Are you familiar with the story of Judah and Tamar in the Bible? It is a complicated story of tangled relationships. This story is better understood when the cultural background is included.
Judah was the fourth son of Jacob. He had a wife named Leah and was also the head of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. One of Judah’s brothers, the second-to-youngest, was named Joseph. You’re probably familiar with his story in the Bible. Judah and his brothers hated Joseph because their father favored him. The Bible says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (Genesis 37:3-4). As a result of their jealousy and anger, the brothers threw Joseph in a cistern and thought through ways to kill him. Judah thought through a plan to sell Joseph so that he would be forced into slavery.
Judah likely felt remorse for his actions, as we are told in Genesis 38:1, that during the time, he left his brothers and went to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. He then married a Canaanite woman. Judah had three sons named Er, Onan and Shelah. Er married Tamar. While there are three Tamars referenced in scripture, the Tamar referenced here is the daughter-in-law of Judah. Scripture tells us that Er was so evil that he died.
In ancient times, there was a practice in the Near East known as Levirate marriage, which was tied to Mosaic law. If a man died before his wife had a child, his brother, by law, had to marry his wife. Then, their first child would carry on the brother’s name who had passed away and have a place in the lineage.
Onan, Judah’s son, married Tamar but didn’t desire to preserve his brother’s place in the family lineage, so he didn’t give Tamar a child. Onan was killed for this sin. Because Judah had seen both of his sons die after they married Tamar, he hid his child, Shelah, and kept him away from Tamar.
Knowing that she has a right to continue the family line, Tamar responded by tempting Judah. She dressed like a prostitute and conceived a child with him without any knowledge of who she was. The story is referenced in the Book of Genesis.
Genesis 38:13-19 says, “Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” So she took off her widow’s clothes, veiled her face, covered herself, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had grown up, she had not been given to him as a wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her and said, “Come, let me sleep with you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me for sleeping with me?’ ‘I will send you a young goat from my flock,’ he replied. But she said, ‘Only if you leave something with me until you send it.’ ‘What should I give you?’ he asked. She answered, ‘Your signet ring, your cord, and the staff in your hand.’ So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant with him. She got up and left, then removed her veil and put her widow’s clothes back on.”
When Judah learned Tamar was pregnant, he was infuriated. He even threatened to kill her for the adultery she committed. She was betrothed at the time to the Shelah. But when she revealed that he was the father, Judah acknowledged that he wronged her. Tamar had twin sons named Perez and Zerah. It was Perez who continued the family line. His descendants included King David and Jesus.
This story reads like a soap opera, doesn’t it? It’s an incredible amount to unpack. You may also be wondering why this story is so important. As previously mentioned, Judah and Tamar produced a son who continued the family line that included the Son of God, which is extremely significant. Yet, there’s more! This is a story about God’s faithfulness. He made a promise to Abraham and stayed true to that promise. He also made a promise to Isaac and Jacob. Throughout the Bible, we see countless examples of God’s promises being threatened by someone’s sin. Unbeknownst to Judah, he almost destroyed the line of King David and Christ.
This complicated story is a powerful example of God's victory. It exemplifies God winning. We know the promises He makes ultimately come true. We may not always be able to comprehend it, but as believers, we are given the gift of grace. Jesus purchased this gift through His death on the cross. Jesus came into being through the line of Judah. Only God has the power to redeem the most impossible and complicated situations.
We see countless examples throughout scripture of God’s promises being fulfilled. While the world will try to tug us in so many directions, and our own human nature weakens our focus on Jesus, God always finds a way to bring us right back where we are supposed to be. God continually keeping His promises helps us find peace and rest because we know He will not falter. We don’t have to rely on the decisions of others to get through life’s greatest obstacles. If you haven’t already, take out time to read scripture where you can discover more promises yourself.