“Grandpa Judah is my daddy”
Judah marries a Canaanite1 It was around this time that Judah left his family and moved to the town of Adullam, where a man named Hirah lived. 2 It was there that Judah met and married a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua. They had sex. 3 His wife got pregnant. She gave birth to a boy: Er. 4 She got pregnant again and gave birth to another son. She named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to another son. She named him Shelah. He was born in the city of Kezib.
6 Judah arranged for Er, his oldest son, to marry a woman named Tamar. 7 But Er was a terrible human being, downright evil. So God killed him.
8 Judah told Er’s brother Onan, “It’s your responsibility now to take care of your brother’s widow. Marry her and give her a son so your brother will have someone to inherit his estate.” 9 Onan knew that if Tamar got pregnant he would have to raise his brother’s child. According to the custom of the day, the child would not be his. So to prevent her from getting pregnant, he pulled out early and released his semen onto the ground. 10 God didn’t like that one bit. God killed him, too.
A widow who buried three husbands11 Judah told his daughter-in-law, the widow Tamar, “Move back home with your father and live there until my youngest son, Shelah, grows up.” Actually, Judah was stalling because he thought, “I’m afraid this son will end up dead, too.” Tamar moved back in with her father’s family. 12 Years later, Judah’s wife died, the daughter of Shua. After the customary time of mourning, Judah went back to work. He and a man named Hirah from Adullam went to the village of Timnah. He went there to oversee the work of his sheepshearers. 13 Someone told Tamar, “Hey, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to sheer his sheep.”
Judah thought she was a prostitute14 Tamar changed her clothes. She took off the mourning clothes that widows wore. She put on the veil and clothes of a working gal who made a living renting herself out for sex. She parked herself at the gateway entrance into Enaim, a village on the road to Timnah. Tamar did this because she knew that Shelah had grown up and should have been married to her by now.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a temple prostitute because she covered her face. 16 Judah went over to her, alongside the road. He said, “Let me have sex with you.” He didn’t have any idea he was talking to his daughter-in-law. She said, “What are you going to give me for letting you have sex with me?” 17 He said, “I’ll send you a young goat.” She said. “What collateral do you have to guarantee it?”
18 “Well,” he answered, “What would it take?” She said, “I’ll take your signet ring and the cord it hangs on around your neck. I’ll take your walking stick, too.” Judah gave them to her. He had sex with her. She got pregnant. 19 Tamar went back home, took off her veil, and changed back into her widow clothes.
Man with goat looking for prostitute20 Judah sent his friend from Adullam to deliver the young goat to the prostitute and to pick up the items he left with her as collateral. But she wasn’t there. 21 Judah’s friend asked some men about her. “Where’s the temple prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” They said, “There’s no temple prostitute here.”
22 He went back to Judah and told him, “I couldn’t find her. The men there said ‘There’s no temple prostitute here.’” 23 Judah said, “Let her keep the collateral I gave her. We already tried to deliver the goat. If we go back there again, walking around with another goat and asking for the temple prostitute, folks are going to laugh us out of town.”
Tamar arrested for her baby bump24 About three months later someone told Judah about Tamar’s baby bump. “Your daughter-in-law,” Judah was told, “has been fooling around like some kind of a hooker. And doggone if one of those hookups didn’t get her pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her here. She’s going to burn.”
25 As Tamar was getting arrested, she convinced someone to deliver this message to Judah: “The man who got me pregnant owns this signet ring, cord, and walking stick. Take a close look at them and you’ll figure out who the owner is."
26 Judah recognized them right away. He said, “She’s a better person than I am. I didn’t let her marry my son Shelah.” Judah didn’t have sex with Tamar again.
27 When time came for Tamar to deliver, they realized she was carrying twins. 28 During the delivery, one of the babies stuck his hand out. The midwife running the delivery tied a scarlet string around the baby’s wrist. “This one came out first,” she said. 29 Then the baby pulled his hand back in and what do you know, his brother came out first. They named him Breakout. 30 Next came the baby with the scarlet thread on his wrist. They named him Bright.
The child would be considered the son of his brother, Er.
Perez in Hebrew.
Zerah in Hebrew, perhaps referring to the bright thread.
This is another one of those incredibly odd stories scattered throughout Genesis. Nestled inside the “Joseph” collection of stories, this sex-driven tale pops up out of nowhere. The Genesis writer says two of Judah’s sons—Er and Onan—were so evil that God killed them. Some Christians say it’s more likely the Genesis writer simply presumed that because people in ancient times figured that everything that happened was God’s doing. What do you think of that approach to understanding this story?
Onan’s capital offense was coitus interruptus (COY tuss in ter UP tuss). He refused to fertilize his wife’s eggs. That’s nothing but a form of birth control. What’s so bad about that—bad enough to warrant God killing him for it? To some folks, execution seems like a pretty stiff penalty for early withdraw.
React to this Hittite law: “If a man has a wife and the man dies, his brother should marry the widow. If the brother dies, his father should marry her.” What do you think of that law? And why do you think someone thought it up?
Tamar had buried two of Judah’s sons. From Judah’s point of view, Tamar was a black widow, sitting in her web and waiting for Judah’s son number three. How do you think Judah should have handled the tradition that calls for him to give Tamar another son to marry?
When Tamar realizes that Judah is never going to let her marry his third son, she targets him, apparently hoping to get pregnant by him. Why not target his son when targeting him sounds so gross? I mean who wants to have their kids wondering if they should call their father Daddy or Grandpa?
On his way to a big payday, which is what sheep shearing meant to a herder, Judah passes by a town. There, Tamar is wearing a veil and looking like a temple prostitute. The two strike a deal. Judah will leave his identification seal and his walking stick as collateral for a goat he will have delivered to her later. How do you think this scene would play on Broadway: Judah’s best friend gets the job of walking a goat to town and then going from person to person asking if anyone has seen the prostitute because he has a goat for her?
The Genesis writer never seems to indicate that there was anything wrong with Judah having a fling with a temple prostitute. Why do you think the writer would be so hard on Onan who practiced birth control but so neutral toward Judah having sex with a prostitute?
Why do you think Tamar never said anything about her encounter with Judah until her baby bump started to show and she got called out for getting pregnant without getting married?
How does Judah come out looking at the end of the story? How do you think people back then would have reacted not only to him getting Tamar pregnant but to how he handled the discovery that he was the father?
Tamar had twin sons. What do you think life would have been like for them given the circumstances in which they were born?
LIFE APPLICATION. Tamar felt pushed to the edge with no alternative but to do something extreme. How do we do that to people today—box them into a corner and leave them feeling as though they have no alternative but to do something radical?
LIFE APPLICATION. How do we identify people in crisis today? And how can we do a better job of helping them?