Judah and Tamar
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Genesis 38:1-30, Deuteronomy 25:5-10, 1 Timothy 5:8
BY Melanie Rainer
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.
45 thoughts on "Judah and Tamar"
I wanted to add on to why Onan had to die; By the Law, Onan could have refused to marry Tamar and have children with her in his brother’s name. But to have refused he would have had to publicly make it known, before the town Elders, that he was refusing to be the kinsman redeemer and marry her, and that was considered shameful. So he came up with his own plan to trick the people into thinking he was being the honorable kinsman redeemer when in fact he was trying to make sure he would never have a child with her, by spilling his seed on the ground. This is made even worse because he didn’t refuse to have sex with her, but he refused the reason for the sex -procreation. Also he may have thought that he was pulling one over on God too by doing this. It’s also important to note that Jesus is our Kinsman Redeemer! So when Onan refused to act justly and fulfill this roll he was defaming that position.
I appreciated what Gwendolyn had to say about Onan missing out on his opportunity to be in the line of Christ, And this post in general was a real blessing to me when I came across it.
The story in the Bible does not say that Tamar tempted Judah. She did not initiate or try anything to him. It says that Judah saw her and thought she was a prostitute, and asked to have sex with her. All she did was agree
I also wanted to reply to Cat. These are great questions which may not have a satisfactory answer. Like Amanda said, Sarai had a specific promise from God and showed a lack of trust in his ability to do it the right way. While it was normal for servants to act as surrogates for their masters’ wives, it was never condoned by God. Levirate law was not coded into Mosaic law until later, but it was condoned by God. Sarai went outside of God’s laws while Tamar did not. Levirate law protected women and upheld their standing, while surrogacy by a servant didn’t do that for either the wife or the servant. Thanks for throwing those questions out there….it was very helpful for me to have to think it through!
Onan refused to obey the leverage law to raise a family for his dead brother..when he went into tamar..he spilled his seed and also he missed the opportunity of being in the direct bloodline of Jesus Christ
I thought that Cat, who posted on July 9th had some good and honest questions, I wanted to think through and respond to. Sarai had been spoken to by God, that she would have a child in her old age. Since she then offered Hagar to Abraham, she was going outside of God’s plan. God was still faithful to honor his promise to Sarah however, despite this. Tamar was righteous and had been wronged by Judah, who was too afraid to give her in marriage to Shua when Shua came of age, despite Hebrew law. Tamar essentially put Judah in a position where he gave her justice without realizing it. It fulfilled God’s plan, revealed God’s concern for widows, his justice, and his faithfulness to his promises.
I appreciate Cats vulnerability to ask and seek truth and I enjoy discussing the Word. I appreciate the She Reads Truth program for study and have enjoyed participating.
So I’m new in my reading of the bible so it’s been difficult to not take the readings at face value. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t Tamar manipulating Judah in order to have a child from his lineage? Is this deceitful to God? I understand he promised a lineage through Jacob and Judah almost destroyed it by keeping Shelah away. How is Tamar’s manipulation any different than Sarai manipulating her child bearing with Hagar? They both had a “right” to have a child with their husband. Sarai was filled with hate and jealousy after but eventually still had a child with Abraham. However, Tamar had no problem having a child. Am I missing the point here?
I’m a little confused as to why Onan had to die…
I love studying these verses along with my study Bible, “Tamar became a member of the family of promise, even though she was a Canaanite (Ruth 4:12). Matthew mentions Tamar-a woman-in the lineage of the Messiah. She became a heroine of the faith-despite her origins and the nature of her actions (Matt. 1:3).” God is eternally faithful.
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