Tamar and Being Caught in Adultery

canstockphoto2709851There is a story in the Bible about a woman who is caught having illicit sexual relations outside of marriage. The charge is undeniable, the guilt unquestionable, and the penalty indisputable: death. And thus she is condemned.

But in an odd and surprising twist, her accuser and the man with whom the non-marital sex occurred was found to be at least as guilty as she—actually, more culpable. In the end, everyone walks away and no one dies.

If it sounds like I’m referring to the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, I’m not. At least not directly.

What I’ve just described is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Even if you are familiar with the story take some time to reacquaint yourself with the details. I’ll just do a quick summary.

Tamar was married to Judah’s oldest son, who died before he had an heir. According to the marriage customs of the day, the next son in line, Onan, had to marry her and produce an heir for his brother.

Onan, however, having moved up to eldest son status, didn’t want to forfeit the additional status and wealth that provided, so he made sure Tamar didn’t get pregnant. So the LORD killed him for not protecting the rights of his dead brother and his widow.

Judah was thus required to give his remaining son to Tamar in marriage, but claimed he was too young and she needed to wait a few years.

In reality he feared that being married to Tamar was something of a curse and he didn’t want to see his only son die too. (Vs. 11) So he sent her away to move back in with her father.

But it’s clear he never intended to fulfill his promise. He denied justice (righteousness) to Tamar.

So Tamar decides to act. In our society a woman might sue, but in that culture women had no standing and no recourse when they were mistreated.

Which they were—all the time. Judah did this because he could and because he knew there was nothing she could do about it.

Except what she did. In the spring Tamar was told that Judah was driving his flock of sheep to a sheep-shearer in Timnah, so she dressed herself as a temple prostitute and waited outside a local shrine that was along the way.

This is not the kind of prostitution most of us have heard of. In some cultures in the ancient near east, virgins were required to prove their fertility by having open and anonymous sex with a stranger. According the the Greek historian Herodotus, this was a requirement for every Babylonian woman. They had to sit outside a religious site until a man selected them by tossing a piece of silver in their lap.

Which undoubtedly went to the temple priest.

While it’s unclear how similar Canaanite fertility cults were to the Babylonian cults, Tamar’s actions reflect some form of this practice.

(Which probably explains why many stories in the Old Testament reflect some ambivalence toward the firstborn and perhaps even why the sacrifice of the firstborn son seems to have been practiced among some Canaanites; a peasant man wasn’t always sure that the child was his.)

When Judah sees her he decides to have relations with her, but because her face is veiled, he doesn’t realize who he is talking to. For payment he promises to send her a kid, but to secure his pledge he gives her his signet ring, his cord, and his staff.

When he returns home he entrusts a friend to take the kid to the temple prostitute, but Tamar has ditched her veil and returned to wearing her widow’s garb. The friend asks around but nobody in the village knows anything about a temple prostitute.

Three months later Judah gets word that Tamar has played the whore and is pregnant, and he is outraged. He orders her to be burned alive.

Not just stoned.

Burned alive.

Tamar then sends Judah’s signet ring, cord and staff back to him with the message, “The owner of these is the one who made me pregnant.”

Judah is then forced to acknowledge what the reader has known all along: “She is more righteous than I.”

Not for nothing, but like Isaac’s wife Rebekah Tamar ends up giving birth to twins, and the younger son, Perez, supplants the firstborn. It is through the line of Perez that King David comes, and thus the Messiah.

It’s hard to doubt that the story of Tamar and Judah forms the backdrop to that of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. You have a woman who is undeniably caught in the act of illicit sex outside of marriage. She is condemned to stoning, yet her male partner isn’t around to face the same condemnation.

This isn’t just an unequal application of the law; it smacks of corruption. He probably has friends among the scribes and Pharisees who will look the other way. He might have been a scribe or Pharisee himself.

She has no advocate. No one to look the other way.

This encounter takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, which was in the Roman province of Judea. That was the Roman name for the tribe of Judah, from which the name “Jew” is derived.

Strictly speaking, in Jesus’ day the Jews were those from the former territory of Judah and in particular those like the scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem who supported the temple power structure.

Jesus is essentially saying that someone like this woman is more righteous than all of the temple leaders who felt they had the right to determine who gets stoned and who gets off with a simple, “Go and sin no more.”

Honestly, none of them should have been stopped when Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” It was always understood that when a person was condemned by the law to be stoned it would be at the hands of those who themselves had sinned in some way.

That was understood and accepted. As long as their sins weren’t capital crimes, they could start chucking rocks.

The scribes and Pharisees knew that. None of them should have walked away.

Unless Jesus was telling them that they were just like Judah, more deserving of death than the one they accused.

See, by having sex with a temple prostitute, Judah was actively engaging in a Canaanite fertility cult. He was committing idolatry. Forsaking the LORD.

People were supposed to be stoned for that. (Deuteronomy 17:2-5)

No one knows what Jesus was writing in the dust in John 8.

Maybe “Tamar.”



These guys didn’t drop their stones and slink away merely because their sins were jaywalking or something.

Before releasing her, Jesus tells the woman. “I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no longer.”

There’s something about the way that we interpret that statement that doesn’t fit. He can’t be saying that she shouldn’t ever commit a sin again, because there’s only been one person who has ever been able to pull that one off, and Jesus isn’t talking to himself.

We understand him to be saying, “Hey, that adultery thing that you just did and that almost got you killed—don’t do that ever, ever again, because I won’t always be around to rescue you!”

And that’s because in our culture, adultery takes two to tango. While at least one of them is married to someone else, both the man and the woman have to agree to have sex.

If one of the two doesn’t consent, it’s not adultery, it’s rape.

And that’s what we assume is happening here. This woman was willingly having an affair. A fling. A little hanky-panky.

Except in biblical times, peasant women didn’t have much if any say in when they had sex. That was a man’s prerogative. In a patriarchal society that was highly stratified, sex was only incidentally about love and romance.

It was about power and domination. Those people who were of lower social status—women, children, slaves, foreigners, peasants—were expected to submit to those of higher status. In all things, not just sex.

The Old Testament laws that regulated sexual conduct were there because of the behavior of men. They were to keep men of equal status from killing each other because one had sex with one of the other man’s wives.

Or they were written to protect a man of lower status from having his wife impregnated or even stolen from him by a more powerful man. (Think of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah.)

Later Jewish and Christians standards of monogamy restricted the traditional behaviors of men and protected women from those behaviors.

In a patriarchal society, women’s sexual behavior didn’t need to be regulated because they had no freedom. They were always of a lower status, and were always expected to submit.

No woman could refuse a man.

In such a situation, even if a woman willingly submits, that’s not consent. That’s just avoiding a beating.

Ancient Israelite law was an advancement over the practices of surrounding cultures, but that doesn’t mean it was advanced. They still blamed the victim.

If you were a victim of injustice or just tragic circumstances, you were still at least partially to blame.

  • If your entire family dies, all your wealth is taken, and now you are covered with boils, you must have sinned. Right, Job?
  • If you were born blind, somebody sinned—either you or your parents. (John 9:2)
  • If you are poor it’s because you are lazy. (Proverbs 24:30-34).
  • And if you are of a lower order of human—a woman, for instance—and have to submit to illegal sex with a man because he wants it, well, you should have just said no and taken the beating.

That’s why according to the law both the man and the woman caught in adultery were to be stoned, even though only the man truly had a say in the matter.

The woman had no rights. Still, she had to have done something wrong.

Kind of like Tamar having two husbands in a row die. Judah didn’t blame either of his sons. He blamed her, feared for his youngest son and sent her away, refusing to act righteously toward her.

Biblical interpreters argue whether what Tamar did by dressing as a temple prostitute was sinful—necessary, but still sinful.

But the Genesis 38 never condemns her. It condemns Judah—actually, he does that himself—but no one in the story condemns Tamar. Not her father. Not the people in the village. And not Judah, who as we’ve seen recognizes that she is more righteous than he.

The book of Ruth ends with a brief genealogy of David, and that genealogy begins with Tamar’s son Perez. Tamar is mentioned by name in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. If anything, the Bible lauds Tamar and her actions.

No one in the Bible condemns Tamar. Why in the world would we?

Well, because we’re uncomfortable with sex, and especially with a prostitute being lauded as clever and righteous. We don’t want to seem to be condoning such a thing. Or condoning her deceitfulness. Even if it was all for a good cause.

More than anything, we’re uncomfortable with anyone getting away with sin, especially sexual sin, especially prostitution or adultery.

But here’s the thing: in the story of Judah and Tamar, it’s Judah who gets away with sin. Sure, Tamar gets to live, but there is nothing in the text that says that Judah finally gave his son Shelah to her in marriage. Or that he married her himself.

Nothing happens to Judah. It simply says that he didn’t have sex with her again.

Whoa. Tough punishment. Sure glad she didn’t get away with idolatry and adultery.

So what to make of Jesus saying to the woman, “Go and sin no more,” i.e. don’t do that again?

Maybe it’s his way of saying, “You no longer have to live like this anymore, subject to the whims of powerful men, victimized by their injustice and then blamed when they get caught. In the kingdom of God, you are free; live in that freedom, for the kingdom is at hand.”

That appears to be how Tamar lived the rest of her days, and one can only hope that is how this woman, caught up in an unjust social stratification and double standard, was able to live out hers.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / elenaray

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4 Responsesto “Tamar and Being Caught in Adultery”

  1. Heather says:

    How do we reconcile the fact that Judah and Tamar were not both stoned to death? Although, I agree with you that Judah certainly was in the wrong here, I’m not certain that Tamar’s actions were justifiable either. Sometimes it is difficult to conclude what is prescriptive in the bible and what is descriptive. We understand that the law of Moses commands for both to be stoned to death, but why was their actions permissible? Where is the accountability to the law of Moses? Also, why do David and Bathsheba get away with an even worse crime? Why is King David and Bathsheba not stoned to death for their actions?

    Why in some cases does God strike a person dead for their evil, like in the cases of Er and Onan, but not Judah, David or Bathsheba?

    I had never thought to think that this woman caught in adultery may have been raped. That is an interesting insight that I think is worth further reflection. Where is this man who also committed adultery with her? Jesus doesn’t just let her off the hook as some might say, but he understood what went on and probably saw that this woman had been unjustly treated. Obviously, the other one is not there, so she had already been wrongly accused if the scribes wanted to accuse her and condemn her using the law of Moses.

    I understand why this woman wasn’t stoned to death, but I’m not certain that Tamar and Judah, both should not have been. Although, Judah did her wrong, what she did can’t be right, can it? Prostitution to get a child? Had she waited, could not God have worked in a different way? I would never counsel someone to do this if they were in a similar situation, because extra-marital sex is prohibited in the scriptures.

    I would love to dialogue further with you about this if you have time to respond to my thoughts and questions. Thank you!

    • Hi Heather, thanks for commenting.

      You have to remember that the setting to the story is before Moses receives the Law on Mt. Sinai, so even if the story was written later it would be anachronistic to make either Judah or Tamar subject to it. As interpreters we also have to be careful not to impose our culture’s value system on ancient cultures. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is part of our culture, but apparently not for the ancient Israelites, at least not at that time. Tamar is presented as righteous–Judah calls her so–and is nowhere condemned. It is Judah and Judah alone who acts unrighteously in the eyes of the writer (as well as later interpreters.)

      As far as David and Bathsheba, we have to get rid of the assumption that just because something is written in the Torah that everyone did exactly what it says. Laws can be written, but they can be ignored or only selectively enforced. Recognize that writing laws and enforcing laws is always about power. Those who have power get to write the laws, and those in power get to enforce those laws–or not, if they so choose. That’s what power is all about. So those in power rarely write laws that keep them from doing what they want, and often right laws giving them privileges that are not granted to those of lower classes. Even those laws that are cover everyone, those in power can enforce those laws and decide the punishment for the lower classes while deciding not to enforce them on themselves or being extremely lenient. David was king and Bathsheba became his favorite wife–who was going to impose a judgment of death on either of them. The prophet Nathan could confront David with his sin, but David could have ignored him. Or had him stoned. But it is one thing for Nathan to confront David with his sin–it’s another thing to think that he could have dragged David out to be stoned.

  2. Heather says:

    Ok, I was just reading a bit more on this and the levitical law says that there must be two or more witnesses present to the adultery in order for the two parties to be stoned to death. Now it makes sense to me as to why David and Bathsheba nor Tamar and Judah were stoned to death, because there were no eyewitnesses, from what the scripture tells us from either accounts.

    To me, this makes your suggestion that Jesus wrote Tamar or Judah in the sand even more compelling. Could it be, as you suggested that these men too were even more guilty than this woman, having committed adultery themselves, like Judah, but had never been caught?

    • Yes, I think it’s clear that these powerful men were more guilty than the woman caught in adultery. They knew they deserved exactly what they were trying to do to the woman. The fact that Jesus let them simply walk away means that the woman wasn’t the only one to whom Jesus showed grace!

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