To say the least, this story provides the reader with dramatic whiplash. In chapter 37 we plunge into the story of Joseph and are sitting on the edge of our seat to see what happens to this poor boy that is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Then, like a sharp left turn, we step into the sultry affairs of Judah’s family. And, by the way, we feel a little dirty when we finish the chapter. Why is this chapter in the Bible? How could Judah be the father of the tribe from which Jesus comes? How could Tamar be considered “more righteous” when she was a conniving, lying, sexual deviant?
Good questions. The following passage from the New Bible Commentary may shed some light on the story:
“The modern reader is…most perplexed by the sexual antics of those involved. Does the narrator really approve of Tamar’s behavior? Why did Judah and his sons behave as they did? ….
In many societies, ancient and modern, the custom of Levirate marriage is known. According to the OT variety, the brother-in-law of a childless widow was expected to marry her to produce children for his dead brother. Dt. 25:5–10 regards such a marriage as desirable but not compulsory. However, in the earlier time of Judah and Tamar the brother had an absolute duty to marry his widowed sister-in-law, and the father-in-law was expected to see this duty fulfilled.
Judah and his sons were reluctant to do their duty, and Onan practiced a kind of contraception. This contravened the spirit of 1:28, the letter of the Levirate custom and the promise to the patriarchs, who had been assured they would have numberless descendants. So Onan died (10) because he had resisted God’s declared will. Judah, who should have been concerned to see his next son Shelah fulfill his legal duty and ensure the promise’s fulfillment, did nothing.
Tamar, a widow, had no legal redress against her father-in-law’s injustice. So she contrived to trap him. She outwitted him and obtained her rights under the Levirate law and two sons for the household of Jacob. Indeed, one of her sons was the ancestor of David and Jesus. In the process she made a fool of Judah and showed up his hypocrisy, so that ultimately he was forced to confess, ‘She is more righteous than I’ (26). This is not to say that sleeping with one’s father-in-law is approved of; ‘And he did not sleep with her again’ (26; cf. Lv. 18:15) shows it was not. Tamar’s irregular behavior was, however, in this instance, warranted because of her father-in-law’s much greater negligence of morality and theology. It was her offbeat act that brought Judah to his senses.”10
There are some principles to learn from this story:
1. We must always keep in mind the culture in which the story takes place when judging the “righteousness” factor.
Sexuality, marriage, and gender roles were extremely different in the days of the patriarchs. Sex and marriage was not as much about romance (actually, it had very little to do with romance) as it was about propagating the family name. The most important value in the ancient world was to propagate the clan. People believed they lived on through their family. To cheat a dead brother of carrying on his family line was a heinous crime. While Tamar may not have been “squeaky clean,” she was considered righteous because she placed the needs of her clan above her own disgrace or displeasure in sleeping with her father-in-law. It was her right and her duty to bear a child to her dead husband’s name, and she was willing to do whatever it took to do what she considered to be right.
2. This story is not a story intended to demonstrate how things should be done in God’s Kingdom.
In fact, it is intended to demonstrate just the opposite by serving as a contrast to the Joseph story which follows. Judah was evidence of the unraveling of God’s covenant and Joseph was the “ark” and the “savior” who would preserve the remnant in the midst of the chaos.
3. God can bring about His plans even in the midst of extreme sin and distortion ofHis truth.
Even though Tamar was not pure or righteous, God still used her faithfulness to the family line to bring about the line that would eventually bring Jesus into the world. Isn’t that just like God? If you trace Jesus’ family line he has Tamar, a lying adulteress, Rahab, a gentile prostitute, and Ruth, a Moabitess. From this rag-tag bunch of people, God brings about his plan. In this we can take comfort and hope.