Like an ancient, widowed Rapunzel, Tamar is a young woman hidden away in her father's house. Why? Oddly enough, it's because of her reputation as a man-killer. Literally. Every man who goes into her bedchamber ends up dead. But here's the thing: Tamar is not to blame for her husbands' deaths. It's the deity doing the deed.
Her first husband, Er, is just wicked, so God kills him (38:7). Since he leaves no heirs behind, the law says that his little bro should marry his wife, and any kiddos born count on husband number one's score card (38:8). For you motivated Shmoopers who want to know more, this custom is called levirate marriage.
Why would the little brother want to help create offspring who can get first dibs on the inheritance money, which is all his now that big brother is out of the picture? Well, in this case, he wouldn't.
Husband number two, named Onan, experiments with his own family planning method to ensure no little Onans will be running around anytime soon (38:9). His fate? You guessed it. The deity does him in, too (38:10). Now people start to think Tamar is trixy, and father-in-law Judah isn't keen on sending in his one and only remaining son to this supposed she-demon.
Making a flimsy excuse, Daddy-O sends Tamar to live with her family as a widow—you know, just until the next son, Shua, gets a bit more mature (38:11). Yeah right. Tamar is being duped and left high and dry. She can't remarry because she's promised to Shua, but he won't touch her with a ten foot pole.
But Tamar won't just sit idly by and let the patriarchal culture rain on her parade. Her solution to this predicament? Double herself. Following in the footsteps of other Genesis protagonists (think Jacob in 27:15-16 and Leah in 29:21-25) she puts on a costume, dressing up as a prostitute when she hears her father-in-law is coming to town (38:13-15). He falls for the trap, leaving her his card as guarantee of payment for her services (38:18).
When Judah hears three months later that his black widow daughter-in-law is in the family way, he decides to burn her at the stake. (Remind you of The Scarlet Letter much?) That's when Tamar conveniently produces his personal things. Judah, open-mouthed, agrees that he's been bested (38:26).
Tamar, soon to be mom of twin boys, gets to have her cake and eat it, too. Girl power.
If you're dazzled by this ancient woman's wily self-determination or shocked at her maltreatment, check out Hagar (16:5-14), Dinah (34), Ruth (Ruth 3:6-13), the other Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11:29-40), just a few of many other women of the Hebrew scriptures who scrape against a male-dominated system.
Or read about "the victors, the victims, the virgins, and those with voice" in Tikva Frymer-Kensky's Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories.
We're not the first to wonder about these biblical ladies, and we're certainly not the last.