Judah and Tamar

Sermon preached on Genesis 38 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/14/2024 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

We continue today our sermon series through Genesis with another example of sinful failings among the patriarchs. We might immediately wonder why this passage is here, as it interrupts the current storyline. Yet, each of the patriarch sections in Genesis has had such an interrupting passage, one even where the patriarch’s sin failed with at least some negative ramifications on a woman under their care. Abraham lied about Sarah to Abimelech, and Isaac did the same thing. Then there was the violation of Dinah with Jacob failing to properly vindicate her. Today’s passage is along those lines, yet with some unique features.

Yet, if this is following the same pattern in those previous sections of Genesis, we might wonder why this strange chapter is about a failing of Judah instead of about Joseph. In fact, Joseph will show himself to overcome sexual temptation next chapter with Potiphar’s wife. Genesis clearly wants us to see today’s chapter in contrast to that because the verse before and after our chapter tells us about Joseph being taken to Potiphar’s house. Indeed, that contrast surely shows Joseph as more righteous than Judah.

Yet, still, we can ask the question. Why does this chapter put a prominence upon Judah, when so much in Genesis is setting us up to see that Joseph is going to be the leader over and even savior of all his brothers. We saw that story started last chapter, with Joseph’s brothers, Judah especially, selling him off to Egypt. In the end, we’ll see Joseph used by God to save his brothers from famine and death. This strange chapter is in the middle of that larger story about Joseph, and seems to interrupt it and give a prominence to Judah over Joseph, even while for the moment it shows Joseph more righteous than Judah.

I believe this passage reminds us that God’s providential workings to redeem his people have a wonderful complexity to them. God would use Joseph to save his people, but here God is also setting up things for the future where he would use Judah’s line to save his people in an even bigger way. Indeed, while Genesis tells us the story about how Jospeh is favored over his brothers, and he will even receive the family inheritance over them all, Genesis is also giving us prophetic hints that God will ultimately in the future take the leadership away from Joseph’s line and give it to none other than Judah. That is so important, because Jesus will be born the line of Judah. But none of that future would have happened if the events of our chapter take didn’t take place.

Let’s dig in to the passage. Let’s begin first to understand the cultural practice that we see here known as the levirate law, the law of the “husband’s brother”. While foreign to most cultures today, it was considered a very honorable practice back then, and some places still practice it today. Basically, the levirate law was if a married man died before having any male heir born to him, it was his brother’s duty to take the wife of his dead brother and have a male child with her. The child born in that situation would be considered the heir of the deceased brother, even though biologically that was not the case. This would protect inheritance rights. It also was a way society tried to care for the widow too, as son would care for a widowed mother in her old age.

And so, this was a widely practiced custom back then among many peoples, and it would later become formally instituted as civil law for the nation of Israel, Deuteronomy 25:5-10. Deuteronomy even showed the honorable nature of this practice by how it handled a brother who refused to do this duty. If the brother refused, there was a process by which the elders first were to try to dissuade him. But if he persists then the wife of the deceased brother in a formal ceremony was to remove this brother’s sandal and spit in his face, and he would be publically shamed because of his unwillingness to raise up seed for his dead brother. So, the later civil law of Israel made it honorable to keep this and shameful to not.

And so, long before that Mosaic law was instituted, we see it was already a common custom during the time of Genesis, clearly for both Israelites and Canaanites. Other ancient near eastern law codes from the time of Tamar and Judah also codify this practice. For example, one Canaanite source (Hittite law code section 193), contemporaneous with our passage, describes the levirate law. Interestingly, that Canaanite law lists a the order of priority by which family members were to perform this duty, starting first with the brothers, but with the next person in line to perform this duty was the father of the deceased, and beyond that more distant relatives. So, in our passage for today, according to Canaanite law, Judah would be called to this duty if he had no other sons to give to Tamar. To clarify, I’m not saying if such law was actually enforceable upon Judah. But it does show that among Canaanites this common levirate practice would say that Judah as the father-in-law was next in line to fulfill this duty if the brothers didn’t.

Now to be fair, it doesn’t seem that the Hebrews ordinarily placed the father of the deceased in this priority list. We can note that while the levirate law in Deuteronomy doesn’t go into any such prioritization, yet later in Ruth, Israel clearly followed some form of prioritization based on the nearness of the family relationship. That’s when we see Ruth is married by Boaz in fulfilling of the levirate law. Boaz was not a brother but a more distant family relative. And before Boaz did that, he told Ruth there was a closer relative who would have the first right to perform this duty with her. That man refused and got the sandal-removing treatment. But it shows that even among the Jews they saw a principle here with the levirate law that extended beyond the immediate brothers of the deceased onto other male family members, with some prioritization based on closeness to the deceased man.

And so, I want us to understand that this levirate law was considered a righteous and honorable action. This explains why when Judah finally realizes that Tamar tricked him into fulfilling this duty, that he says Tamar was more righteous than he in what she did. That’s not to commend her deception, but we should recognize that the duty of the levirate law was highly regarded. Indeed, in contrast to last chapter where hatred for a brother was shown, the levirate law calls for a brother to show love even to a deceased brother.

So then, with that explanation, this is what we see going on in our passage for today. Judah finds his firstborn son, Er, a wife. This is Tamar. However, God strikes Er down for being evil. The result is that Er, the firstborn, has no heir yet. So then, Judah gives Tamar to his second son, Onan, to do this levirate law practice. That’s what Judah says in verse 8, to do the duty of a brother-in-law for her. As we said, that would bless both Tamar and also Er even in his death. All is good up to that point. But then Onan doesn’t fulfill his duty properly. He acts like it visibly to others, but in secret he works against it. That was verse 9. So, God saw this wickedness and struck him dead too. This levirate principle is again mentioned in verse 11 when Judah tells Tamar that his last son Shelah would be the one then to do this brotherly duty, once he got old enough.

Well, this leads us then to our second point for today, to examine two key deceptions in our passage. The first deception is that done by Judah to Tamar. You see, at this point, he’s supposed to have Shelah do his brother-in-law duty and produce a son with Tamar. Judah tells Tamar that this is the plan — once Shelah is old enough, he says. Instead, he sends her back to her father’s house. Think of how challenging this would have been for Tamar. Sent back, two men later, no child, not able to move forward in life. Instead she is in limbo, having to wait as a widow for Shelah to grow up a little more. Notice even her garments in verse 14 and 19 — widows’ garments. At this point, Tamar’s in a place of sorrow, uncertainty, and surely a little shame.

But we see the real problem here in verse 11 is that Judah is not honest. He doesn’t have any intention to actually give Tamar to Shelah. He’s afraid that Tamar was somehow the reason his first two sons died. Judah’s afraid that if he gives Tamar to his last son, that he might somehow die too. This is some more misplaced fear on the part of a patriarch that leads to sin. But while Judah is greatly concerned here, he doesn’t openly reject Tamar. If he did, that would surely bring shame upon himself. We see he is concerned with things like shame, because in verse 23 that’s why he doesn’t keep looking for the harlot to repay her — lest he be laughed at. And so, instead he handles the Tamar situation in this deceptive way. By the time verse 14 rolls around, Tamar can clearly see that Judah had not followed through — Shelah was grown up, but she still hadn’t been given to him. Sadly, Judah’s fear causes him to do a shameful thing by withholding Shelah. Judah’s lie tries to hide his shame, and Tamar has to bear the effects of it. This is yet another example of a patriarch putting his own interest over a woman they should be protecting.

But then there is another deception, Tamar deceiving Judah. Her logic was surely something like, well if Judah won’t have Shelah do his duty, then he’s next in line for it. She surely figures he wouldn’t openly do this either, so she crafts a deceptive plan to try to force this to happen. She deceives him with this guise of harlotry, but in the process, she secures his seal, and cord, and staff, as proof that he is the father of the child that would come through this. Surely, there was a tremendous amount of risk to pull this off, and there was no guarantee she’d even end up pregnant through it. Her very own life is at risk at several points through it all. We see that in the end when she’s accused of harlotry and Judah declares her death sentence. Yet, amazingly, it all worked out in the end. Her deceptive plan works. She gets Judah to unwittingly do this duty, and she ends up pregnant and safely gives birth even to twin boys. Of course, we should remember that despite the positive outcome, this deception was still wrong. We can sympathize with Tamar feeling she had no other option, but surely one thing she could have done is prayed.

In our third point for today’s message, I’d like to turn to consider the comparative righteousness of Tamar and Judah, and ultimately of their offspring. This point springs from Judah’s comment in verse 26, where he says that Tamar is more righteous than he. Probably a lot of what he has in mind is connected with raising up offspring for the line of promise, or lack thereof. Judah makes a good start of this goal, at first. He starts by taking a wife, albeit one of those infamous Canaanite women, and has three children. He then finds a wife for his first born, Tamar for Er. When Er dies, he calls Onan to do his duty as a brother-in-law and raise up an heir for Er. But after that, things go downhill. He lets his sort of superstitious fear halt his efforts to promote his line. His false blame on Tamar that she was responsible for Er and Onan’s death was not only wrong and presumptuous, but it resulted in his deception of Tamar that put his family line in limbo. He wouldn’t give her to Shelah with his concerns about Tamar, but he couldn’t really marry Shelah to anyone else while he had promised Tamar to be given to him when he got old enough. So what would come of the future line? Would it die off with Shelah because of Judah’s sin? Of course, when Judah does unwittingly act to impregnate Tamar himself, he does so unknowingly, but rather engaging in the unrighteous act of being with a harlot. So, Judah has a lot of unrighteous actions seen here, with some good desires mixed in.

To Judah’s credit, at the end of this passage we do see him confessing his sin, and surely he is expressing repentance. We shouldn’t take that for granted because the other similar passages with the previous patriarchs did not show them confessing their sins. When Abraham was confronted about his lie that Sarah was just his sister, he replied that she was technically his sister, instead of lamenting his lie. And when Isaac also lied about his wife, when he was confronted about it, he said it was because was afraid of the people, but fear doesn’t excuse our sin. And when Jacob was confronted on how he didn’t vindicate Dinah after her violation, he was silent. But that was not a time to be silent. To Judah’s credit her, we finally see a patriarch in such a circumstance admit their sin. This is indeed an important part of godliness, so it is amazing that it seems so slow to be demonstrated among the patriarchs. But I digress. I wanted us to see Judah’s sinful failings in righteousness here, even while he did have some positive things.

So, then you have Tamar. We don’t know her motivations for sure, but we can do some informed speculation. But at least from Judah’s perspective, there was righteousness driving her actions. Her pursuit keeps the line of Judah alive. That was certainly righteous. If she had not, the very line of the Messiah would be threatened. And surely, she chose the right family to identify with. Though she had been sent back to her father’s house, she doesn’t give up on the family of Judah. Rather, her efforts served to secure her a place in this family and thus in the line of God’s promise, much like how later Ruth would leave her pagan family and cleave to the true God and his people. So, Tamar, seeks her sorrow and shame to be replaced with the honor of being a part of this family.

And yet, the end does not justify the means. We said that back with Rebekah and Jacob. So much of this story looks ahead to the book of Ruth who marries Boaz via the levirate law, and Boaz himself is a descendant of Judah and Tamar, and the book of Ruth points that out. Ruth had opportunity to seduce Boaz into forcing his hand, but she did not. Ruth handled the situation righteously without deception. Tamar went the deceptive route to secure this good thing. And yet in that, Tamar shows she really does fit right into this family. Though she married into it, she’s a true Israelite, full of guile and deception like the best of them.

And so, Tamar and Judah both show some righteous inclinations, marred with sin. Yes, according to Judah, and I agree, Tamar was more righteousness than he was. He was correct. She, in this unexpected turn of events, this Canaanite girl turns out to be more righteous here than patriarch Judah. But, God doesn’t grade on a curve. Being more righteous than someone else is not how you get into heaven. You will only merit eternal life if you are perfectly righteous. Clearly, neither Judah or Tamar met that standard. But none of us do either. But we thank the Lord that the offspring that ultimately came from Judah and Tamar was more righteous than both of them. I’m talking about Jesus, of course. Their greater son, Jesus would not just be more righteous. He’d be perfectly righteous. And that would qualify him to be the promised savior and even kinsman redeemer. Indeed, while Judah is tricked into being a kinsman redeemer for Tamar, Jesus, willing went to the cross to redeem us. For the joy set before him, he died for us to be our kinsman redeemer.

You know, I love that Matthew’s gospel reminds us about Judah and Tamar. In giving us the genealogy of Jesus, which usually just describes the men, it mentions Tamar and Judah and even both twins. It then continues in the genealogy through Perez to give us the genealogy of Jesus. You see, Matthew’s gospel thought Tamar and Judah’s story here was important to mention when talking about the Messiah. It didn’t hide this shameful story. Judah and Tamar needed saving. Because even their best deeds of righteousness are but filthy rags. That’s us. And that is why we are encouraged that God saves through circumstances like this. It became evidence of why God’s people need saving. And by Matthew’s gospel recording it, it reminds us that we needed to study this passage today. It too is part of God’s word and given so we could be built up in the faith. We are encouraged that God saves through circumstances like this. Believe on Jesus, and you will be saved.

In conclusion, there are many practical applications I could give you from this passage. We could learn things like not to falsely condemn others like Judah did with Tamar about why Er and Onan died. We are also reminded not to withhold from others what we are obligated to give. Tamar should have been given to Shelah. Yet another application is toward brotherly love. The failing brotherly love from last chapter is found in the next generation when Onan wouldn’t love his deceased brother. Heads of households should also be reminded to be ready to sacrifice themselves to protect those under their care. May we seek to take their shame and troubles instead of protect ourselves at others expense, especially those we are supposed to protecting. Let us be ready to even lay down our life to care for those in need under us.

So, I could point to these several moral applications that come from this. And I do. Take those with you today. But I especially want to leave us today with the application of encouragement. God overcomes the shame of our sin by this greater, most perfect, righteousness of Christ. This is what we’ve seen today. The application is to be encouraged. To lift up your head and smile in the face of whatever brokenness, sorrows, and trials you might have in this life. Live in the confidence of his love and that he will care for you and show you kindness and his faithful to you to all his good word.


Copyright © 2024 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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