Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Did Judah sin with Tamar?

"Hollywood doesn’t need a script, they just need the Bible," someone joked in Sunday School.

The entire class laughed. After all, we were going through the lesson of Joseph--who was sold into Egypt by his own brothers--and our 21st century Anglo-Saxon tour bus was taking some interesting side-trips into the lives of those siblings.

But to judge the people of the Bible by our own society is unfair…to them and us.

Take, for example, the story of Judah. Judah married a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites were descended from Canaan, who was the son of Ham, Noah’s son. Remember, Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren…Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant” (Gen. 9:25-26) That was not just a statement but a divine promise and prophecy! Through Shem would come the blessed lineage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and eventually, Jesus.

So why did Judah marry a Canaanite? Jewish scripture records that Judah’s brothers were angry with Judah for influencing them to sell Joseph. "You told us to sell him. Had you told us to return him to our father we also would have listened to you." (Exodus Raba, 42,3)

So, Judah sought refuge with his friend, Hirah, in Adullam and--as the Jewish sages point out--the sale of Joseph resulted in the loss of two brothers not just one. And “Judah went down from his brothers and turned away towards an Adullamite man whose name was Hirah.” (Genesis 38:1) (Later King David would also flee to Adullam and hide from his own enemies in the protective hills and caves there.)

While there, Judah married the Canaanite woman. Maybe, after what he did to Joseph, he felt he had lost the right of fathering the promised line, we don’t know--but we do know this…the Lord grants forgiveness and you can’t run from the Lord. The story of Judah and Tamar is a story of forgiveness and returning to the Lord's path.

Still trying to avoid that divine path himself, Judah married his son to a righteous woman, Tamar. In fact, the Jews tell us she had been prophetically told she would be the one to fulfill the promise and bear great kings and leaders through Judah's family. She married into the correct family yet, with Canaanite blood flowing through their veins, Judah’s sons could not produce that blessed lineage!

After Er and Onan were taken out of the picture, Judah told Tamar to wait for his youngest son to grow old enough to marry her. But we know those prophesied kings and leaders could not come from Judah’s Canaanite sons, no matter how hard Judah tried to change or avoid that calling! The responsibility lay with Judah, himself!

Tamar knew that, too.

Ancient marriages were not unions of couples but unions of family! If a husband died, another man from the same family was expected to complete any unfulfilled marriage promises made to the bride and her family--including the producing of heirs. (Later it was designated that an unwed brother would fulfill that calling but, at the time of Judah, any male in the family could accept the responsiblity.)

So the Lord made Judah a widower, hoping to nudge him toward providing the completion of marriage vows for Tamar and produce the promised heirs through the promised lineage. Still Judah tried to avoid the call and left the area.

His plan didn't work. (Our own plans, separate from the Lord's, rarely do.)

When Judah saw a veiled Tamar, not knowing her true identity and living beneath his own worth, he asked to sleep with her and promised to pay her a goat, giving her his signet, bracelets and staff as tokens of that promise. She, knowing her legal right and legal and divine claim on Judah, agreed and conceived.

Later, when Judah discovered that Tamar was pregnant, he grew furious. Afterall, he had not married her to his youngest son! Believing she had been unfaithful he sent for her, ordering her legal execution. (He had to send for her because he had still been avoiding her. We often do that. We avoid people when we try to avoid the Lord.)

When she arrived she spoke to Judah and showed him the signet, bracelets and staff. At that moment Judah realized two things: he was the legal father and Tamar did not sin! Despite the fact that Tamar had been veiled, no marriage laws had been broken. That is why he halted her execution and said “She hath been more righteous than I.”

As the patriarch of the family Judah was legally bound to provide the blessings of marriage to Tamar, either through his sons or himself. As the man of promised lineage, Judah, never his sons, was the one divinely established by the Lord to provide her with the promised heirs. And so it was that through their son, Pharez, came the prophesied royal lineage of King David and, later, the Messiah.

It is interesting to note that this event seemed to be an awakening for Judah. He understood he could no longer run from his responsibilities or his divine worth and he returned to his family. Still later, Judah offered himself as surety for Benjamin in order to save the entire family from famine. Judah, once cast out, now understood the importance of his family. Now, as a strong protector of that family, he stood forth to take the blame and face the consequences personally if anything happened to his younger brother.

So the story is about repentance and real change and restitution and it has lessons for us all.

Maybe Hollywood really does need the Bible.

To learn more about this story, see More on Tamar


  1. Such beautiful thoughts about Tamar. I liked your insight about how ancient marriages were unions of families and not couples. I think that if we remember that the bible makes more sense-- as does modern day temple sealings. Thanks for your insights. I think poor Tamar tends to get a bad rep that she doesn't deserve!

  2. Just wanted to say thank you... I am a YW advisor in our ward, and we are doing a night were we are honoring the women in the scriptures. I choose Tamara because my name is Tamara , and never really knew the the story of Tamra. As I first started reading about her I was worried , that maybe I had choose wrong, but after reading your blog, I am excited to honor the Sister in the Bible who I share names with. Thanks again..
    Sister Tamara Gibson
    Miami Oklahoma

  3. Sister, thanks for your superb article. One point I would like to know more: "the Jews tell us she had been prophetically told she would be the one to fulfill the promise"... may you quote the source for me? I'm interested to document this.

  4. Brother Catalan, For more on this topic, please view my newest post "More on Tamar". Thank you for writing! Hope this helps. Terri