Tamar means ‘date palm’ in Hebrew: the unique, sweet flower of the desert. Tamar was the woman who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to conceive. She was not like her foremothers Sarah and Rebecca, who waited patiently for God’s help.
Tamar was the first wife Er, the son of Judah, who in turn was one of Jacob’s sons. Er was Judah’s firstborn and “was wicked in the eyes of God and God made him die” (Genesis 38:7).
Tamar was a young, childless widow. As was customary, the brother of the deceased took Tamar as his wife in order that she may bear children. Er’s younger brother Onan was told to sleep with his brother’s wife, “But Onan, knowing the child would not count as his, spilt his seed on the ground every time … to keep from producing children for his brother.” (Genesis 38:9)
Er’s brother Onan suffered the same fate as him, as God was angered by his disobedient ways. Thus Tamar was left alone for the second time in her short life. She remained unhappy, and was sent home to her family until Er’s youngest brother would be old enough to partner her.
Yet Judah was worried that both his sons were slain after having coupled with Tamar, and he had no intention of letting his youngest near her, for fear that he may meet the same fate. Without realising it, Tamar was blamed for the death of the two brothers, and left childless.
Much later Judah’s wife died. Tamar dressed as a sacred prostitute and led Judah, unknowingly, into her bed. She thus proceeded to become pregnant with the seed of her father-in-law, as she was determined to produce a child.
Determined to comply with Bbiblical law which required one of her late husband’s male relatives to father a child by her, Tamar then dressed herself as a prostitute so as to seduce her father-in-law Judah and have him father a child by her.
After sleeping with Judah, Tamar took his robe and staff as insurance that he would pay her with a kid from his flock. She never intended to claim actual payment, but rather kept them as proof of the identity of the father of her child.
When Tamar‘s pregnancy became public knowledge she was accused of being a whore: “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore, what’s more, she’s pregnant from her prostitution.” (Genesis 38:24) Tamar was still considered as one of Judah’s family, despite the fact that it was clear that she would never marry his youngest son. Tamar was threatened with death by fire forwhat she had done.
Tamar was saved from the stake by Judah’s garments, which proved that he had fathered her unborn child. He said, “She is more right than I. After all, I would not give her my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:26). Tamar gave birth to twins: Perez, meaning ‘breach’, and Zerah, meaning ‘bright one’.
Tamar refused to accept her destiny as a twice-married, twice-widowed woman who had been left alone. She brilliantly managed to achieve her goals, marking her out from her female predecessors, who left matters in God’s hands. Her story is a testament to her courage and determination.
Tamar is considered a virtuous woman in Judaism, even though the Bible describes her being tried as a whore. Her aim was not to mar Judah’s name, but to produce offspring that would become the future kings of Israel (Jacob on his death bed had blessed his son Judah that from him would be descended the kings of Israel).. Tamar is not criticised in Jewish tradition even though her actions spell adultery, prostitution and incest, actions which are normally abhorrant to Judaism. From this we can see the supreme importance of the sacred commandment to be fruitful.