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Genesis 38

Judah, his Daughter-in-law Tamar, and the Levirate Marriage

Judah married and his wife gave birth to three sons. They were named Er, Onan & Shelah. Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. Genesis 38:1

Around the time that the Midianites arrived in Egypt and sold Joseph as a slave to Potiphar, Judah went from Hebron, where Jacob and his sons had settled, down to Adullam. It seems that Judah was so disturbed by the actions of his father, who favored Joseph, and the actions of his brothers, who wanted to kill Joseph, that he wanted to separate himself from them. Adullum would be the future location of David’s memorable victory over Goliath. David would also find protection from King Saul in the Cave of Adullum along with 400 men who were in debt, distress or discontent, who gathered around him.

There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him. Genesis 38:2-5

While living in Adullum, Judah married Shua’s daughter who gave birth to his firstborn son Er. Er is spelled with the Hebrew letters ahyin and resh and means watchman. According to the Targum of Jonathan (a rabbinic explanation of the Hebrew Scriptures written in Aramaic) is that this son was named Er, “because he should die without children.” The Hebrew word Ariri, means “childless.”

Judah’s second son was named Onan which means strong. Even if he grew to be physically strong, Onan would prove to be morally weak.

They moved to Kezib which is a town in the plain of Judah and means “falsehood.” Shelah which means “prosperity” or “plunder” was their third son and he was born in Kezib.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. Genesis 38:6

The name Tamar comes from the Hebrew noun (tamar), meaning palm tree which is a symbol of prosperity. The first part of Psalm 92:12 tells us that, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.” Tamar’s name was indicative of her righteous character.

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Genesis 38:7

Since the Messiah would descend from Judah’s lineage, the wicked Er was put to death before he could father a child.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” Genesis 38:8

Unlike the modern day rabbinical tradition that claims the mother determines the child’s religion; biblically it is the father who determines a child’s religion.

Numerous Israelites heroes and kings besides Judah married foreign women. For example, Joseph married an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David an Aramean, and Solomon women of every description. By her marriage with an Israelite man a foreign women joined the clan, people, and religion of her husband and their children were considered Israelites.

Although Judah married a Canaanite, his sons had to obey the practices of the Hebrews.

According to Leviticus 18:16, the Torah forbids a man from having sexual relations with his brother’s wife, “Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.” But a married woman is only bound to her husband as long as he is alive.

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. Romans 7:2

When Judah told his son Onan to fulfill his duty to her as a brother-in-law, Judah was referring to a practice that later would be commanded in the Torah known as the Levirate Marriage:

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. Deuteronomy 25:5-6

The Levirate Marriage would serve to both preserve the family name and inheritance of the deceased husband as well as provide for his widow. If a woman’s husband died and she had no son, she had no one to provide for her any longer and she would not only be disgraced, but likely to die of starvation.

But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. Genesis 38:9-10

Onan’s responsibility was not only to marry his deceased brother’s wife but to provide an heir for his brother that would carry on Er’s name. He was now the oldest son in a tribe that was supposed to be fruitful and multiply in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. As the heir of Judah, he was destined to one day become the tribe’s spiritual and moral leader. Onan did not want to be disgraced so he married Tamar and had relationship with her, but he didn’t want to raise Tamar’s child. Onan’s sin was in purposely disobeying his father and denying his wife the opportunity of conceiving a child. His rebellious actions resulted in his being put to death by the LORD.

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household. After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. Genesis 38:11-12

Judah’s concern was that Tamar might be cursed and Shelah might die if married to her, and so he told her to wait until Shelah had grown up. After a long time Judah’s wife had died. Enough time had passed for Shelah to be old enough to marry. Although Tamar had waited many years, Judah neglected to marry Shelah to her. Shelah who was born in Kezib which means “falsehood” was falsely promised by Judah to marry Tamar.

Judah travelled with his friend to Timnah which was city in the tribe of Judah about six miles from Adullam.

When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife. Genesis 38:13-14
Had Judah been honest with Tamar by letting her know that he had no intention of having her marry his surviving son, she could have married someone else instead of living as a widow in her father’s house for many years. Now that she realizes that Judah had deceived her, she disguised herself so that Judah would not recognize her and she sat down in a place where Judah would be sure to pass by.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. Genesis 38:15-17a

Because a woman was sitting by herself at the entrance of a town with a veil covering her face, Judah assumed that she was a prostitute. Obviously, it was Tamar’s intention to deceive Judah into believing that she was willing to accept payment in order to have him sleep with her. He was willing to set the price which was a young goat from his flock.

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. Genesis 38:17b-18

Judah’s pledge of his seal and staff not only identified that they belonged to him, but also have natural purposes and symbolic significance. A seal in biblical times was used to guarantee security or indicate ownership. Ancient seals were often made of wax, embedded with the personalized imprint of their guarantor. Both the seller and the buyer of land had to affix their seal to the deed to testify to the transaction. A staff supports the hand and arm, and through them the whole body. Therefore the staff signifies power and authority as does a scepter.

Judah, who had the authority to have Shelah marry Tamar and provide an heir to guarantee that Er would have descendants to inherit the land, failed to fulfill his pledge. So Tamar orchestrated a plan in which she receives Judah’s seal and staff as a pledge. These tokens symbolize that she has been given the authority to insure that Er would have an heir to carry on his name and that the territory of Judah would carry over to his descendants. Tamar intentionally sought to be impregnated by Judah in order to provide that heir.

After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. Genesis 38:19

Tamar’s purpose having been fulfilled put on her widow’s clothes and returned to her father’s household.

Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”

“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’” Genesis 38:20-22

Tamar had sat for such a short time at the entrance to the town, and had not returned to where she sat by the side of the road, that she went unnoticed by the other men.

Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.” Genesis 38:23

If Judah or his friend were to ask any more questions around town, they might raise suspicions. Judah did not want to be exposed as a man who frequents prostitutes or become known as being foolish enough to be duped out of his seal and staff.

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” Genesis 38:24

Judah demands that his daughter-in-law be put to death because she was guilty of prostitution. Yet, Judah paid to sleep with whom he believed to be a prostitute. Judah is acting as he is righteously indignant when he is really being a self-deceived hypocrite.

As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again. Genesis 38:25-26

Tamar did not have to say one word in her own defense. She had waited quietly and patiently for many years hoping that Judah would fulfill his promise. Judah had kept Shelah from marrying Tamar because he falsely believed she was cursed and it was her fault that his first two sons had died. He failed to recognize that they were evil. Tamar was indeed more righteous than Judah.

The act of incest was never again to be repeated by Judah. There is no indication in the biblical genealogies that Judah remarried, or if he did, he never fathered any other children.

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah. Genesis 28:27-30

The name “Perez” means to breach or break fourth. He was named this because he was born first, even though his twin brother had stuck his hand out first. The name “Zerah” means “sunrise.” He was named Zerah because the color of the sun at sunrise is red like the scarlet thread that was tied on his wrist.

Tamar was the wife of Er, the son of Judah. After Er’s death she becomes the mother of Judah’s twin sons Perez and Zerah. Perez went on to become the ancestor of King David, and thus Jesus Christ. Tamar is the first of four women, besides Mary the mother of Jesus, mentioned in the Matthew’s genealogy of Christ.

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar Matthew 1:3a

Tamar, it would seem, was a daughter of the Canaanites, like her mother-in-law. Although Tamar had committed incest with her father-in-law, it was not out of lust but out of a righteous desire to preserve the line of Judah.

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Matthew 1:5a

Although Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho, Rahab had a reverent fear of Yehovah. Hebrews 11:31 tells us: By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth Matthew 1:5b

Although Ruth was a despised Moabitess, and the Moabites were forbidden to enter into the congregation of the Lord for ten generations, Ruth chose to be identified with the God of Israel and was recognized as a virtuous woman.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife Matthew 1:6b

Bathsheba had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite and had committed adultery with King David. She is not noted for having the faith of Rahab, or having the beautiful traits of Ruth. But in spite of the dishonor that stained her name, Bathsheba was chosen by God in the sovereignty of His grace to bring forth a child to sit upon David’s throne and be in the line of Israel’s Messiah.

Just as these women were blessed to be in the line of Messiah in spite of their nationality or sinful acts, but by the grace of the God of Israel; so can anyone receive God’s gift of eternal life by His grace and through faith in Messiah’s atoning death and resurrection.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9