Tamar is an important woman mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. There are two different women named Tamar in the Bible, and they both have unique stories that teach important lessons.
Tamar, Daughter-in-Law of Judah
One Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Genesis 38). Judah arranged for his firstborn son, Er, to marry Tamar. However, Er was wicked and died young. As was custom at the time, Judah then gave Tamar to his second son, Onan, to provide an heir for Er. Onan refused to fulfill his duty and died too.
Judah was reluctant to give Tamar his third son, Shelah, fearing he would die like his brothers. So Tamar was left without a husband or child, which was a dire situation for a woman in that culture. After Judah’s wife died, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah into sleeping with her and getting her pregnant (Genesis 38:13-18). When Judah discovered she was pregnant, he was angry until Tamar proved he was the father by showing him his seal, cord, and staff which he had given her earlier. Judah realized he had not fulfilled his duty to provide her a son. Tamar later gave birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah, who became part of the lineage of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38:27-30).
This story highlights how God cares for the lowly and disadvantaged. Tamar was vulnerable as a childless widow, yet God saw her plight and worked through her unconventional actions to provide her an heir and make her the ancestor of Christ. The story also shows God’s grace in forgiving and working through flawed people like Judah and Tamar to bring about His will.
Tamar, Daughter of King David
The other Tamar was the beautiful daughter of King David and sister of Absalom (2 Samuel 13). Her story is one of the saddest in the Bible. Tamar’s half-brother Amnon became obsessed with her and raped her, an event that devastated Tamar and fulfilled one of the punishments God gave to David for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:11). After the rape, Amnon hated Tamar and had her expelled from his house. Her full brother Absalom later killed Amnon in revenge but could not console the devastated Tamar.
This story of sexual assault and broken relationships reminds us of the devastating effects of sin. But God did not abandon Tamar in her distress. He brought justice through Absalom and later through Tamar becoming the mother of several descendants of the royal line of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:4). Her story is a sobering example of both the terrible pain human sin causes as well as God’s faithfulness to heal and restore those who suffer.
Lessons from the Lives of the Two Tamars
Though very different, these two women named Tamar have some common themes we can learn from:
- God cares for the vulnerable and acts justly on their behalf, as He did for both Tamars.
- God works through all kinds of flawed people and unconventional situations to bring about His sovereign plan, as He did through Judah and Tamar’s deception.
- Sin brings terrible consequences, as seen in Amnon and Tamar’s story.
- Yet God’s grace and healing is greater than any sin, as shown through both Tamars becoming ancestors of Christ.
- God fulfills His promises, as Tamar the widow did eventually gain an heir and become part of Jesus’ lineage, just as God promised Abraham his descendants would become a great nation.
The Tamars were two brave, persistent women who endured difficult circumstances. They teach us to trust God and His promises, even when life seems bleak. God sees the struggles of those who trust in Him and will act justly on their behalf in His perfect timing. Through the Tamars’ stories we see God’s faithfulness and care for women, the poor, and the brokenhearted.
Tamar in the Lineage of Jesus
It is significant that both Tamars are specifically listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1. Though unusual choices, their inclusion shows that God uses all kinds of people in his redemptive plan. The Tamars were Canaanites, not Israelites. In a male-focused culture, Matthew includes these women’s stories. God’s grace overcomes human customs and expectations. The faithfulness of Tamar the widow led to her becoming an ancestor of Christ. Though Tamar the daughter of David experienced terrible tragedy, God redeemed it to make her the mother of kings. No matter what we have suffered, God can work it for good and use us in His story.
Tamar as a Symbol of Israel’s Rebellion and Restoration
The prophet Ezekiel uses Tamar as a symbol of Israel’s idolatry and rebellion against God. Ezekiel 23 tells the allegorical story of two sisters, Oholah (representing Samaria/Israel) and Oholibah (representing Jerusalem/Judah). They both prostitute themselves with Assyria and Babylon and “turn to more flagrant prostitution than she (Tamar) did” (Ezekiel 23:11). Yet despite their unfaithfulness, God promises to restore Israel, symbolized by the redemption of the name of Tamar.
“‘Nevertheless, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before. You would not even mention your sister Sodom in the day of your pride, before your wickedness was uncovered. Even so, you are now scorned by the daughters of Edom and all her neighbors and the daughters of the Philistines—all those around you who despise you. You will bear the consequences of your lewdness and your detestable practices, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 16:53-58)
Though God judges their sin harshly, His ultimate desire is to restore His people’s relationship with Him just as He redeemed Tamar’s legacy. This reminder of God’s persistent grace even for those deep in rebellion gives hope of redemption to all who trust in Him.
Tamar in the Book of Ruth
There is another interesting connection between Tamar and the later book of Ruth. The story of Ruth highlights how the foreign widow Ruth joins herself to Naomi’s family in Israel. She later wins the right to marry Boaz through her bold action of lying at his feet. Their son Obed becomes the grandfather of King David.
Just as Tamar daringly took matters into her own hands, so Ruth courageously pursued her place in God’s people. Both women acted honorably though unconventionally to secure their families a lasting legacy in Israel. God blessed them for their faithfulness and made them ancestors of Christ. Their stories foreshadow how God would bring redemption to all nations, not just Israel.
Important Facts About the Two Tamars
Here are some key facts about each Tamar:
Tamar, wife of Judah’s sons:
- Was the Canaanite daughter-in-law of Judah (Genesis 38:6)
- Married Judah’s sons Er and Onan, but they died without giving her a child (Genesis 38:6-10)
- Tricked Judah into getting her pregnant by disguising herself as a prostitute (Genesis 38:13-18)
- Gave birth to Perez and Zerah after proving Judah was their father (Genesis 38:27-30)
- Is specifically mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:3
Tamar, daughter of King David:
- Was the beautiful sister of Absalom and full sister of Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1)
- Was raped by her half-brother Amnon, fulfilling God’s prophecy of punishment to David (2 Samuel 13:1-14)
- Remained desolate in Absalom’s house after the rape (2 Samuel 13:20)
- Is listed as an ancestor in the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1:3
- Bore several children who were kings of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:4)
Tamar’s Cultural Context
To understand the significance of the Tamars’ stories, it helps to examine the cultural context of their world. In ancient near-eastern societies like Israel:
- Women were vulnerable without a father, husband or children to protect them.
- Barrenness was seen as a curse and disgrace.
- Levirate marriage, where a man married his brother’s widow to provide her offspring, was commonly practiced.
- Judah failed to fulfill this customary familial duty, which led to Tamar’s extreme actions.
- Women had few options for providing for themselves.
- Tamar’s posing as a veiled prostitute afforded her anonymity.
- Having children, especially sons, was critical for women’s security.
- Sexual purity was highly valued; rape was a profound violation.
- King David’s abuse of power set a poor example that Amnon copied in assaulting Tamar.
- The law offered women few protections in such matters.
Recognizing these cultural dynamics helps us understand the stakes in many Old Testament women’s stories. The Tamars overcame not only adversity but also the gender limitations of their society through faith and wit. Their boldness and determination to secure their future against all odds is remarkable.
Tamar in Jewish Tradition
The Tamars play interesting roles in extra-biblical Jewish stories and traditions over the centuries:
- Some Jewish traditions praise Tamar the Canaanite for her determination to have a child from Judah at great personal risk and declare her more righteous than him.
- Other traditions view her sexual deception as wrong, though understandable given her plight.
- The medieval French rabbi Rashi claimed Tamar moved to Judah’s neighborhood specifically hoping to marry his sons.
- The apocryphal Book of Jubilees says an angel killed Er for being wicked. It also says Judah initially wanted to kill Tamar, but relented when she proved he was the father.
- One Jewish tale imagines God killing Er because He foresaw Er would produce evil descendants if he married Tamar.
- By contrast, some Jewish legends paint Absalom’s daughter Tamar even more sympathetically as a pure, devoted daughter who wanted to remain unmarried.
- The medieval commentator Nachmanides argued Tamar must have encouraged Amnon in some way. Other rabbis denounced this view.
- Some scholars believe Ezekiel’s reference to the “lewdness of your youth” in Oholibah’s sins hints Tamar may have secretly wanted Amnon.
- These attempts to place blame on the rape victim would be disputed today by most commentators.
Tamar’s story continued to provoke debate centuries later about sexuality, consent, and gender roles. These varying interpretations remind us to be cautious in how we apply the actions of biblical characters to modern contexts.
Tamar in Christian Interpretations
Christian scholars, theologians and artists have interacted extensively with the Tamars throughout church history:
- Early church fathers viewed Tamar the Canaanite positively for her determination and saw her as a symbol of God’s grace.
- Tamar is celebrated in Saint Matthew’s Genealogy, a series of illuminated manuscripts detailing the lineage of Jesus.
- Medieval mystery plays dramatized Tamar’s sexual encounter with Judah for popular entertainment.
- Reformation leader John Calvin argued that though sinful, their encounter was used by God to bring blessings.
- Puritans like Jonathan Edwards were sympathetic to Tamar but denounced the means she used.
- Feminist theologians in recent centuries have seen Tamar as a woman boldly overcoming oppression and social limitations.
- Liberation theology interprets Judah and Tamar as an allegory of the oppressed rising against the powerful.
- Womanist theologians specifically celebrate how God proved faithful to Tamar’s cries.
- Christian activists cite Tamar’s rape as biblical support for condemning sexual violence and abuse by people in power.
From medieval theater to modern activism, Tamar’s story has been retold in ways relevant for diverse cultures and causes over the centuries. Her boldness and God’s faithfulness continue to inspire many.
Tamar as a Model of Faith and Redemption
Although Tamar resorted to deceitful means, her fundamental objective was honorable – to provide for herself and carry on her husband’s family line as was her responsibility under the laws and customs of the time. She showed herself more righteous than Judah, who failed to fulfill his duty to give her to his remaining son. Her bold persistence in the face of vulnerability displays remarkable faith that God wouldsee her vindicated. God rewarded her determination and blessed her with twins, making her the revered ancestor to King David and Christ.
The traumatic sins committed against King David’s daughter Tamar illustrate the terrible devastation that results from evil lust and the abuse of power. Yet God transformed her pain by making her the mother of kings and again an ancestor of the Messiah. Despite the actions of deeply flawed people around them, in God’s gracious providence the Tamars triumphed over limitations and suffering to find meaning, purpose, and legacy.
Both Tamars show that God hears the cries of the downtrodden and accomplishes His redemptive plans by lifting up those the world has cast down. Their remarkable stories encourage all who have endured injustice, abuse and disadvantage. No matter our circumstances, we too can have bold faith to trust the God who sees and who redeems.