Judah and Tamar, a Dark Shadow on the History of Israel

There are passages in the Holy Scriptures that surprise us and, if it depended on us, we would not have included them in written revelation. Genesis 38 is one of those passages. However, knowing that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16),and that ” whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning” (Rom 15:4), we shall seek to understand what the Lord teaches us through the sad and dark events of this chapter.

Judah, a Forerunner of the Messiah

Judah was the fourth of the twelve sons of Israel and we need to know why God chose him to be a forerunner of the Messiah rather than Reuben, Simeon, or Levi. Naturally speaking, the Lord Jesus should have descended from Reuben, the eldest son, but Genesis 35:22 teaches us how Reuben dishonored his father. In his final discourse, Jacob says this of his eldest son: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it” (49:4). In this same discourse, Jacob denounces the murderous cruelty of Simeon and Levi towards Hamor and Shechem, thus disqualifying his second and third sons from the rights of the firstborn.

In the light of Judah’s behavior in chapter 38, we might well ask how is it that the firstborn’s right wasn’t passed on to Dan the fifth son. If God chose Judah, it was perhaps because of his humiliation when his sin was uncovered. He said: “She hath been more righteous than I” (38:26).

Whatever the reason, the Spirit of God led Jacob to prophesy that the Messiah would stem from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10)..

The Unequal Yoke

The disastrous events of this chapter find their roots in Judah’s marriage with the daughter of Shuah the Canaanite, despite Isaac’s interdiction to marry the daughters of Canaan. This principle of going outside the people of God to find a partner is condemned in the New Testament when the apostle writes: “what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” The brother or sister seeking to marry is not to go into the world to find a partner for life.

The Christian who unites with the unbeliever will pay very dearly for his disobedience and he will cause suffering to his partner. The situation described in 1 Corinthians 7 concerns those who get saved after marriage and does not constitute a justification to marry someone who does not belong to the Lord. We know of believers who have been disobedient and have owned their error from the depth of their heart and with tears in their eyes.

Judah’s Weakness

Such was the wickedness of Judah’s two eldest sons that God cut them off, and as was the custom, after their deaths, the widow should have married the third son to perpetuate the family name. This obligation is confirmed under the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. We may suppose that Shelah, the third son was no better than Er and Onan, for Judah expresses the fear the he too would die, as did his older brothers. Thus he leaves Tamar waiting and showed no intention of honoring his word to her.

Evil Companionship Corrupts Good Manners

Judah’s friend was a man called Hirah the Adullamite. When Judah’s wife died, he went to see Hirah. His morality was not that of the people of God. He did not disapprove of what Judah did, but to the contrary, offered to mediate in the affair with Tamar.

This man tells us of the world and its evil influence on the child of God. The believer is not called to live cloistered in some monastery. Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16). We should not be deceived; in the world there are many good people, honest, decent, and helpful. However, they can be no help on our heaven-bound pilgrimage.

A Guilty Misunderstanding

Tamar saw herself in a situation of being deprived of her rights according to the custom of the nation because of the cowardice and the hardness of Judah. Thus, she put her widow’s garments to one side. She veiled her face and waited at the place where she knew that Judah would pass by. There is nothing to suggest that Tamar dressed in a provocative way such as a harlot would dress. She simply wanted to confront Judah in order to obtain from him what he had promised. Before she could say anything we read: “When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face” (v 15). He made the proposition of verse 16, to which she acceded. This experience revealed to Tamar another aspect of her father-in-law’s character, the absence of any true affection. Seeing this woman at the side of the road, he supposed her to be a harlot and imputed evil where there was none.

May God preserve us from this critical spirit that sees no good in anyone. We have seen with Judah, that to see evil in others does not preserve us from the same evil. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye ?” (Matt 7:3).

A Hasty Judgment

Three months later Judah discovers that his daughter-in-law is pregnant and orders her to be burnt for playing the harlot. In this respect, let us remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” Judah confesses his fault when he declares: “She hath been more righteous than I.” For this reason he inherits the rights of the firstborn in the place of Ruben, Simeon, and Levi while Tamar will give birth to twins, one of whom, Pharez, finds his place in the genealogy of Christ.

Let us seek to avoid Judah’s errors: an unequal yoke in marriage, failure to keep his word, friendship with the world, and seeing evil where it was absent. This all resulted in judgment being turned back on himself.