A Tale of Two Tamars, Part 5

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A Tale of Two Tamars, Part 5:
Tamar the Daughter-in-Law of Judah:
Genesis 38:6-30

Copyright © May 5, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

In this series of articles we have been examining the lives of two women in the Old Testament. Both women were named Tamar. The first Tamar we investigated is actually the second in the historical records. In these new articles we examine the life of Tamar from the patriarchal era in Genesis 38:6-30.

Part 2: Judah’s Redemption, Genesis 38:12-26.

Judah’s wife dies after some period of time, and Shelah has grown to manhood. After grieving the death of his wife, Judah returns to his daily business. He has flocks of sheep in Timnah and it is sheep-shearing season. Sheep-shearing was regarded as a time of celebration in ancient near eastern culture. (1 Sam 25:2-11; 2 Sam 13:23). Hirah and Judah therefore make plans to go to Timnah and participate in the festival. It is possible Shelah would have gone with his father. We don’t know.

Tamar, having been apprised of her father-in-law’s trip, removes her widow’s garments, and puts on the attire of a temple prostitute. The more general term zonah, prostitute, is used in verse 15. That she is not considered a common harlot or an adulteress is evident from the use of the term qedasha, meaning “separated unto God”, in verses 21 and 22 (where the King James translation again uses the term “harlot”, failing to make the distinction).

The veil is intended to cover her identity, knowing that this was the typical dress of a cult prostitute in Canaanite society. Gerhard Von Rad has shown that the veil was worn by married and unmarried women in the ancient near east, while widows were most likely unveiled (Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, p. 359, The Old Testament Library, Westminster Press, 1995). Judah would have viewed the prostitute of Enaim as a married or single woman working within the confines of the Canaanite fertility cult of Astarte.

For Tamar’s purposes, this was the perfect disguise. She was assumed to be a married woman supplementing her family’s income, and possibly providing meat that would be consumed by them in a cultic celebration of the goddess. The goat that Judah would later supply her with would then be used by her family for this purpose. Hauck and Schulz challenge this saying “It is unlikely, however, that the kid of v. 17 is an offering of this type.” They give no reason, however, why this is not an acceptable conclusion. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VI, p. 586, footnote 32.) Cultic prostitution was likely the manner in which many families within the Canaanite strata were enabled to obtain animals used in the cultic feasts.

Judah, unaware of Tamar’s true identity, requests intercourse with her. They agree to the future payment of a goat from his herds, with a surety to be returned upon payment for her services. Tamar requires his signature cylinder with its cord, and his staff as the surety. In ancient times such items represented the real identity of the person to whom they belonged in much the same way as a credit card would today. Both items were used to stamp an impression of the owner’s insignia into clay, creating a legally binding contract between parties.

After having sexual relations with her, Judah goes his way, and Tamar returns to her father’s house. She puts off the garments of her deception, returning to her widowhood, but now with Judah’s child conceived within her womb. For the price of a goat from his flock Judah has unwittingly fulfilled the levirate duty of the next of kin. Without realizing it, he has provided the heir of the firstborn to Tamar. She is now with child by Judah.

Judah attempts through his associate Hirah to pay the prostitute (qedasha) of Enaim, but he cannot locate her, and the neighbors of the area have no knowledge of her. Hirah returns the goat to Judah. It is decided that the woman should not be pursued further and should be allowed to keep his tokens.

The fear of shame is probably not the discovery by the community that he had seen a harlot, unless Judah feared his brothers back home would discover and censure him. But Judah had long been disengaged from their close company. As we have seen, cultic prostitution was common and even promoted within Canaanite society. Shame would attach to the act of adultery, however, cultic prostitution, even by a married woman did not carry with it such a stigma. Rather, it is plausible that Judah’s concern was that the neighbors there would realize the woman had the signet of a well off business man, and would steal them for fraudulent purposes. Judah’s concern goes no higher than economics.

In three months time Tamar was beginning to show signs of her pregnancy. Judah having been informed that she has played the harlot and is with child, demands that she be brought out and burned. Some question his authority to demand her execution by burning since Mosaic law prescribes burning only in the case of a priest’s daughter who commits harlotry (Lev 21:9). While Mosaism was based in Patriarchal law, in many ways it attempted to remove or sublimate many Patriarchal customs; to clean up the rough edges of that legal system.

Reading the laws concerning the Levitical priesthood back into Patriarchal history misses the point Moses intended to make by including this in the story, which was to show the harshness and degraded nature of that pagan legal system. Judah is portrayed once again as having fully been assimilated into the heathen society he was living in. Quite possibly, his brothers to the north were degenerating in this same way. Anyway, there is no doubt that Judah was viewed as the priest of his family so the argument from Levitical regulations is moot.

In her defense Tamar makes public the signet ring and the staff that she had taken in pledge. She declares that the father of her child is the owner of the items, and with this it becomes clear, to the shame of Judah, that he is the father. Judah acknowledges his guilt and declares Tamar righteous. In fact he says that she is more righteous than he, confessing his own injustice towards her in preventing her legal rights to bear children by Shelah.

Tamar goes on to bear twins to Judah who are named Perez and Zerah. Perez inherits the firstborn rights that would have passed through Er. Through the line of Perez the promise of the future kingdom of Israel was to be fulfilled, as prophesied by Judah’s father Jacob (Gen 49:10). Perez becomes the ancestor of David and Solomon, and all the kings of Judah, as well as of the King of kings Jesus Christ. (Matt 1:1-17).

We are told that Judah no longer had sexual relations with Tamar. Shelah eventually has a family that continues into the Mosaic period. Zerah also has a family line that continues into later dates. (Gen 46:12; Num 26:20).

The humbling that Judah experienced in this episode with Tamar, may have been what led him to a closer relationship to his father and brothers from whom he had been separated for probably 20 or more years. The next references to Judah that we find show him back in association with his family, and taking the lead in providing for them during the famine that drove them into Egypt. After Judah and the rest of Jacob’s family have moved to Egypt, the influence of Canaanite paganism ends, as well the threat of assimilation of the nation of Israel and the future royal line of Judah.

What we have seen in this history is nothing less than the redemption and deliverance of Judah and all Israel from certain dissolution from history. Because of what took place in Genesis 38, the Jewish people still exist today, and the world has the Messiah Jesus Christ. All of this for the price of a goat paid for the price of a prostitute. Surely the sovereign providence of God is amazingly portrayed in this story.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at dje@newedisongazette.com.


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