Judah Recognized His Seal and Staff and said: She is More Righteous Than I

38: 12-26

DIG: In Chapter 35, Jacob seemed to be taking spiritual leadership in his family. Judging by Chapters 37 and 38, what effect did this have on his sons? How did Tamar reflect God’s image? How was Judah’s situation similar to King David’s? How did her bold actions change Judah’s life?

REFLECT: What often happens when we, like Judah, choose to spend our time with ungodly people? How do you respond when you are caught in a sin? Have you ever been “set straight” or rescued by someone you thought was “less righteous” than you?

After Tamar left, the family faced more adversity. After a long time Judah’s wife Bath-Shua died. She still must have been a relatively young woman, because Judah could hardly have been more than forty. As a result it seems possible that her death may also have been in judgment from ADONAI, reflecting her own responsibility in the training of Er and Onan and their resulting attitudes of bitter rebellion against God.584 After a suitable time of mourning, Judah went up to the foothills of Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep. Sheep-shearing was a festive time once-a-year (First Samuel 25:4, 11 and 36), when sexual temptation would be heightened by the Canaanite worship, which encouraged ritual sex as a form of fertility magic (Hosea 4:13-14).585 Nevertheless, Judah decided to go to Timnah and his Canaanite friend Hirah went with him (38:12).

Tamar saw that she had not been given to Shelah as a wife after he had grown into manhood. The deaths of Er and Onan were not her fault, yet she was being treated as if she had something to do with it. Furthermore, it was obvious that Judah had no intention of honoring his commitment to her regarding Shelah. So she concluded that if she were ever going to become a mother in Judah’s family she would have to take matters into her own hands. Whether Judah told Tamar that the Messiah would come through her we do not know. But such an opportunity presented itself when she learned that Judah was coming to visit his sheep shearers in Timnah (38:13-14).

Tamar had waited patiently. A long time had passed. Even though Shelah had grown into manhood, Judah showed no sign of keeping his promise. But Tamar had not forgotten. She knew her duty, but Judah blocked her path. The disgrace of her childlessness would be significantly worse if her husband’s name was cut off. She had no legal recourse. No one spoke in her defense. Tamar was in an impossible predicament and she had run out of options.

Once convinced of Judah’s intention to do nothing to remedy her plight, a marked change came over her. Up to that point she had accepted a passive role. She was always the object of the action: Judah got her for Er, gave her to Onan, and sent her home to wait for Shelah. But when she was told that her father-in-law, just recovering from being widowed himself,was on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep, she saw a window of opportunity that she could not pass by.

With a renewed sense of purpose, she took off her widow’s clothes along with her passivity, covered herself with a veil (as a woman on her wedding night) to disguise herself. This was the mark of a temple prostitute. They were used in the Near East during planting or other important seasons such as sheep-shearing. Women who were devoted to the mother goddess Ishtar or Anat would reside at or near temples and would dress in a veil, as the symbolic bride of the god Baal or El. In this way, it was supposed that they gave honor to the gods and reenacted the divine marriage in an attempt to ensure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.586 Ironically, half way between Adullam and Timnah was the town of Enaim, and the home of Tamar. She knew that Judah would be more sexually vulnerable now that he was a widower.587 If she was going to act, the time had come.

Then Tamar placed herself in Judah’s path. She sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. It was no accident that the town of Enaim means eyes, and when Judah saw her, he thought she was a temple prostitute, for she had covered her face (38:15). Now Judah, who had deceived Jacob when Joseph was sold, was himself deceived by his Canaanite daughter-in-law.

In her book Lost Women of the Bible, Carolyn James comments that, “it’s worth noting, at this point, that investigators of ancient history have uncovered ancient Hittite and Assyrian laws that regulated the levirate duty. These documents not only placed responsibility on the brother of the deceased but, interestingly enough, they also supported marriage of the father-in-law to his son’s widow if no brother fulfilled this duty. Although biblical regulations later prohibit this, it seems plausible, especially in light of Tamar’s conduct, that in Judah’s day the father-in-law was responsible if his son failed to fulfill his duty. According to such laws, and also the biblical view of Tamar, conception by a father-in-law was a legitimate means of saving a family member from being cut off. Furthermore, now that Judah was a widow, no wrong would be done against his wife.”

Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, Judah went over to her by the roadside (38:16a). The whole episode gives terrible insight into his character. What in heaven’s name made Tamar think such a scheme would work? Evidently Tamar knew Judah well enough to know that it would succeed. She wasn’t bringing Judah down. He was down already. He saw what he thought was a prostitute, approached her, and the bargaining began.

Skipping the small talk he got straight to the point: Come now, let me sleep with you. She asked: And what will you give me to sleep with you? Judah said: I promise I will send you a young goat from my flock. Judah was clearly acting on impulse because he didn’t even have the goat he promised in payment for her services. He would send it later. But Tamar negotiated like a hardheaded businesswoman, and replied: Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it (38:16-17)?

He asked: What pledge should I give you? Then she shrewdly set the terms herself. Give me your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand, she answered. The seal was attached to a cord that hung around his neck. He used it to emboss his insignia on legal documents. She wanted both the seal and the cord. The staff symbolized his authority and was distinctively carved to indicate it belonged to Judah. By surrendering these items, Judah demonstrated how intent, and reckless, he was in getting what he wanted. In modern terms, she had the equivalent of his credit card and driver’s license. So even without DNA testing, Tamar could prove the identity of the father of her unborn child.

So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him (38:18). What are we to make of this? This was how the Canaanites lived! It must be recognized that the biblical record does not condemn or criticize Tamar. Indeed her decision and her actions at this point did accomplish exactly what she intended, for she became the mother of the ancestor of King David and, eventually, the Messiah Himself. ADONAI is not bound by human strategies and one could conclude that He placed His approval on Tamar’s actions in this case, at least if we are to judge by the result that God allowed to be achieved by it.588 After he left, she certainly did not want to continue to dress like a prostitute,so she took off her veil, put on her widow’s clothes again and went home to her father’s house (38:19).

Meanwhile Judah went back home and picked out a young goat from his flock. He asked his Canaanite friend Hirah to take it to the prostitute in order to get his pledge back from the woman. Judah was probably somewhat ashamed of what he had done and didn’t want to see her again or have anyone see him talking to her. So he sent Hirah who didn’t care. But no matter how hard Hirah searched, he did not find her (38:20). He asked the men who lived there: Where is the temple prostitute (Deuteronomy 23:17; Hosea 4:14) who was beside the road at Enaim? They said: There hasn’t been any temple prostitute here (38:21), which was the truth because she only pretended to be one. Puzzled, Hirah returned to Judah with the young goat, but without his pledge.

So Hirah went back to Judah and said: I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said there hasn’t been any temple prostitute there (38:22). Then Judah said: Let her keep what she has, or I will become a laughing stock because a temple prostitute has outwitted me. I want towash my hands of the whole thing. After all, I did try and keep my word and send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her (38:23). What else could he do? He had tried and that was enough. Judah thought that would be the end of the whole sleazy affair. As far as the tokens were concerned, she could keep them if she wished, though it was difficult to see how they could be of any use to her. Little did he know.

About three months later Judah got some shocking news. Someone came to him and said: Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant. He was furious in his righteous anger. In his mind, not only were his two sons dead because of her, but now she had disgraced his family. How ungrateful she was! He was so kind to her, and now this! He would be happy for any excuse to get rid of her and end this unfortunate episode of his life. Even though she was living back in her father’s house, she was still under Judah’s authority. The penalty for adultery, even in an ungodly society like that of Canaan, was death, as may be seen in the Code of Hammurabi.589 Judah, as judge and jury, assumed her to be guilty without even hearing a word from her.

Judah demanded: Bring her out and have her burned to death (38:24). Being the patriarch of the clan, Judah was within his rights to order her to be burned to death because technically, she committed adultery as a result of her supposed engagement to Shelah. Later, in the Torah, the penalty for adultery was stoning, not burning (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:21). Tamar did not immediately defend herself. But as she was being brought out of her father’s house and back to Adullam to face Judah, she made her defense. She sent a message, the seal and its cord, and the staff, to her father-in-law. Her message said: I am pregnant by the man who owns these. And then she added: See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these belong to (38:25). One can only imagine the thoughts that crossed Judah’s mind at that time. But Tamar probably knew enough about Judah to know that once he knew the truth, he would treat her fairly.

Judah instantly recognized them and the heart of the problem. He had committed adultery with his son’s engaged wife! But to his credit, he immediately repented and confessed: She is more righteous (Hebrew: tam) than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah (38:26a). This was a watershed moment for Judah, the moment of clarity when the fog lifts and the prodigal son sees the light. The Bible doesn’t carelessly throw around a word like righteous. Job 1:8 tells us that he was blameless and upright (tam); Noah was a righteous (tam) man (6:9); Jacob was a righteous (tam) man (25:27), the TaNaKh tells us that ADONAI is righteous in all His ways (Psalm 145:17). God sets the standard for what is righteous, and no person at that time, especially someone from Judah’s background, would ever thoughtlessly apply righteous to a Canaanite woman like Tamar. It was as if Judah was saying, “Tamar has done the right thing. She has done what pleases God, and I have not.”

Many years later Judah’s descendant, King David, would face a similar situation. He would commit adultery with Bath-Sheba, whose husband would be from one of the Canaanite tribes. When Nathan the prophet confronted him, David said immediately: I have sinned against the LORD (Second Samuel 12:13). Once David recognized his sin, he tried to make things right, and so did Judah. He did not sleep with her again, nor could she be given to Shelah, but he would at least acknowledge her son as his heir (38:26b). Through the omnipotence, or the authority and influence of God, the levirate marriage had been fulfilled. In this way, the line of the Messiah through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and Perez was kept in tact (see my commentary on Ruth Bd - Coda: The Genealogy of David).

In the final analysis, Tamar carried out a stunning rescue of Judah’s two dead sons with her twins, Perez and Zerah. She saved both Er and Onan from extinction, despite their wickedness. But Tamar also rescued Judah. His collision with her stopped his steep spiritual decline. Driven by rejection and jealous anger over his father’s preference for Rachael over his mother Leah, and for favoring Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, over Judah and his brothers, Judah led the conspiracy against Joseph and instigated selling him as a slave. With Joseph seemingly out of the picture, their elderly father Jacob doted protectively on Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Hurt and fed up, Judah left and migrated to Canaanite territory. He lived among the Canaanites, had Canaanite friends, made alliances with Canaanites, married a Canaanite, and ultimately started acting like one. Instead of walking with ADONAI, he walked away. He seemed indifferent to his wicked sons and even blocked Tamar’s path to obedience. In short, Judah was lost. But he met his match in Tamar.

The LORD is in the business of changing lives and Judah is a prime example. His turning point came when he collided with Tamar. The evidence of Judah’s change came later when Benjamin’s life was threatened, then the man once ruled by jealousy and resentment volunteered to become a slave in the place of his younger brother (44:1-34). This was not merely one man offering to become a slave for his beloved brother. This was the rejected son offering himself in place of his father’s pet. Clearly, Judah had become a righteous man.

But Tamar would not live to see the fulfillment of her efforts. As the descendants of Abraham flooded into the Promised Land, the blood line of her eldest son Perez became the golden cord that connected ADONAI’s promise of a Redeemer in the garden of Eden with the birth of the Anointed One in Beit-Lechem (Micah 5:2) thousands of years later. Tamar didn’t corrupt the line of Yeshua ha-Messiah. She rescued it!


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