Judah had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, then died without having any sons. Onan then married Tamar, but also failed to produce any sons. By the law of levirate marriage, Shelah should then have married Tamar, but Judah is fearful that she is the cause of his sons’ deaths, so he refuses. He sends Tamar away to her father’s house instead of providing a husband for her and thus providing for her livelihood like he should have.
What Tamar does in today’s Scripture passage is not right, but Judah’s mistreatment of Tamar sets the scene for her deception. The poorly treated widow is going to get back at him who mistreated her.
Please read Genesis 38:12-26.
It’s ok if you needed to read that passage twice in order to understand it. Basically, Tamar wants to get back at Judah so she poses as a cult prostitute and gets his pledge in order to use it as evidence against him of his indecency. According to the Law of Moses, any man and woman who are caught in adultery should both be put to death. So, when Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant (and she is not married so this pregnancy must have come from adultery), he seeks to put her to death. Conveniently, this would also rid him of his issue with not wanting her to marry Shelah!
However, since both parties engaged in adultery should be put to death, Tamar confesses that she was guilty, but so was the man who gave her this pledge… and then she reveals Judah’s pledge! He too was guilty of adultery and should be put to death!
Oddly, this story ends more like a modern sitcom than with a scriptural lesson. Instead of Tamar and Judah being put to death for adultery as was the law, or Tamar being given in marriage to Shelah as was the law, we are simply given the conclusion, “and he did not know her again.” You can almost picture this being said with a shrug: “oh well! She sure got Judah! The end.”
So what lesson can we take from such a strange episode in Scripture?
First, I think it’s pretty clear that these were not very good people. Yet Judah’s tribe will produce the Messiah! Just more proof that God can use anybody to accomplish His purposes—even you!
Second, Judah was trying to trick Tamar by not giving her in marriage to his third son, but Tamar ended up tricking Judah. This only goes to show that there is always a bigger bully, there’s always a trickier trickster, there’s always a more sinful sinner. So don’t even get caught up in all of that. Because Judah acted unrighteously, he was treated unrighteously and had to declare of this prostitute whom he was about to put to death for adultery, “she is more righteous than I.” If we get caught up in sin, our sin will find us out. In this case there was a relatively happy ending, but that won’t always be the case. It’s better to avoid sin all together.
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