As Advent is a period of waiting, reflection and anticipation as we lead up to the birth of Jesus, it is apt that the first woman’s story in this genealogy is one of patience and waiting for a promise to come to fruition. Tamar’s story in Genesis is a small chapter nestled amongst the more famous ones of her uncle-in-law Joseph. Her life, bearing similar hallmarks, is one of repeated disappointment and requiring patience on a seemingly smaller but ultimately no less significant scale.
Her first husband Er, aptly named in British translation, is “wicked in the Lord’s sight” (v6) and dies. Fortunately as custom demanded, his brother Onan could provide for Tamar, but knowing any child would be deemed his brother’s, he deliberately prevents conception. His actions too, were wicked in God’s eyes and he dies.
To be married to men so apparently awful, twice widowed and childless seems desperate enough for Tamar, but, not grasping that it was his sons’ blatant disregard of God’s word that has killed them, Judah unjustly blames Tamar and becomes afraid that his youngest son too will die, so sends her away intending never to marry her to Shelah. She has no offspring to provide for her despite her marriages and as further insult, she is not even allowed to remain within her husbands’ family. It cannot have passed Tamar by that such was Judah’s fear, he seemed willing for his line to die out, rather than risk Tamar’s marriage to Shelah. All hope must seem exhausted.
The start of the following paragraph is simply “But quite a while later…” (v12). We don’t know how long this is, but in my Bible reading experience this usually seems to be what feels like an inordinately long time. Tamar has been waiting. Unlike Joseph, she has no God-given dream to cling to, just a desire to continue the line of Judah through her children. We aren’t told how well she waited or what she did while waiting, I imagine that at times she railed at the hands life dealt her, and at other times was content or relieved to not be married to Shelah – given the wickedness of Er and Onan. But she doesn’t seem to be passive – she had also observed that “Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife [as Judah had promised]” (v14).
So she waits once more until her mother-in-law has died, and then decides to act. Finally, perhaps despairing, determined or seeing no other option in sight as Judah’s promise has not been fulfilled, Tamar goes to Judah himself to father a child for her, by dressing as a prostitute and meeting him at the roadside. It is here that the parallel between Judah in chapter 38 and Joseph in 39 becomes apparent. While Joseph flees Potiphar’s wife so as not to be caught in adultery, Judah embraces both woman and opportunity. It is Tamar who is faithful. Regardless of Judah’s faithlessness in his promises to her, she turns to him to father her child, in order to continue his family line. Yet still, Tamar does not rush ahead. She waits, even when – as her pregnancy is revealed – Judah condemns her to death for her unfaithfulness. She knows that within her possession, and for such a time as this, she holds evidence of his part in the pregnancy – his staff, seal and cord; her vindication.
Tamar was not a Jew, and we don’t know whether she even knew of God, much less worshipped him. How much more then could I be guided by God in my actions, and have patience to see His plans enacted as Joseph did? Do I have Tamar’s patience? Not often. I rush headlong into situations and open my mouth to speak quickly. Do I wait to act and consider my motives, or are they the afterthought to the situation?
She waits through disappointment, through uncertainty and through injustice, and her actions anticipate the advent of Jesus’ presence on the earth, her children the promise of the future.. Tamar’s sons fulfil the promise that “though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me, one who will be ruler over Israel” (Micah 5:2), and Tamar herself is wrapped up in this promise. Her deliberate waiting achieves her aim; to continue the line of Judah; and through her faithfulness and commitment, she becomes an ancestor of Christ himself.