1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3 and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. 4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.
6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.
12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet 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. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. – Genesis 38:1-19 ESV
While Joseph was carted off to Egypt as a slave, his wicked brothers went on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened. It was Judah, one of Joseph’s half-brothers, who had come up with the plan to cash in by selling Joseph as a slave rather than spilling innocent blood.
“What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime. Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” – Genesis 37:26 NLT
With their 20 pieces of silver in hand, the brothers had left Dothan and returned home to Hebron. Once there, they delivered the devastating news of Joseph’s death with their father. Their carefully crafted lie devastated Jacob, but these men showed no remorse or regret. They had managed to eliminate their nemesis and were glad of it.
For Joseph’s brothers, it was business as usual. They went on with their lives, seemingly giving no thought to the fate of their younger brother. While visiting with a friend from Adullam, Judah met a Canaanite woman named Shua whom he eventually married. There is no indication that he ever consulted Jacob about this marriage, and it is probably because he knew his father would disapprove. When Jacob had been a young man, his father Isaac had sent him to Mesopotamia to find a wife from among his own clan.
“You must not marry any of these Canaanite women. Instead, go at once to Paddan-aram, to the house of your grandfather Bethuel, and marry one of your uncle Laban’s daughters. May God Almighty bless you and give you many children. And may your descendants multiply and become many nations! May God pass on to you and your descendants the blessings he promised to Abraham. May you own this land where you are now living as a foreigner, for God gave this land to Abraham.” – Genesis 28:1-4 NLT
But Judah had decided to do things his own way. And his decision to marry a Canaanite woman seemed to bear fruit, in the form of three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er became a man, Judah arranged for him to marry a woman named Tamar. But according to Moses, Er was a wicked man and God took his life. That left Tamar a widow. According to a common practice of the time, a brother of the deceased man was expected to marry his brother’s widow so that she could bear a son and carry on her husband’s name. This was referred to as levirate marriage. So, Judah approached Onan and convinced him to do the right thing.
“Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother.” – Genesis 38:8 NLT
This practice would eventually become part of the Mosaic law for the people of Israel.
“If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel.” – Deuteronomy 25:5-6 NLT
But Onan was not interested in fathering a child that, technically, would not be his own. “So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother” (Genesis 38:9 NLT). He purposefully refused to impregnate his brother’s wife, denying him the right of an heir to carry on his name. And God found this to be a crime worthy of death.
But the Lord considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan’s life, too. – Genesis 38:10 NLT
This left Tamar a widow for the second time. And because Judah’s third son was too young for marriage, he convinced Tamar to wait until Shelah grew up, promising her that he would fulfill the levirate commitment. But Judah failed to keep his word because he feared that, if Shelah married Tamar, he too might die. Perhaps Judah thought Tamar was cursed. He even refused to allow Tamar to live among his clan, choosing instead for her to return home to her parents where she was to stay until Shelah was of marrying age. But like the story of Joseph’s “death” that Judah had told to Jacob, his words to Tamar were all a lie.
This left Tamar in a very difficult position. She had no husband, no rights, and, without a son, she had no hope for the future. As a woman living in that culture, she was completely dependent upon a husband or son to care for her needs. Now, she was forced to return to her parents’ home, where she was forced to wait for Shelah to fulfill his commitment to her.
The years would pass by and life would go on as usual. Shelah grew up and Tamar continued to wait. Eventually, Jacob’s wife died, leaving him a widow as well. After mourning his wife’s death, he joined his Adullamite friend again for the annual sheering of the sheep. Somehow, Tamar learned that her father-in-law was headed to Timnah, and she made arrangements to confront him there. She was well aware that Shelah was now a man and that Judah was preventing him from marrying her.
Disguising herself with a veil, Tamar sat outside the gate of Timnah, waiting for the chance to confront her father-in-law. When Judah arrived and saw her, he mistook her for a prostitute and propositioned her. To make matters worse, Judah believed Tamar to be a cult prostitute (Genesis 38:21), a woman who offered sexual favors as part of the worship of Canaanite false gods. Judah was making poor choices that would come back to haunt him.
It seems unlikely that Tamar was purposefully portraying herself as a temple prostitute, but once Judah mistook her for one, she played along. She asked Judah what he was willing to pay to have sex with her, and he offered her the price of a young goat. But Tamar knew Judah well and demanded that he provide some form of proof of payment. So, at Tamar’s request, Judah left behind his identification seal, its cord, and his staff. Each of these things would have been unique to Judah and would have been of great value. She knew he would want them back and this would force him to keep his word.
That Judah would give up those particular reveals much about his lack of discernment. He was letting his desires and passions control his decisions. And Moses indicates that not only did Judah have sex with Tamar, but he impregnated her. When they were done, she returned home to her father’s house and Judah went on his way, completely oblivious as to the ramifications of his actions. The deceiver had been deceived. And the one who had refused to keep his promise would actually be the one through whom God would fulfill His promise to Abraham. Because the child within Tamar’s womb would eventually be the one through whom the Messiah would come. In his gospel, Matthew records the genealogy of Jesu, and it prominently features the name of Tamar, the widowed wife of Er.
This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar). – Matthew 1:1-3 NLT
God had allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery by his brothers. God had taken two of Tamar’s husbands before she could bear them children. God had stood back and watched as Judah deceived Tamar by refusing to allow his third son to marry her. But all of it had been part of His divine plan. There were things happening behind the scenes that no one was aware of – but God. Joseph must have felt like a helpless victim as he made his way to Egypt. Judah must have believed himself to be, not only clever but a wise and caring father. And Tamar was a spurned woman in search of revenge and restitution for the injustices she had endured. But little did any of them know that God was orchestrating every facet of their lives – for their good and His glory.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.