Judah and Tamar

The story of Jacob's family focuses in on one particular son, Judah, through whom the Messiah would eventually come, and examines his unusual relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar.
Class by:
43 of 50

Our previous chapter began with the record of the last of the writers of the book of Genesis, Joseph. It chronicled his story from a young, proud and ambitious man who was resented and nearly killed by his brothers to the point where he was sold into slavery in Egypt as a result of their hatred for him.

We saw how he was blessed by God with spiritual gifts and through their misuse was separated from his brothers.

This will set the stage for the final episode in the book of Genesis which will be the settling of the children of Israel (Jacob) in the land of Egypt where they will eventually be enslaved.

The next book of the Bible, Exodus, will be the story of God's deliverance of these people to the Promised Land. But first, we take a small detour as the narrative shifts from Joseph for one chapter and gives us a glimpse into the life of the brother through whom the Messiah would come.

Story of Judah

1And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her and went in to her. 3So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. 4Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. 5She bore still another son and named him Shelah; and it was at Chezib that she bore him.
- Genesis 38:1-5

After the incident with Joseph, Judah decides to leave the family compound and strike out on his own. He looks for and finds a wife without consulting God or his father Jacob.

The wife he takes is a Canaanite woman who was a pagan, and as we see by the actions of his sons, probably never converted to the worship of Jehovah. They had three sons:

  • ER – watcher, named by Judah
  • ONAN – strong, named by his mother
  • SHELAH – uncertain, also named by his mother.

The significance of the mother naming the two last children suggests a tilting of influence in the home towards the mother since it was normally the father who gave the names. (Same with Jacob whose wives named the children and had tremendous influence in the homes and over Jacob).

6Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah's firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life. 8Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." 9Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. 10But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.

Although Judah chose his own wife without help from God or Jacob, he seems to recognize the folly of this course and wants to secure a better arrangement for his own son.

We know nothing of Tamar (which means to be erect, to stand straight, a palm tree) but her name and the fact that Judah specifically chose her suggests that in the pagan environment, she was a woman of principle and strength.

We see, by the fact that Er was a wicked man, that the mother's pagan influence seemed to have an effect on him. The messianic line was to come through Judah and so God destroyed Er before he could be part of that genealogy (the fact that He did not destroy Tamar speaks on her behalf).

Judah then presses on to Onan, the brother, the responsibility to carry on his elder brother's lineage by marrying his widow. This was called levirate regulation (from a Latin word levir meaning brother-in-law). This was an ancient custom used to protect land and property rights within families. If a brother died without children, the nearest relative would marry the widow and the first male child would belong, as far as succession rights were concerned, to the dead relative and carry his name. Other children would legally belong to the new father.

Onan has seen the result of his brother's wickedness so he goes along with this but in the end refuses to produce children for his dead brother (he is afraid that he will have to share some of his own property with his brother's child). He has intercourse but interrupts conception; for this rebellion God slays him as well.

  • The term ONANISM was often used to refer to masturbation and this passage was often used to show that this practice was a sin.
  • This passage however is about obedience to God and the punishment that disobedience brings. The Bible does not comment directly about the sexual issues of masturbation, birth control or sexual practice within marriage. The principles that guide us in these include fidelity (Hebrews 13:4), mutual respect and cooperation (I Corinthians 7:3-7) and Christian decency (I Thessalonians 4:4).

It is important that when we try to prove a point using the Bible, we make the point that the Bible makes, not the point that we want to make using the Bible incorrectly and out of context.

11Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Remain a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up"; for he thought, "I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers." So Tamar went and lived in her father's house.
12Now after a considerable time Shua's daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

Tamar lived with Judah and his sons but to avoid further trouble he sends her back to her father. He promises to send his youngest to marry her when he is old enough but was probably afraid to do so considering what had happened to his other sons.

In the meantime his own wife dies and after a time of mourning he goes to the shearing of sheep with his friends. This suggests he may not have been in terrible grief because shearing time was usually accompanied by a festival and Judah planned to take in the festivities along with his friends.

13It was told to Tamar, "Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep." 14So she removed her widow's garments and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife. 15When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. 16So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, "Here now, let me come in to you"; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?" 17He said, therefore, "I will send you a young goat from the flock." She said, moreover, "Will you give a pledge until you send it?" 18He said, "What pledge shall I give you?" And she said, "Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow's garments.

The problem for Tamar was that Judah had originally contracted for her to be in his family in order to continue the line. She had been willing, had perhaps begun to worship the God of Judah but was denied her rightful place.

Her plan was to trick her father-in-law into fulfilling her plan to carry on the family line:

  • It may have less to do with a desire to carry on the blessing than a fear of being discarded altogether.
  • She was twice widowed with God killing her husbands and denied the third, so her prospects were grim.
  • She may have also felt a right to carry the line despite the method.

She disguises herself as a "temple prostitute" because later on she is referred to as a "separated one" which was the term for temple prostitute rather than a common prostitute.

Temple prostitution was a respectable occupation in Canaanite society with many of the women in the village taking turns serving at the temple as their way of making an offering to their own god or goddess.

This does not excuse the practice but rather gives insight into Tamar's thinking that what she was doing was not for lust or money and a normal part of her cultural practices.

Judah, of course, was a different story. He knew better concerning foreign gods, prostitution and fornication. Again he did not seek God or his father to help him find a new wife. He allowed the passions stirred by the festival activities and his loneliness to make him vulnerable to this type of situation.

Their union produces a child and Judah leaves some of his personal belongings as a promise that he will pay her later for her services. The fact that she returns home confirms that her actions were not motivated by greed or lust but rather by desperation.

Weak faith will drive people to do foolish and desperate things rather than trust God for help.

20When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman's hand, he did not find her. 21He asked the men of her place, saying, "Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?" But they said, "There has been no temple prostitute here." 22So he returned to Judah, and said, "I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, 'There has been no temple prostitute here.'" 23Then Judah said, "Let her keep them, otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this young goat, but you did not find her."

Despite his weakness, Judah is a man of his word and wants to fulfill his agreement. He may be embarrassed about his actions so he sends his friend to find Tamar but he does not find her. ("Harlot" is the word for temple prostitute.)

24Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry." Then Judah said, "Bring her out and let her be burned!" 25It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, "I am with child by the man to whom these things belong." And she said, "Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?" 26Judah recognized them, and said, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not have relations with her again.

Judah is indignant at the news of her pregnancy and pronounces judgment.

  • She was still under his authority.
  • Technically engaged to his son.
  • Widow of his other two sons.
  • Disgraced his family by bringing another man's child into his own family.

He may have been secretly happy of disposing of her and avoiding the dilemma of his third son having to opt out of marrying her and the problems this would cause with her family. But he finds out the truth!

Judah shows some of the character that God saw in him in order to grant to him the honor of being the line through which the Messiah would come: he tells the truth about his involvement with her instead of denying it; he confesses the true sin, not giving her his third son which he was dutifully legally bound to do; he also absolves her of blame and guilt by acknowledging that she was righteous and he was not.

  • Her methods were deceptive but she was morally correct in claiming what rightfully belonged to her.
  • He acknowledges that it was his actions that pressured her to act in the way she did.

He does the right thing by not taking her sexually anymore but acknowledges her children as his own for their proper inheritance and name, as the Law demanded.

27It came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. 28Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, "This one came out first." 29But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out. Then she said, "What a breach you have made for yourself!" So he was named Perez. 30Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.

A short summary describing her twins and the unusual parallel between them and Jacob and Esau's struggle in generations past.

We know that both brothers and Shelah, Judah's remaining son, married and had large families. Later in the genealogies, the second child, Perez, who appeared second but came out first was the one who was the ancestor of David and through whom came the Christ.

This ends a sidelight chapter meant to show how Judah fathered the child that ultimately linked him to the birth of the Christ.

The next chapter will pick up the story of Joseph and his time in Egypt which will bring us to the close of this first book of the Bible.


1. Children are influenced by both parents

Judah was shortsighted and underestimated the influence that his wife would have on his family.

The case for marrying a Christian becomes very important especially when it comes to children. Unfortunately young people do not see that far ahead, they only consider the existing relationship and not the ones that will exist in the future. This is why it is important not only to encourage them to marry Christians but in the event that they do not, parents need to help provide Christian influence in their grandchildren's lives missing because of the disbelief of one or both of the parents.

Note that Jacob's name is not mentioned here at all.

2. God can cause all things to work for good

I mentioned it in this last lesson but it bears repeating:

God chose Judah to carry the line; his poor judgment and weakness; his wicked rebellious sons; his pagan wife; Tamar's helplessness and deceptive plan… and yet God managed to cause all of these negative things to work together to achieve His goals.

  • The wicked will still be judged.
  • The weak will still suffer the consequences of their mistakes.

But God's plan will not be thwarted, even by our own poor judgment and mistakes.

This should give us confidence to go ahead when we are not sure; to persevere even when we make mistakes; to maintain our hope of salvation even when the evidence around us points to the conclusion that we are not going to make it. God's plan is to bring the faithful to heaven and He will accomplish that plan no matter what.

3. It is not who you are, it is who God makes you

It is interesting to note that in the genealogy of Jesus only four women are mentioned:

  • TAMAR – a Canaanite who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her.
  • RAHAB – a prostitute who hid the Jewish spies.
  • RUTH – a Moabite who persuaded Boaz to marry her.
  • BATHSHEBA – a Hittite woman who committed adultery with David.

None were Jews, all came into the messianic line under dubious circumstances but all were transformed by their contact with the men who believed in God.

  • Tamar clung to the promise of Judah to belong to the Israelite nation through marriage and child bearing.
  • Rahab who left prostitution and married Salmon after the Jews captured Jericho.
  • Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi and adopted her faith which led her to Boaz and her marriage with him.
  • Bathsheba became the key influence in making sure Solomon became king after David, ensuring the unity of Israel at that time.

God took these women who were pagans and because of their conversion and faith used them in a mighty way to preserve the lineage through which Jesus came.

There is hope for those who have unbelieving partners, there is hope for those who have questionable backgrounds because God can make valuable servants out of anyone regardless of their past and give everyone a glorious future. These women are proof of this.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize the key events of Genesis 38:10-30 and state their significance.
  2. How do the events of Judah and Tamar's lives support the role of parents in influencing the faith of children? (See also Ephesians 5:22-33; Ephesians 6:1-4)
  3. How can parents recover their role as spiritual leaders of their families?
  4. How can we influence an unbelieving partner to establish a relationship with God?
  5. What does the use of the four women mentioned in this event teach us about how God uses us?
  6. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
43 of 50