Read Genesis 38:12-30
This chapter is a sordid story that reveals a most unseemly side in Judah and his family. He has wicked sons, so wicked that the LORD Himself removes them through death. Then Judah removes Tamar, implying by his actions (and thoughts) that she must be somehow responsible for the death of Er and Onan. But there is more to Tamar, and this chapter reveals how she acts in a “more righteous” way than Judah. Her actions result in the answer for the grand problem in this chapter, namely, the threat of childlessness.
Tamar deceives Judah (38:12-14)
Time passes, and another member of Judah’s family dies, namely, his wife Bathshua. Perhaps we feel some sympathy for this man. Just as Naomi will later lose both her husband and two sons, so now Judah has lost two sons and his wife. His son Shelah remains.
Tamar has been living with her own father since Judah sent her away following the death of Onan. Up to this point Tamar has been quite passive in the story: her marriage had been arranged by Judah, and it is Judah who removed her from the family circle. We have not heard her speak in the text. But her clothing tells a story. Judah comes to the end of his mourning period, but Tamar continues to wear her widow’s clothing (verse 14). We do not know how long a widow might wear such clothing in that culture. In her case it may very well be her way of saying that she still belongs to Judah’s household, a widow of one husband, but waiting for Shelah to reach the age when he could produce a son for his dead brother Er.
For Judah, life should resume some normalcy. With his friend Hirah, Judah goes into the hill country to participate in the shearing of sheep. Normally, that would be a time of partying, and so it may have been a time to help Judah move beyond his recent grievous losses.
Tamar now takes action. After she is told about Judah’s movements, she disguises herself by putting on clothing that suggested she was a prostitute, veils herself, and waits at a public spot. She is no fool as she realizes that Judah has been less than honest with her. She had been promised Shelah as a husband, but Judah never issues the call for Tamar to come back to his family circle. In effect, Tamar was deceived, and now she will deceive, trick, Judah.
Judah visits a “prostitute” (38:15-19)
Earlier we made the point that Judah had moved into Canaan, and Canaanite attitudes were influencing him. But Judah is not a helpless puppet, and he brings his own sinful nature with him as he settles in Canaan, marries a Canaanite, and establishes a strong friendship with a Canaanite. Although he is now a widower, Judah has no right to visit a prostitute. Loneliness may be what he feels, but it is no excuse for what he now does.
Tamar’s actions also cause thoughtful readers to raise the eyebrow and shake their heads in disgust. True, she is not really becoming a prostitute as a career, but surely this trick—dressing up as a prostitute in order to have sexual relations with Judah—cannot be right. Can it?
In any case, Judah takes the proverbial bait. Spotting a “prostitute,” he makes his approach, and these two consenting adults agree to the terms: she will get a young goat in exchange for sexual intimacy. But Judah is not in the habit of carrying a young goat around with him! Nor does he have enough money on him. This action thus appears to be a somewhat spontaneous act on Judah’s part. He was not looking for a prostitute, but he quickly hatched a plan once he saw her along the road.
Tamar asks for a pledge, and she suggests a couple of very valuable, personal objects from Judah. The seal was a hollowed-out cylinder that would have had distinctive markings (or ornamentation) on it. Typically worn around the neck with a cord, it could be pressed upon soft clay to make a “signature.” The staff (or scepter!) would likely have a carved or ornamented top as well. All this suggests that Judah is not a poor man, for a young goat would be cheap payment for his sexual tryst with a Canaanite prostitute. But to give away his seal and staff is comparable to giving away one’s credit card or a checkbook! What was Judah thinking?
We also note in passing how clothing and a young goat play a role in deception. Jacob had dressed like Esau and served goat meat to his father. Judah and his brothers had killed a goat to spill its blood on Joseph’s special coat. Now Tamar uses prostitute clothes to deceive Judah, who promises a young goat to the “prostitute.”
The story moves quickly as both parties appear to get what they want. Verse 18 says that “he gave… slept with her… and she conceived.” She resumes her posture as a widow by means of her clothing, but the readers all know that what Judah will soon learn: Tamar is pregnant!
The joke is on Judah (38:20-23)
Judah wants to pay up. She needs to get the goat so that Judah can get his “credit cards” (the seal and the staff) back again. He is quick to fulfill this obligation while the obligation to Tamar (and thus to his own son Er) he does not simply neglect, he has no intention of keeping. His Adullamite friend takes the payment, and he asks around for the shrine prostitute (using a different word from that used in verse 15). An ordinary prostitute (e.g., Rahab) did not have as high a status in Canaanite society as did a shrine prostitute. To visit a shrine prostitute was a religious act, in fact a superstitious one, since it was thought that sexual relations with shrine prostitutes would make the gods bless your land: your crops and your livestock would receive fertility.
But there was no shrine prostitute around here, the locals report. She’s gone! Now Judah is in a bind: he has his young goat, but he really would like his “credit cards” back. He’s been “taken to the cleaners!”
Judah does not appear to blush much at all here. Yes, he’s embarrassed by his loss but not by his sin. When you move into Canaan, the very real danger is that Canaan moves into you! Living in Canaan involves satisfying the sinful nature and its lusts, including visits to prostitutes, whether involved with shrines or not. If God does not intervene in this story, Judah is on the road to death.
Who is the father anyway? (38:24-26)
By the third month of Tamar’s pregnancy, the word is out. Tamar is with child. But who is the father of the child? Tamar has patiently waited, dressed in her widow’s clothes, waiting for the head of the house, Judah, to call her back to his family circle to be joined with Shelah, his only surviving son. That call to come back never comes. Judah and everyone else conclude that Tamar has been involved in illicit sexual activity, specifically, prostitution. On one level they are right: she had acted like a prostitute. Yes, but… Yes, but Tamar had resorted to desperate means to secure something of great importance to her personally, no doubt, but even more important, her pregnancy will have great significance for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Judah decrees the death penalty: death by fire for Tamar, a most extreme punishment. Later on in the law of Moses, if a priest’s daughter was involved in prostitution, she had to die by fire (Lev. 21:9). At the same time, had the facts been fully known, since Tamar was technically betrothed to Shelah, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning (see Deut. 22:23-24). Capital crimes, striking as they do at fundamental matters, require capital punishment.
Tamar is arrested, no doubt by family members. But she has a final trump card to play. She produces Judah’s seal and staff (his “credit cards”). Tamar clinches her defense argument with the statement, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. Recognize these?” That question is similar to the one Judah and his brothers had asked father Jacob about Joseph’s coat. One can only imagine how wide Judah’s eyes became as he indeed recognized these personal items of identification. And perhaps he blushed deeply, for his sin has now been exposed.
But if Judah blushed, he did more than that. He also dismissed the case against Tamar. “She is more righteous than I,” declares Judah. This statement may likely strike us as odd, even startling. Is Judah saying that Tamar’s methods are acceptable, that the “end justifies the means?” That is not what Judah means, especially as he points to his own refusal to give Shelah in marriage to Tamar.
“Tamar is in the right” means that Tamar took the call to bear children seriously enough. Er and Onan were dead; Shelah is kept away. God had promised a “seed of the woman” that would crush the serpent’s head. God had promised numerous descendants to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But now Judah stood in the way. So Tamar resorts to highly questionable and most unusual actions to secure a child in Judah’s line. Judah says that, by comparison, Tamar is right while he was not right.
The second son “breaks through” (38:27-30)
It’s twins… again! Rebekah in Genesis 25:24-26 had a “lively” pregnancy with twins who struggled in her womb. With Tamar, her twins “struggle” to be born first. The little infant hand of one emerges from the womb, and he is designated with a scarlet thread as the actual firstborn. His name is Zerah (meaning “scarlet” or “shining”), the ancestor of Achan. But then the second son emerges. He “breaks through” to everyone’s surprise, and thus he is named Perez, “break through.” As Ruth 4:18ff. shows, he is the ancestor of King David and thus of King Jesus Christ.
Gordon Wenham (Genesis 1650, p. 370) observes that “this story, which at first sight seems so marginal to biblical history, records a vital link in saving history. Tamar, through her determination to have children, secured for Judah the honor of fathering both David and the Savior of the world.” Jesus Christ is the ultimate Son who “breaks through” in a way that no one expected. The second and last Adam of history comes through for us. Once again, we stand amazed that God maintain the line of Judah. Tamar would move in a mysterious and will become a mother even of the gracious way for the salvation of Christ. His own. He uses even a Canaanite woman, Tamar, who was determined to have a son to maintain the line of Judah. Tamar will become a mother even of the Christ.
Lesson 4: Points to ponder and discuss
1. I once was told by a long-time member of a church that he did not even know that this story was in the Bible. Why might that be the case? Is this chapter sometimes skipped in Bible reading around the family table? Have you heard many (or any) sermons preached on Genesis 38? What makes this chapter so uncomfortable for us?
2. Judah sees a prostitute, and he desires to have sexual relations with her. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” What is temptation? How does it differ from divine testing? Who are our “sworn enemies that never stopping attacking us”? See James 1: ; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 52, Q/A 127; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 195; Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A
3. Tamar is determined to have children. Could Tamar know about the divine promises in the covenant of grace, namely, that God would give both seed (children) and land? Or, is she simply motivated by a maternal instinct, a natural desire to have children? Is there any way that we can tell from the Biblical text? How does God use and bless this desire to have children?
4. Judah wants Tamar burned for engaging, he believes, in prostitution. Most civil governments today in North America punish prostitution, but they no longer punish adultery or other acts carried out by “consenting adults.” Should such things be punished (again) by the civil magistrates? Could such things be outlawed again? Or, should Christians try only to change people’s views and behaviors in these areas without a change in legislation?
5. We do not believe that the “end justifies the means.” But are there ethical “grey areas?” What actually does “justify the means” that are used toward any particular end or goal?
6. Matthew 1 has a genealogy that leads to Christ’s birth. What unusual women are in that list who are the mothers (ancestresses) of Jesus Christ? What unusual things do they do that serves or advances God’s cause?