Was blind, but now I see.

1 : 5 March 2002



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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

Francine Rivers' Canaanite Woman

Francine Rivers' Tamar


Tamar is the first of five novellas that Francine began to write on the five "unlikely women who changed eternity." This novel begins with the story of one of the women, appropriately, from the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis. There are three women named Tamar in the Bible: the Canaanite woman who was the wife of the eldest son of Judah, Absalom's sister (and David's daughter) who was raped and thrown out of his house by Amnon, and the daughter of Absalom. There were two places named Tamar. In 1 Kings 9:18 we read that Solomon rebuilt Tamar (Tadmor) "in the desert, within his land." In Ezekiel 47 and 48 we read that Tamar was an important border or boundary town. Tamar town was within the land the Sovereign Lord specifically mentioned as an inheritance to the tribes of Israel. And, over and above these important connotations, the word Tamar also meant the date palm fruit, a fruit delicious beyond compare, sustaining the travelers in the desert and in forlorn places, and possessing an interior, a solid nut that is hard to crack.

Of the three women, it was Tamar the wife of Er, son of Judah, who became an ancestor of King David and the Savior Jesus Christ. The story of Absalom's sister Tamar is a very tragic story of rape and vengeance. Absalom's revenge against Amnon for the rape of his sister led Absalom down an alley of no return, and brought an end to his close relationship with his father. There was no extensive information about Tamar, the daughter of Absalom.


Tamar's story is narrated in the Bible in the book of Genesis (38:1-30).

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's first, born, was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the LORD put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." For he thought, "He may die too, just like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.
After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
When Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep," she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, "Come now, let me sleep with you." "And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked. "I will send you a young goat from my flock," he said. "Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?" she asked. He said, "What pledge should I give you?" "Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand," she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes again.
Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the women, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there. "Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?" "There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here," they said. So he went back to Judah and said, "I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here.'"
Then Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. after all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn't find her."
After three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant." Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!" As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are." Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again


In my earlier article on Francine Rivers' Ruth, I wondered, "One of the most beautiful stories in all literature is the story of Ruth. How could anyone make it more beautiful than it is already? Would anyone dare to even narrate it again hoping to succeed in her attempt to bring out at least the original effect? Would anyone be willing to risk one's reputation by trying to re-tell a great story that has been re-told a thousand times?" This, indeed, is the question, that will be asked again and again for each one of the five novellas of Francene that deal with the "unlikely women who changed eternity." Francine began taking this high risk with this first novella on Tamar, and by God-given talents reaches greater heights in every one of these five novellas.


What is the anointed technique she adopts? How does her anointed storytelling make the story enchant the minds of millions of people who may or may not know the story in advance, but find in the novellas something that speak to their soul and spirit, even as it entertains with excitement, expectation, and thrill? And in these modern times of doubt, question, and unbelief even amidst the pious church-going readers? It all begins with a sensitive spirit and with a keen eye to select a story that is potentially relevant for life today. She is able to see something in such a story that helps her to fill in, elaborate, and bring it to a climax that is very much in tune with the Bible. She is able to narrate it in modern idiom understood more easily without losing the story's original intent. The context is recreated, and the story is no more a story that happened in a context that is foreign to people from other lands.


This is what Francine says about her own game plan in this first novella:

This is a work of fiction. The outline of the story is provided by the Bible, and I have started with the facts provided for us there. Building on that foundation, I have created action, dialogue, internal motivations, and in some cases, additional characters that I feel are consistent with the biblical record. I have attempted to remain true to the scriptural message in all points, adding only what is necessary to aid in our understanding of that message (Tamar, p. viii).


The story begins with Tamar's hope against hope, (and Tamar was "sick with dread") that Judah "would pass by and seek some other girl for his son." She thought and knew that Er "was evil." "Lack of curves" in Tamar would not make Judah think that Tamar could not conceive. "The cloth" would be shown to him if necessary. Judah was thinking that "lust had driven him to marry" the mother of his children. Was Tamar going to be like his Canaanite wife Bathshua? Would Tamar be truly like a date palm, that "sways in the desert winds without breaking or being uprooted"?

"I will try to please you, my husband." (Tamar told Er on their first night together.) Heat poured into her cheeks at the quaver in her voice." "Oh, no doubt you will try, my sweet, but you won't succeed." His (Er) mouth curved, showing the edge of his teeth. "You can't."

Judah's household was in a wretched condition, rebellious sons never listening to their father, nor the wife respecting Judah, and Judah himself never kneeling before his God and praying to Him. We see the consequence of a marriage, a yoke between uneven bullocks. Torn between her parents and sisters' belief in Asherah and Baal and her own question as to whether there was any real God, Tamar's belief in one true God began to grow in the household of Judah. It was through Tamar's belief that Judah himself would be encouraged to believe in the God of his father Jacob. The novel is about Tamar's faith as much as it is about Jacob regaining his faith.

The death of the sons of Judah, each in rebellion against their father Judah, is narrated in a dramatic fashion that grips us with the fear of the Lord. Er died in a sort of sudden stroke when he rose in "white-hot" temper to confront or attack his father. Tamar was to sleep with Onan, the second son, and to bear Er's child through him. But "Tamar soon learned that Onan was different from Er: His evil was more cunning."

There was, but she loathed mentioning it. He must know as well as she did the only other alternative open to them. She swallowed hard, her cheeks going hot. "If you prefer, you can follow Canaanite custom and perform the duty yourself," she told Judah. "His head came up. Clearly, he thought her suggestion as repugnant as she did. 'I'm Hebrew, not Canaanite."

The conjugal room was prepared once again. Onan and Tamar were inside. But Onan did not perform his duty. When the sun rose, "Tamar found death come. And taken Onan."

Tamar went after "the lion," because she didn't want "another jackal"!

"A bitter sadness gripped Tamar. It took all her will power not to wail and weep loudly. All the years she had waited for this man to do what was right, and then to find that he thought nothing at all of handing the keys to his household over to a woman he thought was a prostitute!

"The sadness ebbed quickly, replaced by excitement. She had cause to hope. Though she had shed her pride and degraded herself, she had this one opportunity to provide a child for the household of Judah. ...

" 'Have you a room in town?" Judah said.

"The day is fair, my lord, and grass far softer than a bed of stone." Judah's staff in her hand, she walked into the olive grove. He followed.

"Judah took his pleasure beneath the shade of an olive tree and fell asleep in the afternoon heat. Tamar rose quietly and left him there. ...

"Judah's sons had abused and used her; Bathshua had blamed her for their sins; and Judah had cast her out, broken his promise, and abandoned her. But now, she might yet be grafted into the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Without Judah even knowing, he may have given her a child. If his seed had taken, she might yet have her place among the people whom the God of all creation had chosen to be His own. And if the child were a son, he would be her deliverer."


Francine portrays the longing of a sensitive soul seeking its Creator through obedience. The woman was not lusting to fulfill an insatiable physical desire. Just as the Bible clearly shows that Tamar was a faithful woman, a woman after God's heart, Francine also portrays her as a daringly faithful and risk-taking woman. The story is about Tamar's personal journey, but it is also about Judah's own life open before us and for us to learn our lessons. Francine's Tamar is not a reef or grass that is blown away by the wind. She truly is date palm, a delicious fruit beyond comaparison. She exercises her will despite all suffering, humiliation, and suppression. The language used is subtle and suggestive, never sensuous. Francine instills in us a faith and commitment to the Lord through her portrait of Tamar. In the hands of a tinkering author, the story would have become sensuous, but, in the hands of an anointed story-teller, Tamar shines all through, and we see why she is mentioned in the lineage of Jesus. Her ethnicity is no barrier for her to seek true God and be blessed by Him. Her faith and obedience and her soul seeking to know true God becomes the basis for our salvation.

Francine Rivers. Unveiled. Tamar. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois. 2000.