Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Judah and Tamar

At this point a brief story about Judah and Tamar is inserted, we’ll take a look at that now, then we will pick up Joseph’s story in Egypt next time.

Judah marries a Canaanite woman named Shua, who bears him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age Judah picks Tamar to be his wife, but Er is slain by God for being “wicked”. What did Er do to warrant a death sentence? To find out we need to leave Genesis and look into the Book of Jubilees (41:1-3) we find:

 1. And in the forty-fifth jubilee, in the second week, (and) in the second year, Judah took for his first-born Er, a wife from the daughters of Aram, named Tamar. 2. But he (Er) hated her, and did not lie with her, because his mother was of the daughters of Canaan, and he wished to take him a wife of the kinsfolk of his mother, but Judah, his father, would not permit him. 3. And because of this Er, the first-born of Judah, was wicked, and the Lord slew him.

Er’s sin was against what would be the Fifth Commandment – Honor your father and mother. This was a key commandment, the first after those dealing with God himself. Especially in Judah’s time, obedience to familial (tribal) authority was paramount, otherwise the entire tribe could fall into anarchy.

By law (tradition) Tamar is then given to Onan as a wife to bear a son for Er’s namesake so that his lineage doesn’t die out. Rather than perform his obligation Onan stops short of depositing his sperm into Tamar choosing to spill it on the ground, thus saying that Er will be forever childless. For this act God kills Onan.

Why did Onan refuse to do his obligatory duties? Enter the sin of greed. The first child that Tamar bears would be Er’s, and would inherit Er’s (double) portion of Judah’s estate, along with Judah’s blessing. But, if Er has no children then Onan becomes the eldest son and receives what is due to the eldest son. For this reason God slays Onan, leaving Shelah as the only remaining son of Judah. Oh, if that were but the end of the tale.

judah-and-tamarJudah sends Tamar back to her father to wait for Shelah to come of age, with the promise that at that time they would be joined. But Judah is fearful, he has lost two sons to Tamar and believes she is cursed, so when Shelah is old enough he does not keep his word. Around this time Judah’s wife dies, after the mourning period passes he takes his herd to Timnah to be sheared. Tamar hears of the trip and decides to take matters into her own hands; she dresses as a prostitute, travels to Timnah and has intercourse with Judah, for payment Judah offers a kid from his herd. Tamar, however, is cunning, until the payment arrives she demands his signet, cord, and staff. These three items assure his identity, the signet is a seal that denotes his family; the cord is the hem of his cloak and would have been uniquely crafted for Judah, making it easy to identify him as the owner; likewise, the staff is more than just a wooden stick, it would have been intricately, and personally, carved. Any one of these could have been used to identify Judah, combined it makes it impossible to say that she was mistaken about who he was, or that she might have stolen them (one or two, maybe, but all three?).

After the transaction is completed they engage in intercourse, afterwards Judah and Tamar go their separate ways. Tamar gets rid of her prostitute clothing and puts her widow’s garments back on then leaves for home. Meanwhile, Judah sends a servant with the kid to give as payment, and to retrieve his pledged items back. The servants report that she cannot be found. Worried, Judah has them inquire about her whereabouts, everyone says that there has been no prostitute in the camp. Judah then tells his men to stop the search so that he doesn’t appear as a fool in front of the entire camp. After the shearing work is done Judah returns home.

Three months pass and Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant, Judah is furious and demands that she be brought to him and be burned alive for committing adultery. Tamar then produces the signet, cord, and staff and says that the owner of these items is the father of her child. Judah recognizes the items and in front of everyone he cannot deny they are his, he then agrees that what she did was within law since he held Shelah back from her.

When her time comes she is found to be with twins, is this God’s way of replacing Er and Onan so that Judah again has three children? Does it give back to Tamar the inheritance that her child through Er would have received (half of Judah’s wealth)? It is an interesting thing to ponder, though there is no way to determine God’s plan. As with Jacob and Easu, Tamar’s twins battle for first birth, the midwife puts a scarlet thread around the first hand to come out of the birth canal before it goes back in, claiming this is to be the firstborn. Next, the second child comes fully out and is named Perez, which means “to breech”, his brother then comes out and is named Zerah – to shine forth in glory. In the genealogies of Jesus both Matthew and Luke follow it back to Perez. I find it interesting that in the cases of both Jacob and Perez, God has chosen what man deems as the second born, not the first, to use as His son’s lineage.


This completes the story of Judah and Tamar, with the next installment we return to Joseph, now in Egypt, and see what God has in store for the still unborn nation of Israel.


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