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Pondering with God's Word

Widows in the Bible: Part 1, Tamar


This past April 17, the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was held in Windsor Castle, England. One memorable image was that of Queen Elizabeth, in widow’s black, sitting alone in the chapel for the services. She reminded me of the many stories of widows or references to widows in the Bible. This reflection, the first of three, speaks of Tamar.

The Old Testament is replete with references to the care of widows, along with orphans and foreigners. Exodus 22:21-22 reads: “You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry.” Deut. 10:10 adds the resident alien to this list. The widows were also to be given provisions – a portion of the tithe every three years, an invitation to meals at public festivals, and permission to glean at harvest times from fields and vineyards.

In ancient Israel, a widow, almanah, referred to a woman whose husband and father-in-law were both dead, and who had no adult son with the economic means to support her. The husband’s property was lost and his name forgotten. The widows referred to in the above ethical commands were mostly such once-married women, now impoverished. Other widowed women might have inherited economic support from their husbands or could rely on the finances of a father-in-law or a new husband by levirate marriage. For this marriage, Deut. 25:5-10 directs that the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow and let the children, or at least the first child of this union, be “accounted” to the deceased. Providing an heir could also be the duty of the widow’s father-in-law. 

Genesis 38 narrates the story of Tamar, probably a Canaanite, whom Judah procured as a husband for his eldest son, Er.  Since Er was not righteous God dealt him death, leaving Tamar childless. Next Judah told his son Onan to take Tamar and produce a son for Er.  Onan refused, spilling his seed on the ground lest he impregnate Tamar; God punished him also with death. Judah then told Tamar to wait for his youngest son, Shelah, to reach the appropriate age to marry her.

When it became apparent to Tamar that Shelah would not be involved, she changed from her widow’s clothes and waited for Judah to pass by her. Mistaking her for a prostitute, Judah propositioned Tamar; she agreed to Judah in exchange for his signet, cord and staff. Tamar became pregnant and when Judah was told of this he planned to have her burned to death. Tamar sent word to Judah naming his identifying objects as evidence of his paternity. Judah acknowledged all of his wrongdoing saying, “She is more in the right than I am.” Tamar was safe. She gave birth to two sons, Perez and Zerah, yet she was still without a husband. Tamar, a foreigner, knew what the Law afforded her and she boldly acted to obtain it, even if only partially. She is remembered in the genealogy of David, hence of Jesus (Matt. 1:3).

It is possible to view Tamar as a courageous woman seeking her rights; her’s is a story of persistence in the struggle for justice. We need not look too far to see and hear others today who persist in struggles for justice.

Stay tuned for a positive story of two widows: Naomi and Ruth.