The following is an excerpt from my book God Shows No Partiality. Given Rush Limbaugh’s recent insults toward Sandra Fluke, I thought it might be appropriate to share this ancient story. “Slut shaming” is a toxic aspect of our culture. I won’t say much more about Limbaugh’s comments, since others are doing such a good job of it already. But I do feel it’s important to point out that the Bible (which is often recruited to justify policing women’s sexuality) contains several stories that turn the tables on men who use such tools of social control.
One good example of an “unmasking” story is the drama of Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, in Genesis 38. Tamar’s husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with neither a source of financial support nor a male heir. In the tradition of their culture, the responsibility for providing her with a male heir falls to her brothers-in-law. Unfortunately, the middle brother also dies when he tries to cheat her out of an heir.
Judah grieves over his two lost sons. According to their tradition, the duty of providing Tamar with a child now falls to Judah’s youngest son. Having already lost two sons to this woman under mysterious circumstances, Judah hems and haws about whether he will allow his youngest son to make love with Tamar. Years pass. Tamar is stuck at home, shamed and seemingly abandoned by God and her in-laws.
Tamar then comes up with a ploy worthy of classic theater. She learns that her father-in-law will be going on a business trip to the city of Timnah, so she disguises herself like a prostitute and seduces him while he’s away from home. Like modern cheats, he may have believed that “what happens in Timnah, stays in Timnah.”
After he has returned home and forgotten about the affair, he learns that Tamar is pregnant. Outraged that she has “played the whore,” he commands that she be burned to death. Just as she is being dragged from her tent to her death, she produces evidence that he, Judah, is the father. Filled with shame, he admits “she is more righteous than me” (v. 26).
Like many great stories, Tamar’s tale plays with the boundaries between right and wrong. On the surface, she is a wanton, a black widow, and Judah is the pillar of the community who speaks for society in sentencing her to death. But God shows no partiality, and knows that Judah is a hypocrite. God takes the side of Tamar, the woman seemingly trapped by circumstances beyond her control who uses her sexuality to win her freedom. Even situations that human beings consider scandalous violations of propriety, God may see as acts of justice.
The story itself unmasks something ugly about our society. Even today we use double standards when judging men’s and women’s sexual behavior, holding women to a higher standard while excusing men’s bad behavior by saying, “boys will be boys.” Legislators and popular evangelists still loudly condemn what they perceive as sexual immorality even as they cheat on their spouses and sleep with prostitutes. This story in the first book of the Bible works as a subtle critique of anyone who would use the Bible to police others’ sexual behavior. There is more to the story than the surface appearance of things, the author says.
In the New Testament, Matthew mentions Tamar as one of four women included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:3). All four women are involved in similarly scandalous stories, which indicate Matthew’s awareness of a divine (and somewhat feminist) pattern in Jesus’ ancestry. Jesus, like Tamar, will be judged by an unjust system and sentenced to death. Jesus, like Tamar, will be vindicated in a radical reversal that will unmask the earthly powers.