Tamar of Judah
The story recorded in Gen. 38, relating an apparently unsavoury incident in the life of Judah, son of Jacob, is usually glossed over or passed over and tacitly ignored. Past ages viewed it with horror and it is probably regarded today by many readers with distaste. Rarely is it asked why the narrative appears at all in the Bible and probably few stop to reflect that since the overruling control of the Holy Spirit has seen fit to provide for its inclusion, there must be a justifiable reason. The chapter has nothing to do with what goes before in Genesis; it has no connection with what comes after. It stands entirely by itself, but the fact that it is there must denote a purpose. And a closer look at what is written reveals that it has a definite bearing upon the lineage and fleshly ancestry of Christ.
The account revolves around Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. The latter is usually considered to be guilty of discreditable conduct but a clear knowledge of what might be called the background, shows that Judah was the one to blame and that, despite appearance, Tamar acted with perfect propriety and as a true daughter of Israel. This is not the only instance in Biblical history where a cursory reading without taking into consideration the motives underlying the actions of the characters can lead to false impressions.
Jacob had returned to his native Canaan from Padan-Aram, the home of his father-in-law Laban, with his family. They had not been there many years before Judah, his fourth son of Leah, now in his thirties, separated himself from the family business and started up his own establishment thirty miles away among the Canaanites. Not surprisingly, he married a Canaanite woman by whom he had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. At what must have been a very early age he married off Er to a local woman named Tamar. The marriage did not last long. In a manner not detailed in the narrative and not relevant to the story, Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord slew him”. This can mean that Er, half-Canaanite in parentage, was guilty of some gross unrighteousness or led a grossly dissolute life, and in consequence, or in connection therewith, met his death. That was enough for the chronicler to say that the Lord slew him. The death of Judah’s eldest son, through whom the family line would normally be carried on, involved the question of succession to his property and his rights as Judah’s heir. At this point question of the Levirate law came to the front.
The Levirate law is from the Latin levir, meaning brother-in-law. It was the arrangement embodied in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25.5-10) going back to remote antiquity before Moses, which was intended to perpetuate the family name and preserve family rights of inheritance in the case of a man who died without male issue. The solution was simple. The dead man’s brother, or failing him, the nearest male relative, must take the widow in marriage and the first son born to that marriage would take the dead man’s name and be accounted his legal son and heir, inheriting the dead man’s estate and carrying on the family line. The foremost example of the operation of this law in Israel is recorded in the Book of Ruth. There the widowed and childless Ruth is taken by her dead husband’s kinsman Boaz, after a nearer kinsman had refused to do his duty, thus making her an ancestress of Jesus of Nazareth. In this case, Judah, faced with the same position, married Tamar to his second son Onan. It seems that Onan resented the obligation thrust upon him, and determined that, marriage or no marriage, he would not become the father of a son who then would not be counted as his. Perhaps he had designs himself on the possessions of his deceased brother and did not relish the possible appearance of a legal heir. At any rate he took steps to ensure that there would be no son while Tamar remained his wife. “And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; wherefore the Lord slew him also”. Here again, in some way or other Onan also met an untimely death and the chronicler again associated the two events and saw in this the hand of the Lord. The fact that almost certainly the two deaths were due to what we would call natural causes does not forbid the feeling that the guiding hand of God was preparing the way for the execution of a purpose which the unbelief or sin of man was for the moment obstructing.
Judah was now faced with a dilemma. According to the Levirate law his youngest and only surviving son, Shelah, should now marry Tamar in the hope that thus heirs to both Er and Onan might be born. But Judah was apprehensive that Shelah might then share the fate of his brothers. He was perhaps superstitious; was there some kind of curse on this woman that spelt death to any man who married her? At any rate he made an excuse. He told Tamar to return to her father’s house for the present until Shelah was old enough to be married. There was probably justification for the excuse; in order to fit all these incidents in the thirty-three years between Jacob’s return from Padan-Aram and the whole family’s descent into Egypt it is not possible that Shelah could have been more than sixteen at this time. Tamar assented to the request and went back to her father.
Several years passed and Shelah attained marriageable age—about eighteen or nineteen in that day and society. Judah made no move to fulfil the obligation. Tamar realised that he had no intention of making a move. It was obvious that he intended her to stay out of the family circle. In due time he would find a wife for Shelah who, to his way of thinking, might produce the grandson he needed to carry on the family line without the risk of another and final tragedy if Tamar was again involved. Tamar’s widowhood could not have lasted for more than five or six years. One might have thought that Tamar, who must still have been a young woman, would have accepted the situation and found herself another husband. But no; her subsequent action shows that she was determined to bear a child who would be the legitimate heir to carry on the line of Judah. In less than twenty years later Jacob, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, foretold that the promised Messiah would one day come of the line of Judah. So there begins to emerge the outline of a Divine purpose working in this rather involved family tangle which would ensure the clearing of the way for the fulfilment of that promise.
How much of all this was already known to either Judah or Tamar is not apparent. The words of Jacob on his deathbed (Gen. 49) constitute the first recorded intimation that the Messiah was to come through Judah. It is a tolerably certain that this was in Jacob’s mind long before his death for he is not likely to have deferred making up his mind on so important a matter until the last minute. In this he must have had the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Reuben was his eldest son but he forfeited the birthright by the grievous wrong he committed against his father as narrated in Gen. 35.22. The next two, Simeon and Levi, were rejected on account of their violent and fierce nature and the wrong they did their father in the matter of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34). Judah was the fourth and of him Jacob spoke approvingly. It might well be therefore that Judah was already aware of the fact that his was the chosen line and this might account for his anxiety throughout this series of episodes to be sure of acquiring an heir to continue the line.
However, he had made one grievous mistake. The chosen line was to be pure Hebrew without admixture of other races. Abraham, the first source, had insisted that Isaac marry a Hebrew woman, in his case from the family of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jacob in his turn also married into the same family. Judah therefore was pure Hebrew, but he married a Canaanite and his three sons therefore were of mixed race, Hebrew and Canaanite. In the providence of God the line was not continued through them. Perhaps Tamar also knew something of this which accounts for her subsequent action. Tamar is a Hebrew and not a Canaanite name and it is tolerably certain that Tamar was a Hebrew, a descendant of one of Abraham’s numerous sons by Keturah or his concubines, or of the parallel family of Nahor. It might well be that Tamar perceived what Judah had not realised, that the only way in which the line of Judah could be continued into succeeding generations in a manner pleasing to the Lord was through Judah himself. His Canaanite wife had now died and there would be no more mixed race sons from that quarter.
Seen in this light, Tamar acted in a perfectly proper manner. Under the Levirate law, if Shelah was not to play the husband’s part towards her, then it was the duty of the next relative to do so. That next relative was Judah himself. Tamar therefore was perfectly entitled to require that he assumed the obligation, just as Ruth did to Boaz after the unnamed “nearer kinsman” had declined to do so. She must have realised, however, that Judah, although now a widower had no more intention of marrying her than he had of allowing his son to do so. What had to be done therefore had to be done by subterfuge.
Judah was due to visit one of his outlying farms to superintend the annual sheep shearing, which was usually made an occasion for feasting and revelry. Tamar attired and disguised herself as a prostitute and waited, veiled, by the wayside for him to pass. Judah, not recognizing her, turned aside and kept company with her, leaving as pledge of payment his personal seal, the cord by which it was suspended, and his staff (“signet, bracelets and staff” in the A.V.). The seal, of course, was an absolute proof of identity; it was used to mark objects as the personal property of the owner. `Arriving home after the feast, Judah sent his friend Hiram to redeem his pledges, but by then Tamar had gone back to her own home and resumed her normal attire and no one could give any information about the woman he sought. Judah let the matter go by default and probably very speedily forgot all about it.
Three months later news came that Tamar was with child and Judah immed1ately hailed this as a heaven sent opportunity to rid himself of her altogether. He demanded that she be brought to the place of judgment and condemned. As the widow of his sons she was still legally a member of his household and he still had certain spheres of authority over her. Brought before her judges, Tamar produced the missing pledges. “By the man, whose these are, am I with child”. Judah, conscience stricken declared “She hath been more righteous than I, because I gave her not to Shelah my son”. Belatedly, but honestly, he admitted that she had done the right thing, both by the law and custom of the time, and in recognition of the declared purpose of God.
In giving herself willingly to a man old enough to be her father Tamar must have been animated by some high purpose. Had she not done what she did, the line of Judah might there and then have become extinct. Then the high hopes of Jacob, that the tribe of Judah should be the royal tribe, giving kings to Israel and eventually leading to Israel’s Messiah, would have been frustrated
There is no indication that Shelah was any better morally than his brothers. The fear of Judah that if he married Tamar he might well share their fate would seem to point the same way. Tamar’s sole place in the Scriptures seem at first sight to be a rather reprehensible role. It might well be, in fact that as a woman of faith she became the means of preserving the racial purity of the Messianic line at a time when it was being jeopardized by the heedless self-indulgence of one man.
The sons of Tamat were Pharez and Zarah. Pharez is named in all the Biblical genealogies as the son of Judah. The intervening generation of Er, Onan and Shelah, is omitted so far as the line of descent to Christ is concerned and they are noted only as being other sons of Judah. It is evident from the narrative that Judah took Tamar back into his house, although not as his wife. There she probably spent the rest of her life bringing up the son Judah needed to fulfil his position as progenitor of the famous tribe which later days became the royal tribe of Israel.