Reference: Genesis 38
This is one of the stranger texts in Genesis, but it is nevertheless a very important story in broader scope of scripture. This story has much to do with the broader redemptive history of Israel, and the world. “How so” you ask? Because the Savior, Jesus was a direct descendant of Tamar’s son Perez who was born out of this prostitution and deception (see Matthew 1:3). The story of Judah and Tamar once again shows us that God uses broken people to bring about his perfect will.
In case you were wondering why Judah says that Tamar was more “righteous than I“. He does not mean that Tamar was righteous, in the sense of holy and perfect. He means that she was more within her rights to act the way she did, than Judah was in acting the way he did. In other words, he is acknowledging his guilt of not giving his 3rd son Shelah to her as a husband, which he had promised to do. It was right of Judah to make that promise because he was trying to take care of her as a widow after his son had died, and because it would allow her to produce an heir. But Judah did not make good on that promise, and Tamar knew he did not intend to, so she acted shrewdly to protect herself, even though it meant committing what we would call ‘sexual sin’ today.
Remember, this was an ancient culture with different laws and customs concerning marriage and inheritance. It would not be appropriate for us to view this situation through the lense of our own cultural understanding. But that should not keep us from seeing the way God moves, and the way that his redemption is ultimately brought about.
God was present in this situation because he protected Tamar in a world where widows are often left uncared for, and in doing so he allowed her to produce an heir that would ultimately lead to Jesus Christ. This text also is a rarity in ancient literature because it exemplifies the woman, while looking poorly upon three men in the story. Judah and his two ‘wicked’ sons Er and Onan are portrayed very badly in the text. Yet Tamar is actually mentioned in Matthew’s Genealogy (see Matthew 1:3). Mentioning a woman in a genealogy is almost unheard of in first century genealogies.
Furthermore, dispite Judah’s sin, God still moved. Isn’t it interesting that it is through Judah’s line that the savior would come, and not through his brother Joseph. Joseph was a great handsome hero of Egypt, whose parallel narrative is far more captivating than Judah’s. Yet God’s son came from Judah’s line not Joseph’s. We should all remember this whenever we think we don’t measure up, when we think we have made too many mistakes to make a difference, or when we think others outshine us. Judah was seemingly not special at all, yet it was Judah who convinced his brothers to spare Joseph’s life (Genesis 37:26-27), which in turn would allow Joseph to save the whole family of Israel from drought many years later (Genesis 45:4-8). God always knows what he’s doing, and he can use anyone to accomplish his will.