Judah said to Tamar: Live as a Widow
Until My Son Shelah Grows Up

38: 1-11

DIG: What were the implications of Judah marrying a Canaanite woman? What is the duty of Judah’s sons, and even Judah himself to Tamar (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)? Contrast Tamar’s motives with the motives of Onan and Judah in avoiding this duty.

REFLECT: Why is it important for you to be equally yoked (Second Corinthians 6:14-18)? What is different about Judah’s rebellion and yours? Judah was the Seed son, through which the Messiah would come. How do you feel about his actions, knowing that Christ would be his descendent? What does that say about human nature? About you?

At the time that Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, Judah left his brothers. It seems that Judah was so disturbed by the actions of his brothers and his father that he wanted to separate himself from them. But he only went as far as Adullam, eight miles to the northwest, and stayed with a man named Hirah (38:1). In due time he went looking for a wife as he started to make new friends there. Making friends with the Canaanites, however, would come at a high price.

There Judah met the attractive young daughter of a Canaanite man name Shua, which in Hebrew is Bath-Shua (First Chronicles 2:3 KJV). He married her and lay with her (38:2). There is no suggestion that he consulted with his father or the father of the bride. He merely jumped in with both feet and married her. However, being the ancestor of the Messiah, he should have been much more cautious in selecting his future wife. Shua’s daughter, although physically attractive, was a true Canaanite, not only in her race but also in her culture and outlook. As a result, she was evidently unwilling to be converted to the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The evidence of this is that ADONAI rejected all three of her sons from being the seed of the Messiah. At least two of them were disgracefully wicked in the sight of the LORD and it is likely that they reflected their mother’s character and teaching.580

Judah was unequally yoked with this Canaanite woman. What seemed like a good idea at the time would end up causing havoc in his life and the life of his family. Would that hinder God in carrying out His plan to bless the world through Abraham and his seed? No, but believers today think that they can marry someone who is not a believer and the person will change once they tie the knot. As a matter of fact, I can guarantee that they will change. Once you say, “I do,” they will get much worse!

Evidently they had three sons in fairly rapid succession. Soon she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. Judah named his first son this because Er in Hebrew means watcher. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. This time the son is named by Bath-Shua. She named him Onan, which means strength. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. She named her third son Shelah, which may mean one who is drawn out of the womb. By the time Shelah was born, the family had moved to Kezib, which was evidently a small town near Adullam (38:3-5). Kezib is a word derived from the word Kazab that means to lie or to be deceived. The rabbis teach that in that regard it may foreshadow what soon happens: Judah promised Shelah, who was born in Kezib, to Tamar, but he does not give him to her. He simply deceives her. With the naming of her last two children, her dominance of the family seems to be increasing at this point.

As was the custom of the day, once Er grew into manhood Judah selected a wife for his firstborn. The bridegroom did not choose his own bride. So by this time Judah had probably realized that his choice of a wife was not the best and he resolved not to let Er err in the choosing of his mate. Judah knew the LORD’s covenant would flow through Jacob’s family so it was important that his son have the right kind of wife. Sadly, because of the worldly spiritual influence of Er’s mother, he realized that it was all the more important that his wife be a good influence on his son and grandchildren.

Judah felt free to choose his own wife, but didn’t give Er the same courtesy. He finally found a suitable wife for his son and her name was Tamar meaning palm tree (38:6). It is used in the Bible as a symbol of a graceful person (Song of Songs 7:7-8). She was also a Canaanite, but she would become the mother of the messianic line from Judah (Matthew 1:3), so we must assume that in the sovereign will of God, He participated in this choice. As a result, Tamar must have been the most suitable woman for this purpose in her generation, regardless of the fact that she was not Jewish. Judah made the arrangements and his son Er was married to the Canaanite maiden Tamar.

The story of Tamar starts here, with her marriage to Judah’s eldest son. If they followed the normal marriage customs, Tamar’s father and father-in-law made the arrangements, most likely based on the political and financial advantages it would bring to them. But however well the marriage may have worked out for the two families, it was a complete disaster for Tamar.

Many couples can reflect on their struggles during their first year of marriage. But Tamar’s marriage was a nightmare by anyone’s standard. Her new husband quickly shattered any girlhood hopes she may have had for her future life. Scripture tells us that Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in ADONAI’s sight. It seems that the rebellion of his Canaanite mother against the things of the LORD had infected the son. Tamar was not the kind of wife he wanted at all. No doubt Judah had explained the importance of a godly wife, but Er wanted nothing to do with the God of Abraham. He fully intended to follow the Canaanite religion of his mother. Therefore, ADONAI put him to death (38:7). Like many of the other firstborn in the Bible (Cain, Ishmael, Esau and Reuben), Er is set aside by God. Not since the days of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah had Elohim taken the life of one who displeased Him, and there it was groups who were annihilated. Er is the first individual person in Scripture that the LORD puts to death.581

The ancient world had an emergency plan to save a childless dead man from extinction. 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” (38:8). This was in accordance with the Code of Hammurabi. Tamar had the right to have a child by the nearest of kin to her dead husband. If a man died childless, the nearest of kin had the obligation to produce a son to carry on his family line. This was a levirate marriage, which comes from the Latin word levir that means the husband’s nearest of kin. Later, this was incorporated into the Torah to preserve the dead man’s name and family (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Ruth 4:5-6; Matthew 22:24). Finally, it was for the protection of the widow so that she should not have to sell herself for debts or have to marry outside the clan.582

The son born from this union inherited the name and estate of the deceased. Any living brother who refused this duty fell under deep disgrace. The solution was complicated, for it obligated both the widow and the living brother to make costly sacrifices for the man who had died. His widow couldn’t just move on and start a new life. She was honor bound to preserve her husband’s name. But Onan faced a moral dilemma as simple math can reveal.

Tamar’s case involved Judah’s three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. According to the Code of Hammurabi, Judah would divide his estate into four equal parts. Tamar’s husband Er, as the eldest son, would inherit a double portion. Two of the four slices of the family pie, or in this case, half of Judah’s estate would go to him. His two younger brothers would each receive a single slice, or one-fourth.

When Er died childless, the math changed for his two surviving brothers. Now the same piece of pie was divided three ways, with Onan (then in the place of Judah’s first born), getting two-thirds instead of his original one-fourth portion – more than even Er would have inherited even had he lived. And Onan was no dummy, he could add.

Family duty to produce an heir for his dead brother threatened to ruin everything for Onan, who was then positioned to enjoy the financial benefits of being the first born. Talk about a conflict of interest! If Tamar became pregnant with a son, Onan would forfeit his place as the eldest son. Tamar’s son would become Judah’s new number-one son in place of Er, and Onan would slide back to his former second-son position, while watching his inheritance shrink back to the measly one-fourth he had before.

The stakes were high. There was the possibility that Onan might never father a second son to perpetuate his own name. The situation required extraordinary sacrifice that we can hardly appreciate today. ADONAI, however, commonly calls His people to make sacrifices for one another. That’s what being a believer of Jesus means.

This family duty to produce an heir to preserve Er’s name is essential to understanding Tamar’s motive. If we don’t understand this, her motive sinks to desperation for a child or, even worse, determining to get even with her father-in-law for deceiving her. It makes her actions sound a bit cold-blooded and vindictive, not to mention immoral. Her next actions will fall far outside the scope of respectability.

Tamar was willing to fulfill this obligation on her part, but could not because of the unwillingness of Onan. It seems that he was just as wicked as his brother. He, like Er,was also in rebellion against God. He knew that the offspring would not be his, but would be the legal child of his dead brother. Outwardly, he obeyed his father. But secretly whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he regularly spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. This was the birthright issue. He was trying to get rid of the competition. What he did was wicked in God's sight; so God put him to death also (38:9-10). Ironically, Onan lost his life by trying to save it.

Suddenly Judah was down to one living son, with a growing suspicion that Tamar was the problem – a black widow of sorts. He had another son who was much younger named Shelah. The appropriate thing to do was to have him marry Tamar and produce children for his dead brother. But Judah stalled by sending Tamar back to her father’s house until his younger son was fully grown. So Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.” By making this statement Judah promised his son Shelah to her in marriage, and technically they were engaged. Tamar understood this and Judah certainly understood this, as we shall see.

When he told her to remain a widow until his youngest son grew up, it was nothing more than an excuse to put her off for the time being. He had no intention of having Shelah marry Tamar. Women whose husbands continued to die were many times suspected of witchcraft.583 For a fleeting moment we are given an insight into what Judah thought. He said to himself: Tamar is really bad luck; maybe my youngest son will die too, just like his brothers. So Judah sent Tamar away to live in her father’s house. She complied and went quietly, but expected Judah to fulfill his promise to her (38:11). But she remained under Judah’s authority and legally engaged to Shelah.


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