Chapter 38

Judah and Tamar

    • Around this time period, Judah separated from his brothers and moved to Adullam near a man named Hirah.

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains the placement and the significance of this detour from the story of Joseph. This was an early phase of God’s plan to relocate the Israelites from Canaan (where they were intermarrying and losing their identity) to Egypt (where they would not integrate into the Egyptian people), “The story of Judah and Tamar is a carefully placed interlude; it reports what was happening in the family of Judah, who would later rise to prominence, and it shows the beginnings of assimilation with people of the land to help explain why God sent the family to Egypt (chapters 39-47). The Egyptians were strict separatists (43:32); the Israelites would retain their unique identity better in Egypt than in Canaan.”

– Judah married a Canaanite woman (the daughter of Shua) and had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.

    • When he had come of age, Judah arranged for his oldest son Er to marry a woman named Tamar.

    • The Lord considered Er to be a wicked man, so He put him to death.

      • “We are never told what Er’s wickedness was, but obviously it was bad enough that God brought immediate judgment upon him.” (Guzik)

    • So, Judah told his son Onan to perform his duty as Tamar’s brother-in-law and produce an heir with her for his deceased brother.

      • This makes no sense to us today, but the NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains this ancient custom, “The custom that informs this episode is the law for levirate marriage. By this custom, which was later incorporated into God’s law for Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), if a man died childless, his brother or nearest relative would marry his widow to produce a child who would carry on the family name of the deceased and inherit his property. Apparently, the near kinsman had a right to refuse, but he would be disgraced in the family for refusing to perpetuate his brother’s name.”

      • Like I said, in our culture we have a hard time understanding how this practice could possibly be beneficial…For example, atheists love to poke fun at the Bible with charts like this:

      • But, Guzik explains why this was needed in ancient culture, “This was done so the dead brother’s name would be carried on. But also it was so the widow would have children to support her. Apart from this, she would likely live the rest of her life as a destitute widow.” This practice prevented widows from being left with no possibility of remarriage and no way to take care of themselves.

    • However, Onan knew that whatever children he had with Tamar would not be considered his heirs (the would have been considered the heirs of his brother Er), so when he slept with Tamar he pulled out before he ejaculated so that Tamar wouldn’t get pregnant. The Lord considered this evil so he put Onan to death also.

      • Ok, awkward topic here but Guzik explains why Onan’s actions were so reprehensible, “Onan refused to take the responsibility to father descendants for his dead brother seriously. He was more than happy to use Tamar for his sexual gratification, but he did not want to give Tamar a son he had to support but would be considered to be the son of Er. Onan pursued sex as only a pleasurable experience. If he really didn’t want to father a child by Tamar, he should never have had sex with her at all. He refused to fulfill his obligation to his dead brother and Tamar.”

      • Keeping with our theme of extreme awkwardness…believe it or not many Christians have used this passage to claim that masturbation is sinful. But this is clearly not what is referred to here. Guzik puts it this way, “Whatever Onan did, he was not masturbating. This was not a sin of masturbation, but a sin of refusing to care for his brother’s widow by giving her offspring, and the sin of a selfish use of sex.”

    • Then Judah (not knowing if Shelah would die early like his brothers or not) told Tamar to go back to her parents’ home and stay a widow until his son Shelah was old enough to marry her.

      • Guzik sums up Judah’s response, “Judah essentially vowed he would not give Shelah as husband to Tamar as custom and righteousness commanded, but he would simply put her off on the issue.”

    • Tamar did as she was told and returned to her parents and lived like a widow.

    • Years later, Judah’s wife died, and after the mourning period had ended he and Hirah traveled to Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep.

    • Now, Judah had not followed through on his promise to marry Tamar to Shelah even though Shelah had now come of age. So, when Tamar was told that Judah was coming to Timnah, she changed out of her widow’s clothing and disguised herself. She went and sat beside the road at the entrance to the village of Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah.

      • One might wonder why Tamar would go to such lengths, but Guzik explains the position Tamar was in based on the culture of the day, “Tamar didn’t have the option of just finding another man to marry. She was under the headship of her father-in-law Judah, and he had to give her a husband. He determined whom and when she could marry.”

    • When Judah saw her on the side of the road he didn’t recognize her and thought that she was a prostitute because she had her face covered. So, he stopped and asked to sleep with her. Tamar asked what he would pay her.

    • Judah promised that he would send her a young goat, but Tamar asked what he would give her to assure her that he would send the goat. When Judah asked what she required as a guarantee of payment, Tamar replied that he would need to leave her his identification seal, cord, and staff.

      • That may seem a little overkill, but Tamar was acting prudently. NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains, “It would be normal for Tamar to ask for a pledge if the man did not have money to pay. A woman in such a position would not trust anyone to send the money.”

      • Why would she ask for his signet ring and cord? Again NLT Illustrated Study Bible elaborates, “A stone or metal cylinder was engraved with distinctive designs and was usually worn around the neck on a cord; when rolled onto clay or wax, it left a distinct impression.” Tamar knew she would need to be able to present proof that she had indeed been the person Judah slept with.

    • Judah gave Tamar what she required. He slept with her and she became pregnant.

    • Later, Judah sent his friend Hirah with a young goat to pay the prostitute and retrieve his personal items.

    • When Hirah couldn’t find her, he asked the men who lived in the area where he could find the prostitute who had been sitting by the road to Enaim, but they answered that there had not been a prostitute there.

    • Hirah returned and told Judah he was unable to find the prostitute so Judah replied that she could just keep what he had given her. He would be the laughing stock of the village if he went back to look for her.

    • About three months later, Judah was told that his daughter in law had been acting like a prostitute and had become pregnant.

    • Judah demanded, “Bring her out and burn her to death!”

    • But as they were bringing Tamar out to be burned, she presented Judah’s items to him and told him to look them over, saying that the owner of the items was the father of her child.

    • When Judah recognized his items he said, “She is more righteous than I am because I didn’t give her my son Shelah as a husband.” Judah never slept with Tamar again.

      • How could Tamar’s actions be considered “righteous”? NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Judah acknowledged that he had shirked his responsibility to provide an heir. It was sinful for Judah to go to a prostitute, but Tamar had a legal right to be the mother of Judah’s child and had acted on that right. In the book of Ruth, the elders analogously blessed the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, praying that God would make Ruth like Tamar (Ruth 4:12; Matthew 1:3,5)”

    • When Tamar went into labor, she gave birth to twins. During her labor, one of the babies put out his hand and the midwife tied a red thread around it saying that he had come out first. But then, he pulled his hand back in and his brother was born first.

    • The midwife was surprised and said, “How did you break out first?!” So he was named Perez which means “breaking out” and the second was named Zerah which means “scarlet”.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible draws this comparison, “Judah’s line continued because of Tamar. The twins replaced Judah’s two slain sons; their birth was similar to the birth of Jacob and Esau (25:21-26) in that the “red” one was born first, but the other son pushed past him in later life. Jacob’s gaining the right to rule over his older brother (27:29) seemed to be relived in Judah’s line. The line was carried on through Perez and not through the elder son Shelah, whom he had gone to so much trouble to protect, not through the elder twin Zerah (Ruth 4:13-22; Matthew 1:3)”

      • I also like what Guzik points out here about God’s grace and the condition of Israel, “Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33 each list Perez as an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. God took the son of this ungodly situation and put him in the family line of the Messiah, despite the fact that neither Judah nor Tamar were examples of godliness. This is a glorious example of grace. God chose them despite their works to both be in the line of the Messiah and to have their role in God’s plan of redemption. This chapter again reminds us of the corruption and often unspiritual character of the family of Israel.”