The story of Tamar is found in Genesis 38. It is a tale of great inspiration and encouragement for all who love the promise of the covenant. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. Her name means “palm tree”. In the Song of Songs, Solomon describes his beloved wife in many endearing terms, including “Thy stature is like to a palm tree…” (Song 7:7), no doubt indicating her uprightness. As we shall see, Tamar is revealed not only as upright, but as possessing a deep and unquenchable love for the promises of God.
Tamar’s first husband Er was slain by the Lord because of his wickedness. Er’s brother Onan refused to raise a seed to his slain brother; consequently, the Lord slew him also. Under the principles of God (as solidified in the law of Moses), the land inheritance was virtually equated with the eternal inheritance. If you respected and loved your land inheritance, it suggested that you loved and pro-tected your eternal inheritance, the coming Kingdom of God on the earth. This is why Abraham surveyed his land inheritance in a very literal way. God told him, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breath of it: for unto thee will I give it” (Gen 13:17). Moreover, Naboth and his sons died rather than sell their land inheritance to wicked king Ahab (1Ki 21:3,12-14).
Although we don’t know a lot about Tamar’s background, we can assume she was a Canaanite. Judah took a Canaanite for his wife; probably he took a wife for Er from the Canaanites as well. Evidently Tamar came to love the promised inheritance. When she saw that Judah’s last son, Shelah, was not given to her in order to have a child to preserve her inheritance, she formulated her own plan to lay hold of it. We know the story. Tamar put her very life on the line in order to have a child to preserve her place in the line of promise. She played the harlot with her father-in-law, Judah, to obtain the inheritance and was commended by Judah himself, in his confession: “She is more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26).
Tamar realized that obtaining the land inheritance was equal to inheriting the earth. This lesson provides a powerful exhortation for us to treasure, “Lay hold of ” the promise. We are to passionately love the covenant promise of eternal life, which was very much a family issue in the Old Testament and, in its spiritual application, remains so to this day.
The key exhortation is: “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called” (1Ti 6:12). Nothing worth gaining comes easily, as this faithful woman found when she “fought” for her inheritance — valuing it more than life itself. We must do the same.
In the process of time Tamar gave birth to twin sons, Pharez and Zarah. Pharez signifies “a breach”, or “to break forth.” He was given this name because he asserted himself in birth before his twin brother Zarah, whom he supplanted. Thus he is accounted as the natural firstborn of Judah. We point out this fact because of the numerous times in Scripture that the faith of the firstborn child is exceeded and supplanted by the faith of a later child. Examples abound: Isaac over Ishmael, Joseph over his brothers, David over his brothers, Jesus over Adam, and many others.
Of great interest is the fact that Tamar’s son Pharez is given high marks in Ruth 4:11,12. When the people bless Boaz and Ruth they say, “May your house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.” Consequently Tamar not only loved the covenant, but apparently she taught this principle to her sons and Pharez is listed in the line of Jesus (Matt 1:3). Even more remarkable is the fact that at the occasion of the birth of Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz, the genealogy is picked up beginning with Pharez! Such notable names are mentioned as Nashon, “a prince of the tribe of Judah”, Salmon, the husband of Rahab (and probably one of the spies who searched Jericho), Boaz, Obed, Jesse and David (Ruth 4:18-22).
Thus the Lord preserved the line of the Messiah through a faithful Canaanite woman by means of unusual circumstances. Tamar was essentially a single mother: we are told that Judah “knew her again no more” after the birth of Pharez and Zarah. Yet that awkward situation did not deter her from instructing her sons in the way of God. We learn that a difficult situation need not prevent us from loving the covenant and teaching it to our children.
We will close with a remarkable list of comparisons regarding the lives of Tamar and Ruth:
- Both Tamar and Ruth bore sons by means of a deliberate and designed attempt to preserve their inheritances.
- Both women incurred risks to gain children.
- Both women were Gentiles.
- Both women were with child by men of an earlier generation (Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law and Ruth was married to Boaz, of Naomi’s generation).
- Both sons, Pharez and Obed, are mentioned in the line of the Messiah and appear as men of faith.
- Both sons were conceived through the faith of their mothers.
These wonderful reflections draw our minds to the words of King David, “Marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well” (Psa 139:14).