Elon, North Carolina
Last week, we looked at the beginning of Genesis 38. It is a chapter that we said last week has some adult topics in it. It is graphic. It is a chapter that deals with Joseph’s brother Judah, the one who sold him into slavery. Last week, we looked at Judah and his sons. Today, we are going to look at Judah and his daughter-in-law.
We will be doing a study of Judah and Tamar today. This story involves drama. It involves suspense. Pregnant Tamar is walking to her death at the end of the chapter. It involves broken promises. It involves deception. It involves prostitution. It involves incest. It also has a surprise ending.
Lessons from Tamar
Who was Tamar? Tamar was the wife of Judah’s firstborn son. In order to understand this chapter, you have to know something about their marriage customs. In that day, they had a rather strange law for widows. It was practiced in the Ancient Near East and later became a part of the Law of Moses.
What did they law say? It said that if a woman married a man and he died, his brother was supposed to marry her to preserve his brother’s legacy. It seems like a primitive marriage custom to us. It is called the law of levirate marriage. The word “levir” in Latin (pronounced lay-veer) is one word for “brother in law”.
You might wonder what the big deal is here. Why does it matter? These marriage laws seem strange to us but this was the way they took care of widows in the ancient world. Tamar was young, childless and widowed. Widows had no inheritance rights and no means of support. If they had no husband or child, they were often forced into prostitution in the ancient world. Tamar was married to Judah’s oldest son which meant that any of her offspring possessed certain rights.
Tamar experienced some tragedy in her life. She had three problems. Her first problem that she was married to complete morons. Some of you may think you have the same problem but Tamar did this twice. She ended up with two husbands who were knuckleheads.
Her second problem is that they both died. Tamar became a widow, not once but twice. Her third problem is that Judah cheated her after her second husband died. Tamar was without a husband and without a child. Tamar married Judah’s son Er but he died. Judah gave her his second son Onan but he died. The third son was too young to get married, so he said, “Go back to your father’s house until he is old enough and you can marry him” (38:11). Tamar submits to Judah. She does what he told her to do.
Genesis tells us the real reason that he sent her back home. He said to himself “There is no way I am going to give my third son to this woman. The first two dropped dead and I only have one left. She must be a black widow. She is bad luck”. Instead of blaming his first two sons, he blames Tamar. The Bible says that the only reason the first two sons died is that they were wicked and God slew them. He executed them.
Time went by. Sheilah grew up but Judah never had him marry Tamar. Judah made a promise to Tamar and didn’t keep it. Judah made a promise to her and broke it, so Tamar springs into action.
What she does is rather interesting. She does not confront Judah. He would probably say one thing and do the opposite anyway but she decided that she was not going to be a victim in spite of the circumstances. This was a woman who insisted on her rights. This was a woman was going to fight for justice. She demanded to get what was rightfully hers.
She decided that she was not going to be a poor childless widow all of her life and she had a plan. She was not passive. In the last chapter, we saw Judah’s plan. His plan was to sell Joseph into slavery. In this chapter, we see Tamar’s plan.
Her plan was DESPERATE. She has to sell her body for sex to get what belonged to her. It was IMMORAL. She had to become a temple prostitute to do it. It may have been legal but it was also immoral. It was CONVENIENT. She makes herself available on the side of the road. It was WELL-TIMED. She waited until Judah became a widow like she was. His wife had just died.
Tamar’s plan was RISKY. She could have been caught. It was DANGEROUS. She almost lost her life in the process. It was DECEPTIVE. Judah said that she could marry his son Sheilah but never followed through with it. Now Tamar is going to trick him. Judah tricked Tamar and now Tamar trick’s Judah. Judah used his brother’s coat to deceive his dad and now Tamar uses a veil to trick Judah.
This is the final example in Genesis of deception. It is something that we have seen all through the Book of Genesis. ABRAHAM tricked Pharaoh and Abimelek. JACOB tricked his brother Esau and his father Isaac. REBECCA helped Jacob trick old blind Isaac. LABAN tricked Jacob by giving him Leah on his wedding night.
RACHEL tricked Laban when she stole his gods and sat on them. JOSEPH’S BROTHERS tricked their father with the coat of many colors which they dipped in blood. JUDAH tricked Tamar by sending her to her father and saying that he will let her marry his son Sheilah when he is old enough. Now TAMAR tricks Judah to get pregnant. The deceiver is once again deceived himself.
Why Didn’t Judah Recognize Tamar?
This story raises an interesting question. How did Judah have sex with a woman and not realize that it was his own daughter-in-law? We have to use our imagination a little bit here. First, some time has elapsed. Several years have gone by. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which was a Jewish book written in the second century B.C., says this was two years later (Testament of Judah 12:1).
Second, Tamar looked different. She changed her clothes. She dresses like a prostitute, instead of a widower. Prostitutes then dressed differently than they do now. Now they leave nothing to the imagination. Tamar had a veil on (38:14, 19), so the only thing Judah could see was her eyes. Three, it was dark. Four, alcohol may have been involved. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs says that Judah was drinking before this (Testament of Judah 12:3).
Don’t forget that Judah’s dad did the same thing he did. Jacob slept with Leah on his wedding night and did not realize that she was Leah until the morning. He thought she was Rachel. After it was all over, she put back on her widow’s clothes (38:19). Tamar leads a double life: prostitute at night, widow during the day but she only did this once.
Tamar’s plan was also SHREWD. She protected herself in the process. She came up with a way to prove who the father of the baby was. How did she do that?
Judah saw a woman who looked like a prostitute on the side of the road. He asked for her services. She agreed but they had to come up with a price. Judah said, “How about a goat?” That sounds like a fair trade to most of us, sex for a goat. The only problem is that Judah did not happen to have a goat with him at the time.
Tamar said, “That is no problem but you have to first give me a security deposit. I need some collateral”. That sounded fair to Judah. It was smart financially not to take credit. Now Tamar gets to set the terms. She agreed to the deal if Judah gave her three things. She wanted his seal, his chord and his staff.
This was like asking for his identification. His staff was his walking stick but it often had some engravings on it which distinguished it from other sticks. The seal was a round thing that you wore around your neck. It had his name or symbol on it. If it was placed on a piece of clay, it would make an impression on it. People signed documents with their seal.
It was wise on Tamar’s part to ask for these three things. It ended up saving her life. While she was being brought out to be burned (38:24-25), she brought these three things out. Just as Joseph’s brother’s asked their dad if he recognized the bloody coat (37:32), now Tamar asks Judah if he recognized the chord, signet and staff (38:26)
Lessons from Judah
1) Judah was not a great brother.
He was the one who came up with the idea of selling his little brother into slavery. He was the one who said that it is a dumb idea to kill Joseph because they do not get anything from it. He said that it is better to sell him and to get some money off of him than to kill him. In fact, the name “Judah” when transliterated into Greek (LXX) is “Judas” (Ἰούδας). He sold his brother for silver like Judas sold Jesus for silver.
2) Judah was not a great parent.
Judah gets married and has some kids in this chapter but he apparently was not a great parent. This is an inference we can draw from the text. Judah’s first two sons turned out so bad that God killed them. He must not have done a great job in raising them that both turned out, not only bad, but so bad that God had to remove them from the planet.
3) Judah compromised with the world.
He distances himself from God’s people. He marries outside the faith. He marries a Canaanite woman and some of his best friends were Canaanites (Hirah).
4) Judah committed sexual sin.
Judah visits a temple prostitute on the side of the road and commits incest. Jacob propositioned Tamar. Tamar did not proposition Judah. He becomes the second brother to commit incest. Reuben did as well, although Judah did not know he was committing incest. It was a sin of ignorance and once he realized who she was, he never slept with her again (38:26).
Judah does not have a whole lot of integrity in this chapter. The only integrity Judah has here is that he actually pays the prostitute. They agreed to have sex for a goat. Judah does not keep his word with his daughter-in-law but he does keep his word with a prostitute that he believes he has never met before. He has someone bring the goat he promised for sex. He keeps his promise. He wanted to have good credit history.
5) Judah was a poor leader.
Judah is supposed to head the head of the tribe of Judah. In order to do that, his kids have to first have children. He starts off great. He selects a wife for his firstborn son. When he dies, he has his wife marry his second son.
So far he is doing a great job. When his second son dies, he sends Tamar away. That put the offspring of Judah in jeopardy. He did not do what he was supposed to do and what he said he would do which put the whole house of Judah in jeopardy.
When men do not lead like they are supposed to, the women take the lead. That is what Tamar does in this chapter. When Judah does not make sure that Judah’s line produces offspring, she makes sure it takes place.
6) Judah displayed incredible hypocrisy.
When he finds out that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he is angry. Why? She was technically betrothed to his son Shelah and now she is pregnant from another man. This is the first court case in biblical history. Judah is the judge but Tamar is not even given a trial. She is presumed guilty. She has the baby inside of her. In Judah’s mind, there is no need to have a trial. We already have the evidence against her.
Judah is Tamar’s father-in-law. He is not objective but he pronounces the sentence against Tamar and it is harsh. He wants her executed. He shows no mercy or compassion on her. He wants the book thrown at her. He points the finger at her and says that she deserves to die. He says that she needs to be burned at the stake. That is even harsher than what the Mosaic law said later.
What is the problem? Judah is a big fat hypocrite. Judah is self-righteous. He wants Tamar to die for what she did, even though he was guilty of the exact same thing. It was somehow wrong for her but not for him. He has a bit of a double standard. He condemns Tamar for being a harlot and he is out seeing prostitutes. That is why Jesus said, “Do not judge or you to will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). We need to be careful about point the finger at someone else when we are doing the same thing or even something worse than they are doing.
If Judah had Tamar put to death, he would have killed three people (Tamar and her two sons) but that is not all. If he would have executed Tamar, he would have destroyed the messianic line. He would have frustrated the purposes of God. God had to deliver Judah form his own stupidity.
7) Judah admitted when he was wrong.
Judah does one thing right in this chapter. When he is confronted with the truth (Tamar has his seal, his cord and his staff), he takes full responsibility. He admits he is the father of the baby. In fact, he says that Tamar is more righteous than he is, since he did not keep his end of the bargain and give her his son Shelah in marriage (38:26).
Some people never admit when they are wrong, even when people have all kinds of evidence staring them in the face. Others admit they are wrong but blame other people for what they did. That is what politicians do today. Judah did not do that. He did NOT say, “I did the same thing but you tricked me”. He admitted that he was wrong and that Tamar was right.
A Shocking Ending
There is a surprise ending to this chapter. In fact, there are several surprises. The first surprise is that Tamar’s plan actually works. It was risky but she did not get caught and when Judah found out she was pregnant, she is not killed. Not only does she get pregnant, she has twins. She wanted one baby but got two, twin boys. One must have been Hispanic because his name was Perez.
There are only two mothers in the Bible who have twins (Rebekah and Tamar) and they are both found in the Book of Genesis. The two that were born at the end of the chapter replace the two who died in the beginning of the chapter (Er, Onan).
The second surprise is that she was said to be more righteous that Judah. That is a bit of a shock. The prostitute is more righteous than the patriarch. Tamar probably was not even Jewish. She was a foreigner and yet she was more righteous than all of the Jews in the chapter. The prostitute looks better than the patriarch here.
The third surprise is that God brings good out of evil here. That is a shock. He brought good out of prostitution. He brought good out of incest. He brought good out of an illegitimate birth. These two boys were born out of wedlock. They were not supposed to have been born and yet God brought good out of that evil situation.
Now, God could have brought the Messiah through Judah’s other son Sheilah. He did eventually get married. We know that from the OT (Numbers 26:20; I Chronicles 4:21) but the Messiah did not come through Sheilah. The Messiah was a descendant of Judah and Tamar’s son.
Without Judah and Tamar, David would not have been born. Perez was the ancestor of King David. Jesus was a descendant of King David. He was called “the Son of David.” The firstborn became the ancestor of the Messiah. We see that in Matthew 1:3. “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron.”
That is why the twins are fighting to see which one will get out first. One sticks his hand out but the other is actually born first. Why was this mentioned? It was important legally who is born first to be in the lineage of the Messiah.
This was an incredible display of God’s grace to sinners. Judah was chosen to be the one of Jacob’s twelve sons to be the ancestor of the Messiah. He did not deserve this at all. His brother Joseph was much godlier than he was, as we will see next week. The Messiah did not come from the line of Joseph. He came from the line of Judah. It was only by the grace of God. Paul said that he was what he was by the grace of God. So was Judah and so are we.