Judah and Tamar
Last time we began to study Genesis chapter 38, which is a story about the 4th son of Jacob (alternately called Israel); and that 4th son is Judah. It is from the tribe of Judah that we have the Jews.
What we have here is a story of blood lines and genealogy; but it is also a story that relates cultural information from that era, as well as historical data that we’ll find linked in later times to cities and places and people.
So, while this section of Israelite history seems a little disconnected from the direction the Torah is taking (making Joseph’s life the central theme for the remainder of Genesis), in fact it is there to show Judah’s rise to prominence, and make connections even in the life of the future King David.
Let me remind you that at the time of this story Israel is still several centuries away from possessing the Land of Canaan, and from dividing Canaan up into 12 districts, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The time frame of this story is somewhere between the day that Joseph was sold to the slave traders, and Jacob deciding to move his entire family to Egypt to survive the famine.
It was about this time that Judah decided to leave home, so he parted company with his brothers and went to see Hirah, a fellow from Adullam. When he was there, Judah laid eyes on the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and slept with her. She conceived and gave birth to her first son. Judah named him Er. She conceived again and gave birth to her second son, whom she named Onan. She then gave birth to her third son, and she named him Shelah. (Judah was away in Chezib when she gave birth to him.)
Genesis 38:1-5 (VOICE)
Without doubt, we see that Judah had made a conscious decision to part ways with his family for a time, and this is reflected in the first words of this chapter, when it says that “Judah decided to leave home, so he parted company with his brothers.”
He knew full well that marriage to Canaanite women was not to be contemplated among Israelites; and as we all know, when we want to do something that we know is both wrong and unacceptable to our families, we separate ourselves from them so that we don’t have to face them; this is what Judah did.
This unnamed woman produced 3 sons for Judah, but none of these should have been suitable to carry on the line of the covenant promise, because they all were of Canaanite blood.
But, without doubt, this never even occurred to Judah. Nor, apparently, did it matter to him that his uncle Esau had been passed over for the firstborn blessing, partially because HE married Canaanite women.
And, here was Judah, doing the same thing. How often we tend to do what Judah did; we claim faith in God, but then separate that faith from the everyday matters of our lives. And, what troubles and sorrows that mindset and behavior inevitably brings to us…just as it was about to for Judah.
Yet, as was going to happen on a regular basis, foreign women were brought in to Israel, assimilated, and they were considered Israelites in time. This principle of being adopted into Israel, or grafted into Israel, or whatever term one might like to use, was one of the earliest principles set down by God. At the end of this chapter, we’ll talk a little more about his matter of Canaanite women and Israel.
In the course of time, Judah arranged for his firstborn son, Er, to marry a young woman named Tamar. But Er was a wicked man in the LORD’s sight, so the LORD took his life.
Genesis 38:6-7 (NLT)
As the 3 sons of Judah matured, the firstborn son, ‘Er was given a wife selected by Judah: this wife’s name was Tamar (Tamar means “palm tree”). But, we are told that God killed ‘Er because he was evil. So, Tamar was now a widow.
What is key here is that Tamar was a childless widow; or more correctly, a son-less widow (she may well have produced some girl babies before her husband’s death).
Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, “Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother.”
But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother. But the LORD considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the LORD took Onan’s life, too.
Genesis 38:8-10 (NLT)
Onan, the second son of Judah was then instructed to go and take his brother’s widow, Tamar, as his wife. This was simply a custom of that day…and, generally speaking, this was NOT optional…it was the law that the brother does this.
The idea was that, just as a female could be a substitute “wife”, a concubine, a baby producer, (like we saw with Hagar, and then with Bilah and Zilpah) for a woman who was unable to bear children to her husband, so could a substitute husband impregnate a woman who’s husband had died, and left her without a son.
This tradition was based on the substitute husband usually being a family member, normally a brother, of the deceased man. The Traditional name for this law among Hebrews is the Levirate Marriage.
Now, it might appear from its name that this is taken from the Hebrew tribal name, Levi… but it is not. The actual Hebrew word for this ordinance is yibbum. Our modern translation of “Levirate” is taken from the Latin word “levir”, which is the designation for a husband’s brother. So, Levi and Levirate are just similarly spelled and pronounced words that are in no way related.
The Levirate marriage was not at all unique to Israel; it existed in other cultures as well. This is attested to with well-preserved Hittite documents, and even documents from the Middle Assyrian age. This Levirate law can be found in Deuteronomy 25.
When two brothers are living together, sharing family property that hasn’t been divided, if one of them dies leaving a widow without sons, his widow must not be married to a man outside the family. The brother should marry his sister-in-law and try to have children with her in his brother’s name.
The widow and any children she has by her second husband, by custom, lose their share in his property. When a widow and her children become the family of her brother-in-law, this is a Levirate marriage.
Moses: Her firstborn son will be named after the brother who died, so that the first husband’s name will not disappear from Israel and that son will receive his share of the family inheritance. If a man doesn’t want to marry his brother’s widow, she should go to the elders at the city gate and make a formal complaint: “My husband died, and his brother refuses to keep his name alive in Israel. He won’t marry me and give me children!” The elders of his city will send for him and try to persuade him. He may resist and say, “I don’t want to marry her!” In that case, the widow will come up to him, with the elders looking on, and pull one of his sandals off his foot, spit in his face, and then say, “If a man won’t make sure his brother’s family line continues, he deserves this kind of disgrace for not continuing his brother’s house!” From then on, throughout Israel, his family will be known as “the house with the missing sandal,” and they’ll all be disgraced.
Deuteronomy 25:5-10 (VOICE)
This sandal flinging is a rebuff, and it indicates the poor character of someone who refuses to do his family duty. It is a public humiliation.
But, in verse 9, we’re told that Onan, the brother of the deceased Er, refused to impregnate Tamar, and then God killed him, because he, too, was evil in God’s eyes.
Why did Onan refuse to do this?
Well, it says that it was because the son produced would not have been his. Let me dissect that a bit: the brother who died (Er) was the firstborn. Onan was the 2nd born; but as the eldest surviving brother, he was now the firstborn.
But…if he produced a child in the name of his deceased brother, that child would have been entitled to part of Judah’s estate. In other words, Onan would have received less if his deceased elder brother’s family line had continued.
Now, it’s not that it was uncommon for family maneuvering to gain the most power and wealth when the father died; but to intentionally deny this widow a son did two things:
- It meant that her deceased husband’s family line would end (a disaster to the ancient mind), and
- She would have no son to care for her as she grew older. This was tantamount to living in extreme poverty.
So, for Onan to knowingly do all this made him selfish and callous in a very high degree. And, God took his life as a consequence.
Well, now, by tradition, it would have been the Levirate duty of Judah’s 3rd son, Shelah, to marry the twice-widowed Tamar; but it was judged that he was too young to marry, so Judah sent Tamar to go home and live with her own father until Shelah was old enough to marry her. But, as the words “for he thought” (referring to Judah) indicate, Judah had absolutely no intention of allowing his last son to Tamar.
Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.
Genesis 38:11 (NASB)
Time passed. Judah’s wife (the mother of his 3 sons) died, and the 3rd son Shelah matured and apparently was old enough to be married, but Judah did not allow it. He had seen the result of his other 2 sons marrying Tamar: they died.
I think its safe to say that Judah didn’t know why they died. WE are told it was because they were evil; but I see no indication that Judah knew this. We have to understand that Judah was currently living a life utterly oblivious to God and His laws and commands.
To Judah, Tamar was really bad luck. And, he wasn’t going to chance losing his last son, his last heir, by letting him marry this woman who seemed to bring God’s wrath upon her husbands.
Some years later Judah’s wife died. After the time of mourning was over, Judah and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went up to Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep. Someone told Tamar, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.”
Genesis 38:12-13 (NLT)
After the formal period of mourning of his wife (probably 30 days), Judah goes to a place called Timnah to supervise and participate in the sheep-shearing season.
Tamar was aware that Shelah had grown up, but no arrangements had been made for her to come and marry him. So she changed out of her widow’s clothing and covered herself with a veil to disguise herself. Then she sat beside the road at the entrance to the village of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah.
Genesis 38:14 (NLT)
Tamar found out about this and “took off her widow’s garb”. We know from other Biblical accounts that women were required to wear special clothing when their husbands died.
Typically, it was only during the 30-day mourning period that they wore the widow’s garb. But, possibly because Tamar had been denied her right to have a child from her deceased husband’s brother, she continued to live in a state of mourning.
Judah was doing a terrible and shameful thing by not allowing Shelah to marry Tamar; Tamar was greatly disgraced by this.
So, she developed a plan: she would find a way to sleep with her father-in-law, Judah, and directly from his seed perform the all-important task of carrying on the blood lines of her dead husband’s family.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, “Here now, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He said, therefore, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” She said, moreover, “Will you give a pledge until you send it?” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said, “Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow’s garments.
When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. He asked the men of her place, saying, “Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?” But they said, “There has been no temple prostitute here.” So he returned to Judah, and said, “I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no temple prostitute here.’” Then Judah said, “Let her keep them, otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this young goat, but you did not find her.”
Genesis 38:15-23 (NASB)
This must have been a well-known spot for prostitutes to find clients, for ‘Einayim means, “eyes that look”. In other words, it was a place where men looked for this kind of women.
But, even more, notice that she was thought to be a “temple prostitute”. That is, the Canaanites had adopted prostitution as a “worship” practice (symbolizing fertility), and it was connected with the pagan temple to Baal.
This was a duty, and in many ways an honor, for these woman to be prostitutes for Baal; and it was considered a legitimate practice by both customer and client, so Judah…. so far off the reservation in his current state of mind… thought nothing of it.
Most of the mystery Babylon based religions adopted “sacred sex” as part of their religious practices, and there is a movement within the fringes of the new Spiritualist and New Age movements around the world, and in this nation, to bring the practice back. Their stated goal is to combine the erotic with the sacred…another fundamental of the Mystery Babylon religions.
This is just a case in point of how easily we can adopt traditions within the Church that are not really in line with God’s word or will, usually taken from something out of the pagan world’s customs, and make them as though they’re a “good thing”. And, while we can attach sincerity to some of these long-held and comfortable traditions, often, as with Judah here, these things are an abomination to God.
Tamar’s plan works; she tricks Judah into thinking she’s just a temple prostitute, he purchases her favors, and she becomes pregnant.
About three months later, Judah was told, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has acted like a prostitute. And now, because of this, she’s pregnant.”
“Bring her out, and let her be burned!” Judah demanded.
Genesis 38:24 (NLT)
Three months later, when it is clear to all that Tamar is with child, someone tells Judah about it, and in order to save the family honor, Judah orders her burned to death for adultery; after all, she was unmarried and pregnant and that was proof enough of her offense. The notion in that era was that Tamar was bringing dishonor to Judah and his household.
But as they were taking her out to kill her, she sent this message to her father-in-law: “The man who owns these things made me pregnant. Look closely. Whose seal and cord and walking stick are these?”
Judah recognized them immediately and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my son Shelah.” And Judah never slept with Tamar again.
Genesis 38:25-26 (NLT)
However, Judah finds out that he is the father, and realizes that by withholding his last son, Shelah, from Tamar; he has caused her to take this drastic action. He now declares that it is he that has done wrong, not Tamar, and so he repents and she is spared. Even more, Judah says that Tamar was righteous in what she did.
This is another of those statements in the Bible that while factually true and accurate, the person making the statement is just plain wrong. Tamar was NOT righteous in what she did, anymore than Judah was righteous in what he eventually did. God simply used them despite their sin and rebellion, to achieve His divine purposes.
When the time came for Tamar to give birth, it was discovered that she was carrying twins. While she was in labor, one of the babies reached out his hand. The midwife grabbed it and tied a scarlet string around the child’s wrist, announcing, “This one came out first.” But then he pulled back his hand, and out came his brother! “What!” the midwife exclaimed. “How did you break out first?” So he was named Perez. Then the baby with the scarlet string on his wrist was born, and he was named Zerah.
Genesis 38:27-30 (NLT)
Tamar goes on to have twin boys: Perez and Zerach. To Judah, his “wrong” had been to cause shame upon Tamar by not giving his son Shelah as a husband to her; that is, the breaking of a tradition.
But, the wrong that was actually being righted was of a spiritual nature; because Judah intended to carry on his family line via his Canaanite wife, which produced Canaanite children, and God would have none of it.
Judah was utterly oblivious to his sin before God, because, to him, everything turned out OK in the end…so he thought.
Now, the ancient Rabbis give us a helpful piece of information that is not contained in this story: Tamar is a Semite, a descendant of Shem, the sanctified line of good. That is, she is not a Canaanite, a descendant of Ham, the accursed line of evil. Up to now, Judah had produced his 3 sons by a Canaanite woman.
And, what happened to these 3 sons of a Canaanite mother?
Well, 2 of them died. The 3rd one that should have impregnated Tamar, and would have produced the line that carried on the line of Judah, never got the opportunity to do that, because Judah refused to let it happen for all the wrong reasons. The result is that Judah himself, unwittingly made Tamar pregnant.
The result is that despite Judah’s intention that the line of covenant promise (which he apparently cared little about) would have been polluted by Canaanite blood, it wound up that Judah impregnated a Semite woman, Tamar, and from that came the Semite sons that would carry on the line of promise.
We have seen in previous chapters to what length God went so as not to allow Canaanite blood to be mixed with Israelite blood…particularly when it would affect the line of covenant promise.
God even did it when the covenant line was not directly affected…. as when the planned marriage between Jacob’s daughter Dinah and the King of Shechem’s son was averted when all the males of Shechem were killed by Simeon and Levi.
But, since Judah is the father of Tamar’s children, and since Tamar is a Semite, the children from their union would be acceptable to God; so we see that the particular line of covenant promise, that began with Abraham, which went on to Isaac, then to Jacob, and now to Judah…the purity of the line that would eventually produce the Messiah is preserved by Tamar’s rather bold and unsavory act.
And, as we look in other chapters of the Bible where we see the lengthy genealogy of Jesus, we get confirmation of this; because we see that Perez, the firstborn of Tamar’s twin sons, is a direct ancestor of Yeshua; Perez, son of Judah by Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law, is the one who carries forth the line of promise for the tribe of Judah…with NO Canaanite blood in him.
Further, we see God’s Governing Dynamic of Sanctification at work: Perez is divided, separated, and elected away from all the other children of Judah, to be the conduit to continue on with the all-important line of the covenant promise first given to Abraham.
But, we also see the Governing Dynamic of Divine Providence playing out as Judah and Tamar each attempt to satisfy some cultural traditions, and their own selfish lusts and ambitions.
Neither had the intent to obey God, nor did either realize they would produce the next generation of the line of covenant promise: Perez. There could not be a better example and demonstration of Divine Providence that this story.
So, there’s more significance to this chapter than meets the eye.