Judah and Tamar
Open Your Bible
Genesis 38:1-30, Deuteronomy 25:5-10, 1 Timothy 5:8
Genesis 38 breaks into the Joseph narrative with a bold, complicated, very broken story. Joseph is sold into slavery, and the very next verse we read is about his brother Judah. Judah was one of Leah’s sons, and Leah the wife that Jacob didn’t love. Judah was also the patriarch of the lineage of King David and Jesus. So this story, and Judah’s legacy, isn’t as much an interjection as an interlude that gives us a glimpse of God’s grace and the amazing ways His promises were fulfilled despite all sorts of human interference.
Some cultural background helps this story, because it’s a rather tangled web of relationships. Levirate marriage was a practice in the ancient Near East that was later codified in Deuteronomy 25 as part of the Mosaic law. Basically, it meant that if a man died before he had a child, his brother had to marry his wife, and their first child would carry on the first (dead) brother’s name and place in the lineage.
Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married a woman named Tamar, and Er was so evil that he died. Onan married Tamar, but didn’t want to preserve his brother’s place in the lineage, and so he did not impregnate Tamar, and was killed for that sin. Judah had seen both of his sons die after marrying Tamar, so he hid Shelah away and kept him from Tamar.
Tamar, the widow who had the right to bear Judah’s eldest son’s child and continue the family line, responded. She dressed as a prostitute, tempted Judah, and conceived a child with him without him knowing who she was (Genesis 38:13–19). Later, when Judah found out she was pregnant, he threatened to kill her for adultery (against Shelah, whom she was technically betrothed to). When she revealed that Judah was, in fact, the father, he then admitted that he had wronged her. Tamar had twin sons, Perez and Zerah, and Perez continued the family line and his descendants included King David and Jesus.
That is a lot of background to unpack a story that is, at its root, a story of God’s faithfulness to a family. God had made a promise to Abraham. He made a promise to Isaac and to Jacob. And at so many turns, the promise appears threatened by someone’s sin. Judah almost destroyed what he should never have had in the first place: the blessing of the line of Christ.
But the author of this very complicated story is the Author of the ultimate story: the story where God wins, where His promises all come true, and we are given the free gift of grace purchased on the cross by Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth as a baby in the line of Judah. God can and does redeem the hardest, most impossible, most complicated stories. What a gift it is to be His.