by Tamar - Gen 38:12-30, I Chr 2:4
We’ve already seen a brief character sketch of Judah above and noted that he wasn’t the sort of person you’d choose as a friend (much less as an enemy!) but in this section we’ll consider his contribution to the conception and birth of the next in line to the Messiah - Perez.
The incident recorded for us in Genesis chapter 38 needs careful consideration so we need to deal with each detail and understand the plot as it unfolds before us...
Judah did as all good fathers would have done in those days and got a wife for his eldest son Er (by his name ‘Er’ must we suppose that he was a hesitant man?!). We aren’t told just what Er’s sin was, but the phrase (Gen 38:7)
‘wicked in the sight of the Lord’
is indicative of more than just stealing a kids’ smarties - had they been invented, that is.
When Er died, Judah - again as a good, responsible father - instructed his next eldest Onan to take Tamar as his wife and let the offspring have the name of his brother so that Er’s name wouldn’t be wiped out (that is, Er would have had no offspring to perpetuate his line and descendancy should things remain the way they were).
This procedure was normal practice in the culture of its day. A few hundred years later, the Lord put the bounds upon this rite through Moses, recorded for us in Deut 25:5-10. It was regarded as a great cultural sin not to honour your brother and have children to perpetuate his line, so much so that refusal to practice it meant local, regional and probably even national disgrace.
The law is particularly relevant in the story of Ruth (Ruth 4:5) though the cultural application had either changed fractionally by this time or Boaz pulled a fast one by agreeing to stand in the place of the next of kin because of his love for Ruth (Ruth 4:4). The arrangement was also the basis of the question the Sadducees put to Jesus, but that passage needn’t concern us here (Mtw 22:23-33).
Onan then takes Tamar to be his wife but he so despises the thought of his own offspring having his brother’s name (or some other anti-cultural idea), that he spills his semen on the floor when he sleeps with Tamar. Unfortunately, the English translation isn’t too accurate in Gen 38:9 - instead of the word ‘when’, the English text should read (my italics)
‘...whenever he went in to his brothers wife he spilled the semen on the ground’
denoting a consistent act of rebellion - this was certainly no one-off accident but a deliberate act of the will over a lengthy period of time.
In time, Tamar didn’t get pregnant and God intervened and slew Onan for his sin for Tamar would, by now, have been rumoured to be barren.
Culturally, Judah was obligated to give Tamar to Shelah - his third and only remaining son - so that Er could still have a name left to him on the earth. But, although he makes that promise to Tamar (Gen 38:11), there’s no real commitment to bring it about - he uses his promise only as a way to remove Tamar from his household hoping that she’ll either forget his word or that her father might find someone else for her to marry (Gen 38:14).
Perhaps Judah thought of Tamar as a bad risk - we don’t know. But he certainly had no intention of ever giving Tamar to Shelah in case he should lose his last son and so not have anyone to perpetuate his name on the earth.
The righteousness of Tamar
Most of us will probably not think of Tamar as a righteous woman. After all, didn’t she pretend to be a harlot (Gen 38:15)? And didn’t she have sex with her father-in-law that was later forbidden in the law of Moses (Lev 20:12)? Surely this, in itself, proves that, before the Lord, she was wicked?
But Judah’s declaration (Gen 38:26) is, indeed, an accurate description of his daughter-in-law that
‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah’
Tamar’s intention was not to humiliate Judah. Neither was it to live as a prostitute and accept whatever man came to her. Neither was it that she wanted Judah as her husband and set about trying to entangle him.
She solely wanted to perpetuate the name of her husband on the earth and the only choice left to her was to either get Shelah to sleep with her or Judah. Noting Judah’s weakness in that he hadn’t had a wife for some time (Gen 38:12), she found opportunity with him.
The time of the year as indicated by the verse was the time when there would have been fertility rites performed with cult prostitutes in pagan temples and, possibly, in other places also (hence Boaz’s words in Ruth 3:14. He knew that Ruth would have been taken to be a prostitute had people found out, so he wisely protected her reputation) - hence the men of the place respond to the question of the Adullamite with the word that specifically means this (Gen 38:21). But we’re told that Judah only thought of her as a harlot (Gen 38:15 - so the Hebrew word) not a cult prostitute.
Tamar is the sort of woman who knows what’s right and good and sets about making it happen. She was a woman of courage - she knew that when she was discovered she would face death (Gen 38:24) and that she might not get opportunity to declare what had happened, but she was one who would face the consequence of her convictions like the wife of Proverbs chapter 31.
Far better to have a wife whose character is strong and who acts righteously than to have some dainty and picturesque woman who’s weak and easily swayed into sin. For all the bad press Tamar has had over the years, it’s about time we set the record straight. Tamar was a righteous woman in her generation who risked her life to perpetuate the name of her deceased husband - and who succeeded.
The birth of Perez
The parallel passage to Genesis chapter 38 is Matthew 1:3 where we read that out of the union of Judah and Tamar, Perez was chosen to be the line through which God was going to bring the Messiah to earth (and, therefore, was the line through which David came - Ruth 4:18-22).
But why does God choose the son of a sinful union to be the one through whom the Messiah is to come? Moses’ Law speaks out against such a union between father and daughter-in-law. Lev 20:12 notes categorically that
‘If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest, their blood is upon them’
God’s choice rests upon one whose life was conceived contrary to His law and, therefore, in sin.
Why not choose Shelah - the son of Judah’s marriage - to be the rightful descendant of the King?
And for that matter, why does God choose fourth-born Judah (who was Perez’s father) when the law states that the head of the brothers should be the first-born (Deut 21:15-17)? And why choose the betrayer of his own brother (Gen 37:26-27)?
Because God doesn’t choose according to righteousness under the Law. The author of Matthew takes great care to point this out in his genealogical record by purposely including the names of four women through whom the Messiah came, all who would have been ‘disqualified’ if God’s calling depended upon works of the Law.
We shall look at this point further in part two, but for now it’s sufficient for us to note that this principle of choosing according to God’s own pre-determined will and not according to Mosaic Law is demonstrated more than once amongst the lineage of the Messiah.