Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)

The story of Joseph (Genesis chapters 37 to 50) is interrupted in Genesis chapter 38 by a record of the origins of the tribe of Judah.

Joseph prefigured Messiah in many details of his life, i.e. as the chosen son, whom his brothers despised and rejected, but later bowed down to,[1] but Joseph was not the One to whom this peculiar honour was ultimately due.

It was over Judah that Jacob prophesied:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you …

the scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.”
(Genesis 49: 8, 10)

The circumstances at the origins of Judah are not, however, what might readily appear as appropriate, or conducive to such a noble cause.  And while it is true that events in the lives of the patriarchs in many cases foreshadowed the future history of their people, we would not hasten to find in the tragic perversities surrounding the origins of Judah, anything that could have significance for the future of the Jews, or the fulfilment of the Messianic hope that is focussed on that tribe.

Yet, discerning more carefully the circumstances that led Tamar to elicit seed from her Father-in-Law, we discover these to be full of hidden meaning and deeply significant.

First we see that Judah married the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite. This conflicts with Abraham’s efforts in Genesis 24 to avoid such a marriage in Isaac’s case, at all costs, thus binding his most trusted servant on oath:  “I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites … but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:3-4).

The Law of Moses later prohibited marriage with Canaanites, since it might corrupt the worship of God and lead the Israelites into idolatry: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites  … Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).

The consequence in Judah’s case, of such a marriage, was a perverse progeny, an evil generation, children given to corruption. In verse six we see that God was displeased with Er, Judah’s firstborn, and killed him. Onan, the second son, suffered the same fate. Er’s widow Tamar was left without any offspring from either of these brothers, and Judah feared to give Tamar his last son, Shelah, in levirate marriage. Tamar then disguised herself as a prostitute to obtain seed from her father-in-law, and the tribe of Judah originates from this extraordinary union.[2]

On the spiritual level,Judah’s marriage to the Canaanite is symbolic of the elicit liaison of the Jewish nation with foreign gods. The prophet Jeremiah said of Israel:

“… Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry.
But you said, `It’s no use! I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’ ”
(Jeremiah 2:24-25)

As with the marriage between Judah and the Canaanite, Israel’s spiritual unions with foreign gods gave birth to “a perverse generation, children who are unfaithful” (Deuteronomy 32:20).

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags …” (Isaiah 64:6)

Having perhaps learnt from his error, Judah sought out a wife of noble character for his eldest son, Er. He found Tamar, but Er “was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death”.Judah then gave his second son, Onan, to Tamar in levirate marriage:

“Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Lie with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so He put him to death also” (Genesis 38:8-10).

While Tamar’s subsequent behaviour may seem disgraceful, she was clearly not motivated by lust or private ambition, but by the strong sense of duty that characterised godly woman of that time, namely to secure the family line and produce seed for posterity. Tamar did even more in Judah’s case, for she established the line to Messiah, future Prince and Saviour of the World, who could not descend from any other tribe.

“… this story, often regarded as objectionable , is the crown of the book of Genesis and Tamar one of the most admirable women. The purpose … can be recognized by its conclusion. It leads to Perez the ancestor of David and the Judean royal dynasty. The book of Ruth which closes with the name of David expressly mentions Tamar and Perez (Ruth 4,12) and knows no higher blessing for Ruth at her wedding than her house may be like that of Tamar … [Tamar] is aware of the exalted mission which became hers by marrying into Judah’s family … She wants to live solely for this mission. When, after the refusal of the last son she turns to the father, she merely acts as Judah did by the levirate. The intention is the same and the expression ‘incest’ is out of place.” [3]

The seed of righteousness

By reverting to Judah, the original father of the tribe, Tamar – inadvertently perhaps – cuts out the corrupt generation entirely that had issued forth from Judah and the Canaanite. It is notably only the offspring through their twin sons, Perez and Zerah, that are counted as Judah’s descendents in 1 Chronicles 2, even though Judah’s youngest son, Shelah is mentioned in Numbers  26:20 as father of the Shelanites.[4]

In a more profound and universal sense, the immaculate conception of Jesus by-passes all the corruption that has come upon mankind since the time of Adam, and the human race is effectively returned to God Himself, the Original Father and Progenitor, for the seed by which man is then created anew in His image. Jesus is born of the Holy Spirit, untainted by corrupted flesh and free from the sins of the fathers that are passed down to the children and the children’s children in successive generations.[5] 

In view of this, we understand how Prince Messiah can be both and simultaneously “the offspring of David” and “the Son of God”, as announced through the prophet Nathan:

“ ‘When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his Father, and he will be my Son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.’  Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation”   (1 Chron. 17:11-15).

As Perez and Zerah are listed in the chronicles of Judah, in place of Er, Onan and Shelah (none of whom received an inheritance in the allotments of Judah), so too Messiah is substituted as Firstborn and Son of God, in place of corrupted flesh, to become progenitor of the new race of God’s children, namely the Israel of God.

“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:11-13).

These children are, “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God,” by which they are then, “transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”[6]

[1] Genesis 37:19, 42:6.

[2] It is significant that in 1 Chronicles 2, no descendants are numbered toJudah through Shelah, the youngest and only surviving son from his marriage with the Canaanite woman. In Numbers 26 verse 20, we read, however, that Shelah was progenitor of a people known as the Shelanites.

[3] The first book of the bible Genesis interpreted by Benno Jacob. His commentary abridged, edited and translated by Ernest I. Jacob and Walter Jacob. KTAV Publishing Inc.,New York, 1974, pp. 261-262.

[4] See footnote 2, above.

[5] Exodus 34:7.

[6] 1Peter 1:23,  2 Corinthians 3:18.