household of another became his responsibility.  The wise recognize that sometimes the life span of the father of one household must be extended, while the life of another father must be compromised to provide for and to protect the land and children of all.[15]

Story of Tamar as a Persistent Widow

(Gen 38:1-30)

When Judah emigrated from the household of his brothers, he negotiated a covenant with the household of Hirah from the village of Adullam in Canaan,   and married the daughter of Shua.  Judah settled his household in the village of Achzib, where the daughter of Shua gave birth to a son named Er.  Then she gave birth to a second son named Onan, and finally she gave birth to a third son named Shelah.  

Judah negotiated a covenant with the household of her father, and Er, Judah's heir, married Tamar.  Er, Judah's heir ignored the stipulations of the covenant which he had sworn to fulfill before Yahweh and so Yahweh put him to death. 

Then Judah said to Onan, Have intercourse with your brother's wife and fulfill your responsibilities as her legal guardian. Conceive a child for your brother.  Since Onan knew that the child would not be his son, he withdrew whenever he had intercourse with Tamar and ejaculated on the ground, so that he would not conceive a child for his brother. Since he also ignored the stipulations of the covenant which he had sworn to fulfill before Yahweh, Yahweh put him to death as well.

Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar: Return to the household of your father house as a widow until my son Shelah grows up.  Judah was afraid that Tamar would kill Shelah just as she had killed his brothers. So Tamar went to live in the household of her father.

Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died.  When Judah's time of mourning was over, he went up to the village of Timnah to meet with the members of his household who herded sheep and goats for his covenant partner, Hirah from the village of Adullam. When messengers told Tamar: "Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,  she took off her widow's garments.  She put on the veil and the vestments of a priest. Then she took her place at the door to the sanctuary of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah.

As the household of Judah approached, she saw that Shelah was already of marriageable age, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a priest, for she had veiled her face. He went over to her at the road side, and said: Join me in this covenant I am about to negotiate, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.

 She said: What will you give me as a return for ratifying your covenant?" He answered, "I will send you a kid from the flock. Only if you give me some collateral until you send it.

Judah said: What do you want as collateral?


Tamar replied: Your scarab seal, the cord on which you wear it, and the staff which is in your hand.


 So Judah gave them to her, and had intercourse with her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and, taking off her veil, she put on the garments of a widow.

When Judah sent the kid by his covenant partner from the village of Adullam, to redeem his collateral from the woman, Hirah could not find her. He asked the villagers: Where is the priest who was at the sanctuary of Enaim out on the road?


The villagers said: There has never been a priest here.


So Hirah returned to Judah, and said: I could not find her.  Furthermore, the villagers told me: There has never been a priest here.


Judah replied: Let her keep my collateral, otherwise we will lose face.  You are my witness. I tried to send her the kid, but you could not find her."

About three months later the elders of the village indicted Judah: Your daughter-in-law Tamar has not fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant which she swore before Yahweh.  Furthermore, she is pregnant as a result of her promiscuity.

Judah said: Arrest her, and burn her to death.


As Tamar was being arrested, she sent this message to her father-in- law: The owner of these is the father of my child. If you identify this scarab seal, its cord and the staff before the elders, they will declare me innocent.


 Then Judah acknowledged them and said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.  He did not have intercourse with Tamar ever again.

When Tamar went into labor, she gave birth to twins. While she was in labor, one child put out a hand.  The midwife tied a red thread around its wrist, saying: This twin came out first.


 Just then the child drew back its hand, and its brother was born.  Then the midwife said: What a breach you have made for yourself. He was named: Perez. When his brother with the red thread around his wrist was born, he was named: Zerah.

[1]von Rad 1961:351

[2](Niditch 1979:143-9)

[3]Sasson 1979:132

[4]pace von Rad 1961:353

[5]E. Davies 1981; 1983:231; Sasson 1989:135-6

[6]Westbrook 1991:75-76; E. Davies 1983:233

[7]Thompson 1977:120-5

[8]Hiebert 1989:139, n. 18

[9]Sasson 1989: 132-3

[10] For Ulla Jeyes, "Naditu Women," in  Images of Women in Antiquity. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1983: 260-72, naditu priests brought into their cloisters an enormous dowry including slaves, gowns, headdresses, a shroud, furniture, livestock and jewelry. They also received part of the estate of the father of their household. Naditu women invested their wealth in one of 3 ways. 1) Her brothers could take over her share with the understanding that they must provide for her for the rest of her life. If they did not fulfill their duties, she would have the right to appoint a new manager to her share. 2) Naditu women could take of her property herself and then designate later who would inherit her property or return it to the household of her father. 3) If the naditu did not have part of her father's estate, she would receive a share equal to that of her brothers at the time of their father's death.  Naditu women invested their dowry in land, buildings, silver and slaves. They dealt in silver and barley and also lent and leased houses, shops, barns, fields, slaves, and oxen.  Tamar here may be posing as a naditu, and Judah seeks to borrow from her what he needs to begin the next herding season.  There is some questions, however, as to whether the naditu ever left the one cloister next to the temple of Samas in Babylon.

[11]Hiebert 1989:129-130; Bird 1989:77-78.

[12](Niditch 1979:147

[13] Westbrook 1991 [1977]:82

[14]Campbell 1975:132-133

[15]Abrahams 1973:167