Difficult Passages: Judah and Tamar

Today’s post is rated PG-13 due to some dialogue about sex (it’s unavoidable). Be advised.

The Passage and the Difficulties

In Genesis 38 we have what seems like an interruption to the Joseph narrative that surrounds it. Moving away from Joseph, the focus shifts to Judah, before returning to Joseph. The reasons for this shift are because of the two things going on historically that the author of Genesis no doubt found important. 1) Israel would eventually go to live in Egypt (setting up the events of Exodus), hence the focus on Joseph, and 2) Judah would become one of the more dominant tribes, eventually yielding David the King (and in the NT Jesus). So there is the dual focus. Incidentally, there is also a theme of the second born throughout Genesis and Judah was second born after Gideon from his mother Leah, which is another indication of his potentially favored status in spite of his character.

So in Genesis 38, we see Judah taking an unnamed woman to be his wife. She conceives three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for Er, named Tamar, but apparently Er is so evil that God kills him. Since Er had no sons, they practice leverite marriage (I’ll get to that in the next section) and Onan is told he is obligated to make love with Tamar so that she can conceive a son who will be Er’s. Now Onan doesn’t particularly care for the idea of having his son be named as though it was his brothers. Here the text is unclear whether Onan “pulls out” or masturbates, but at any rate he does not climax while having sex. Because this is evil, Onan is killed by God. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this to mean that all male ejaculations that do not occur during sexual intercourse are sinful (often labeling them “Onanism”). Again we’ll get to this later.

Judah, having seen what happened to his other two sons, refuses to send Shelah, his third son, to act out his duty of leverite marriage, and so Tamar is left, essentially, to be shamed. Not content to bear the shame of never having a son, when Judah goes off to do some shepherding duties, Tamar comes up with a plan.

She dresses as a prostitute and, apparently having noticed her father-in-laws questionable sexual ethics, offers herself as a prostitute to him. He doesn’t have payment, but offers her some personal effects as collateral. She accepts and disappears without payment. Later she is revealed to be pregnant (by Judah). When Judah cries out for her to be killed, Tamar produces the personal effects, and Judah is convicted of his sin and calls of the execution. Then the next chapter goes back to Joseph.

How I’d suggest looking at it

Well as it turns out, we’ve got quite a few things to look at in this passage. Let’s start with the easy ones. 1) God kills people who are wicked. Personally, I don’t have a particular problem with this. God is revealing himself to be the defender of the weak, and it seems the wickedness portrayed by those whom God kills is against a weaker party (yes even Onan toward Tamar). This becomes a problem with why doesn’t God still do these things in modern history (often phrased, “Why didn’t God kill Hitler?”). While we could get into this in more depth, it seems an entirely separate issue. Let me just leave it by saying, we are under a new covenant where Grace is heavily emphasized above all else. It could be that God is allowing some grace to these people. I should also note that Er and Onan were only killed after they committed their evil deeds. There is something to be said for being innocent until you actually commit the crime.

2) Onan is evil? Really? I’m not going to go the route of the Roman Catholic Church on this one. This was (a) a very different time and (b) his act was of a particular sort. Specifically, Onan had an obligation to ensure his brother’s name did not die out. He had no problem accepting Tamar as his wife, only he wanted to enjoy her as his wife without giving his brother what was asked of him by the terms of such a marriage. So, in effect, Onan used Tamar for his own pleasure while also symbolically spitting in his brother’s face. It is almost the same as adultery, and it could even be bordering on rape, given the attitude that Onan seemed to possess.

Ok with that said there are still two more, perhaps more problematic, issues: 3) the entire concept of leverite marriage as required and 4) that Tamar is more righteous than Judah by deceiving him.

3) The Leverite Marriage: There are two routes to take with this one. First, one could say this was just the culture of the time and is something we will never understand. However, considering the details of such marriages (where brothers marry their deceased and childless brother’s wife) are given in Deuteronomy, this doesn’t seem like a valid position. Instead, I’d suggest looking at the distinction between the covenants. The Covenant, as it existed in the Old Testament, was one found primarily upon ethnic continuity. You were physically born into it. The covenant as it exists following the New Testament is one of faithfulness. You are spiritually born into it. Since the first covenant had this emphasis on the ethnic, physical birth, it stands to reason that continuing a family line would prove incredibly important. Now, while I doubt we can ever fully understand it, I do think this highlights the distinction between the two covenants and why such a thing was applicable then, but not as much now. The nature of the covenant is no longer physical/ethnic but spiritual/global.

4) How is Tamar Righteous? Well, Tamar is certainly not perfect here (Judah definitely isn’t, but I don’t think anyone would argue he was). She does practice deceit. However, she did accomplish what her father-in-law failed to do. Further she didn’t sleep with just anyone, but specifically with the man responsible for ensuring the child (or in this case children) who should have been born, were actually born (interestingly she has 2 husbands die and gives birth to twins). Notice in the text, though, it doesn’t say she was fully righteous, just more righteous than Judah (and because it technically was in fulfillment of the leverite law, she was not condemned as an adulteress). She was deceptive, but ultimately this was used for good. Later, God took one of her sons and put him in the line of David (and eventually Jesus). It is a slightly foreign world to us, but if we take into account the emphasis on the ethnic nature of the covenant, it may begin to make more sense. Also we need to take into account how righteousness is accounted to people. It has less to do with actions, which always fail, and more to do with faith/trust, especially trust in God. Going back to Abram/Abraham, it is his faith that makes him righteous, not his deeds. In this instance, though, even if her deeds were unrighteous, her faith credits her as righteous. Judah had no faith, not in his children nor in God’s plan. He acted as a result of his faithlessness, but it was the initial lack of faith that ensured he would be credited for his (unrighteous) actions only. In contrast, Tamar had faith that God would grant her the children she should have been able to count on having. Whatever her other deeds or methods, she had faith in God and relied on Him to protect her. It is primarily for this reason she is counted as righteous in this incident.

How’d I do? Would you like to extend the conversation (or offer counter-theories)? Suggest new passages to examine?

  8 comments for “Difficult Passages: Judah and Tamar

  1. September 3, 2012 at 7:31 am

    interesting subject 🙂

    it amazes me really.. How could God even mentioned her name in the genealogy of Jesus?

    sometimes, I have to totally forget all my idea of morality. to really grasp the grace of God is like trying to dissect the mind of God.

    i would like to assume, if only the writer of Hebrews had more time, he had written Tamar in the Hall of Faith just like Rahab’s induction.

  2. Beth
    September 5, 2012 at 4:30 am

    I’m still a little uncomfortable with the fact that Tamar intentionally slept with her father-in-law. Are you saying that in the context of leverite marriage, such an act would not be wrong or at least it wouldn’t be as wrong as Judah’s actions in denying Tamar a child?

    As a slightly related matter, it also totally grosses me out that Abraham and Sarah were half-siblings. Perhaps this could be another difficult passage (or just fact) to examine at some time.

    • September 5, 2012 at 11:05 am

      I know, it’s weird, but yes in that particular situation involving both Leverite marriage, and Judah’s actions, it was apparently ok. I don’t know that it’d be any less weird that she would sleep with her brothers-in-law. I think that is just an aspect of that culture that will seem odd to us for quite a while. Granted it seems a bit more odd than not bathing regularly, wearing wildly different clothes, or regularly witnessing animal sacrifice, but I don think it is just one of those things we won’t be able to fully understand in that sense (it may cognitively make sense, but would still be weird).

      With regard to Abraham and Sarah, I think we may have evidence for another reason. When they were Abram and Sarai, these names indicated some sort of royalty, since men were named for their father until they had their own children often times (Abram being exalted father and Sarai meaning “my princess”). That, and given the actions of Abram later are evidence that he may have been some sort of royal figure. It is no secret that in much of the ancient world (and even in some parts of medieval Europe) royalty tended to marry close relatives. In Egypt, where this seems to have been the most common, it seems the pharaohs began to show some deformities as a result of these close unions. So it is something that happened, whether or not that makes it less gross is another issue (yeah I’m pretty gross out by it to). However, it does make the decision by Abram (later Abraham) to leave a bit more amazing, since he left what might have been relative privilege and comfort.

      I hope that it’s not too unsatisfying of an answer, even if a bit weird from our current perspective (and yes it is weird)

  3. kevobx
    September 6, 2012 at 12:47 am

    Tamar slept with her father in law: Judah and the women of Moab; *Genesis 19:36 Thus were both the daughters of lot with child by their father. (Moab the elder & Ammon the younger) *Obadiah 6 How are the things of Esau searched out! how are his hidden things sought up! *John 1:19 And this the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? (The answer is Esau, the red blooded nation of people, the father of the Edomites: Esau’s mother Rebekah of Syrian descent by blood *Genesis 32:17* *Ruth 1:1 Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.

  4. kevobx
    September 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Who are the lords and dukes in this world? No man will ever be honest! *Genesis 36:40*

  5. Cheryl Beswick
    February 18, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    Wow. That was a great explanation. Thank you so much for your insight into this passage.

    • Anonymous
      June 8, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Frankly, I didn’t like the interpretation of God’s reason for killing O’nan. I honestly don’t understand the entire narrative concerning Judah, his sons & Tamar. I have been taught and understand the doctrine of Grace that God’s people currently experience. However I have questions & concerns about some of the events(mainly in old testament) & their explanations/interpretations. (Dissatisfied)

  6. Anonymous
    June 8, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    Frankly, I didn’t like the interpretation of God’s reason for killing O’nan. I honestly don’t understand the entire narrative concerning Judah, his sons & Tamar. I have been taught and understand the doctrine of Grace that God’s people currently experience. However I have questions & concerns about some of the events(mainly in old testament) & their explanations/interpretations. (Dissatisfied)

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