Judah’s Shame

Genesis 38:1-26

At first read this chapter can seem out of place, cutting away from the story of Joseph to speak of what happened between Joseph’s brother Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. It is a story that is often overlooked and when it is taught on it is frequently misrepresented. The Bible does not shy away from stories like this that feature adult content and that portray the gritty and bleak details of real human interactions.

The chapter begins with Judah leaving his brothers and staying with his friend Hirah. At this time we are told in verse 2 that “Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her.” This verse should trigger a number of observations that set the tone for the story to come: (1) the woman is not named (unlike Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, etc) – indicating a view of women that is dehumanised and more commoditised; (2) the ‘saw’ … ‘took’ language is a deliberate echo of Genesis 3, suggesting this was sinful desire; (3) the same language does not suggest mutuality – all of the initiative here is from Judah and no mention is made of what the woman wanted or how she felt about things; (4) the fact that it is a Canaanite woman likely has links to the worship of false gods – the Israelites were commanded not to intermarry with the Canaanites for this reason.

From this marriage, Judah had three sons, and the eldest son, Er, married Tamar. Verse 7 does not go into the details, but it does tell us that Er was a wicked man and God took his life. This left Tamar a widow and childless, having endured a marriage to a wicked man. In such a situation, the culture of the day was levirate marriage, where the next son would marry the widow and provide an heir in his dead brother’s name. The purpose behind this was a compassionate one; to prevent the widow falling on destitution and ensuring the dead brother’s family name continued. However, instead of using this custom to care for Tamar, the second son Onan instead exploited her. He agreed to sleep with her but refused to produce an heir, instead preventing conception. In this act he showed that he saw Tamar as someone he could use for his sexual gratification but not as someone to care and provide for. As a result, Onan too was killed by God. The third son, Shelah, was too young to marry Tamar and provide an heir, so Judah told her to return to her father’s house until he came of age – again, an abdication of responsibility and a desire to get rid of someone who was both a financial burden and a ‘black widow.’

Judah had no intention of allowing Shelah to marry Tamar, and this should be seen as a justice issue. She was entitled to something from Judah and was being fobbed-off and marginalised, and as a result lived a life of shame and possibly destitution with no hope and no future. Once she saw that Shelah was grown and Judah had not fulfilled his obligation, she took matters into her own hand. Tamar heard that Judah would be going to Timnah and so went to meet him there, dressed not in her widow’s garments but wrapped up and wearing a veil. As Judah arrived he thought she was a cult prostitute and propositioned her. It is almost certainly the case that Tamar knew that this was the impression she would give. and the fact that Judah not only acted in this way but was so predictable in his actions speaks volumes about his character. It sounds like sleeping with prostitutes (and particularly cult prostitutes with their links to idol worship) was a regular practice for him. The fact that he didn’t recognise Tamar at any point is also revealing. It is often at this point in the story that commentators turn on Tamar and suggest she seduced Judah, but it should be recognised that Tamar was legally and morally entitled to the levirate son of this union (that Judah had been refusing her). Judah was the one who had gone into this encounter looking for sex; Tamar went into it looking for justice.

The price that had been negotiated for the encounter was a young goat, and as a guarantee of this Judah left behind his signet, cord and staff (think the ancient equivalent of his phone, keys and driving licence). When he attempted to send the payment and found there was no prostitute in the area he let her keep his things to avoid embarrassing himself further. Not long after, Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant and he is furious. He wants her to be burned to death for her supposed ‘immorality’ (while at the same time being completely blind to his own hypocrisy in the situation). It is only when she brings out Judah’s possessions that he realises what has happened and declares her to be more righteous than he is.

Three Reflections on Judah From This Story

(1) He leads a house based on power and exploitation. In this story there is a very clear power difference between Judah and Tamar. He can act as he wants and get away with it whereas she has very little choice over what happens to her. Judah uses this power in an exploitative way, as does his son. Often people in positions of power struggle to recognise the power dynamics before them and can act in ways that exploit and abuse those with less power. As followers of Jesus we must follow his example in willingly humbling ourselves and using our power to serve others rather than using it for our own gain.

(2) He cares more about his own wishes than he cares about people. Through this story Judah’s motive is himself. In the previous chapter we saw he was willing to sell his brother as a slave for a few pieces of silver. Here he sees and takes the Canaanite woman without naming her, denies justice to Tamar, sexually exploits her and is more motivated by his reputation than justice. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves and to do to others what we would have them do to us. This story is a profound challenge to our motives and where the desire for money, sex or power comes before our desire to do good to others then we are on the wrong track. 

(3) He attempts to control others despite not living the life himself. Judah is a classic hypocrite. When he hears about Tamar’s pregnancy he comes down on her like a ton of bricks and wants her killed despite the fact that he himself has been sleeping with cult prostitutes (probably regularly). He wants to force Tamar to live up to a standard that he himself had no interest in following. This can be one of the most toxic and off-putting features people see in some religious practice. Christ has not called us to police the lifestyles of others but rather to walk in righteousness and integrity before him ourselves. 

Three Reflections on Tamar From This Story

(1) She is not in control of her circumstances. For much of this story, things happen to Tamar that are outside her control. She is married to a wicked man (and in the cultural context this would have been arranged between her father and Judah), she is sexually exploited by Onan and is denied justice. The Old Testament frequently mentions five particular groups of people who compassion should be given to – widows, orphans, the poor and the sick and foreigners. Tamar ticked three of these boxes and the call on God’s people is to respond to people like Tamar with compassion and mercy not exploitation or harsh judgement.

(2) She is brave and creative. Despite her victim status, Tamar is not passive but finds a way to fight for the justice she has been denied. Her actions in this story put her in harm’s way and they show her bravery and also a creative approach to solving her problem. In this, Tamar is a model for us all. That is not to say that her actions would be righteous in most circumstances (her particular context is very important in understanding the story) but her heart and willingness to fight for justice are things we can all imitate. 

(3) She is honoured in Scriptures story. When people tell this story in a way that shames Tamar, they miss the verdict at the end of the story that comes from Judah’s own mouth that ‘she is more righteous than I’. They also miss the way the New Testament honours Tamar as one of just five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:3). The gospel writer is very keen for us to understand that Jesus himself comes about as a result of Tamar’s righteous actions – and this shows that Jesus came for people just like her (a foreigner, a woman, a broken person, someone often viewed with shame).

How Does It Point to Jesus?

Judah’s actions here show a shameful use of power for his own gain, whereas Jesus used his power to serve. The story makes us long for a saviour, and it is the descendant who came from this very union that makes all things right.