The Trials of Two Tamars in the Bible

Tamar and Absalom
Tamar and Absalom. Stefano Bianchetti / Contributor / Getty Images

Two women in the Bible were named Tamar, and both suffered because of forbidden sexual acts. Why did these scandalous events happen and why were they included in Scripture?

Answers to these questions reveal much about humanity's sinful nature as well as about a God who can take something bad and turn it into something good.

Tamar and Judah

Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. He led a tribe of Israelites named after him. Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er came of age, Judah arranged a marriage between Er and a Canaanite girl named Tamar. However, Scripture says Er was "wicked in the sight of the Lord," so God put him to death.

Under Jewish law, Onan was required to marry Tamar and have children with her, but the firstborn son would be under Er's line instead of Onan's. When Onan did not fulfill his legal duty, God also struck him dead.

Following the deaths of those two husbands, Judah ordered Tamar to return to her father's house until his third son, Shelah, was old enough to marry her. Eventually Shelah came of age, but Judah did not honor his promise.

When Tamar learned that Judah was traveling to Timnah to have his sheep sheared, she intercepted him on the way. She sat by the roadside with her face covered. Judah did not recognize her, mistaking her for a prostitute. He gave her his signet seal, a cord, and his staff as a pledge toward later payment, then had sex with her. Later, when Judah sent a friend back with payment of a young goat and to retrieve the pledged items, the woman was nowhere to be found.

Word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant. Furious, he had her brought out to have her burned for sexual immorality, but when she produced the signet, cord, and staff, Judah realized he was the father. Judah knew he had done wrong. He had failed to honor his duty to provide Shelah as Tamar's husband.

Tamar gave birth to twin boys. She named the firstborn Perez and the second Zerah.

Tamar and Amnon

Centuries later, King David had a beautiful virgin daughter, also named Tamar. Because David had multiple wives, Tamar had several half brothers. One named Amnon became infatuated with her.

With the help of a conniving friend, Amnon got Tamar to nurse him as he pretended to be sick. When she came near the bed, he seized her and raped her.

Instantly Amnon's love for Tamar turned to hate. He cast her out. In mourning, she tore her robe and put ashes on her head. Absalom, her full brother, saw her and understood what had happened. He took her into his home.

When King David learned of Tamar's rape, he was outraged. Surprisingly, he did nothing to punish Amnon.

For two full years, his anger festering, Absalom bided his time. At a sheep shearing festival, he made his move. He invited King David and all his sons to attend. Although David declined, he allowed Amnon and the other sons to go.

When Amnon was drinking wine and off guard, Absalom gave the order to his servants, who killed Amnon. The rest of David's sons quickly escaped on their mules.

After avenging his sister Tamar, Absalom fled to Geshur, remaining there three years. Eventually Absalom returned to Jerusalem and over time reconciled with his father. Absalom soon became a favorite with the people because he listened to their complaints. His arrogance grew until he led a rebellion against King David.

During a battle, Absalom's long hair got caught in the branches of a tree, pulling him off his horse. As he hung there helpless, an enemy soldier thrust three javelins into his heart. Ten young men came with swords, striking him dead.

Painful Consequences of Sin

In the first episode, Judah did not live up to the law of levirate marriage, which required a man's unmarried brother to marry his widow, with their firstborn son the legal heir of the dead brother, to carry on his line.

Since God had struck Er and Onan dead, Judah may have feared for Shelah's life too, withholding him from Tamar. He sinned in doing so. When Judah slept with a woman he assumed was a prostitute, he sinned as well, compounded by the fact that she was his daughter-in-law.

Even so, God used the sinfulness of man. We see in Matthew 1:3 that one of Tamar's twin sons, Perez, was an ancestor of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is called "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." Perez carried the Messiah's bloodline and his mother, Tamar, was one of only five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

With the second Tamar, the situation got worse and worse, ending in more grief for King David. We can speculate on what might have happened if David had punished Amnon for raping Tamar. Would that have satisfied Absalom's anger? Would it have prevented Amnon's murder? Would it have prevented the rebellion and Absalom's death?

Some Bible scholars trace the tragedy back to David's sin with Bathsheba. Perhaps David was not as outraged as he should have been at Amnon's lust. At any rate, the story shows sin has unforeseen and long-ranging consequences. God forgives sin, but its aftereffects can be terrible.