When Tamar saw Judah leading a donkey burdened with sacks and a fine rug, she took her hoe and ran to the farthest border of her father’s land. Sick with dread, she worked with her back to the house, hoping he would pass by and seek some other girl for his son. When her nurse called her, Tamar pretended not to hear and hacked harder at the earth with her hoe. Tears blinded her.
"Tamar!" Acsah puffed as she reached her. "Didn’t you see Judah? You must return to the house with me now. Your mother is about to send your brothers after you, and they’ll not take kindly to your delay." Acsah grimaced. "Don’t look at me like that, child. This isn’t of my doing. Would you prefer a marriage with one of those Ishmaelite traders on his way to Egypt?"
"You’ve heard about Judah’s son just as I have."
"I’ve heard." She held out her hand, and Tamar reluctantly relinquished the hoe. "Perhaps it will not be as bad as you think."
But Tamar saw in her nurse’s eyes that Acsah had her own grave doubts.
Tamar’s mother met them and grabbed Tamar by the arm. "If I had time, I would beat you for running off!" She pulled Tamar inside the house and into the women’s quarters.
No sooner was Tamar through the doorway than her sisters laid hands upon her and tugged at her clothing. Tamar gasped in pain as one yanked the cover carelessly from her head, pulling her hair as well. "Stop it!" She raised her hands to ward them off, but her mother stepped in.
"Stand still, Tamar! Since it took Acsah so long to fetch you, we must hurry."
The girls were all talking at once, excited, eager.
"Mother, let me go just as I am!"
"Straight from the fields? You will not! You will be presented in the finest we have. Judah has brought gifts with him. And don’t you dare shame us with tears, Tamar."
Swallowing convulsively, Tamar fought for self-control. She had no choice but to submit to her mother and sisters’ ministrations. They were using the best garments and perfume for her appearance before Judah, the Hebrew. The man had three sons. If she pleased him, it would be the firstborn, Er, who would become her husband. Last harvest, when Judah and his sons had brought their flocks to graze in the harvested fields, her father had commanded her to work nearby. She knew what he hoped to accomplish. Now, it seemed he had.
"Mother, please. I need another year or two before I’m ready to enter a household of my own."
"Your father decides when you’re old enough." Her mother wouldn’t look her in the eyes. "It’s not your right to question his judgment." Tamar’s sisters chattered like magpies, making her want to scream. Her mother clapped her hands. "Enough! Help me get Tamar ready!"
Clenching her jaw, Tamar closed her eyes and decided she must resign herself to her fate. She had known that one day she would marry. She had also known her father would choose her husband. Her one solace was the ten-month betrothal period. At least she would have time to prepare her mind and heart for the life looming before her.
Acsah touched her shoulder. "Try to relax." She untied Tamar’s hair and began to brush it with long, firm strokes. "Think soothing thoughts, dear one."
She felt like an animal her father was preparing for sale. Ah, wasn’t she? Anger and despair filled her. Why did life have to be so cruel and unfair?
"Petra, bring the scented oil and rub her skin with it. She mustn’t smell like a field slave!"
"Better if she smelled of sheep and goats," Acsah said. "The Hebrew would like that."
The girls laughed in spite of their mother’s reprimand. "You’re not making things better, Acsah. Now, hush!"
Tamar grasped her mother’s skirt. "Please, Mother. Couldn’t you speak to Father for my sake? This boy is... is evil!" Tears came in a rush before she could stop them. "Please, I don’t want to marry Er."
Her mother’s mouth jerked, but she did not weaken. She pried Tamar’s hand from the folds of her skirt and held it tightly between her own. "You know I can’t alter your father’s plans, Tamar. What good would come of my saying anything against this match now other than to bring shame upon us all? Judah is here."
Tamar drew in a ragged sob, fear flooding her veins.
Her mother gripped her chin and forced her head up. "I’ve prepared you for this day. You’re of no use to us if you don’t marry Er. See this for what it is: good fortune for your father’s house. You will build a bridge between Zimran and Judah. We will have the assurance of peace."
"There are more of us than there are of them, Mother."
"Numbers don’t always matter. You’re no longer a child, Tamar. You have more courage than this."
"More courage than Father?"
Her mother’s eyes darkened with anger. She released Tamar abruptly. "You will do as you’re told or bear the full consequences of your disobedience."
Defeated, Tamar said no more. All she had done was to bring humiliation upon herself. She wanted to scream at her sisters to stop their silly prattling. How could they rejoice over her misfortune? What did it matter if Er was handsome? Hadn’t they heard of his cruelty? Didn’t they know of his arrogance? Er was said to cause trouble wherever he went!
"More kohl, Acsah. It will make her look older."
Tamar could not calm the wild beating of her heart. The palms of her hands grew damp. If all went as her father hoped, her future would be settled today.
This is a good thing, Tamar told herself, a good thing. Her throat was hot and tight with tears.
"Stand, Tamar," her mother said. "Let me have a look at you."
Tamar obeyed. Her mother sighed heavily and tugged at the folds of the red dress, redraping the front. "We must conceal her lack of curves, Acsah, or Zimran will be hard-pressed to convince Judah she is old enough to conceive."
"I can show him the cloth, my lady."
"Good. Have it ready in case it’s requested."
Tamar felt the heat flood her face. Was nothing private? Did every one have to discuss the most personal events in her life? Her first show of blood had proclaimed her womanhood and her usefulness as a bargaining tool for her father. She was a commodity to be sold, a tool to forge an alliance between two clans, a sacrifice for an assured peace. She had hoped to be overlooked for another year or two. Fourteen seemed too young to draw a man’s interest.
This is a good thing, Tamar told herself again. Even while other thoughts crowded in, tightening her stomach with fear, she repeated the words over and over, trying to convince herself. This is a good thing.
Perhaps if she hadn’t heard the stories...
For as long as Tamar could remember, her father had been afraid of Judah and his people. She’d heard the stories about the power of the God of the Hebrews, a god who had turned Sodom and Gomorrah to rubble beneath a storm of fire and brimstone, leaving a wasteland of white sands and a growing salten sea behind. No Canaanite god had ever shown such power!
And there were the stories of what the Hebrews had done to the town of Shechem, stories of mayhem... "Why must it be this way, Mother? Have I no choice in what’s to become of me?"
"No more choice than any other girl. I know how you’re feeling. I was no older than you when I came into your father’s house. It is the way of things, Tamar. Haven’t I prepared you for this day from the time you were a little girl? I have told you what you were born to do. Struggling against your fate is like wrestling the wind." She gripped Tamar’s shoulders. "Be a good daughter and obey without quibbling. Be a good wife and bear many sons. Do these things, and you’ll bring honor upon yourself. And if you’re fortunate, your husband will come to love you. If not, your future will still be secure in the hands of sons. When you’re old, they’ll take care of you just as your brothers will take care of me. The only satisfaction a woman has in this life is knowing she has built up the household of her husband."
"But this is Judah’s son, Mother. Judah’s son Er."
Her mother’s eyes flickered, but she remained firm. "Find a way to fulfill your duty and bear sons. You must be strong, Tamar. These people are fierce and unpredictable. And they are proud."
Tamar turned her face away. "I don’t want to marry Er. I can’t marry him-"
Her mother grasped her hair and yanked her head back. "Would you destroy our family by humiliating such a man as this Hebrew? Do you think your father would let you live if you went into that room and begged to be spared marriage to Er? Do you think Judah would take such an insult lightly? I tell you this. I would join your father in stoning you if you dare risk the lives of my sons. Do you hear me? Your father decides whom and when you marry. Not you!" She let go of her roughly and stepped away, trembling. "Do not act like a fool!"
Tamar closed her eyes. The silence in the room was heavy. She felt her sisters and nurse staring at her. "I’m sorry." Her lip quivered. "I’m sorry. I’ll do what I must."
"As we all must." Sighing, her mother took her hand and rubbed it with scented oil. "Be wise as a serpent, Tamar. Judah has shown wisdom in considering you. You are strong, stronger than these others. You have quick wits and strength you don’t even realize yet. This Hebrew has taken an interest in you. For all our sakes, you must please him. Be a good wife to his son. Build a bridge between our people. Keep the peace between us."
The weight of responsibility being given her made her bow her head. "I will try."
"You will do more than try. You will succeed." Her mother leaned down and kissed her cheek briskly. "Now sit quietly and collect yourself while I send word to your father that you’re ready."
Tamar tried to think calmly. Judah was one of the sons of Jacob who had annihilated the town of Shechem over the rape of their sister. Perhaps, had the son of Hamor known more about these men, he would have left the girl alone. When he realized his mistake, he made every attempt to placate Jacob’s sons. They wanted blood. The prince and his father had agreed to have every man in Shechem mutilated by the Hebrew rite of circumcision. They were desperate to bring about a marriage alliance and assurance of peace between the two tribes! They had done all the Hebrews required, and still, three days after the Shechemites were circumcised, while they were all sick with fevers, Judah and his brothers took vengeance. They hadn’t been content with the blood of the offender; they’d cut down every man by the sword. Not one survived, and the city was plundered.
Hebrews were a stench in Canaanite nostrils. Their presence invoked fear and distrust. Even though Judah had left his father’s tent and come to live among Tamar’s people, her father had never slept easily with Judah so close. Even Judah’s longtime friendship with Hirah the Adul lamite didn’t reassure her father. Nor did it matter that Judah had taken a Canaanite wife, who had given him three sons and trained them up in Canaanite ways. Judah was Hebrew. Judah was a foreigner. Judah was a thorn in Zimran’s side.
Over the years, her father had made contracts with Judah to bring flocks to his harvested fields. The arrangement had proven beneficial to every one and had brought about a tentative alliance. All through those years, Tamar had known her father sought a better and more lasting way to keep peace between himself and the Hebrews. A marriage between the two households might ensure that, if she succeeded in blessing Judah’s household with sons.
Oh, Tamar under stood her father’s determination to bring about her marriage to Er. She even under stood his need for it. She under stood her role in all of it. But under standing didn’t make it any easier. After all, she was the one being offered like a sacrificial lamb. She had no choice as to whether she married or not. She had no choice as to the man she would marry. Her only choice was in how she faced her fate.
Tamar was ready when her mother returned. Her feelings were hidden as she bowed down to her. When Tamar raised her head, her mother placed both hands upon her and murmured a blessing. Then she tipped Tamar’s chin. "Life is difficult, Tamar. I know that better than you do. Every girl dreams of love when she’s young, but this is life, not idle dreams. Had you been born first, we would have sent you to the temple of Timnah instead of your sister."
"I would not have been happy there." In fact, she would have preferred death by her own hand to the life her sister led.
"So this is the only life left to you, Tamar. Embrace it."
Resolved to do so, Tamar rose. She tried to still the tremors as she followed her mother from the women’s chamber. Judah might still decide she was too young. He might say she was too skinny, too ugly. She might yet be spared from marrying Er. But it would change nothing in the end. The truth was hard to face. She had to marry, for a woman without a husband and sons might as well be dead.
* * *
Judah watched Zimran’s daughter closely as she entere