Judah and Tamar

Recently in our chronological Bible reading we came across one of the most difficult and seemingly incomprehensible passages in Scripture. Sadly, I preached on Genesis 37 and not 38 (where this story is found) and so we missed the opportunity to explore its riches. A friend of mine, however, from Walsh Baptist Church, Ontario, Canada, recently wrote an article on the chapter and I felt it was such a good exposition that I asked for permission to share it with folks here in Cromhall:

Judah And Tamar – Unravelling One Of The Strangest Chapters In All Of Holy Scripture

What is this story doing in my Bible?!  That’s probably the reaction you first had when you came across the story of Judah and Tamar.  It won’t be the last story that makes you ask that question.  As we read the Bible we need to remember that Old Testament narrative is not ‘prescriptive’, but ‘descriptive’.  We aren’t hearing a story that is telling us how we should act, rather we are hearing a story telling us about what really happened, and revealing how God acted towards the characters in the story.  Sometimes we get a close account of God’s justice or mercy; sometimes we get the long view that requires entire chapters to go by before the picture emerges.  Keep in mind, however, that God is the hero of the story of the Bible.  It is the story of how God is redeeming for himself a people; delivering them from their sin and sanctifying them for himself.  The amazing thing is that God often redeems some very wretched people.

Judah is one of those wretches.  The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 might be one of the strangest stories in all of Holy Scripture.  At first glance it is equal parts offensive and inscrutable but on closer inspection it yields many useful insights into the character of God, the nature of sin and the hope of our redemption.  The story unfolds in distinct scenes or stages:

Scene 1 – Judah’s Character on Display

In scene 1 we become acquainted with the main character, humanly speaking, in this unusual narrative.  Judah is the fourth born son of Leah, the unloved wife of Jacob.  What did he learn as a child, before his father Jacob had been converted at the Jabbok?  He had seen his father play favourites between his wives; he had seen his mother and her sister manipulate his father with sexual seduction.  Judah grows up in a very dysfunctional family.

Over the past 17 years he had seen his half-brother Joseph favoured over all his siblings.  So great is his disdain for his brother that he conspires with his brothers to kill him when they see him coming to meet them in the fields.  It is only the voice of his older brother Reuben that stays their hand and they throw him down a dry well.  Judah is a wicked man.

Then we hear Judah’s voice.  “Let’s sell him.”  Looking out over the fields he saw a group of slave traders headed for Egypt, and so he pulls him out of the pit and sells him for 20 shekels of silver.  Clearly, Judah is a wicked man.

Then, to cover their guilt, the brothers kill a goat and dip Joseph’s robe into the blood and present it to their father with the question: Please identify the owner of this robe?  (Don’t forget that line – it makes another appearance in the story before us.)  With that lie, a blood dipped coat of many colours, Judah and his brothers break their father’s heart with a lie.  I don’t need to say it again, but I will, Judah is a wicked man.

It is not accident that this story about Judah interrupts the story about Joseph, the two are tied together.  After selling his brother into slavery Jacob separates himself for a time from his brothers, he makes a poor friend – Hirah, the Addullamite – a Canaanite and moves into another part of Canaan.  Abraham wouldn’t have a Canaanite wife for Isaac; Isaac wouldn’t take a Canaanite wife for Jacob and mourned that Esau had married a Canaanite.  But Judah thinks nothing of taking a Canaanite woman for his wife.  We never learn her name – just that she was the daughter of Shua.

She bears him 3 sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.

And they fall not far from the tree.  They have a ruthless, wicked, brother-selling; father-deceiving dad – and the Bible simply tells us that they were wicked.  So wicked that God doesn’t allow the first two to live, but puts them to death.

Scene 2 – Tamar Deprived of Justice

Into our story enters a young Canaanite woman.  Her name is Tamar and Tamar means ‘Palm Tree’.  It is Judah who arranges the marriage on behalf of his son Er.  I expect her father gave a dowry to the newly married couple and they began life together.  Tamar and Er – a wicked man, the son of a wicked man.  We know nothing of their relationship, in what way was Er wicked?  Did he take out his wickedness on his new wife?  Did he beat her?  Did he insult and belittle her?  Did Tamar suffer?  She suffered in at least one way.  Her husband died and left her a widow without children.

This was one of the worst situations a woman could find herself in in the Ancient world of Canaan.  No social security, no welfare, no safety-net, no poor homes or nursing homes for the aged.  A woman was dependent upon her children to support her and care for her in her old age.

No one wanted to be saddled with a widow to support.

So the law codes of the ancient world stated that the next brother in line was to take her as his own wife and ensure that she had children so that his BROTHER’S line would continue.


But the calculations in Onan’s mind show him that if Tamar ever has a child, it will reduce his fortunes.  You see, with Er out of the way, Onan stands to inherit the share of the first born – half of all that his Father owns – not the ¼ share that would come to him if Er had lived.  But if Tamar has a son, that son will be considered the son of Er, not Onan and so the first born child of Tamar would stand in line before his father to inherit the larger share.

So we have this terrible verse in the Bible.  But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his.  So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. (Gen 38:9)

Onan is willing to treat Tamar like an object of pleasure – but not as a person to whom justice is due.

This is oppression.  He is oppressing his sister in law.  She is legally bound to him and his family.  She has no recourse to go elsewhere – but instead of giving her a hope and a future, he simply uses and abuses her and leaves her childless.

God sees it.  God deals with it.  God kills Onan because he is wicked.

And now one son remains to Judah – and he has no heirs from Tamar.  His sons are dead because of their own wickedness – but Judah begins to look at Tamar like she might be the cause.

So he sends her home to her father to wait until his youngest son was old enough to marry.  And so Tamar is asked to put her life on hold.  She is still bound to Judah’s family – she is now considered the BETROTHED wife of Shelah – but she must wait, living in widows weeds in her father’s home.

And time goes by.

Weeks, months, years?

Judah does not send for her.  Shelah does not inquire.  She has been forgotten – cast aside.  Bound to a man who will never give her children.

Then word reaches her that Judah’s wife has died; he has completed his time of mourning and is planning to go up to Timnah for sheep-shearing.

Scene 3 – Tamar and Judah’s Shame

In Scene 3 a plot hatches in the mind of Tamar.

In Canaan sheep shearing was a famous time for debauchery.  It would not be helpful for your personal sanctification to know the details of the Canaanite rituals, for I cannot erase what I know and wish I didn’t.  But suffice to say that Canaanites worshipped their idols through ‘cult prostitutes’.

So Tamar lays aside her widow’s clothing; and puts on the veil of a prostitute and sat by the side of the road waiting for her father-in-law.

There is intent here.  She is not simply playing prostitute for any man – she is lying in wait for Judah.  (What does it tell you about that man’s character, that this woman set out IN THIS WAY to entrap him?)

It works, Judah sees a young prostitute and makes her a proposition.  (Remember, this is a wicked man we’re dealing with – at every turn he confirms it.)  He will pay her a goat for her services – and in pledge until the goat arrives, he surrenders his SEAL and STAFF – not unlike handing over his credit card and driver’s license.  These are unique items that identify a specific owner.

The deed is done.  Tamar is pregnant by her father-in-law and Judah is stumped as to where his seal and staff have gone.

He sends back the promised goat with his wicked friend Hiram only to find that the village-folk don’t know of any cult prostitute that plies her trade in that area.

‘She’s gone… I don’t know where she went.  Do you want me to put up a wanted poster?’  I imagine that’s the sort of ribald jesting Judah heard from his wicked friend.

“No, of course not,” Judah isn’t ashamed of his sin, he’s ashamed he was taken advantage of and let some harlot escape with such important items.  But he’s not going to open himself to open ridicule by making the fact known to the whole community.

“Let her have them… at least my respectability is intact.”  That’s the sentiment we get from the passage.

Scene 4 – Judah’s Hypocrisy and Tamar’s Fate

Three months pass.  And word reaches Judah that Tamar has played the harlot and is pregnant.

Now – get this straight – the fury of Judah is not against Tamar as the widow of his first two sons.  His claim against her – the accusation that is being leveled, is that she has committed adultery against Shelah – his youngest son, to whom she is now betrothed IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT JUDAH KNOWS THAT THERE WILL NEVER BE A WEDDING FOR THOSE TWO.

His wrath is that the name of his family has been brought into disrespect and dishonor.  People are going to be talking behind his back.  He’ll be a laughing stock.

So he sets out to settle the score.  (I wonder if he is secretly delighted at the thought of getting rid of this woman ‘legally’.)

“Bring her out and let her be burned.”

The crowd has gathered, the wood is being stacked up.  The rumour mill is churning.  But before the Tamar emerges for her last walk to the pyre she sends out a bundle and asks Judah the question he had once asked his father:

“Please identify whose these are.  By this man I am pregnant.”

It’s not hard to figure out who they belong to.

Scene 5 – Repentance and Conversion

And in that moment something shifts.  Judah IS guilty.  But he finally sees it, his eyes are open and he recognizes at last his own guilt.

He is guilty of depriving Tamar of justice by keeping his son from her.

He is guilty of impregnating his daughter-in-law.

He is guilty of gross hypocrisy – for he was ready to put her to death for the very sins that he was guilty of.

And this is not just a sense of public embarrassment.  This is genuine repentance that goes right to the heart.  She is going to be the mother of twin boys – both counted as the children and heirs of Judah – but he will never again lay a hand upon Tamar.

Judah not only repents, his repentance is real, his heart is converted.  Jump forward 15 years.  The ruthless, merciless Judah is nowhere to be found.  Knowing that the only way that food can be purchased for the extended family is to bring his youngest brother to Egypt he offers his own life as surety.

And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”  (Genesis 43:8-10 ESV)

Of course – the man at the other end is Joseph, the brother Judah once sold to slave traders.  Judah doesn’t know who he is – but when Joseph threatens to arrest Benjamin we see a very changed Judah – he now pleads for his brothers life and offers his own life in pledge for his brothers.  From whence came this enormous change in heart – it would seem that the story of Judah and Tamar was the point of conversion in the heart of Judah.

 “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”  (Genesis 44:30-34 ESV)

We see in the story of Judah and Tamar the scandal of grace.  Their child, Perez, will be part of the genetic chain the results in the birth of Christ.  It isn’t until we come to Christ and his atoning sacrifice that we can fully understand the scope of God’s grace.  So deep, so complete will be the sacrifice of the Saviour that no sin stands outside of his ability to forgive.

There are sins that the world is never willing to forgive.  The world sets an eternal condemnation against actions such as Tamar and Judah – but if you could only know how dark and twisted are the lives of the people you meet everyday, you would understand why God records this story for posterity.

A Saviour who can only redeem people from petty theft, lying on their taxes and thinking impure thoughts isn’t going nearly deep enough to redeem lost humanity.

The entry of God’s Son into the world is good news for those living under the guilt of grievous sin.  His grace is sufficient to atone for every sin.  Even an incestuous relationship between Tamar and Judah.

The result of embracing his gracious forgiveness is NOT license – but conversion.  The natural consequences in this life may remain.  The one who has always been tempted by certain sins will do well to set a great deal of distance between himself and his temptation – but we trust that God’s grace is sufficient to transform the most wretched sinner.


Marc Bertrand

[originally written on Feb 5, 2016 for adfontes.ca]