Tamar – The Bible’s First Surrogate Mother

The story in Genesis 38 centers around Tamar’s womb. Tamar married Er, the son of Judah, but Er died before she conceived. According to biblical law, Tamar was passed on to Er’s brother, Onan.

By Anat Schneider | | Topics: WOMEN OF THE BIBLE
Photo: Dikla Laor

But Onan knew that according to the same law, his firstborn male child with Tamar would be considered the son of Er, including all the implications of inheritance, property, etc. As such, Onan shirked his duty, angering God and leading to his untimely death.


Judah’s third son, Shelah, should have been next in line to marry Tamar and produce his brother’s offspring. But Judah became apprehensive. A woman who has lost both of her husbands, his two sons, suddenly seemed to him dangerous, a sort of femme fatale. Fortunately for Judah, Shelah was still too young to marry, so he sent Tamar back to her home with the false promise “until Shelah grows up.”


Tamar returns to her father’s house. The biblical record tells nothing of what she as a woman had to deal with. Her feelings of humiliation, her grief and her suddenly being viewed by her father-in-law as accursed or dangerous. She was also now a woman without a man. Tamar assumed a state of survival that filled her being. She seemed to be doomed to poverty and obscurity.


The only weapon left to Tamar is her womb. Shelah grew up and Tamar realized that Judah was not going to honor his promise, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. This was a decision that would change her life.


Tamar renounced her long-standing widowhood and declared her independence by removing her garments of mourning and turning to seduction. Disguising herself as a prostitute, she went into battle – the battle for conception.


There were but two men in the whole world whose seed carried hope for her – Judah and Shelah.


Choosing to target Judah, Tamar lied in wait while he visited his sheep-shearers. Still distraught over losing his wife and two of his sons, Judah needed comfort, and her found it in Tamar.


As negotiations begin between the two, we hear Tamar speak up for herself for the first time: “What will you give me?” Judah and Tamar agree on a kid goat, but since Judah did not have one with him at that moment, Tamar insisted on a sign of guarantee.


Judah gives her his signet ring, bracelet and his staff. They have intercourse and Judah leaves, still wholly unaware of Tamar’s true identity. As it is written: “…he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.”


I would like to propose another interpretation here. A whore never wore a veil over her face. The veil was a symbol of respectable women. In other words, the veil on Tamar’s face should have aroused Judah’s suspicion. Did the veil remain on her face for the entirety of their encounter? Did it never slip or fall even once?


Furthermore, Judah negotiated with Tamar, meaning he heard her voice. Did he not recognize the familiar voice of his daughter-in-law? We know from other places in the Bible that the voice has tremendous meaning. For instance, Genesis 27:22: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”


The record of the encounter between Judah and Tamar is sparse on details. But it’s clear that twice he failed to recognize her. Why twice? Traditionally, it is said that when things are recorded twice, the second occurrence weakens the argument. Is it not suspicious?


Finally, when they had finished, it is written, “After she left, she took off her veil…” One is left with the feeling that Tamar knew that Judah knew who she was, and vice versa.


Nor can we ignore the fact that Judah came from a line of men that seemed susceptible to such deceit. Judah was the son of Jacob, who was deceived when he was given Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob was the son of Isaac, who was deceived when he blessed Jacob thinking he was Esau.


Do we really have three generations of men here that were deceived?


Perhaps the three of them deceived the deceivers. Maybe they secretly wanted to be deceived, consciously or not. All three had an interest in being deceived. Isaac secretly believed that Jacob was more suited to his inheritance. And Judah? He perhaps had the best intentions of all. He loved his remaining son dearly, and sought to save him from the clutches of a woman he believed brought only death.


Judah sent his messenger to deliver a kid goat to Tamar, as agreed upon, and to receive back his possessions. But the woman could not be found!


Tamar was determined to safeguard Judah’s possessions, as they were the only evidence of her fetus’s true DNA. Though Tamar had crossed a line, it was not she that was to blame. It was not she who had broken family loyalty.


When Tamar’s stomach began to show with child three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law has committed adultery. Interestingly, Judah demanded that she be burned alive, though her crime at that time called for stoning.


On her way to a gruesome death, Tamar pulls out Judah’s belongings. She chose her words carefully. She did not cry or scream, nor did she try to blame anyone else. She simply and calmly stated, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” She did not herself reveal who the owner was, but rather asked Judah’s messenger to identify the objects belonging to the father of her unborn child.


Tamar left it to Judah to decide if he’d take responsibility. It was her word against his, and Tamar was aware of the predicament in which she found herself. It was a powerful moment, and Judah was broken.


To his credit, Judah made the right decision. He acknowledged his fatherhood and proclaimed Tamar to be “more righteous than I.”


The battle of the womb had been won, and twin boys were the outcome. A double victory? More than that, the descendants of these twins would later merge, forming the lineage of King David and of the Messiah. From stolen seed came monarchy, and from weakness came power.


There is no doubt that Tamar was a brave woman who, in the moment of truth, chose assertiveness and expressed herself, and in so doing was ultimately used by God for His great purposes.


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