Who is Tamar in the Bible and Why is She Important? To answer this question, we first need to clarify which Tamar we are referring to (interesting fact: the name Tamar means Date Palm or Palm Tree). There are a total of three women named Tamar in the Bible.
- Tamar, King David’s daughter, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon, the firstborn son of David.
- Tamar, daughter of King David’s son, Absalom, who may have named her after his beautiful sister Tamar, who was raped by his half-brother Amnon, (Absalom also had his brother Amnon killed in revenge for the rape of Tamar, who was also Amnon’s half-sister.)
- Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, who was betrayed by Judah, then took matters into her own hands by disguising herself as a prostitute, conceiving twin boys by Judah; she is the first woman listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
The Story of Tamar in the Bible
First, let’s state the obvious: if someone claims the Holy Bible is boring, they’ve simply not read it. There is no shortage of drama, triumph, tragedy, and scandal. And through it all, we see God weaving His grand redemptive story – and more often than not, choosing the least likely candidates – the weak, the powerless, the underdogs – to teach us of His power, love, justice, and mercy. Even the best Hollywood directors couldn’t conceive of half of the events portrayed in the Bible.
Personally, I love cheering for the underdogs. The human heart is naturally drawn to stories of those who face impossible odds and seem to have everything going against them. Like Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. She is a perfect example of someone often overlooked—not only in the time that she lived but in today’s preaching and teaching as well.
Though few may take notice of Tamar, God chose to weave her into His grand redemptive story for a reason. And like many unsung heroes, Tamar had a lot going against her, especially in the ancient times in which she lived. Not only was she a woman, but she was also a Canaanite woman—belonging to an ethnic group that God’s people were strictly forbidden to marry.
Simply mentioning Tamar’s name to those who have heard of her story can invite all kinds of reactions: a lip curl in disgust, a groan of disdain, or perhaps one will sigh in pity. Plenty are quick to judge, yet few have explored the depths of her story. But like many events in the Bible, if we take the time to dig deep into God’s Word, to examine how the story fits into the bigger picture, we will often discover that there is far more going on behind the seen.
Through Tamar’s story, you will have an opportunity to decide for yourself: was she courageous or deserving of condemnation? A heroine or a hustler? Either way, Tamar’s actions altered the trajectory of human history—and still echo in the heavens today.
What Happened to Tamar in Genesis?
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . .” (Matthew 1:1–3)
Tamar’s name appears just three verses into the New Testament, but her story doesn’t begin there.
We first meet Tamar in the Old Testament, Genesis chapter 38, which at first seems centered on the story of Judah, the fourth born among the twelve sons of Jacob. The story begins after Judah, son of Jacob, convinces his brothers to sell their younger brother Joseph into slavery (the story of Joseph begins in Genesis 37, but is put on hold as the story of Judah and Tamar is told). After Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, Judah leaves his family members behind and meets a man of Adullam named Hirah (Adullam was a Canaanite town). There he marries the daughter of a Canaanite man. Judah’s wife births three sons: Er, the eldest son of Judah; Onan, their second son; and finally, Judah’s third son, Shelah. In the very next verse (Genesis 38:7), we are told that Judah took a wife for his oldest son Er (pronounced Eye-er), and her name was Tamar.
Now Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, lived in a society where girls were married young and expected to begin producing children shortly thereafter. Based on the chronology, Tamar’s marriage to Er lasted between a few days to at most, a few months, because the very next thing we read is:
“Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.”
Try to imagine being in Tamar’s sandals. On your wedding night, you discover that your husband is not at all as you had hoped and imagined. In fact, he is downright evil. You’re trapped. You have no rights. Then suddenly, boom! Your husband is dead.
God’s judgment on Er came swiftly. Er’s wickedness very likely relates to abuse within their sexual relationship (I explore this aspect of the story more thoroughly in my Bible study, TAMAR: Rediscovering the God Who Redeems Me). Just two verses into the story of Tamar, we read she is married to a wicked man, likely sexually abused, and abruptly widowed.
And this is only the beginning of Tamar’s story.
Yet right from the start, we are given a glimmer of hope because Tamar is not the only one who suddenly comes onto the scene. God, whose name had been absent from Genesis for a full two chapters, suddenly reappears in the story. He looked down from heaven and saw Er’s wickedness and Tamar’s helplessness.
God did not have to step in
—but He did.
Why was Tamar Important in the Bible?
After God strikes Tamar’s first husband dead, Judah gives her to his second son Onan because Tamar did not conceive a son for Er. This was according to a common practice at the time called levirate marriage, whereby the duty of a brother is to marry his deceased brother’s wife in order to produce an heir who would legally carry on his deceased brother’s name. At the same time, a levirate marriage would protect the deceased brother’s widow from being abandoned (I cover this more fully in my Bible study, TAMAR: Rediscovering the God Who Redeems Me).
Instead of fulfilling his levirate marriage obligations as Tamar’s husband’s brother by producing an heir to carry on his brother’s name, Onan treats Tamar like a prostitute. Once again, God’s anger is roused and we read in Genesis 38:10:
“And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”
Tamar’s second husband is now dead. At this point, Judah has just one son left. Instead of freeing Tamar to marry outside the family, Judah tells Tamar to wait for his last son to grow a little older. But in reality, Judah has no intention of giving his last son to Tamar. In fact, he sends Tamar away to return to her father’s house. Although she is innocent of any wrongdoing, Tamar seems abandoned to life as a childless widow—a tragedy in that society—but does this mean that God has abandoned her as well? Never!
After faithfully remaining in her father’s household until Judah’s youngest son grows up, Tamar learns that Judah did not give his last son to her in marriage (but to save face, Judah kept Tamar bound in widowhood). She decides to take matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the roadside. When Judah sees her, he wastes no time soliciting her for her services, which gives us a sober look into Judah’s less-than-praiseworthy character. He hasn’t any money on him, but Tamar isn’t after his money – she wants a child. Judah promises to send her a young goat as payment for sex, but she asks Judah for a pledge (after all, she already learned Judah cannot be trusted). She asks him to give her his signet ring and his staff, critical items used for personal identification. Judah essentially hands over the equivalent of his social security card, uses Tamar for sex, and goes on his way. He sends his friend Hirah with the young goat to retrieve his signet and staff, but Tamar, who Hirah believes to be a shrine prostitute (sometimes referred to as a sacred prostitute, or cult or temple prostitute), is nowhere to be found.
Who Slept with Tamar in the Bible?
Let’s pause here for just a moment and talk about the elephant in the room. It is certainly challenging for us to imagine ourselves in Tamar’s sandals, who believed that her only way out of her situation was to prostitute herself – and to her father-in-law, no less! You and I live in a world far removed from those ancient people and cultural backgrounds. Tamar may have acted deceitfully, but as a childless widow in that ancient society, her life would have been considered worthless. Not only that, but Tamar had every right to bear a child for Judah’s family line. In light of Judah’s rebellion against God by marrying a Canaanite woman, followed by God’s judgment on his two wicked sons and Judah’s withholding his third and youngest son Shelah from marriage to Tamar, Judah was well on his way to destroying his family line altogether. But then something happened.
“About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned. (Genesis 38:24)
Wow. This is quite the double standard. Judah, who thought nothing of using a prostitute, now condemns Tamar to death when he hears of Tamar’s pregnancy and the fact that she had prostituted herself (not knowing it was with him). Clearly, Judah held a lot of authority. But Tamar is no fool. As several months passed, Tamar has been preparing for this moment. She sends a messenger to Judah carrying Judah’s signet and staff, which Tamar had kept hidden for three months. The messenger reaches Judah and relays Tamar’s message, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.”
Talk about faith!
Tamar just placed her only hope of redemption squarely in her executioner’s hands. In fact, if we had to identify one person in the story who exhibits at least some level of faith, it would be Tamar. Despite her lack of conception with her first husband Er, Tamar had faith that she would conceive with Judah. Despite Judah’s history of lies and betrayal, Tamar had faith that, in the end, Judah would do the right thing. On faith, Tamar surrendered Judah’s seal and staff at the peril of her own life and the lives of the precious twin boys within her womb. As a result of Tamar’s faith (along with Judah’s repentance and God’s great mercy), her twin sons were born.
In fact, it is during the birth of Tamar and Judah’s twin boys, Perez and Zerah, that the first mention of a scarlet thread appears in the Bible. The midwife ties the cord around the wrist of one son with the aim of identifying the firstborn, but the child’s hand retreats, and the other son comes out first instead! Mentioning the thread (which was likely nearby in order to tie off the umbilical cord) is one thing, but it is interesting that Scripture also records the color of the thread. In the Bible, the color scarlet is associated with blood, purification laws, and sin (as found in Numbers 19:1–9 and Hebrews 9:19–22). Concerning the birth of Tamar’s twin boys, the scarlet cord foreshadows God’s plan of redemption through the blood of Jesus, who is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).
What Does the Story of Tamar Teach Us?
God could have chosen anyone to be a part of the Messianic line, but as part of God’s plan, He chose a young woman named Tamar to bear the son who would carry on the royal family line of Judah. In fact, the New Testament begins with these words:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . . (Matt. 1:1–3)
God fashioned Tamar’s days for a purpose, which means that it was His will to include Tamar in the lineage of Christ. This does not mean that God wills the sin, suffering, and abandonment that Tamar encountered on the way, but because He is sovereign, everything, in the end, will conform to His perfect will. When we take a few moments to pause and reflect on this truth, we get our first glimpse into the overarching beauty of God’s plan as He weaves Tamar into His grand redemptive story.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace . . .” (Ephesians 1:7)
For an in-depth study on Tamar, grab your copy of my Bible study, TAMAR: Rediscovering the God Who Redeems Me, available now.
Shadia is a passionate Bible teacher, author, and speaker who has a heart for seeing lives transformed by the power of God’s Word. She holds a master’s in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and is the author of several books and Bible studies, including HAGAR, LEGION, and TAMAR.