Tamar: The First Woman of the New Testament - An Excerpt from Prostitutes and Polygamists
Since God has a clear plan for how he created sex and prostitution does not fit in that plan, why does he include prostitutes and polygamists in his master plan? Author David Lamb assures us that God can use each of us, even in our brokenness.
In the excerpt of Prostitutes and Polygamists we look at today, David Lamb tells the story of Tamar, the righteous prostitute.
The first woman mentioned in the New Testament isn’t Mary the mother of Jesus or Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. When you realize that Matthew begins with a genealogy, you might think the first woman of the New Testament would be the first woman of the Old Testament, Eve. Nope. Well, then, surely it has to be one of the wives of the patriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, or Leah. Nope, nope, nope. The first woman of the New Testament is Tamar (Matt. 1:3).
What did Tamar do to be put in such an exalted position alongside Jesus, David, and Abraham? She acted like a prostitute. Shocking perhaps, but not after we take a look at Genesis 38, the story of Tamar, the pious prostitute.
Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah (Gen. 38:1–5). Er was wicked, so God killed him. To forgive is divine, but Er was too human. Onan also was wicked, so God killed him too.
We know nothing about the nature of Er’s evil, but Onan’s wickedness was related to his unwillingness to impregnate Tamar, his brother Er’s Canaanite wife, in order that Er’s ancestral lineage would continue. … Onan’s sexual exploitation of Tamar, using her for his sexual pleasure while denying her the dignity of motherhood, was so displeasing to Yahweh that Onan was killed (Gen. 38:8–10).
After Onan’s death, Judah promised Tamar that his youngest son, Shelah, would take on the duty that Onan was unwilling to do, but she would need to wait until he got older. (Can you imagine waiting years to have sex with an underaged relative? Is it possible to get even creepier?) But as the time came, Judah did nothing to unite Shelah and Tamar, presumably because he blamed Tamar for the deaths of his two older sons and he didn’t want lightning to strike thrice. However, the text makes it clear that Er and Onan were killed for their wickedness and Tamar was innocent of their deaths. But some men like Judah will always find a way to blame a woman.
From Widow Tamar to Prostitute Tamar
Shortly after Judah’s wife dies, when Tamar realizes Judah isn’t going to make Shelah perform his sibling duty, Tamar hatches a plot…She transforms from Widow Tamar to Prostitute Tamar and goes to sit near the town gate where she knows Judah will soon be traveling. She assumes that her father-in-law, because he’s been a widower for a while, might be “in the mood” for love. Assuming she’s a prostitute and not a sneaky daughter-in-law, because she’s wearing a veil, he propositions her and promises to pay the standard fare. The going price for a trick back then was one goat. (Some things never change.) Since he has just spent his last goat, he instead gives her his signet ring, cord, and staff as collateral, until he is able to put the goat in the mail. This exchange would be comparable today to someone giving away their driver’s license and credit cards. To hand over all his valuables to a stranger like this must have meant he was really in the mood. After Judah returns home, he sends a friend with the goat to retrieve his things, but the “prostitute” is gone, so he gets to keep the goat for next time.
Meanwhile, his daughter-in-law has also returned, quickly changing from Prostitute Tamar back to Widow Tamar. A few months later, Tamar’s pregnancy test tells her that her scheme has succeeded (“It’s blue!”), and later we discover that she is carrying twins (to be named Perez and Zerah). Her father-in-law is not as excited to hear about the pregnancy. (see Genesis 38:24-26)
The text doesn’t provide us with Judah’s rationale for his judgment, but several factors suggest that he is merely taking advantage of the situation to solve his problem of the deadly daughter-in-law. First, Judah doesn’t hesitate to pronounce death and orders it to take place instantly, seen more clearly in the Hebrew as his judgment consists of only two words: “take-her-out,” “that-she-be-burned.” Second, even though death sentences were not typically performed without multiple witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6–7), in his haste Judah doesn’t ask for any witnesses or any evidence. Third, the death by burning that he decrees was the most severe form of capital punishment — the Prostitute Burning Law of Leviticus 21:9 (in the future from the perspective of Genesis 38) was reserved only for the daughters of priests.
While we, the readers, know who the father actually is, Judah has no reason to suspect it is his child. Thus he is pronouncing death not only on his daughter-in-law but also on his own sons/grandsons — his own heirs. As the death sentence for sexual immorality is ironically proclaimed by the man who impregnated her, we see the clear negative consequences of the “curse” of Genesis 3:16: “he shall rule over [her].”
Judah has no qualms about hypocritically declaring death for her even though he is also guilty of “immorality” like his daughter-in-law. He has no reason to expect that his crime will be exposed, since no one else knows about it except for the mysterious woman (and his goat-delivering friend . . . and the goat). But then, in a dramatic twist of fate for Judah, Tamar reveals that the father is none other than the owner of the signet, cord, and staff. (“Hmm, those look familiar . . .”) I’d love to have seen the expression on Judah’s face then. At this point, Judah has a crucial choice to make, either to cover up or to come clean.
Tamar the Pious Prostitute
Fortunately for Tamar and for the sake of his soul, Judah chooses to come clean. Not only that but he boldly declares, “She is more righteous than I.” He got that one right.
Judah was unrighteous because he was selfishly attempting to fulfill his sexual desires. Tamar, however, was righteous because she was cleverly trying to honor her deceased husband Er, to continue his lineage, and to provide for herself so she wouldn’t need to resort to prostitution as a lifestyle. She was a pious prostitute.
Some may think Tamar’s one-time gig as a prostitute would disqualify her from the ranks of the pious, and yet Scripture refers to Tamar exclusively in favorable terms. At the end of the book of Ruth, the people of Bethlehem pronounce a blessing on Ruth that recalls the fruitfulness of Tamar, mother of Perez (Ruth 4:11–12). David’s daughter Tamar was presumably named after his distant ancestor (2 Samuel 13; we’ll discuss her in chapters 5 and 6), which would mean that she was perceived as someone worthy of honoring in this manner. And, as we noted a few pages earlier, Tamar was the first woman of the New Testament. Tamar has a highly positive biblical legacy. (Pgs 95-99)
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