Jacked-up Bible Stories: Judah and Tamar

Jacked-up Bible Stories are real stories of real people from the Bible. They are the real, raw, unfiltered stories of people, places, and events from the Scriptures. They are stories so messed-up that someone said, “Wait! I have to write this down or no one is ever going to believe it!” They are the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories of people of whom God said,

“Their story needs to be included in My Story so that everyone can see that you are never too far-gone, broken, or lost that I can’t redeem you and use you.”

This story is about a couple of really-jacked-up people named Judah and Tamar.

The back-story

This story takes place around 1900 B.C. and is recorded in Genesis 37 and 38. It starts with a man named, Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. You may not have heard of Judah, but you probably have heard of his younger brother, Joseph – the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit, intending to kill him, it is Judah that speaks up:

“What can we gain from killing him, except a guilty conscience? Let’s sell him into slavery instead. At least then we get a little something for our troubles. After all, he is our brother. And brothers don’t kill; they just torture.” (Paraphrase of Genesis 37:26-27)

(Those of you with older brothers know what I’m talking about. Those of you who are older brothers – shame on you!).

Judah apparently makes a pretty persuasive argument because his brothers all agree. And it’s nothing short of a miracle to get 10 brothers to agree about anything – except, as in this case, when it’s how best to torture a little brother.

So Joseph’s gone – out of the picture. But now the brothers have to face their father with a lie that they know will tear him apart. Apparently, this is preferential to having to put up with Joseph for one more day. So they tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Jacob, of course, is devastated. He can hardly function. Ironically, the very men who are the source of his anguish are now charged with the task of trying to be his comfort. But their feeble attempts prove ineffective. Jacob is crushed beyond measure.

In another ironic twist, the guilty conscience that Judah sought to avoid proves inescapable. He can’t bear to see his father in agony, so adding insult to injury, he splits town. Now Jacob has lost not only one son, but two. And here is where we really learn about Judah’s character.

The life and times of Judah and Tamar

Judah moves to the other side of the mountains and marries a Canaanite woman. Great-Grandpa Abraham must have been turning over in his grave because he had pretty strong feelings about the locals.

Swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not allow my son (Isaac) to marry one of these local Canaanite women.” (Genesis 24:3, NLT)

If this were a movie, you’d hear the dramatic music playing like when Anakin Skywalker turns to the Darkside. It’s the beginning of the rest of the story.

Marrying a foreigner in biblical times almost always signals something bad. Judah doesn’t seem too keen on the godly family values passed on to him. He does what it seems many young men have to do – ignore the wisdom of their elders and blaze their own trail.   

So he marries this woman, but we’re never told her name. In fact, she is only mentioned in sexual relationship to Judah – he slept with her and she became pregnant (three times). This is significant. It’s as if the narrator of the story is saying, “Their relationship was strictly physical.” It was one built on lust and desire, rather than love and commitment.

Judah and his unnamed wife have three sons together: Er, Onan and Shelah. This is where the story really gets interesting. Er marries a woman named, Tamar. But ol’ Ernie’s a pretty lousy husband and an even worse human being. He’s a wicked man and his evil ways don’t take long to get him killed.

Whereas Jacob displayed great agony over the loss of Joseph, Judah shows no grief and offers no comfort to Tamar. His concern appears to be strictly utilitarian and legal. He immediately grabs his next son, Onan, and commands, “sleep with your brother’s wife.”

Now this seems appalling to us today, but it was a legal obligation back then for a brother of a deceased husband to marry his widow in order to provide for her and give the dead brother a child in his own name. But Judah isn’t concerned with such formalities as marriage, nor is he concerned with Tamar. He just wants the legal requirement to be fulfilled.

“Knock her up, Onan.”

Onan’s like, “alright.”

He has sex with Tamar… again… and again. But no baby.

More sex. Still no baby.

It’s not that Tamar’s infertile. It’s that Onan’s not interested in giving her a child that wouldn’t be considered his own, so he uses… um… creative birth control. But, of course, that doesn’t stop him from continuing to have sex with her.

So Onan doesn’t have much better character than his brother or his dad and soon he’s out of the picture, as well. Dead.

Tamar is still a childless widow which was a pretty powerless position to be in at that time. No husband to provide. No sons to care for her or carry on the family name.

Judah’s like,

“Man, what’s going on here? This chick’s killed off two of my sons and I didn’t even get a grandchild out of the deal. Well, there’s no way I’m giving my last remaining son to that man-eater.”

So he tells Tamar to, “Get lost.” But in a passive-aggressive “Minnesota-nice” sort of way.

“Listen, you’ve been through a lot. Why don’t you go on home to your mama and papa and get some healing? In a few years, when my youngest son, Shelah, is old enough I’ll fulfill my legal obligation to you. Alright? Okay, then, scoot along.”

Of course, Judah’s concern is not with Tamar, but with his lone surviving son. In fact, it’s Judah’s responsibility to provide for Tamar in this case, not her father’s. Where Judah showed great concern for following the law before, he utterly disregards it now.

No more Tamar… Or so Judah thinks.

Sometime later Judah’s wife dies and it doesn’t take Judah long to miss her… sexually. He goes on a little business trip, feels lonely, and hooks up with a prostitute. The only problem is Judah’s left his wallet at home. But he really wants some action. The usual price for a good time back then was a loaf of bread, but Judah promises the woman a whole goat! That’s like the difference between a bicycle and a Porsche.

Lust just has a way of clouding your judgment.

But that’s not all. Since he doesn’t have the goat with him, he agrees to leave his credit card and driver’s license with the prostitute until he has the goat delivered.

Are you kidding me??? What an idiot!

Of course it wasn’t really his credit card and license that he leaves. It was his personal seal and shepherd’s staff, which is essentially the same thing.

Could you imagine leaving your I.D. with a prostitute? (Don’t answer that!)

There is no possible way this can end well.

So after they do the deed, he heads back home and he tells his friend,

“Hey, listen, I kind of did this thing while I was away on business and I owe this chick a goat. I don’t really want to go back there again, so would you mind taking this goat to her for me and get my seal and staff back?”

So the friend heads back to make Judah’s payment for him, and more importantly, retrieve his I.D. But when he gets there, he can’t find this prostitute anywhere. So he’s asking around and people are like,

“What are you talking about? We’re good people. We don’t have any prostitutes here.”

So the friend heads back empty-handed.

When he tells the news to Judah, he’s like, “Crap!”

“Oh well, let’s not make a scene. We’ll just sweep it under rug. She can just keep my stuff and we’ll never speak of this again.”

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any more messed up… They do. 

So, you think your family is dysfunctional?

About three months later, Judah is told,

“Remember Tamar – your daughter-in-law? She has been prostituting herself! And now, as a result, she’s pregnant!”

How does Judah react?

Just like anyone who’s hiding a secret – like a hypocrite! He gets all self-righteous.

“Oh no, she didn’t! Not in my family! Go find her and let’s burn her alive!”

Now, wait a minute.

Isn’t this the same Judah that sold his brother into slavery?

Isn’t this the same guy who married a Canaanite woman despite his grandpa’s stern command?

Isn’t this the same Judah who broke his promise to his daughter-in-law and also broke the law by refusing to provide for her?

This is the same Judah who slept with a prostitute; keeping a deep, dark secret!

This is why it’s really hard to trust people who are always so stern and unforgiving about certain behaviors. Because you know that they probably struggle with it themselves. How often have you seen a TV preacher or a politician (isn’t it horrible how inter-changeable those two sound?) keep a hard line on a moral issue – judging and condemning others – only to discover that they’ve been indulging in that behavior behind the scenes for years?

That’s our Judah.

And now things are about to get really interesting

As they are bringing Tamar out to be torched, she throws them a curveball.

“Hang on a minute. Before you kill me, Sparky, could you return these items to the guy who knocked me up?” And she holds out what? Judah’s I.D. and staff!

Oh, SNAP!

Can you imagine the look on Judah’s face? He has to be pooping bricks. I don’t know any other way to say it. This is an absolute train wreck!

So Judah’s like,

“Okay, people, the fire’s off! Nobody’s getting barbequed here today. Let’s just pretend none of this happened. Nothing to see here. Move along.”

As it turns out, it’s double-the-trouble (Er, I mean, double-the-blessing) because she’s pregnant with twins!

So, you think your family is dysfunctional?

Why is this story in the Bible?

Perhaps the strangest thing of all about this story is that this is Jesus’ family tree. He is descended from the tribe of Judah. In fact, Matthew’s biography of Jesus even goes so far as to name Tamar in the genealogy of Christ!

Now, why, out of 12 sons, does God pick Judah as a branch for His family tree? I mean, you would think it would be Joseph, right? He’s the good son; the hero, not just for his family, but for all of Israel. Judah’s the sleazeball liar. 

And of all the women, Tamar? Seriously!? The used and abused; the one who posed as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her. Really?

Why does Matthew include Tamar in his genealogy? Indeed, she’s only one of four women listed (all of whom have sordid reputations). Why not just omit her? Rather, he actually goes out of his way to include her.

Why?

Because Matthew wanted everyone to know that Jesus didn’t come just to save the Jews, the religious, the elite, or those who thought they were already good enough.

Matthew is setting up the story to say,

“These are the type of people that Jesus likes to be around; the ones he came to rescue.”

You see, Jesus didn’t just come for sinners; he came from sinners — to remind us all that there is hope for you and I.

No matter what you’ve done. No matter who you are.

Prostitutes.

Liars.

Sleazeballs.

All have a place in God’s family.

Whether you are the abuser or the abused; the user or the used; all are redeemed in exactly the same way, through the same person, Jesus Christ.

2 thoughts on “Jacked-up Bible Stories: Judah and Tamar

  1. I love this… great recap. Amazing story.
    It is also striking that all this was happening at the same time and juxtapositioned against Joseph’s integrity as he flees sexual temptation with Potiphar’s wife. Only in the Bible. 🙂

    Like

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