Desperate situations can be powerful catalysts that empower the weak and vulnerable people to invent ingenious solutions to their miserable situations. The story of Tamar in Genesis 38 is a case in point. According to this story, the Patriarch Judah had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar was the wife of Er and he died without children. According to Levirate law, Onan had to marry Tamar and produce children for his brother Er in order to perpetuate his name and inherit his property. This custom would also help Tamar to have men and means for her support. But Onan, probably with an eye to get the double portion of the inheritance due to the eldest son, declined to beget a child for Er. Though he used Tamar for sex he made it sure that Tamar did not get pregnant. It was a disgrace for Tamar to be childless because people would think that it was God’s punishment. Though Tamar realized the abuse she was subjected to, she was incapable of stopping it. But God did stop it and Onan died.
Judah was bound to give his youngest son Shelah to Tamar as her husband. But Judah sent her to her ancestral home with a promise that he would give her Selah later, which he never did. What the Patriarch did to Tamar was injustice. Since the messiah was to be born from the line of Judah and since Tamar was the right woman to bear a child from the family of Judah, Judah’s act in view of excluding her from his family was a very unkind. Tamar was not in a position to oppose her powerful father–in–law. Still, she was not ready to give in. She resorted to something very strange. Wailing her face she sat on the way of Judah’s journey. Judah, taking her for a prostitute, had his way with her. Tamar had obtained the staff and seal of Judah as a pledge for her reward.
When the news of Tamar’s pregnancy reached Judah he ordered that she be burnt. Tamar sends to Judah the staff and seal she received from the father of her child. Judah recognizes that the father is none other than himself. He readily admits his unrighteousness. Judah’s response was really magnanimous. He acknowledges that Tamar was more righteous than himself.
When reading the story of Tamar most people would only condemn Tamar. They might argue that she should have suffered all the injustice to protect the honour of the patriarch, reputation of the family and the well-being of the tribe. To them the honour of an unjust patriarch is more valuable than the life of a victimized woman. They would only wonder how Judah could agree with the weird course of action taken by Tamar.
Tamar’s defiant behaviour did not lead Judah to arrogant self-defence and revenge, rather to humble introspection and confession. He recognized that she crossed the conventional boundaries in order to get justice. It was Judah’s merit that he could not only see what Tamar did but also see through it. He was honest enough to realize that what she did was not the result of her free choice. He knew that she was forced to take a desperate action because of the callous injustice he had been doing to her. He believed that she deserved forgiveness as her offence was mostly provoked by his own wrongdoings.
Tamar considered obedience to the divine law given through Moses as more important than submission to social powers and pressures. She was willing to risk her honour and life to get justice done to her. She discerned what was right in an ambiguous situation where the honour of the family and her own rights were pitched against each other. God willed that the line of the Messiah should be continued through this woman who was loyal to the divine law of justice and who found ways to claim her rights even at the risk of being unfavourably branded.
With the confession of Judah began his redemption. God blessed him with two sons instead of the two sons he lost. Besides, he became a changed man. Through the shameful phases, God raised him to a glorious state. As the story progresses we see him risking his own life for the life of his brother Benjamin (Genesis 44:33). Thus Judah becomes, or rather God makes him, the worthy forefather of the Messiah who would eventually lay down his life for his brethren.