Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah.
Tamar stars in a short, woman-centred story (Gen. 38:1-30). This story — says Biblical scholar Robert Alter — reinforces Torah’s big themes. Once again, God decides not to choose the eldest son as family leader. Judah, a middle-child, becomes a great-grandfather of Israel’s kings.
Alter’s insight is helpful. But, from a woman’s perspective, it’s odd. Does Torah really deploy a woman to illustrate men’s issues? I don’t think so. So, which women’s issues does Torah showcase? And how does Tamar’s story develop them?
Tamar: Seventh Mother in Genesis
Tamar is the seventh mother showcased in the Book of Genesis. Not the seventh mother named in the “begats,” the genealogies. But the seventh mother with a substantial story.
You don’t think that’s an accident, do you? The magic number seven?
Shabbat, seventh day of the week, offers a new relationship with creation. A rest from everyday toil and turmoil. Similarly, Tamar, Torah’s seventh mother, embodies a new relationship with male power. A respite from the troubles of mothering in a men’s world.
Eve: Torah’s First Mother
Torah’s first mother is Eve. In Hebrew, her name is Chava, literally “mother of all life.” God tells Eve what mothering will be like. You’ll have many troubled pregnancies. With pain and sadness, you’ll give birth to children. But you will desire your man. And he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)
And that’s what happens.
Eve has two sons. One murders the other, then runs away to wander the earth. Two children lost in a single day. Imagine Eve’s grief. Her bitter disappointment with childbearing. Surely she thinks, “I’m never doing this again.”
But then — guess what? Adam comes on to her. She takes the bait. And Seth is born.
Mothers Before Tamar: In the Image of Eve
Sarah makes it to her 90th birthday without a child. And she seems fine with it. But husband Abraham is desperate for a child. An angel promises him that Sarah will give birth. Sarah just laughs. But she makes Abraham happy, and gets pregnant. Abraham offers the child to God on the altar, and Sarah dies of a broken heart.
Hagar also makes a child with Abraham. One day, Abraham hands her a bottle of water and kicks them both out. An angel saves the child’s life. And you know what? Midrash tells us Hagar actually goes back to Abraham.
Rebecca has a loving husband. But they conceive only after years of trying. For nine excruciating months, Rebecca’s twins kick and punch each another in her womb.
Leah gets pregnant easily. She desires her husband. But he doesn’t much like her. With each birth she hopes, “Now he will love me.”
Rachel, in love and loved by her husband, longs for a child with him. Finally, she tries fertility drugs, conceives, and births a healthy child. But her second pregnancy is too much, and she dies in childbirth. Feverish, she names the baby “Son of my suffering.” Her husband renames him, “Son of my right hand.”
Each mother’s story is variation on the future revealed to Eve: You’ll have many troubled pregnancies. With pain and sadness, you’ll give birth to children. But you will desire your man. And he will rule over you.
From Eve to Tamar: Modern Mothering
My mother was an Eve, too. Mom’s first child died when he was four. Her third was a sickly baby. We saw her grief, stress, anger, uncertainty, exhaustion, and perseverance.
So, when I grew up, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mother. Then I met Charles, who loves children. We fell in love and got married. Because I desired my husband, I wanted a child. Yes, I was Eve all over again.
But many young mothers today do not expect to be Eve. Some are surprised by the troubles, pain, sadness, chaos, and boredom. Parenting bloggers often say, “No one told me it would be this hard!” Some women take control over conception. The timing of pregnancy and the mode of birth will be up to them.
These women expect to be Tamar.
Tamar is smart and determined. Judah himself chooses Tamar for his daughter in law. He promises to facilitate her marriage to an eligible son. But her first husband — Judah’s oldest son — and her second husband — Judah’s second son — die. Our text is clear: God ordains the deaths. Tamar is not to blame. But Judah isn’t reading the text, and he’s worried. So he indefinitely delays Tamar’s marriage to his third son.
Tamar wants children. A child would honour her late husband, secure her place in the family, and help her grow in love. So, when Judah is widowed, actively seeking female companionship, Tamar masquerades as the prostitute he seeks. Judah promises to pay, and leaves all of his identifying property as a guarantee. But the prostitute doesn’t show up to receive her fee.
Tamar becomes pregnant. Judah angrily calls for her death. But Tamar provides Judah’s own property as evidence that Judah is the father. So Judah says: “She is right; I failed in my responsibility.”
Turns out, Tamar is pregnant with twins. Normally, birthing twins is dangerous. One baby is breech, positioned feet first, and can’t easily exit mom’s womb. But Tamar’s breech twin bursts out before his brother. Thus, two healthy boys are easily born.
Tamar: A Differently-Empowered Mother
Does Tamar have a troubled pregnancy? No. Does she give birth in pain or sadness? No. Is she attracted to the father of her child? Probably not. Does he rule over her? She does not let him.
Of course, Tamar is not free from patriarchy and its dangers. No woman is. But Tamar navigates danger safely. She brings hope. She reminds us: it is possible to avoid Eve’s painful future.
Who wouldn’t want to be Tamar?
Image: Detail from a photo by Ayalon Maggi. Galit with her newborn and her gas mask nearby. In a Jerusalem hospital during the 1991 Gulf War.