Tamar, the Canaanite Heroine – Devotional Series
Long before Tamar enters the scene, we find Jacob and his family living in the land of Canaan. Jealousy divides the family as we are told Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. When Joseph’s brothers were determining whether or not to kill him, it is Judah who said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (Genesis 37:26-27).
Judah was clearly adept at problem solving and held a strong influence on his brothers. The Bible goes on to say, about this time, Judah returned home to Adullam, which at one time was a Canaanite royal city bordering what we would know as Israel and the West Bank. It is also the location where generations later, David would defeat Goliath in the Valley of Ellah. It is here that Judah chooses a wife and marries a Canaanite woman. Together they have 3 sons, and eventually, Judah marries his oldest son, Er, to Tamar, our Canaanite heroine.
We are told in Genesis 38:37-38 that Er is wicked; God takes his life, and Tamar is given to the second son, Onan, to produce an heir for Er. In ancient times, a man’s name lived on through his sons, which explains why God’s promise of descendants was so important. To die without a male descendant was to be erased from history.
According to the Levirate Law (Dt 25), if a man died without a child, his brother would marry and impregnate his widow. The son born from this union would inherit the name and the estate of the deceased. The solution was complicated, for it obliged both the widow and the living brother to make costly sacrifices for the man who had died. His widow couldn’t’ just move on and start a new life. She was honor bound to preserve her husband’s name.
The Law of Inheritance: If Er had lived, Tamar’s husband, as the eldest son, would be eligible to inherit 1/2 of his father’s estate, with each of his brothers inheriting 1/4 of the estate. When Er died childless, the math changed for his two surviving brothers, Onan and Shelah. Now the same inheritance is divided three ways, with Onan eligible to inherit two-thirds of his father’s estate (a double portion given to the eldest) instead of his original one-fourth amount. For the math wizards, this is more than what even Er would’ve received if he lived.
Onan didn’t have a chance to shirk his responsibility to Tamar because his father commanded him (Genesis 38:8). Onan pretended to do the honorable thing by marrying Tamar but denied her the opportunity to produce an heir to continue the lineage of Er. Tamar was powerless to do anything about her situation – so God stepped in.
After Onan died, Judah was down to one living son. Although the Bible is clear that God ended the lives of Judah’s two sons because of their wickedness, Judah does not realize this. Afraid that marriage to Tamar would result in Shelah’s death, Judah does not set Tamar free to marry again but sends her to live in her father’s house. Tamar is stuck, she can’t move on, and she can’t fulfill her purpose. Once Shelah is of age to marry, Tamar realizes Judah will not abide by the Levirate Law, leaving her a childless widow—the most shunned, helpless person of ancient society.
Limbo is uncomfortable for nearly all of us. We find ourselves living between what is and what should be. Some who find themselves in a situation of limbo respond with passive acceptance, which can lead to learned helplessness. Add hopelessness to the mix, and we are speaking of depression with possible suicide tendencies.
“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways. It is when we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. During this graced time we are not certain or in control. This openness allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive. Liminal space is where we are most teachable.” —Richard Rohr
At some point, we will face experiences that bring us to our knees. It is in these moments; we can become most acutely attuned to God’s abiding presence. In this context, are we strengthened and empowered to:
- Turn to YHWH
- Trust YHWH’s divine protection
- Take YHWH action
In my own life, this was true during our first years living in Spain. Bizarre circumstances prohibited us from having a valid Residencia Card for most of our time there. On one occasion, after waiting for almost a year, our new Residencia Cards arrived in the mail only to expire in three days. As a mom, my greatest fear was having my teenage son picked up by the policia and deported without our knowledge. Baseless fear? Hmmm, not in 2020 America. God’s presence helped me overcome the ‘what could happen,’ and helped me learn to trust Him, focus on and be thankful for ‘what is happening.’ In retrospect, those fears proved to be unfounded.
For Tamar, the Canaanite Heroine, we can see that she never lost sight of her purpose despite the obstacles. Turning to God, she ultimately became the 8th great-grandmother to King David and is featured prominently as one of the four Gentile women in Jesus’ lineage. Taking action to fulfill her divine purpose, she risked her life. This sacrifice to do God’s will, no matter the cost, was bolstered by a supernatural trust in His divine protection. In an unusual twist, Judah declares, “She is more righteous than I am…” (Genesis 38:26)
As Carolyn Curtis James states:
“Tamar turns the tables. She is an ezer-warrior who rescues men. She carries out a stunning rescue of Judah’s two dead sons with her twins, Perez and Zerah. She saves both Er and Onan from extinction, despite their wickedness…She confronted Judah, the future leader of Jacob’s family, for turning his back on God’s covenant, and her courageous actions led him back to God. She was committed to build the house of Jacob and used her strength, her wit, and her courage to do what was right in God’s eyes. Judah rightly called her righteous.”
Today, if you find yourself in a liminal space – stuck between what is and what should be – consider: who are you turning to? who are you trusting? and what action are you taking?
Read Tamar’s full story in Genesis 38, and be encouraged, ezer-warrior!
written by Major Brenda Suarez, Private Secretary to the Territorial Commander, USA East