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Genesis 38:1-30 – The Righteousness of Tamar


This story of Judah provides a remarkable witness to the faithfulness of Tamar, the wife of Judah's son.


This story interrupts the story of Joseph's enslavement by his brothers, creating suspense as to Joseph's fate. The narrative focuses on Judah. He marries an unnamed Canaanite woman and fathers three sons by her. One of his sons (Er) marries a woman named Tamar; she is probably a Canaanite as well. After the wicked Er is put to death, Judah directs his second son, Onan, to perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her in order to raise up an heir for Er (levirate marriage; see also the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Onan sabotages this responsibility, and he is put to death as well. Judah should have directed his third son, Shelah, to assume this responsibility, but refuses to do so, a development that Tamar does not take lightly.

The death of Judah's wife provides an opportunity for Tamar to find a way to bear a son for her deceased husband. She disguises herself, places herself along a road that she knows Judah will take, and he treats her like a prostitute. Before she allows Judah to have his way with her, she exacts a price (identifiable possessions). When Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah, he applies a double standard and assumes the role of judge, exacting the death penalty. Tamar proceeds to produce Judah's possessions and catches him in the lie. Judah responds magnanimously and speaks of Tamar as being more righteous than he in the way she has responded to the situation (38:26).

Why would the word "righteous" (a better translation than NRSV's "in the right") be used for Tamar, given her behavior? Judah recognizes that her concern to provide an heir for her deceased husband was a proper way for her to "do justice" to the relationship (hence righteous; see 18:19). Tamar's actions cannot be universalized so as to be declared righteous whenever it is committed, but she demonstrates that it may be necessary to go beyond the law in order to fulfill the law and thereby enable the well-being of a community (compare Jesus' sabbath-breaking, Mark 2:27). Tamar was resourceful, working in and through her gifts (God does not directly act), and found a way into a more hopeful future. Among the descendants of one of her sons (Perez) is David (see Matthew 1:3). 

Genesis 38:1-30

Judah and Tamar

38It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. 2There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. 3She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. 4Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. 5Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. She* was in Chezib when she bore him. 6Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’ 9But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.

12 In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over,* he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, 14she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. 15When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ 17He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ 18He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. 21He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ 22So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.” 23Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’

24 About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ 25As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ 26Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.

27 When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. 28While she was in labour, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ 29But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ Therefore he was named Perez.* 30Afterwards his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.*

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