Who was she? We know little about her except her name, Tamar. Judah, fourth son of Jacob, had “gone down” from his brothers – a spiritual, as well as physical, decline. It was he who had proposed selling Joseph as a slave. Now he has left the family and married a Canaanite woman. He has three sons by her – Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds him a wife. That is how Tamar enters the story.
Tragedy strikes. Er dies. He “was wicked in the Lord’s sight.” How so, we are not told. Judah – practicing a pre-mosaic form of levirate marriage – tells his second son Onan that he must marry his late brother’s widow so that she can bear a child. Onan resents the fact that a child of his would be regarded as perpetuating his brother’s memory, and he “spills his seed.” For this he is punished, and he too dies.
Judah tells Tamar that she must “live like a widow” until Shelah is old enough to marry her. But he delays, fearing that his third son too may die. This places Tamar in a situation of “living widowhood,” unable to marry anyone else because she is bound to her remaining brother-in-law, unable to marry him because of Judah’s fear.
Taking destiny into her own hands, she seizes the opportunity that presents itself when she hears that Judah is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep. Covering her face with a veil, she dresses herself as a prostitute and positions herself on the route she knows Judah will take. Judah approaches her and sleeps with her. She returns home and removes the disguise. She becomes pregnant. Three months later, her condition is apparent. People inform Judah, who is indignant. She must, he reasons, be guilty of adultery since she is bound to Shelah, whom Judah has kept from her. “Bring her out and have her burned,” he orders.
Only then do we realize the significance of one detail in the earlier episode. During the course of her deception, she had negotiated a price with Judah, but first insisted on a pledge: his seal, cord and staff. By the time Judah sent a messenger to pay her and reclaim the pledge, she had disappeared. Now she produces the three items and sends them to Judah with the words, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” It is a masterly stroke. She has established her innocence without shaming Judah – for he alone now understood exactly what had happened. From this, the sages derived the principle that “One should be willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than shame another person in public.”
What was Tamar doing? According to the Midrash (Nachmonides and Hizkuni), she was acting according to the custom of that time, by which levirate marriage could be practiced not only by a brother of the deceased husband, but also by another close relative – in this case, Judah, Tamar’s father-in-law. Her act was one of piety, ensuring that her husband’s family line would be continued.
Tamar’s conduct bears an uncanny resemblance to another biblical personality – Ruth. Both stories begin with an act of descent on the part of fathers-in-law: Judah to the Canaanites, Elimelech to the Moabites. In both, two sons die: Judah’s sons Er and Onan, Elimelech’s sons Machlon and Chilyon. In each case, the woman concerned has been left a childless widow. In both, the denouement is brought about by a bold act on the part of the woman, Tamar dressing as a prostitute, Ruth lying at night at Boaz’ feet. Both times, the man involved (Judah and Boaz) is not the closest in line – for Tamar, that was Shelah, for Ruth, the anonymous Peloni-Almoni whose claim Boaz has to ask him to forego.