Judah and Tamar – Genesis 38

When Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him out of jealously for their father’s favoritism, it was Judah who spoke up to save him:

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.  Genesis 37:26-27 (ESV)

Judah spared the life of Joseph by suggesting that Joseph be sold off as a slave rather than killed, as his brothers had wanted to do.  Besides being a more merciful fate, it would end up saving the entire family from starvation, as Joseph was to gain power in Egypt by the hand of the Lord, and would be used by Him to bring everyone safely through a seven-year famine. 

Against the will of his parents, Judah then chose to marry a Canaanite, who worshipped different gods.

38 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.  And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.  Genesis 38:1-3, 6 (ESV)

Abraham and Isaac had gone to great lengths to prevent their sons from marrying Canaanite women, but Judah did not follow this practice.  The concern was that the sons would be influenced by their wives to worship Canaanite gods and to abandon the God of Israel, who had called them as His own special people.  Canaanite idol worship involved many practices that the Lord specifically prohibits and despises, including rampant sexual immorality and, in some cases, even child sacrifice.  This fear of the parents would unfortunately come to pass down the line. Even wise King Solomon, a man of great faith, would be pulled away from the God who had blessed him so much by the influence of his many wives and the lure of their foreign gods and idols.

Judah’s father, Jacob, had traveled back to his homeland in Haran to take a wife from his own people.  (He ended up with two wives due to the deception of his father-in-law, Laban, and the number only grew from there). Yet, despite his family’s wishes and history, Judah left his brothers and married a Canaanite woman.  But when it came time for his own son, Er, to marry, he reversed course and chose an Israelite wife for him, named Tamar. 

But then God took the life of Judah’s half-Canaanite son, Er.  Scripture says it was because Er was “wicked in God’s sight”.    Judah’s next son took the widow Tamar as his wife, as was the custom of the time.  But then he died, too.  Judah began to wonder if perhaps Tamar was bad luck, so he hesitated before allowing his third son to marry her, as the culture of the time demanded.

God’s plan was to use Judah to continue the kingly line, but apparently not through a Canaanite wife.  There are non-Jewish women in the regal line, but these were specifically chosen by God, not by the whim of man.

12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. Genesis 38:12 (ESV)

Judah was now a widower, left with a widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, whom he now neglected, and one remaining son, Shelah, whom he kept away from her. After a season grief, Judah left his family to attend a sheepshearing with his friend Hirah. 

13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage.  Genesis 38:12-14 (ESV)

Tamar wanted a child but saw that she was being prevented from having one by Judah, who held sway over her.  Judah kept Tamar in his household as a widow, presumably to wait for his son, Shelah, as a husband.  But Judah held him back from her, believing Tamar to be bad luck.  Realizing her hopeless position, Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands.

In a very bold move, she disguised herself as a prostitute on the same road Judah was traveling, and as he came by, he propositioned her, not realizing who she was.  Tamar wisely took Judah’s signet ring, cord and walking staff as a pledge, realizing that if her plan to continue the lineage worked, she was also in great danger of being stoned for adultery.  In fact, when it was discovered that she was pregnant, Judah himself insisted that she be put to death, not realizing until later that he was, in fact, the father.  When Tamar produced the evidence of Judah’s pledge, he confessed his hypocrisy and took her as his wife, though they had no further intimate relations.

What a story to include in the Bible!  Just like the scheme of Abraham and Sarah to continue their lineage through Sarah’s maid, Hagar, God’s word does not paper over our human shortcomings. 

Yet, God honored Tamar’s plan and even included her in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Tamar is one of five women listed in the genealogy in Matthew Chapter 1. 

Tamar conceived and bore twins, Perez and Zerah.  There was a struggle between the two as to who would be born first, and it was a close race until the very end.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez.  30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.  Genesis 38:27-30 ESV

Aside from the names of his own offspring, that is pretty much all we know about Perez.  He was determined to be born first, and he was successful in that effort.  Though birth order appears to be less important in God’s eyes than in man’s, Perez made it into the genealogy of Jesus, apparently with God’s blessing.


Looking at your own lineage, are there any twists and turns that led to where you are today? 

Have there been people of faith in your family history who prayed for you?   Who in your family are you praying for?

Father God, thank You for our families, imperfect as they may be. Help us to be a blessing to them and help us to forgive those who need our pardon. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.

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