One of the signs that the Bible depicts continuing revelation is the institution of levirate marriage among the early Hebrews. The only kind of immortality these people believed in was found in having children who carried on their father’s patrimony. So the practice, which was written into the Law later, was that if a man died without fathering a child, a brother or the nearest male relative must father a child with the widow, and that child would be the dead man’s child. (Barren women were considered to be failures, and their failure to produce children legitimized polygamy.) We don't do this nowadays because we no longer believe it to be God's plan--thus, continuing revelation.
This is the context for the story of Tamar—a Canaanite woman, by the way—from from the book of Genesis, chapter 38. Tamar was married to Er, eldest son of the famous patriarch Judah (by his Canaanite wife Shuah). Er died without any children, so Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. Onan was selfish and cared nothing for his duty to his brother, so when he had sex with Tamar, he interrupted coitus and spilled his semen on the ground. God struck him dead.
One misreading of this story is that birth control is wrong. Subsequent understanding of reproduction tells us that “pulling out” is not a sure method of birth control, so Tamar could have been impregnated by Onan despite his stinginess. Further, semen has millions of sperm in it, only one of which is not “wasted” if pregnancy results. Natural reproduction for humans is immensely wasteful of the potential for life contained in sperm and ova, particularly if we add in the number of spontaneous miscarriages, many of which occur before women have any idea they are pregnant.
Another misreading of this story is that masturbation is wrong. In fact, masturbation doesn’t appear in it at all. The only possible Biblical reference is in Leviticus where “nocturnal emissions” make a man unclean the following day. More about uncleanness laws another time. If anything, Onan’s selfish action is sexual fraud, and we can see how God feels about that.
Judah blamed Tamar. Something about her had killed two of his sons (his own hope for immortality, by the way). He sent her back to her own family. This was a huge disgrace for her, and it is obvious that she felt it as such. Her duty—a sacred duty—was to provide a child to carry on her husband’s patrimony. Before God she felt bound to do this work. She waited for Judah to carry out his promise to give her to his youngest son, but it became clear over the years that Judah did not intend to do so. She was stuck in childless widowhood with no way out.
Because Tamar’s duty to her dead husband is so embedded in and infected with patriarchal values, it is hard to see how she is an example of the inclusion of women in the love and plan of God. However, note that she represents a woman who put her own sense of right and wrong ahead of propriety or fear. If having a baby for her husband was her sacred calling, she was determined to fulfill it.
The rest of the story is a wonderful trickster tale. Tamar hears that Judah is coming into her part of the country. She dresses up like a Canaanite religious prostitute and waits for him by the road. He does not recognize her behind her veil, and he takes advantage of her availability to have sex with her. (No one takes him to task for sex with a supposed idolater, or for sex outside his marriages. This is another evidence of the profound stranglehold patriarchalism had on this culture.) He is short on cash, so he gives her his ring and walking stick in pledge. When he sends money to redeem these items, no one knows that religious prostitute, so he keeps his money and keeps his mouth shut.
Tamar goes home to her father. In a few months, someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law has turned up pregnant. “Bring her out and burn her to death,” he rages. Now this is interesting; it is apparently the case that she was not free of her marriage despite being a widow, at least until she birthed a child who could be legally attributed to her dead husband. Judah is angry because she has not fulfilled her sacred duty to his household, but at the same time he has made it impossible for her to do so. What a double or triple bind she is in.
But Tamar speaks up on her own behalf: “The man who owns this ring and walking stick made me pregnant.” “Oops, those are mine,” says Judah. “Never mind that stuff I said about burning her. God has taught me a big lesson here; Tamar was doing what she could to fulfill what she thought God wanted of her.”
Some of this story is infuriating—the culture that required Tamar to make herself vulnerable to the opportunism of a sexual exploiter like Onan; the culture that allowed Judah to have sex with a prostitute and then to require his pregnant widowed daughter-in-law to be burned for adultery.
More of this story is inspiring—a Canaanite woman does what she believes is her religious duty, even though she risks death, and she lives to tell about it. Some of the story is empowering—God validates Tamar by including her and her children in the line of the Messiah, and the record is there for all time in both Old and New Testaments. Some of the story is simply deeply satisfying—the powerless person tricks the powerful person, and the outcome is comedy.
It is interesting to think ahead to Mary, whose baby could be attributed to no human male. Like Tamar, Mary chooses for herself. She chooses to accept God’s will for her, which involves scandal and humiliation and potential death by stoning. As it turns out, through Mary’s son, no single male became immortal, no one family or clan continued its existence, but instead all humanity is invited into eternal life, starting now and continuing through death.