1At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; 3she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
6Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death.
8Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." 9But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
11Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." For he thought, "He may die too, just like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.
12After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
13When Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep," 14she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
15When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, "Come now, let me sleep with you."
"And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked.
17"I'll send you a young goat from my flock," he said.
"Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?" she asked.
18He said, "What pledge should I give you?"
"Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand," she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes again.
20Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21He asked the men who lived there, "Where is the shrine-prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?"
"There hasn't been any shrine-prostitute here," they said.
22So he went back to Judah and said, "I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, `There hasn't been any shrine-prostitute here.'"
23Then Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughing-stock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn't find her."
24About three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant."
Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!"
25As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."
26Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.
27When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, "This one came out first." 29But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, "So this is how you have broken out!" And he was named Perez. 30Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.
In this chapter, the history of Joseph is interrupted to focus on the history of Judah and his offspring. After this chapter, the rest of Genesis is devoted to the life of Joseph. The inclusion of this episode here may seem strange because, at first glance, it has nothing to do with the narrative preceding it or following it. But there are important reasons that it is included. This episode deals with the shameful behavior of Judah as he leaves his brothers and becomes involved with the Canaanites (vs. 1). Judah marries a Canaanite woman (vs. 2), who gives birth to three sons (vss. 3-5). Two of the sons are so wicked that the Lord puts them to death (vss. 7,10). One can infer that at least some of their wickedness is due to the influence of the Canaanites. And so, this chapter can be seen as providing a reason that God removes his people, the sons of Israel, from Canaan and brings them to Egypt, where they become a nation, separated from the influence of the cultures around them. This is one important reason why (I believe) this episode is included here. Also, this episode details the circumstances surrounding the birth of Judah's sons Perez and Zerah. Perez is part of the royal line which leads to David and then to Jesus. In fact Judah, Tamar, Perez and Zerah are all mentioned in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (see Matt. 1:3).
As stated, Judah moved to Canaan, married a Canaanite woman and had three sons. Later, "Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death" (VSS. 6-7). We learn here that God, by His will, at times will take the life of a wicked man, because of his wickedness. I believe that the fact that Er was in the chosen family of God contributed to God's decision to take his life. Er's wickedness was tarnishing God's name.
"Then Judah said to Onan, `Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother'" (vs. 8). There was a custom of the time (later called Levirite marriage) wherein if the eldest brother died without children, the nearest unmarried relative living in the household would be obliged to marry the eldest brother's wife to carry on the name of the eldest brother. This is why Judah tells Onan to marry Tamar. Interestingly, this custom was codified as part of the Mosaic law:
"If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, `My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to me.' Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, `I do not want to marry her,' his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, `This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line.' That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandalled" (Deut. 25:5-10).
So we see that it was not mandatory that the next of kin marry the eldest brother's wife, but it was shameful for him not to marry her.
Now, Judah's son Onan agreed to marry Tamar; however, he deliberately did not fulfill his duty to produce a child for his deceased brother: "But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also" (vss. 9-10). And so, although Onan received the honor for marrying his brother's wife, he did not carry out the duty associated with it. Moreover, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--God's chosen family--was under the command of God to "be fruitful and multiply" (see Gen. 35:11, et. al.). Onan was disobeying this command by refusing to have a child. Furthermore, the line of Judah was to be the Royal line, the line that produced not only the kings of Israel beginning with David, but also the Messiah for the people of Israel, Jesus Christ. By disobeying the command to multiply, Onan was jeopardizing the continuance of the Royal line. These were the reasons why God found what Onan did to be "wicked in [His] sight." The Lord had to put Onan to death so as to set off the events that would provide Judah with some more children in order that the Royal line would be continued.
"Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, `Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up.' For he thought, `He may die too, just like his brothers.' So Tamar went to live in her father's house" (vs. 11). Here Judah begins to act dishonorably. According to the Levirite marriage custom, Shelah should have been provided to Tamar as her husband. Judah told Tamar to wait "until [his] son Shelah grows up." But then we see that Judah had no intention to allow Shelah to marry Tamar, for we are told: "[Judah] thought, `[Shelah] may die too, just like his brothers.'" The right thing to do (since Judah had no intention of allowing Shelah to marry Tamar) would have been for Judah to tell Tamar that she was free from his family and may marry anyone she wished. It is implied in this episode that Tamar was still young and attractive, and so would probably not have had any trouble finding another husband. But Judah apparently does not want to bring shame on his own family by letting it be known that he had no intention of allowing Shelah to marry Tamar (remember that this was a shameful thing to do according to the Levirite marriage custom). Actually, Judah had no valid reason to forbid Shelah from marrying Tamar. Judah somehow got the notion that it was Tamar's fault that his sons died, when in actuality, it was because of their own evil behavior that God put them to death.
After waiting a long time, Tamar finally realizes that Judah has no intention of allowing Shelah to marry her. She then decides to take matters into her own hands. What Tamar did (of course) is disgraceful also: "When Tamar was told, `Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,' she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face" (vss. 13-15). Judah falls right into Tamar's scheme: "Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, `Come now, let me sleep with you.' `And what will you give me to sleep with you?' she asked. `I'll send you a young goat from my flock,' he said. `Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?' she asked. He said, `What pledge should I give you?' `Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,' she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him" (vss. 16-18).
Judah in this episode demonstrates for our learning the dire, long-range consequences of lapses of self-control, when we let our unbridled lust control our actions. Adultery always has dire, long-range consequences: sometimes in the form of disease; sometimes in an unwanted child; most often in a ruined relationship. Adultery adversely affects both parties psychologically as their God-given consciences bring feelings of guilt and uncleanness. An instance of adultery never "goes away" but is always in one's remembrance, disturbing the peace and purity of the marriage-bed, even if the adultery occurs long before one gets married. However, the passions of the flesh can be strong, and the temptation (seemingly) unbearable. Therefore, we must be careful never to put ourselves in a situation where adultery is even an option. We must "flee the evil desires of youth" (II Tim. 2:22), even before those desires can lead to adultery. Judah, by living amidst the Canaanites, put himself in a situation where adultery was an all-too available option to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Adultery was part of the religion of the Canaanites. In fact, Tamar was disguised as a "shrine-prostitute" (see vs. 21). Judah's behavior presents an educational contrast for us to Joseph's behavior in the next chapter. Joseph will go out of his way to avoid the opportunity of adultery (see Gen. 39:7-12), while Judah went out of his way (by leaving his brothers and going to live among the Canaanites) to put himself in a situation where adultery was an option.
Succumbing to the desires of the flesh also often leads to all sorts of foolishness. We see that Judah behaved very foolishly in giving an unknown prostitute his seal and staff as a pledge (see vs. 18). But in the heat of the moment, we will often agree to anything. This is the danger of the heat of the moment.
Later, we find that Judah tried to get his pledge back, but of course Tamar was no longer there (see vss. 20-22). Judah then gave up on the matter (see vs. 23) because any further pursuance of it would probably have brought public shame upon him.
Next, we learn of Judah's hypocrisy: "About three months later Judah was told, `Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.' Judah said, `Bring her out and have her burned to death!'" (vs. 24). Judah was prescribing upon Tamar the punishment due an adulterer who was engaged to be married. Technically, Tamar was still engaged to be married to Shelah (even though Judah had no intention of allowing them to marry). And so, Judah's hypocrisy is all the more shameful because it was his own decision (forbidding them to marry) which drove Tamar to sin (although, there is really no excuse for what she did, either). Judah most likely welcomed the opportunity to put Tamar to death because that released his son Shelah from their engagement in a way that maintained the honor of Judah and his family.
At this point, in the midst of Judah's righteous indignation at Tamar's sin, Tamar turns things around: "As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. `I am pregnant by the man who owns these,' she said. And she added, `See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.'" (vs. 25). To his credit, Judah publicly acknowledges his sin, including his hypocrisy: "Judah recognized them and said, `She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah'" (vs. 26). However, a significant bit of hypocrisy by Judah did remain: he practices mercy upon Tamar when it is revealed that he himself also is guilty. Judah is no different that we are. We are so quick to judge, so quick to get an attitude of righteous indignation when the other man is guilty. We are also so quick to point to the mercy of God when we ourselves are found in sin.