Judah’s Sons,Tamar, and The Messianic Line
Genesis 38: 1-11
1And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. And he took her, and went in unto her. 3And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er. 4And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan. 5And she yet again bare a son, and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him. 6And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. 7And Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of Jehovah. And Jehovah slew him. 8And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 9And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. 10And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of Jehovah: and he slew him also. 11Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter-in-law, Remain a widow in thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown up; for he said, Lest he also die, like his brethren. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house (ASV 1901).
Judah, who was aligned with Reuben in steering the other sons of Jacob away from killing Joseph left them and travelled to Adullam. This was a town in the Judean lowlands southwest of Bethlehem. It later in the invasion under general Joshua was made a part of the tribal inheritance of Judah and it was also associated with the life of David (I Samuel 22: 1-2 etc.). Judah must have had a disagreement with his siblings regarding the disposition of Joseph because he chose not to stay with them. This account will span a time frame of approximately twenty-three years.
In Adullam Judah meets and befriends a man named Hirah. Through Hirah he is introduced to Shua who has a marriageable daughter. So he marries this unnamed Canaanite woman and ends up having three children with her. Interestingly, both Abraham and Isaac went to great lengths to prevent their children from marrying Canaanite women. Esau of course violated that and intermarried with the Canaanites and the Ishmaelites. Judah who was of the chosen family line began the intermarriages into the Canaanites. The text simply says that he took her, and went in unto her. He then had three sons by her: Er (עֵר), Onan, and Shelah. Judah named Er and his wife named Onan and Shelah since he was away in the nearby town of Chezib. Hebrew naming shows the parents wish to commemorate some meaningful event through the child’s name. Er means forsaken or lonely. Onan means sorrow and Shelah means deception. This seems to indicate that Judah was quite remorseful over the events that brought Joseph into slavery into Egypt.
When Er was grown he was married to a woman named Tamar. The text further tells us that he was wicked in the sight of Jehovah. The Hebrew word for wicked is ra רַע. It is a designation of a degree of wickedness that merits divine retribution. And in this case his death was the result of Jehovah God taking his life in some undisclosed manner. Jehovah who knows all things was keeping Tamar from this evil man. As a result of his death Judah instructs the second born son Onan to do his duty and “Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.” This concept is called the law of levirate marriage. It was codified into the Mosaic Law and became a standard practice (Deuteronomy 25: 5-6, Ruth 4: 5-6; Matthew 22: 24). The idea was to keep the name of the individual who died through his son. This would also preserve an in family transfer of land and material wealth. The first-born son would be the heir and would also have an obligation along with the new husband to care for the widow. Widows in ancient Israel would be forced to beg without this law. So in this way the widow was protected from becoming destitute. Finally, the son would keep the family name alive even though the father was not alive to propagate. One clear example of this is the marriage of Ruth to Boaz
Deuteronomy 25: 5-6
5If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. 6And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel (ASV 1901).
Onan seemed to have no qualms against marrying Tamar Er’s widow. He seemed to accept the easy part of having sexual intercourse with her and accepting his inheritance. Er was first born so he would have gotten Judah’s estate when he passed. Er realized this and complied with Judah’s instructions. However, Onan realized that the children would not be his per se but that of Er’s so during intercourse with Tamar he continually withdrew from her before he deposited his semen into her. Thus, she was not allowed to become pregnant. Some mistakenly teach through this example here that God prohibits contraception. The sin here was, Onan did not want to obey his father and honor his brother by taking up the responsibility that was given to him. Because his sin was in the same category of wickedness of his brother Er the Lord executed His divine will and caused him to die too. Tamar was now a widow again and Judah instructed her to “Remain a widow in thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown up; for he said, Lest he also die, like his brethren.” Judah was certainly considering Tamar to have some major issue that both her husbands received divine executions. So he told her that when his third son Shelah was of age she could have him in levirate because he feared that Jehovah would take him too. Judah had no intention of letting Tamar marry Shelah because of the curse he thought she had. She trusted Judah and went to her father’s home to live and wait for Shelah to come of age and marry her.
The Strange Case of Tamar and Judah
Genesis 38: 12-26
12And in process of time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheep-shearers to Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold, thy father-in-law goeth up to Timnah to shear his sheep. 14And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gate of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife. 15When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face. 16And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Come, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee: for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? 17And he said, I will send thee a kid of the goats from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? 18And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet and thy cord, and thy staff that is in thy hand. And he gave them to her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him. 19And she arose, and went away, and put off her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. 20And Judah sent the kid of the goats by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not. 21Then he asked the men of her place, saying, Where is the prostitute, that was at Enaim by the wayside? And they said, There hath been no prostitute here. 22And he returned to Judah, and said, I have not found her; and also the men of the place said, There hath been no prostitute here. 23And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be put to shame: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her. 24And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter-in-law hath played the harlot; and moreover, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. 25When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff. 26And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more. (ASV 1901)
So time passed and Judah was making no effort to arrange another levirate marriage between Shelah and Tamar who desired children and not wanting to make a career of widowhood. She was still a young woman. Judah’s wife died and he went through a period of ritual mourning as the text says that and Judah was comforted. Later he and his friend Hirah went up to the sheep-shearers. This was a festive time for them and Judah now done with mourning was going to join in the party atmosphere.
Tamar became aware of Judah’s travel to the party with the sheep shearers with Hirah and she devised a plan to force him into a role of a levir for her. In her contrivance she planned to entrap him. She changed out of her widow’s clothes and made herself appear as an adherent of Astarte, which was a sacred prostitute. She then put on a veil, which had several connotations of that day. Brides principally wore them on their wedding night and so did prostitutes wanting to appear as a wholesome bride. So a veiled woman in public gave off the message that she was a prostitute available for sexual intercourse. She had essentially dressed herself as a cult prostitute and waited for Judah to appear at the city gate of Enaim. Her actions while retaliatory for not getting Shelah put her into a doubly sinful situation. She was legally betrothed to Shelah regardless of what Judah was preventing and she was planning on an incestuous relationship with Judah.
When Judah saw her he was enticed by her. She played the role of seductress and lured him into a sexual union. It was Judah who suggested the sex when he said to her, ”Come, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee: for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law.” He was coming off a period of mourning and was exceptionally vulnerable to temptation of this sort and didn’t realize that this was his daughter-in-law in disguise. Tamar who played the role of a prostitute asked for payment for gratifying his sexual desires. This was a normal request from a prostitute. She says, “What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?” He promised her a kid of the goats of the flock at a later time for sexual favors now, but she did not trust him and wanted something of more significance as a promissory to pay. She was actually looking for something to provide as evidence proving him to be the father of the child who would come from the union. So Judah asks, “What pledge shall I give thee? She being very savvy says to him in response, “Thy signet and thy cord, and thy staff that is in thy hand.” These three items had identifying significance for her to later prove who the father’s child was. The signet was used to seal documents, the cord was a necklace that the ring was kept on, and the staff in his hand established his profession. So she received them and she had sex with him, after which she became pregnant. She then left, removed the veil and put back on the widow’s clothes.
Judah then tried to make good on the promise to give her a goat kid. He sent Hirah to her with the payment. He of course wanted his personal items back, which she was holding as a deposit. When Hirah was unable to find her he begins asking the men of her place, saying,” Where is the prostitute, that was at Enaim by the wayside?” they just said, “There hath been no prostitute here.” Hirah tried to honor Judah’s commitment to pay her and when that failed he returned to Judah with the kid. Judah decided to forget the entire incident.
Now comes the revelation to Judah of what actually happened. After three months when Tamar is just entering her second trimester a report was given to Judah that Tamar had become a harlot and she is pregnant as a result of her prostitute activities. So Judah still not knowing that he impregnated her says in response to learning what she did, “Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.” He was the patriarch of the clan and had a right to do this since she was guilty of prostitution. During the trial she pleaded, “By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff.” Judah then had to confess when he was exposed and simply admitted his guilt by saying, “She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.”
Twins are Born to Judah and Tamar
Genesis 38: 27-30
28And it came to pass, when she travailed, that one put out a hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. 29And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, Wherefore hast thou made a breach for thyself? Therefore his name was called Perez. 30And afterward came out his brother that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zerah. (ASV 1901)
This section of Scripture regarding the story of Judah and Tamar ends with the birth of twin sons. When they were about to be born one put his hand out of the womb and the midwife tied a scarlet thread on his hand to indicate he was the first born. However he drew his hand back in and returned into the womb. So the second one was born first. This caused the midwife to say, “Wherefore hast thou made a breach for thyself?” This is a Hebrew play on words, which means you breached a breach or you forged through. This is the meaning of the name Perez who was the first-born. He became a seed son of the Messianic line (Ruth 4: 12, 18-22; Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33). The second son then came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand and he was named Zerah meaning the shining one probably due to the scarlet thread. This account while seemingly out of place in the story of Joseph traces the Messianic line. It also shows that they were intermarrying into the Canaanites. This is one of the reasons God took Judah and the rest of the family into Egypt. Finally there is a strong contrast illustrated here between Judah and Joseph. One brother was resisting temptation and the other caving in to it.
Daniel E. Woodhead