Judah & Tamar: The Masquerade of Justice

Judah & Tamar: The Masquerade of Justice

Part 7 of “The Tree” – a study of Jesus’ family tree.

Genesis 38

Of all the stories we have looked at so far in this sermon series, the story of Judah and Tamar is the most shocking.  When reading through Genesis, this story seems to come out of nowhere.  In Genesis 37, Judah and his brothers conspired together to sell their brother Joseph into slavery to get rid of him and then in Genesis 39-48, we learn of Joseph’s love for God, moral purity, and humility in contrast to his brothers, especially that of Judah.  Old Testament critics of the Bible used to suggest that because the story of Judah and Tamar is placed where it is in Genes, it must have been added later with no real purpose in the overall Genesis narrative.  The reality is that Genesis 38 is right where it is supposed to be and is placed in the story purposefully and deliberately.

If there was ever a circumstance that grace seemed unable to overcome, it is in the lives of Judah and Tamar.  Genesis 38 begins, “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er” (Genesis 38:1–3). 

Judah’s Sins Were Great (vv. 1-11)

Judah grew up under the faith of his father Jacob, Isaac and Abraham.  Abraham forbade Isaac from marrying any Canaanite women.  Isaac forbade Jacob from marrying any Canaanite women.  Throughout the Old Testament the Hebrew people were warned of the cultural and religious practices of the Canaanites and the danger of such people leading the them away from the worship of Yahweh.  The Bible specifically stated to the Hebrew people: “You shall not intermarry with them [the Canaanites], giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:2-3). 

For background, permit me to share just a little bit of kind of gods that the Canaanite people worshiped.  El, which means: god most high, is the head of the Canaanite gods.  El is known for dethroning his father (Uranus), the murder of his favorite son, the and the beheading of his daughter.  El is also known for seducing two women and allowed them to be driven into the desert after the birth of their children, Dawn and Sunset.  With the character of the chief god of the Canaanites being what it is, can you imagine what kind of behavior characterized the priests and worshipers of El? 

We know that Judah was headed down the slippery slope of moral compromise towards spiritual apostasy because he not only married a Canaanite, but looked for Canaanite women for his children to marry beginning with Er when he was of age.  A secondary problem was that Er was already part Hebrew and part Canaanite with a nominally religious father and a pagan worshiping mother.  A third problem we encounter in the story is that Er was already wicked.  By the time Judah found Tamar as a wife for his first born son, Er was so wicked that God had to intervene by killing him because what was at stake was the promise of Genesis 49:10, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”  So, let’s take a look at verses 6-11 for the purpose of getting a clearer grasp on Judah’s sin and Tamar’s shame:

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 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.” 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. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 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.

A few things that were true of the culture of the time. In Tamar’s day, women could not just go out and get a job; the success and welfare of a family was dependent upon one’s property and offspring.  If a woman was widowed with a child from her deceased husband, then she would not only be left without an inheritance, but no one to provide and protect her.  The childless widow essentially would be left in a very vulnerable predicament with the only options available being prostitution or death.  There was a practice, known as the Levirate Marriage Law, that was not only common for agricultural societies for the survival of a clan, but also one endorsed in the Bible: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.  And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deut. 25:5-6).

After Er died, Judah arranged for his second oldest son to marry Tamar so that the name of Er would continue and so that his property could remain with Tamar and her child.  However, every time Onan had sex with Tamar, he would “waste the semen on the ground” to keep her from becoming pregnant.  He also did this because he wanted the rights and inheritance that was entitled to Er as the firstborn son of Judah.  Because of his choices, God killed him too, which left Tamar widowed yet again and Judah in the predicament of giving his youngest son to Tamar in marriage when he was of age.  However, after losing the two sons that married Tamar, Judah was afraid that his youngest and only son would suffer the same fate and was not willing risk having his only remaining son marry her.  So he lied to Tamar by assuring her: “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up.”  However, Judah was not interested in Tamar’s future as a widow, but the welfare of the only son left in family. We are then told in the text that Tamar did what her father-in-law suggested: “So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house” (v. 11).  

Tamar’s Pursuit of Justice was Godless (vv. 12-23)

In the course of time…”  I am not sure how much time elapsed after Judah sent Tamar off to her father’s house, but Judah’s youngest son was grown and there had still been no word from Judah about his promise to his daughter-in-law.  At this point, it was obvious to Tamar that Judah had no intention of serving as her protector and provider as any good father-in-law was obligated to do.  Judah only wanted to forget that Tamar even existed.

So after Judah’s wife died and Tamar heard that he was going up the shear sheep, “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” (v. 14).  Tamar’s plan was to look like a prostitute, because she knew that the character of her father-in-law was not all that different from his two deceased sons.  I believe Tamar knew exactly what she was doing when she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil; her plan was to receive what Judah promised: an heir for his oldest son and security for herself.  Tamar’s plan worked out as she had hoped: “When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 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” (vv. 15–16)? 

What will you give me…?” Tamar asked.  Her question was a play on Judah’s refusal to give her his youngest son.  Because Judah was a man of affluence, he promised to send her a young goat in exchange for sex, and because she already knew that her father-in-law was not a man of his word, she responded: “If you give me a pledge, until you send it…”  When Judah asked what would serve as a suitable pledge, she requested his signet, cord, and staff; the seal was hardened clay with a unique impression that identified the owner.  Tamar knew that if her plan worked, she would need to provide proof that her father-in-law had intercourse with her.  What is even more disturbing about the encounter Judah had with Tamar was that she was believed to be a “cult prostitute,” which gives us some sense for Judah’s religious convictions.  

To be clear, Tamar is no saint in this story.  Tamar used sexual entrapment and a form of incest to receive what she was owed.  However, not only do we learn that Judah is a man of his own passions with his marriage to a Canaanite woman, disregard of the God of his ancestors by seeking out Canaanite women for his sons, but we also learn of his willingness to take advantage of another woman for his own personal gratification.  The people of Yahweh and the descendants of Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were called to pursue justice, peace, truth, and righteousness; these are four traits that Judah completely lacks. 

God’s Grace Broke through the Sins of Judah and Tamar (vv. 24-30)

Things become even more interesting in verse 24 when we learn that Tamar’s plan worked: “About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral.  Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’”  In verse 27, Tamar was not only pregnant, but pregnant with twins, one of which would become the ancestor of Jesus.  That twin was named Perez, which means “Breaking Through.”  Through Judah and Tamar’s scandalous acts, the line of the kings that would eventually lead to the birth of David and then Jesus was preserved. 

Regarding the heart of Judah, if his marriage to a Canaanite woman, the wickedness of his two older sons, his treatment of his twice widowed daughter, and his taking advantage of his widowed daughter for his own sexual gratification was not enough, his wickedness shines through his response to his now pregnant daughter-in-law.  When it was reported to him that Tamar was pregnant, Judah said: “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”  Judah’s response was the façade of righteous indignation and pure hatred for the life of another.  Even though he set Tamar up with a son he already knew was evil, he ignored her when she was at her weakest and most vulnerable, and after learning of her pregnancy, he was ready to be completely rid of her by having her killed. 

However, it in verse 25, only when Judah learns that he is the father, does he spare her life: “As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.’  And she said, ‘Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”  Tamar uses a Hebrew word that is very important in the story that means to discern, realize or to recognize; it is as if Tamar is telling Judah to look at his own sin and see that he too deserves to be burned. 

I believe that what happens next in the story is the spiritual equivalent of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of the Lord: “Then Judah identified (recognized, discerned) them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I…” (v. 26).  In other words, the one who had the legal right to punish Tamar for her sin (even thought he was guilty too), pronounced her righteous in spite of her sins.  When Tamar was about to be punished, because she carried the messianic seed within her… she was saved. 

At this moment of confrontation, Judah was able to see his sin for what it was.  We are told that, “…he did not know her again.”  This concluding sentence clues us into the fact that something changed with Judah in that moment as well.  When we come to Genesis 44, we learn of an older Judah who was not interested in his one self-gratification, his own life, or his own prosperity, but the lives of others. In Genesis 44, we discover a Judah who was willing to sacrifice himself in exchange of the salvation of his younger brother. 


On the day Judah’s two sons were due to be born, they not only served to replace the two sons he lost to death, but they also served as a way for redemption:

When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah. (Genesis 38:27–30)

The name “Perez” means “breaking through.”  This is how the grace and mercy of God invaded the lives of both Judah and Tamar: It broke through into their hearts and lives in such a way it changed them forever.  The grace and mercy of God “broke through” into Tamar’s life with the redemption of what she lost as a widow through the birth of her first born.  The grace and mercy of God “broke through” into Judah’s life by forcing him to see his heart for what it was and by compelling him to repent and become a new man. 

But more profoundly, through the ugliness of sin and the actions of both Judah and Tamar, God brought forth a son out of the darkness, who was the ancestor of Jesus, and who would one day light up the darkness; One who would be the perfect Lamb of God and the perfect Lion of Judah.  Out of Perez would come Boaz, and out of Boaz would come King David, and out of David would come Jesus.  However, through Jesus would come the blessing promised for the nations.  Into the darkness of a sin cursed world was born a savior (Luke 2:10-11). 

Reflecting upon his own encounter with Jesus and how grace broke through the almost impenetrable walls of his Christless, religious zeal, the Apostle Paul stated something we should all identify with: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.  But I received mercy for this reason, as the worst of sinners, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”  Here is the truth: our sin can never outdo God’s grace just as the hymn, In Christ Alone celebrates:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

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