A tale of two Tamars: Power and who has it - Part 3

This is the final blog of a three part series.

Image by Matt Hrkac , licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license

One last issue deserves further consideration and that is the underlying issue of misogyny seen in David’s disrespect of Bathsheba and Amnon’s “hate” of his step-sister Tamar. It is further illuminated by looking at the righteousness of Tamar in the story of Judah and Tamar which serves to starkly highlight how different the divine view is to our human and biased view.

Judah’s Misogynistic Family

The story in Genesis 38 is an interruption to the story of Joseph.

The narrative begins with Judah’s departure from God’s people and his choice to marry a Canaanite against God’s explicit instruction (Gen 24:3; 28:1).

It leads through the saga of a family making more and more marriages with the Gentiles and a family which was so lacking in the divine ideals for husbands that God saw fit to kill two of his sons, one after the other.

All along his first son’s wife, Tamar, suffers in this very dysfunctional environment when her first and second husbands – the first and second sons of Judah, die. She is left having to return to her father’s house to wait out some indefinite expectation that she will marry Judah’s third son when he is “old enough”.

Judah’s wife dies, and after a long time Judah has regrets about the arrangement for Tamar to marry his third son. He may have feared that the result would be the death of his third son. This is a possible explanation for why Tamar returns to her father’s house.

Judah then joins his Gentile friend, Hirah the Adulamite (again) who had been instrumental in Judah’s choice to marry a Gentile. Tamar hears of this.

The role of bystanders

An interesting question is not just who told her, but why they told her. Whilst it is only supposition to think that it was because the (Gentile) bystanders had sympathy for her situation and the way she had been treated at Judah and his sons’ hands and that she was not being provided for, we do know that the bystanders intervened. They call Judah “her father-in-law”, quite emphatically reminding them and us that he was not fulfilling his duties toward her.

Tamar had recognised that misogyny and womanising were family traits. She perceived that it was predictable that Judah would be attracted by a prostitute. Whether Judah accepted a child of the union and cared for it or used her pregnancy as a reason to break all ties leaving her free to marry elsewhere – in any case, she would be provided for. Hence her scheme.

In the transaction he offers to pay for her “services” with a kid and dutifully sends a kid by Hirah’s hand, but the bystander townspeople intervene again and tell him that there is "no prostitute there". After three months the townspeople again intervene. This intervention is almost a pantomime: they take her out to execute her for “playing the harlot”. Tamar loudly protests her innocence and using the security Judah left with her – his “seal, cord and staff”, discloses Judah’s actions. Judah is left with no option but to provide for Tamar and their twin sons – itself an interesting divine blessing, especially as the younger of them became the progenitor of David himself and in the genealogy of the Saviour. Explicitly the record adds that Judah no longer slept with Tamar, perhaps marrying her to Shelah his youngest son who named his firstborn son Er – the name of his oldest brother for whom he would have been raising an heir.

Judah’s response: Tamar’s righteousness

Judah publicly acknowledges Tamar’s righteousness when he says, “She is more right (literally righteous) than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v26). He recognises that her concern to provide an heir for her deceased husband was a proper way for her to "do justice" to the relationship and reflected the divine ideals that widows would be provided for.

In no way does this justify prostitution. Rather, the lack of divine rebuke, the record’s explicit choice of language (“righteous”), Tamar’s place as a progenitor of David (Ruth 4:12) and our Lord (Matt. 1:1-3) where the divine blessing is explicit – all these factors emphasise the divine view on her actions.

By the time of Judah’s next appearance in the record he has become a strong and compassionate leader, careful of his father's feelings and repentant for his bad actions toward Joseph. His response to Tamar’s actions is narrated as the pivotal point of his repentance. His treatment of Tamar and Er seem like his forsaken past. She readied him for his encounter with Joseph and his part in preserving God’s people.

Tamar’s record in scripture ends at this point. The narrative paints her as better than Judah, though a Gentile. It explicitly details her actions in taking control of the situation to relieve the oppression. Though her actions (deception and prostitution) are not normally righteous actions, the record counts her as righteous and gives her a place with the just. Nowhere in scripture are her actions rebuked – be it for not turning the other cheek and suffering herself to be defrauded (a demand placed on many victims in our midst), or for acting the part she did.

Tamar’s autonomy and voice

Tamar’s autonomy (in her actions) and her voice (in calling out Judah’s actions in spite of the shame) are the direct vehicle Yahweh used to establish the blood line of our Lord.

This terrible saga embedded in Israel’s national history bears all the hallmarks of abuse of all types including domestic abuse.

It is founded on failure to recognise the divine objectives in marriage and to fulfil the obligations of husbands – that they might be heirs together of the grace of life and to raise a Godly seed. Judah and his sons failed. God worked through a Gentile woman to address the issue.

The record emphasises a culture of disrespect of women, particularly towards Tamar, and a misogyny that left the Gentiles around aghast and acting to ensure justice for the abused. Womanising and misogyny are the family traits reinforced by Tamar’s ability to predict Judah’s action after seeing a prostitute and Judah’s unwillingness to allow his third son to marry Tamar for fear that his misogyny would lead to his death like his older brothers.

It is with the support of the townspeople that Tamar’s clever, level-headed and resolute agency leads to a just and blessed outcome. The outcome was an autonomy that she lacked in Judah’s family because of an apparently God-endorsed obligation to raise up seed to the older brother. This principle was supposed to ensure she was provided for. Instead, it was used as an excuse for not providing for her. It was a situation that meant she endured the vilification of being called a harlot and having her life at risk.

How do we respond to victims’ demanding calls for action?

How do ecclesias respond to situations where sisters (often the widowed and fatherless) loudly voice concerns? They may be concerns about misogyny or sexual harassment at the hands of brothers in the meeting. Tamar’s only autonomy was to manipulate events to get some justice and provide for herself. She loudly called out Judah’s misbehaviour and hypocrisy.

Our sisters often find themselves in the same sort of situations. Their husbands should be heirs together (with them) of the grace of life. They should be focused on raising a Godly seed and providing for their family. When they aren’t and a wife ends up with the family resources being kept from her, what can she do? When she loudly (and even angrily) calls out the behaviours of her abusive husband what alternatives did she have? When she asks the authorities for an order to prevent his violence towards her who else could have provided that? When she asks for the authorities to make an order to split the family resources, or dictate parenting arrangements because the ecclesia is unwilling or unable to, what alternative does she have?

This is victim agency. It may be even un-Christlike behaviours. It may be confronting. But how can we say that she should follow some spiritual principle or other as though that principle is more important than her distress, her oppression or saving herself and her children from the dangerous situation they are in. Really? That is an affront to the Divine economy. Tamar’s example gives us clear scriptural support for recognising that even when her agency challenges our assumptions of what is right, when her autonomy leaves us out of the picture and when her voice is loud and confronting we cannot allow that to prejudice us, but we must respond as Judah did. If we are the oppressor, we should acknowledge she is right rather than vilify her (as is the usual response). If we are her ecclesia, friends and family, we should act as the Gentile bystanders, to work for her safety, call out the evil behaviours and not allow her actions to prejudice us at all. Certainly we should never be part of vilifying her and extending and enabling further abuse.

How do we respond as members of the ecclesia when a sister makes disclosures of mistreatment, for instance unsettling to hear disclosure of sexual violence like rape in marriage or rape by a young brother? Does it require a sister to go to the “townspeople” for help? Does it require the police to put in place court orders for safety, or to charge a brother with rape before we take notice? Or even then, do we consider the misogynist the victim and blame the woman whose only agency is to use clever, level-headed and resolute plans to ensure the guilty are brought to account while we make doubly sure they have resources to provide for their family?

What Can We Do?

Please reflect on these challenging questions. They challenge our past behaviours. They may well present cause for us to apologise to victims not treated well in the past. Even if this requires us going out of our way, feeling uncomfortable, acknowledging past mistakes and promising to help in whatever way – materially (yes), spiritually/pastorally (if she is willing) or through paying for professional help where she wants it.

Let us all ensure that misogynistic cultures are not found in our midst, that we speak out about them when we see them and do not leave it for the oppressed to find their own agency.

We teach our children to disclose sexual abuse. Let’s make sure anybody disclosing any type of abuse is believed when they disclose and are not told that there is not enough evidence for us to do anything about it. Ditto for domestic violence.

Let us ensure that we recognise the clear, level-headed resolute actions of the oppressed for what they are, hear their cries and keep the focus on the disempowering, misogynistic and violent cultures and behaviours that have no place amongst those professing Godliness. This is what our Lord calls us to. May we ever be his disciples.