Verses 1-11: Judah’s willful separation
Israel’s (Jacob’s) family is, in steps and phases, falling away from God and falling apart altogether.
Judah was Israel’s fourth son, borne to him by Leah. The way that Judah’s story is placed in the middle of Joseph’s story contrasts Judah’s poor moral character with Joseph’s godly and superior moral character. Judah’s story in this chapter is a sign of the worldliness and sin that most of Jacob’s children invite into their life through intermarrying and dwelling with the idolatrous Canaanites. As it happens, Judah marries a Canaanite woman, then solicits a prostitute who he later finds out is his daughter-in-law. This inordinate familial chaos is what results even today when we depart from God’s will for us and our families. Contrasting Judah with Joseph is a clear and effective example to behold as a way to endorse or approve of God’s design for how man ought to act.
Although explicit commands had not yet come down from God to prohibit marriage with the idolatrous Canaanites, the case is being made through these examples that we are blessed when we follow God’s will for us in all things and we are likewise cursed with abominable conditions when we live only for ourselves.
In the beginning of this chapter, Judah leaves the presence of his brothers and goes to visit Hirah an Adullamite. Judah marries Shua, a Canaanite. He has sons by her: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah then marries Er to a Canaanite woman named Tamar. But Er had displeased God (exactly how or why we are not told) and God causes Er’s death. According to the custom of the day, Judah tells Onan, the next eldest brother, to take Tamar as his wife. Under the custom, a child that would come from Onan and Tamar’s union would be attributed to Er rather than Onan as Israel’s firstborn grandson. Because Onan did not want this for his natural child, he did not complete the sexual act with Tamar and he expelled his seed on the ground. Because of this, God kills Onan too.
Shelah, Judah’s third son, should then be next to take Tamar as his wife. But Shelah at this time was not yet grown. Judah tells Tamar to stay at her father’s house as a widow until Shelah is old enough to be her husband.
Verses 12-30: Judah’s folly
The next series of events is shameful and sad. Judah’s behavior is not reflective of a spirit that recognizes God or that is cognizant and appreciative of His blessings. Judah’s wife Shua dies. By way of comforting himself, Judah goes with his friend Hirah to Timnah, where sheep-shearing is taking place.
Tamar hears that Judah will be coming to Timnah. Tamar was not happy with Judah because he had not yet given her to his third son Shelah as a wife (it is unclear whether, by this time, Shelah was grown). We are not told why Judah had not yet done this but as his previous two sons had died while married to her, we can understand his hesitation (even though they had died because they displeased God and not because of any act by Tamar). In fact, Judah’s reluctance to give Tamar to Shelah conveys Judah’s ignorance of God’s role in these matters, deepening the idea that (at this time) Judah’s righteousness and allegiance to God is nowhere near that of his father’s or his grandfather’s.
Tamar replaces her garments of widowhood with a veil and then sits in an open place in Timnah. The text does not tell us that she dressed as a prostitute, but that is what Judah takes her for when he sees her. He propositions her and she accepts, citing a goat for payment for the act. Since Judah does not have the goat with him, they agree that Judah will leave his signet, cord and staff as a pledge until he can pay her with the goat. These items would have been unique to Judah and could not have been mistaken for another man’s.
Tamar gets pregnant from the encounter. After, she returns home and puts back on the clothes of a widow. When Judah tries to locate her to pay, the “harlot” cannot be found, so he seems to write off his signet, cord and staff as casualties of an afternoon’s dalliance.
Later, however, Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant and because she was still technically family, Judah is angry that she has “played the harlot” and has gotten pregnant outside of marriage. He calls for her to be burned. But Tamar comes out holding Judah’s signet, cord and staff, saying that their owner is the father of her children.
Judah instantly knows what has happened: Tamar was the prostitute that he propositioned in Timnah. His quick judgment of the situation is clear: “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.”
Who was right and who was wrong in this chapter? Both Judah and Tamar acted in selfish ways that were ungodly. While it is true that Judah did not deserve for his two sons to die and Tamar did not deserve for her two husbands to die, these deaths do not provide permission for their behavior. Prostitution, entrapment, fornication, deception and a lack of love and care for family are the sins of Judah and Tamar in this passage. Their story reminds us of what can happen when we drift away from God in our lives. When we make important decisions based on self rather than what is right, we typically suffer along with those that are affected by the decision. Consequences may not be immediate or even soon, but they will eventually come.
Tamar’s twins are born: Perez and Zerah. Although it looked as if one would come out of the womb first, the other did, therefore their names were allocated. This occurrence has harmony in the Abrahamic covenant and in the bloodline that will lead to Jesus. Although neither Isaac, Jacob, Judah nor Perez are recognized as firstborn to their fathers, they still are the ones through which the covenant is fulfilled. What does this say about Jesus? Perhaps it is meant to tell us that Christ’s human fathers are unimportant; His true and divine Father is the focus.
Looking at Judah’s behavior in this chapter is disappointing, but there is a very positive message to be had. In Matthew 1:1-3, we are given the genealogy of Jesus Christ. There it is recorded that Jesus’ bloodline includes that of Judah and his son Perez, one of Tamar’s twins born from Judah and his daughter-in-law. This shows us God’s great capacity for mercy upon His people. The Abrahamic covenant came true in spite of the behavior of the descendants. And Jesus descending from a lineage of chosen sinners is genuinely fitting considering the role he plays in the forgiveness of the sin of all mankind.