Genesis 38: Judah and Tamar

By Mary Jane Chaignot

With Joseph on his way to Egypt, the story turns to another brother, Judah. Surely this is no accident. This is the only story to interrupt the Joseph narrative, so we can assume that it’s important. Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, and he, too, will play an important role in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Approximately twenty years will pass before Joseph is ready for his role in Egypt. During this time, the author is telling us that God is also cultivating and preparing Judah. We already know that the first three sons have shown themselves to be morally unfit to lead the family. Now the narrator presents a closer look at Judah. Some scholars think that because this story is not flattering towards Judah, it’s only included because it already is part of the tradition. In other words, the story is too well-known to ignore. Others think it comes well after the fact in order to explain how several foreign clans have become part of the Judahite tribe.

The story begins simply by saying that Judah parts from his brothers. No reason is given, but is it hard to surmise? Jacob is still grief-stricken, preoccupied, not showing any interest in the affairs of his sons or his family. No doubt Judah feels it is time to move out on his own. Interestingly, he “went down” from his brothers and pitched his tent near an Adulamite named Hirah. Shortly thereafter, he “saw” and “took” the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. His wife is never named. At the end of her life, she is still referred to by the name of her father. The words “saw” and “took” remind us of the Dinah story, but here there is no familial outrage. Nor is there any talk about the covenant, or the land, or descendants. It appears that at this point, it’s everyone for himself.

And so it is that within a short time, Judah is the proud father of three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Then it says that he found a wife for his first son; her name is Tamar, though Judah will never use her given name. Interestingly, this is the first mention of such patriarchal duty since Abraham sent his servant out to find a wife for Isaac. Jacob does not give Judah or any of his other sons a wife, but Judah finds one for his firstborn. Unfortunately, Er is “evil in the sight of the Lord.” His offense is not mentioned; it is only presupposed. Yet, the consequences are stark: “God puts him to death.” The untimely death of a young, virile husband cannot be attributed to chance. People believe that God controls everything, and God does not act arbitrarily. Therefore, Er’s death has to be the result of some unspecified sin. There is no mention as to the manner of his demise.

Judah immediately tells his second son, Onan, that he needs to “do his duty and raise up seed for his brother.” Judah’s main concern seems to be for the deceased brother. He invokes the concept of Levirate marriage whereby the second son is obligated to impregnate his brother’s widow. The resulting child will be the biological offspring of the dead brother, thereby providing continuity for his name. Additionally, it provides the opportunity for his widow to have a child, which is her primary way of achieving fulfillment. Regrettably, Onan is not agreeable to this. Apparently, Onan is not interested in sharing any of Er’s inheritance with an offspring that would, by law, inherit a double portion of Judah’s estate. If there is no offspring, that double portion is given to Onan. He keeps this plan to himself, saying nothing to Judah while pretending to fulfill his duty. But he is careful to spill his seed to keep Tamar from getting pregnant. Needless to say, such duplicity is displeasing to the Lord and, shortly, Onan also dies by the Lord’s hand. Again, no information about the manner of his death is provided.

Now in reality, Judah has just lost two sons, yet it says nothing about his grief, or about his mourning, or about tearing his clothes. This is in sharp contrast to Jacob’s response upon hearing about Joseph. Not that this suggests Judah loves his sons any less, for indeed, he suddenly becomes very concerned about his third and last son. He begins to suspect that perhaps Tamar is the problem. So, he sends Tamar back to her father’s house on the pretense that his third son is too young to marry her. He asks her to “remain a widow until Selah grows up.” Implicit in this plan is a promise that when Selah is older, Tamar will have another chance to provide an heir for Er and to find fulfillment as a mother. In the meantime, she lives in a state of limbo, cut off from Judah’s family, devoid of any inheritance rights, and without the freedom to marry anyone else. She is told to wait.

And time passes. A lot of time. Eventually, Shelah reaches marriageable age, but Judah makes no effort to keep his word to Tamar. She has no recourse – until fate intervenes. Her opportunity comes when Judah’s wife dies, and the traditional mourning period has ended. Judah and Hirah, his friend the Adulamite, make arrangements to participate in the sheep shearing festivities at Timnah. These are always occasions for abundant food and drink and, generally, for having a good time. Tamar hears about these plans.

Painfully aware that Judah has made no attempt (and probably never will) to give her to Shelah, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She puts off her widow’s garments, puts on a veil, and places herself alongside the road that he must take. Her plan works, because Judah sees her and propositions her, thinking that she is a prostitute and not having a clue that she is his daughter-in-law. She inquiries about payment but lets him set the terms. He offers to provide her with a kid from the herd, but she asks for a pledge until the kid comes. “What will suffice for a pledge?” he asks. She replies that his “seal and cord and staff” will suffice. All of these items will be very specific identifiers belonging to Judah. She is asking Judah to give her his identity. Without hesitation Judah agrees -- and Tamar conceives. She returns to her father’s house.

The next day when Judah sends Hirah to retrieve his items and give her the kid, she is nowhere to be found. The townspeople are unaware of any prostitutes in the area. For propriety’s sake, Judah has no interest in pursuing the matter. He does not want people to know that he was outwitted by a prostitute.

But it is not long before the rumor is out – Tamar is pregnant! When Judah hears it, he makes a lightning decision: she will be burned. No doubt on some level, he is relieved to find a legal way out of his dilemma over having her marry his third and last son. Technically, she is betrothed to that son, and getting pregnant by someone else is tantamount to committing adultery. But in reality, it is Judah who has prevented her from becoming Shelah’s wife. He has also prevented her from marrying into any other family by obligating her to wait for Shelah to grow up. By keeping her in abeyance, Judah has in essence promised her that she will bear a Judahite heir. She is committed to doing that, and all her actions lead to that result. She is claiming her right to become a mother in the family that has chosen her.

As she is brought out of her father’s house, Tamar presents the evidence to Judah – his own seal, cord, and staff. The evidence tells him that she’s the one he met alongside the road, and the child she is carrying is really his child. Judah is repentant and compassionate. He confesses his sin, saying she is “more righteous than I, for have I not failed to give her my son, Shelah.” There are no repercussions for Tamar - indeed, the text does not sanction her in any way. She forces Judah to fulfill the levirate responsibility himself. Judah acknowledges this, and his words provide vindication for her unconventional solution to her problem.

When it is time for her to give birth, she delivers twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Perez will be the progenitor of Judah’s kings, including King David and the Messiah. Some scholars argue that Tamar must have been an Israelite, that all these events (tragic, though they may be) occurred in order to keep the lineage pure and free from Canaanite influence. The thinking is that she couldn’t have produced a child with his sons, because they were the product of marriage with a Canaanite. Most, however, note that God works in mysterious ways. This time he chooses a desperate widow, whose desire for a child is rewarded by giving birth to the ancestor of the Messiah. Additionally, Tamar is one of the four women mentioned in Matthew’s official genealogy of Jesus. Since the other three are non-Israelites, it is likely that Tamar is, too.