Holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Your sake

Sunday’s conversation about Ruth and Boaz reminded Joel of an ancient and very sensual hymn, which celebrates the illicit actions of some Biblical women and claims them for holiness. So he dug it out, and shares it with us here.

Joel writes: After the resurrection of Jesus, the faith spread westward in the Greek language and eastward in the Syriac language (a form of Aramaic). Syriac Christianity thrived and is still a living tradition. Sometime around the year 350 a Christian leader known as Ephrem the Syrian composed a song reflecting on the women in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1). I studied this song a few years ago in a Syriac language class and found it deeply moving. It expresses delight in the holy scandal of marginalised people breaking through traditional restrictions, in order to take whatever salvation they could get. Just as the bleeding woman of Mark 5 broke through traditional restrictions to touch the cloak of Jesus and take whatever salvation she could, so this song celebrates the marginalised women in Jesus’ ancestry who did the same, namely Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2), and Ruth. When they break traditional norms Satan comes to accuse them, but his accusations fail. The song recognises that in their actions they were seeking God, seeking salvation – even if they had to “steal” it.

Ephrem on the Women in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus

For Your sake women sought after men.
Tamar desired him that was widowed,
and Ruth loved a man that was old,
yea, that Rahab, that led men captive,
was captivated by You.

Tamar went forth, and in the darkness stole the Light,
and in uncleanness stole the Holy One,
and by uncovering her nakedness she went in
and stole You, O glorious One,
that brings the pure out of the impure.

Satan saw her and trembled, and hasted to trouble her.
He brought the judgment to her mind, and she feared not;
stoning and the sword, and she trembled not.
He that teaches adultery hindered adultery,
because he was a hinderer of You.

For holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Your sake.
You it was she thirsted after, O pure Fountain.
Judah defrauded her of drinking You.
The thirsty womb stole a dew-draught of You
from the spring thereof.

She was a widow for Your sake. You did she long for,
she hasted and was also an harlot for Your sake.
You did she vehemently desire,
and was sanctified in that it was You she loved.

May Tamar rejoice that her Lord has come
and has made her name known for the son of her adultery!
Surely the name she gave him
was calling unto You to come to her.

For You honorable women shamed themselves,
You who gives chastity to all!
You she stole away in the midst of the ways,
who paves the way to the kingdom!
Because it was life that she stole,
the sword was not able to put her to death.

Ruth lay down by a man in the threshingfloor for Your sake;
her love made her bold for Your sake,
O You who teaches all penitents boldness.
Her ears refused other voices for the sake of Your voice.

The live coal that glowed went up
into the bed of Boaz, lay down there,
saw the High Priest, in whose loins
was hidden a fire for his incense!
She hasted and was a heifer to Boaz,
that should bring forth You, the fatted Calf.

She went gleaning for her love of You; she gathered straw.
You quickly paid her the reward of her lowliness;
and instead of ears of grain, the Root of Kings,
and instead of straws, the Sheaf of Life,
You made to spring from her.

Reflect: When have you known illicit sex (or some other classic sin) lead to a blessing? Pray about it, and give thanks to the God who works through all things.

Hymn translated by J.B. Morris (Hymn nos. 1-13) and A. Edward Johnston (Hymn nos. 14-19). From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3703.htm>. Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash.

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