Introduction: Genesis Chapter 38 continues the sad story of the moral decline of Jacob’s family. The first three sons had disqualified themselves from leadership positions because of their sins. Reuben, the eldest, slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons, misused God’s holy name to commit mass murder and other crimes. The leadership mantel then fell to the fourth son Judah. Yet, in this chapter, Judah left his family and took a Canaanite wife. God later struck down Judah’s two oldest two sons for wickedness and rebellion. Judah then violated God’s law by refusing to allow his third son to sleep with his eldest son’s widow, Tamar, to give her an heir. At the same time, Judah was engaging in temple prostitution with Canaanite women. Tamar then concealed herself as a prostitute and had sex with Judah. Unaware that he was the father, Judah then threatened to burn Tamar for her alleged immorality. Through their incestuous union, Judah had two additional sons. Because of the time needed for Judah’s children to reach child bearing age, many assume that this account began when Judah first arrived in the Promised Land and then continued through Joseph’s captivity. Judah’s personal and family sins were compounded by his decision to convince his brothers out of greed to sell his brother Joseph into slavery. He then deceived his father into thinking that Joseph was dead. Moses’ goal in telling the story here is to provide a sharp contrast to the moral virtue that Joseph would show in Potiphar’s house. While Judah sought out temptation, Joseph fled from it.
From Judah’s family’s many failures, God provides seven lessons on living according to His morality. These include: (1) separation from the world; (2) obedience to Him; (3) trust in Him; (4) purity; (5) the fear of God; (6) integrity; and (7) gratitude for His mercy and grace.
First, after arriving the Promised Land, Judah voluntarily left his family with a Canaanite friend. With the aid of his friend, Judah then seized a Canaanite woman (possibly by force) and made her his wife. From this, God reveals that He requires that you separate yourself from the unclean influences of the world. Second, God later struck down Judah’s first son Er for wickedness. The second son Onan then rebelled against God by refusing to provide an heir for Er’s widow, Tamar. This would have left her destitute and without a means to provide for herself. Yet, Onan did not want to give up the firstborn inheritance that he stood to receive if she had no heir. From this, God calls upon all believers to obey Him by providing for those in need. Third, Judah became spiritually blind and refused to allow his third son Shelah to provide Tamar an heir as the law required. Judah incorrectly assumed that Tamar was responsible for the death of his two eldest sons. Thus, Judah was not willing to trust God by following His Word. From this, God reveals that you should trust in His Word and not lean on your own understandings. Fourth, Judah committed the egregious sin of temple prostitution. Tamar then sinned by dressing as a prostitute to have sex with him. From their poor examples, God reveals that His believers should remain pure for Him. Fifth, Judah was concerned what others might think about him when he believed that a temple prostitute had stolen a signet that belonged to him. He did not care what God thought of Him. From this, God reveals that believers should fear Him as opposed to other people. Sixth, Judah threatened to burn Tamar when he found out that she was pregnant. At the time, he had no idea that he was the father. From his hypocrisy, God reveals that believers should always act with integrity. Finally, through this unseemly union, God blessed Judah and Tamar with twins. Moreover, one of these twins would create the line leading to the Messiah Jesus. From this, God calls upon believers to show gratitude for His mercy and grace.
Judah’s sin in marrying a Canaanite. After arriving in the Promised Land, Judah left his family with a Canaanite friend. He then seized a Canaanite woman and made her his wife. The two then had three sons. “1 And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her and went in to her. 3 So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. 4 Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. 5 She bore still another son and named him Shelah; and it was at Chezib that she bore him.” (Gen. 38:1-5; 1 Chr. 2:3). Judah had an open disregard for all of God’s morality laws. The comparable language used between Judah and Shechem further suggests that this was a rape as opposed to a consensual act. One commentator observes: “It is said of him [Shechem] that he “saw her, he took her [Dinah] and lay with her” (34:2). There is very little difference between those words and the description we have in verse 2 of chapter 38. Judah “saw” this woman and “took her” and “went in to her.” Only the last expression differs, but both describe a physical union. The act which angered Israel’s sons to the point of murder is very much the same as Judah’s taking of a wife.” (Bob Deffinbaugh, Genesis: From Paradise to Patriarchs, 38. The Skeleton in Judah’s Closet, Gen. 38:1-30 (2004) Bible.org). Even if this was not a rape, it was far removed from the Spirit-led process that brought his grandparents Isaac and Rebekah together.
Bad company corrupts good morals. It was while Judah was visiting his friend, Hirah the Adullamite, that he decided to take a Canaanite woman as his wife (Gen. 38:1). When Judah later journeyed to Timmah to look for a prostitute, Hirah also accompanied him (Gen. 38:12). Later, Judah turned to Hirah to pay what he thought was temple prostitute and recover his signet (Gen. 38:20). This friend was someone who only served to further corrupt Judah on his walk. “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.”’ (1 Cor. 15:33). Are you hanging out with people who are likely to put you on the wrong path?
God’s prohibition against marriage with nonbelievers. Judah was well aware of God’s laws against intermarriage. When Hamor proposed that the families intermarry after Shechem raped Dinah, Judah and the other son raised the objection that is was against God’s law for them to intermarry: ‘“We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we consent to you: if you will become like us, in that every male of you be circumcised, then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves, and we will live with you and become one people.”’ (Gen. 34:13-16). Judah knew this rule through both his grandfather and his father. Through Abraham, God prohibited Isaac from marrying a Canaanite. “2 Abraham said to his servant, . . . you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live,” (Gen. 24:2-3). Isaac later repeated this rule to Jacob: “So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, ‘You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.”’ (Gen. 28:1). Thus, Judah had no excuse for his actions. To keep the Jews from making the same mistake, Moses and Joshua later warned Israel not to be unequally yoked with Canaanite nonbelievers: “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.” (Dt. 7:3; Ex. 34:16; Josh. 23:12). “and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.” (Neh. 10:30). God knew that intermarriage with pagan nonbelievers would cause the Jews to fall off their walk with Him. For example, it was Solomon’s pagan wives that caused him to turn his heart away from God: “For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” (1 Kgs. 11:4). God’s rules apply to believers today as well.
Don’t be unequally yoked. God wants you to be pure and holy for His use. He wants you to be holy because He is holy: “[B]ecause it is written, ‘you shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:16; Lev. 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7). Thus, the definition of “true religion” includes being “unstained by the world.” (Ja. 1:27). Part of being pure and holy includes being separate from marriages to non-believers: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” (Dt. 22:10). “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnerships have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘and do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ Says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:14-18; 1 Jo. 1:6). Many believers marry non-believers expecting them to change. The result is typically sorrow. Are you entangling yourself in relationships with non-believers?
Christ’s future bride. These verses also apply to your relationship with Christ. Jesus will one day marry His Church to form a bond of spiritual intimacy with His believers (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:1-9). His marriage to His church, however, is complicated by the fact that He is also our High Priest (Heb. 8:1). As High Priest, He can only marry a virgin (Lev. 21:13-14). If He fails to marry a virgin, He will “profane” His offspring (Lev. 21:14). You are also part of God’s offspring because your faith in Christ has made you God’s adopted child (Rom. 8: 15, 23). Thus, you must be a spiritual virgin to marry Him (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 14:4). Because this is impossible without Christ, you must first repent of your sins (1 Jo. 1:9). Are you trying to stay pure by abstaining from the unclean things if this world? (Ja. 1:27).
Love and supervise your children and teach them to follow God’s laws. Judah would have been a teenager, possibly as young as 15, when he disappeared from his family with a Canaanite friend to seize a Canaanite wife. This meant that Jacob and Leah were not supervising him. It also meant that they had not raised Judah to fear God and obey His commands. Judah most likely knew that Jacob did not love either him or the other children who did not come through his favorite wife Rachael. When Esau approached with 400 armed men, Jacob put the children born through Leah and the two concubines ahead of Rachael and Joseph to protect his favorites in the event of a slaughter (Gen. 33:1-2). Like many young men without loving fathers, Judah sought acceptance through others. Judah later repeated Jacob’s sins by failing to teach God’s laws to his own sons. Part of raising a child up in the law (Prov. 22:6; Ps. 78:4-6) is guiding the child in who the child should date and select for marriage. A child who has many partners (which is no less offensive in God’s eyes) is also guilty of fornication under the law (1 Cor. 6:9). If you are a parent, do you show your love for your children while also setting boundaries regarding when and with whom they date? Do you also teach your children the wisdom in following God’s laws?
Sins of Er and Onan in rebelling against God’s will. Judah’s firstborn son named “Er” followed in his father’s poor example by marrying a Canaanite woman named Tamar. God later struck both Er and Onan down for rebelling against Him. “6 Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ 9 Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. 10 But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.” (Gen. 38:6-10; 1 Chr. 2:3). The Bible does not say what wickedness Judah’s oldest son Er engaged for God to strike him down (Both the English word “err” from the Latin word “Errare” come from his name). According to the famous Jewish interpreter Rashi, Er and Onan both purposely tried to keep Tamar from conceiving. In Er’s case, he was allegedly afraid of spoiling her beauty. Judah then directed his second son Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar, his sister-in-law. This would have allowed Er’s descendants to be the firstborn with a double inheritance. It would have also provided a means for Tamar to support herself without living in poverty. Yet, to keep his deceased brother from having any offspring and to allow his line to receive Judah’s double blessing and inheritance, Onan pulled out whenever he slept with Tamar. For this reason, God killed him (Gen. 38:9). Jacob’s brothers had previously shown that they had no love for each other. Judah’s sons showed that they had learned from their father’s example. What kind of example are you teaching your children from your life?
The law of the “levirate marriage” or yibbum between a widow and a kinsman redeemer. God’s law was designed to protects widows. In a time before Social Security existed, He provided for the protection of widows and their inheritance by requiring a brother-in-law (later expanded to include cousins) to marry his brother or cousin’s widow under certain circumstances. The brother or cousin who married the widow acted as a “kinsman redeemer” to keep the property within the deceased brother’s family: “5 When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. 7 But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, ‘I do not desire to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 In Israel his name shall be called, ‘The house of him whose sandal is removed.’” (Dt. 25:5-10). The marriage between the kinsman redeemer and the widow was known to the Romans as a “levirate marriage.” It comes from the Latin word “levir” for “husband’s brother”. Yet, the Latin word did not accurately convey the full scope of how the law was later applied. For example, in the book of Ruth, a cousin (Boaz) married the widow (Ruth) of his deceased cousin (Mahlon). In Hebrew, the practice was more accurately called “yibbum.” In ancient times, the law allowed for property to stay within the family and provide for the widow. The kinsman-redeemer or “go el”, was translated as “the next of kin”. The go el was obligated to rescue another family member in distress (Gen. 48:16; Ex. 6:6). The go el redeemed family property lost due to debt (Lev. 27:9-25). Or, if a person was sold into indentured servitude due to debt, the go el redeemed the relative by paying off the debts (Lev. 25:47-55). The go el also avenged wrongs and received restitution if the family was wronged in some manner (Nu. 35:9-34; 5:8). A brother (or possibly a cousin) who refused to comply with his duties as a go el was publically ridiculed by having his sandals taken and spit on (Dt. 25:9). This caused him to lose any rights to the estate. The account of Onan is an example of a failed “yibbum”. A successful yibbum took place in the book of Ruth. In the book of Ruth, Naomi was a widow who lost her husband and her sons. One of Naomi’s sons named Mahlon was married to Ruth, a gentile from Moab. Mahlon left no brothers to marry Ruth in a yibbum. Under the law of the kinsman redeemer, that duty fell to Mahlon’s cousin Boaz as his next of kin. Through a yibbum, Boaz restored the inheritance of Mahlon’s family line and provided for Ruth. The yibbums in Genesis and Ruth played an important part in allowing for all of humanity to be redeemed by our kinsman redeemer Christ.
Be obedient to God’s call to help others. A yibbum has no application today. Yet, the Biblical principle of charity still applies. Although the means may differ today, you are still called upon to plead for the widows and the orphans: “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” (Dt. 10:18). “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Is. 1:17). “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Prov. 31:9). “The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, the wicked does not understand such concern.” (Prov. 29:7; 14:31; Ps. 82:3). “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Ja. 1:27). Have you responded to God’s calling to use His blessings to help others who are less fortunate than yourself?
Judah’s sin in withholding his son Shelah from Tamar. Judah failed to heed God’s warning. After the death of his first two sons, he violated the law by withholding his third son Shelah from Tamar: “11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’; for he thought, ‘I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.’ So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house. 12 Now after a considerable time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 It was told to Tamar, ‘Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.’ 14 So she removed her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife.” (Gen. 38:11-14). Judah had become spiritually blind. He could not see either his sins or the sins of his sons. Thus, he believed that Tamar was somehow responsible for the death of his sons.
Trust in His word and lean not upon your own understandings. Unlike Judah, you should always trust His Word and the guidance of the Spirit. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5). “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.” (Prov. 28:26). Do you trust in His Word and the guidance of the Spirit, even if you don’t understand the meaning behind it?
Judah’s sin in sleeping with temple prostitutes. After Judah withheld his third son from Tamar, she tricked Judah into sleeping with her by dressing like a prostitute. This incestuous union gave her and her deceased husband Er an heir: “15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. 16 So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, ‘Here now, let me come in to you’; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ 17 He said, therefore, ‘I will send you a young goat from the flock.’ She said, moreover, ‘Will you give a pledge until you send it?’ 18 He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ And she said, ‘Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow’s garments.” (Gen. 38:15-19). Judah knew the price for temple prostitutes, and Tamar knew exactly how to trap him. He was no stranger to this sin.
Don’t give into the lusts of your flesh. Judah was deceived in a place called Timnah (Gen. 38:12-14). This place was a symbol of lust. At this same place, Samson lusted after a Philistine woman and demand that his parents marry them: “Then Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines. So he came back and told his father and mother, ‘I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife.”’ (Jdgs. 14:1-2). Broadly speaking, God calls any kind of unholy friendship with the world as spiritual harlotry toward Him: “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Ja. 4:4). Thus, “[P]ut on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Ro. 13:14). “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (1 Pet. 2:11). “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body (1 Cor. 6:8). Joseph fled from Satan’s temptations in Potiphar’s house. By contrast, Judah traveled to Timnah to seek it out. Have you abstained from the lusts of the flesh?
Don’t cause others to stumble with your dress and conduct. Although Judah was looking for the opportunity to sin, Tamar sinned by enticing him with her dress. Men and women should refrain from dressing or acting in a way that will cause members of the opposite sex to stumble: “And behold, a woman comes to meet him, dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart.” (Prov. 7:10). “Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see; where have you not been violated? By the roads you have sat for them like an Arab in the desert, and you have polluted a land with your harlotry and with your wickedness.” (Jer. 3:2, 9). “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments,” (1 Tim. 2:9). Do you dress modestly and act in a manner that will keep others from stumbling in their walk?
God’s prohibition against temple prostitution. God prohibited daughters from engaging in any form of prostitution. “Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness.” (Lev. 19:29). The penalty for prostitution by a priest’s daughter was particularly severe: “Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Lev. 21:9). He also prohibited both men and women from engaging in any form of temple prostitution that the Canaanites engaged in. “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute.” (Dt. 23:17). “There were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD dispossessed before the sons of Israel.” (1 Kgs. 14:24). Temple prostitution also violated the First, Second and Tenth Commandments (Ex. 34:14-15; Judg. 2:17). Satan frequently used temple prostitutes to defile God’s people. Hundreds of years later, Baal-peor tried to curse the Jews without success (Nu. 22:23-33). Just like the devil, Baal-peor knew that the only way God’s people could be destroyed was if they voluntarily broke God’s law. Having them join with temple prostitutes was one law he figured he could entice them to break. Thus, he came up with a plan to have the Jews defile themselves with the Moabite and Midianite woman, who together formed an alliance against Israel (Nu. 22:4). He instructed King Balak to send his most attractive women to invite the Jewish men to Moabite banquets (Nu. 31:16). The women then seduced the men through acts of temple prostitution. The men would have had free sex with the prostitutes in exchange for their agreement to first eat foods sacrificed to Baal-peor, the Canaanite fertility god, and then to worship him (Nu. 25:2-3). God later killed 24,000 men who had fallen to these sins (Nu. 25:9). Jesus later condemned the church of Pergamum for leading believers into the same kind of sin: “you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14). Pergamum symbolized the union of the church and the world. Have you stayed pure from the things of the world? (Jam. 1:27).
Judah feared for his reputation before men instead of God. Judah was so blind to his sins that he felt no conviction for sins. Instead, his only concern was in how others might think of him if a harlot stole from him. Thus, he quietly gave up his search for his down-payment for Tamar’s services: “20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 He asked the men of her place, saying, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?’ But they said, ‘There has been no temple prostitute here.’ 22 So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no temple prostitute here.’’ 23 Then Judah said, ‘Let her keep them, otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this young goat, but you did not find her.’” (Gen. 38:20-23). The seal on a ring was a unique way of identifying a person. Pharaoh later gave a signet ring to Joseph to symbolize his transfer of authority to him (Gen. 41:42). By losing his seal to an alleged prostitute, he feared being mocked by men. Like Judah, many today have no fear of God for his sins. Most only fear public ridicule by men when their deeds are exposed.
Fear God by hating evil. Solomon was the wisest man on Earth. Yet, that was not enough to control his lusts. Judah and Solomon show that knowledge of right and wrong is not enough to keep you from sinning. You also need the wisdom that comes from fearing God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Ps. 111:10; Job 28:28; Ecc. 12:13). The fear of the Lord is not fear that God will arbitrarily strike you dead. It is instead hating the one thing in life that you are allowed to hate, evil: “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; . . .” (Prov. 8:13). “By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil.” (Prov. 16:6). Do you hate evil enough to avoid it at all costs?
Because Tamar was pledged to Judah’s third son, she and Judah both engaged in adultery. Tamar also was not without sin. She deceived her father-in-law Judah in order to be impregnated when she was promised to his third son Shelah. She violated God’s laws against deceiving one another. “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.” (Lev. 19:11). Because she was promised to Shelah, this was also an act of adultery under God’s law. The punishment was death by stoning (Dt. 22:20-24). She had a better remedy for Judah’s actions. She was to first confront Judah (Matt. 18:15). If that did not work, she was to confront either Jacob or the elders where Judah lived. A person like Judah who refused to allow the go el do his duty would then be publicly ridiculed (Dt. 25:9).
Judah’s hypocrisy in threatening to burn Tamar. In one of the best known acts of hypocrisy in the Bible, Judah threatened to burn Tamar for having sex out of wedlock when he was the culprit: “24 Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry.’ Then Judah said, ‘Bring her out and let her be burned!’ 25 It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, ‘I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.’ And she said, ‘Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?’ 26 Judah recognized them, and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not have relations with her again.” (Gen. 38:24-26). Judah most likely seized upon this news because he believed that it excused his third son from sleeping with Tamar. Not only was Judah guilty of hypocrisy, he misstated the law. The penalty for adultery was stoning, not fire (Dt. 22:20-24). Moreover, a woman accused of adultery was entitled to a trial. Judah sought to act as the judge and jury. By contrast, Tamar showed mercy by privately allowing Judah to realize his sin in the matter.
Be a person of integrity. Unlike Judah, God calls upon His people to always act with integrity in their dealings with others (e.g., Dt. 10:17; 16:19; Lev. 19:15; Ex. 23:8). Jesus grew angry at the hypocrites who tried to test Him: “But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?”’ (Matt. 22:18). C.S. Lewis once said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Is your private conduct something that you would be embarrassed to have others see?
God’s mercy and grace in including the incestuous union of Tamar and Judah in Jesus’ line. Although Tamar’s pregnancy was rooted in sin and deception, God showed His mercy and grace with twins: “27 It came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. 28 Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ 29 But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out. Then she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ So he was named Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.” (Gen. 38:27-30; 1 Chr. 2:4). Tamar (alone with Rebekah) was one of only two people in the Bible to have had twins. She was also one of only two gentiles to be blessed with descendants leading to the Messiah. She had many reasons to give thanks.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the levirate marriage or yibbum as our kinsman redeemer. Jesus’ genealogy draws emphasis upon his birth line through two different yibbums. He came as a kinsman redeemer as descendant of the yibbum between Tamar and her father-in-law Judah (Matt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33). He also came as a kinsman redeemer as descendant of the yibbum between Boaz and Ruth (Matt. 1:5). “Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the LORD will give you by this young woman.” (Ruth 4:12). More importantly for us, both marriages brought the gentiles into God’s spiritual inheritance for Israel (Ruth 4:21-22). Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed. Obed in turn was the father of Jesse, the grandfather of King David, another ancestor of Jesus (Matt. 1:6). Jesus qualified as a kinsman redeemer because He humbled Himself into human form to become our “brother.” (Heb. 2:11). He became the second Adam who redeemed humanity to restore its lost spiritual inheritance (1 Cor. 15:45; 1 Co. 1:30; Rev. 1:5). Yet, the yibbum will not be completed until the marriage is completed. He will fulfill the law as a kinsman redeemer when He marries the Church through a spiritual yibbum in heaven (Rev. 19:7-9; 21:1-2). This was an unstated part of His explanation to the Sadducees for why a woman married to several brothers following several yibbum marriages would not be married to any of them in heaven. None of the brothers would be qualified to redeem the woman’s spiritual inheritance (Matt. 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27). Humanity was left as a spiritual widow when it died to sin. The Church can only have its spiritual inheritance restored through its yibbum to Jesus because only He is qualified to redeem us. Although a yibbum may sound offensive to people who preach independence and self-reliance, Jesus wants you to know that you cannot be self-reliant to be His bride.
The termination of the yibbum under Jewish law. Like Christians, the Jews long ago abandoned the practice “yibbum”. Some even assume that the Sadducees tested Jesus with a hypothetical situation of a woman being married to more than one brother because the practice had died out even before Jesus arrived. For three reasons, the Talmud strongly discouraged a “yibbum”. First, outside of the narrow exception of needing to provide for a widowed sister without heirs, it was an abomination in God’s eyes for a man to marry his brother’s wife. In God’s eyes, it was equivalent to a man being with his own brother: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). Second, although the law quoted in Deuteronomy allowed for property to pass in the absence of a male successor (Dt. 25:5), it was God’s intention that property was to pass freely through women as well as men. When the Jews approached Moses on this question and Moses sought God’s guidance, God made clear that property should freely pass through women as well as men (Nu. 27:1-11). This showed that there are many human customs that God permits without endorsing. After God clarified the issue, the practice of yibbum was limited to circumstances to when a man died without any children and with contiguous plots of land with his brothers (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:3; Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 156:2). Third, both because God’s law in Leviticus and to protect a woman from a brother-in-law or a cousin-in-law who might marry her merely to seize the deceased husband’s land for himself, Jewish law allowed either the surviving relative or the widow to opt out of a yibbum through a special ceremony called a “halizah” or “chalitzah.” During this ceremony, the window took the next of kin’s shoe and spit on the floor in front of at least ten others while they recited a pledge. The widow then became free to marry whomever she desired or no one at all and keep title to the land. The shoe was a sign of one's power and right (Ps. 60:8 108:9). John the Baptist, for example, was not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoe because he was not qualified to take any of Jesus’ authority or power (John 1:27). The loosening of the shoe symbolized a transfer of all rights to land. This was how Boaz gave up his rights to his deceased cousin’s land: “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemption and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel.” (Ruth 4:7). As stated above, Jesus was the kinsman redeemer who became human and gave up His life. He will later marry the Church to fulfill this Law. Until He returns, the less fortunate need your assistance and your love.
God’s mercy and grace in selecting Judah and the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus picked Judah’s family when He called Himself the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” (Rev. 5:5). Judah’s many sins establish that Jesus did not choose either him or the twelve tribes based upon their merit: “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Dt. 7:7-8). Judah was just as deserving of death as his two oldest sons for his rebellion. Like Judah, He selected you based upon His love for you. If you are grateful for His love and His mercy and grace, how are you showing that to Him?
God’s greater purpose in sending the Jews into bondage. Some might object that a just and loving God would never willingly allow the Jews to spend 400 years in bondage. Yet, Judah shows what would have happened if Jacob’s family had stayed in the Promised Land. Like Judah’s family, they would have intermarried with Canaanites, slept with temple prostitutes, and adopted the idols and morals of the Canaanites. God called the people of Israel to be the light to the world (Is. 42:6). Yet, they would have only broadcast darkness from their conduct. By contrast, the Egyptians considered the Hebrews to be loathsome and would not even eat with them: “the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is loathsome to the Egyptians.” (Gen. 43:32(b)). “you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians.” (Gen. 46:34). In Egypt, they would not have the same opportunities to sleep with prostitutes and marry Egyptians. Thus, God had a plan to remold His people where they would be kept separate from other evil influences. “But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today.” (Dt. 4:20; Is. 48:10; Ps. 66:10; Jer. 9:7; Zech. 13:9). When bad things happen to you, do you trust in God’s greater plan for you? “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28).