Judah and Tamar, 1-30

Kidner notes that this account must be understood on its own terms:

‘The sins and stratagems of [the individuals named in this account] are of family import, and the story can only be appreciated in these terms. The future hangs on their choices: the plot revolves round Tamar’s right to be the mother of Judah’s heir, and her successive frustrations and eventual victory are its dominant concern. On a higher plane the book of Ruth treats a variant of this theme; and both times the Davidic, Messianic lineage was involved, all unknown, in the issue.’

38:1 At that time Judah left his brothers and stayed with an Adullamite man named Hirah.
38:2 There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. Judah acquired her as a wife and had marital relations with her. 38:3 She became pregnant and had a son. Judah named him Er. 38:4 She became pregnant again and had another son, whom she named Onan. 38:5 Then she had yet another son, whom she named Shelah. She gave birth to him in Kezib.
38:6 Judah acquired a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 38:7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the LORD’s sight, so the LORD killed him.
38:8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Have sexual relations with your brother’s wife and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her so that you may raise up a descendant for your brother.” 38:9 But Onan knew that the child would not be considered his. So whenever he had sexual relations with his brother’s wife, he withdrew prematurely so as not to give his brother a descendant. 38:10 What he did was evil in the LORD’s sight, so the LORD killed him too.

The duty of a brother-in-law – This implies that such was accepted practice, and Deut 25:5ff confirms it as a legal requirement.

Onan, however, was interested in raising his own heirs, not those of his dead brother

Kidner remarks: ‘The enormity of Onan’s sin is in its studied outrage against the family, against his brother’s widow and against his own body.’

38:11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until Shelah my son grows up.” For he thought, “I don’t want him to die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.
38:12 After some time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. After Judah was consoled, he left for Timnah to visit his sheepshearers, along with his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 38:13 Tamar was told, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” 38:14 So she removed her widow’s clothes and covered herself with a veil. She wrapped herself and sat at the entrance to Enaim which is on the way to Timnah. (She did this because she saw that she had not been given to Shelah as a wife, even though he had now grown up.)

On the significance of the time of year, Kidner comments:

‘Sheep-shearing was a festive time (cf. 1 Sam. 25:4, 11, 36), when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic.’

Kidner comments on Tamar’s courage, and the risk she was prepared to take:

‘The last phrase of verse 24, ‘let her be burnt’, shows the risk she accepted; Judah’s admission in verse 26 recognizes the injustice which her desperate step defeated. She shows something of the indomitable spirit of an Esther, a Jael or a Rizpah’

38:15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute because she had covered her face. 38:16 He turned aside to her along the road and said, “Come on! I want to have sex with you.” (He did not realize it was his daughter-in-law.) She asked, “What will you give me in exchange for having sex with you?” 38:17 He replied, “I’ll send you a young goat from the flock.” She asked, “Will you give me a pledge until you send it?” 38:18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?” She replied, “Your seal, your cord, and the staff that’s in your hand.” So he gave them to her and had sex with her. She became pregnant by him. 38:19 She left immediately, removed her veil, and put on her widow’s clothes.

As a pledge, Tamar asks for Judah’s “seal, your cord, and the staff that’s in your hand”.  The seal and the (carved) staff would both have been distinctive of their owner.

38:20 Then Judah had his friend Hirah the Adullamite take a young goat to get back from the woman the items he had given in pledge, but Hirah could not find her. 38:21 He asked the men who were there, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim by the road?” But they replied, “There has been no cult prostitute here.” 38:22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I couldn’t find her. Moreover, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no cult prostitute here.’ ” 38:23 Judah said, “Let her keep the things for herself. Otherwise we will appear to be dishonest. I did indeed send this young goat, but you couldn’t find her.”
38:24 After three months Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has turned to prostitution, and as a result she has become pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” 38:25 While they were bringing her out, she sent word to her father-in-law: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Then she said, “Identify the one to whom the seal, cord, and staff belong.” 38:26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more upright than I am, because I wouldn’t give her to Shelah my son.” He did not have sexual relations with her again.
38:27 When it was time for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb. 38:28 While she was giving birth, one child put out his hand, and the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 38:29 But then he drew back his hand, and his brother came out before him. She said, “How you have broken out of the womb!” So he was named Perez. 38:30 Afterward his brother came out—the one who had the scarlet thread on his hand—and he was named Zerah.

“Bring her out and let her be burned!”

Kidner remarks on the double standards at work here:

‘We need not suspect conscious hypocrisy in Judah’s outburst, so much as the deeper dishonesty of having one standard for men and another for women.’

Here is a prophet’s outcry against such double standards:

Hosea 4:14I will not punish your daughters when they commit prostitution, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery. For the men consort with harlots, they sacrifice with temple prostitutes. It is true: “A people that lacks understanding will come to ruin!”’

Summary and discussion

This story is about levirate marriage.  Tamar is married to Judah’s son, Er.  But (a man of unexplained wickedness) dies without issue.  It falls to Er’s brother Onan to give her a child in Er’s name.  But Onan fails to complete the job, and is struck dead, v10.  So Judah promises his Shelah to Tamar.  But he then renages, fearing that he too might meet an early death like his brothers.

Tamar’s plan is to disguise herself as a prostitute and entice Judah himself to make her pregnant.  (The fact that he was willing to do so says quite a lot about his moral character).  Having no money on him, she accepts his seal, cord and staff as a pledge of future payment.

Some months later, a pregnant Tamar returns to Judah.  At first, he threatens to have her stoned to death for her ‘immorality’.  But the seal, cord and staff prove that it was he who had sex with her.  Judah confesses, “She is more upright [righteous] than I am, because I wouldn’t give her to Shelah my son” (v26).  A vindicated Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

This account is significant in discussions about ‘righteousness’.  It is argued that it illustrative of a distinction between ‘normative’ righteousness and ‘relational’ righteousness.  Tamar (it is suggested) was righteous in the latter sense, but not in the former.

But (argues Derek Rishwamy), it is not at all clear that Tamar lacked ‘normative’ (i.e. legal) righteousness.  Her ‘prostitution’ was a one-off act for the purpose of raising up an heir in the name of Judah’s firstborn (see also v26b).  It was Judah who failed in his duty to give his son Shelah to Tamar.  Tamar was righteous, then, in following the requirements of levirate law an gaining an heir for Judah from Judah himself.  She is culpable, possibly, in her use of deception, but not in anything else; but Tamar isn’t even charged with deception in the account itself.  She is vindicated.

Rishwamy concludes:

First, although Tamar’s actions, at first sight, seem immoral, ‘upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1).’

‘Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One.

‘Third,…it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!’


Kselman (Harper’s Bible Commentary) comments on the appearance of Tamar (along with other women) in Jesus’ genealogy, as recorded by Matthew:

‘In the NT, Perez makes an appearance in both genealogies of Jesus (Matt. 1:3; Luke 3:33). More surprising is the appearance of Tamar in the Matthean genealogy, along with three other OT women: Rahab, Ruth, and “Uriah’s wife” (Matt. 1:3–6). Not only is the presence of women in a genealogical list unexpected; in each case there is something unusual or irregular in their marital unions. In Matthew’s view, each of these women becomes a part of the divine plan in continuing the line in which the Messiah will be born of Mary, whose pregnancy could be viewed as irregular or scandalous because she had not yet come to live with her husband (Matt. 1:18). Tamar is one of the many women in the OT who show initiative within a patriarchal world.’