Judah found a wife for his son Er. Her name was Tamar. But soon after their marriage, God killed Er due to his wickedness.
So as was the custom, Tamar was given to Judah’s second son, Onan, so that he might pass along Er’s line. But Onan had a problem with that. If he had heirs, he wanted them to be his, not his brother’s, so he made sure that Tamar didn’t get pregnant. This displeased God, so He killed him as well.
Judah had a third son, but he was afraid to give him to Tamar for fear of what might happen, so he sent Tamar back to her family to wait for Shelah, the last son, to grow up. He had no intention, however, of bringing Tamar back.
Unfortunately, this put Tamar is a difficult situation. As a widow promised to a brother of her dead husband, she was unable to marry anyone else. When she realized that Judah had reneged on his promise, she took matters into her own hands.
After the death of Judah’s wife, Judah went with his Canaanite friend to the sheep shearing celebration. Learning of his plans, Tamar concocted a way to get what Judah had denied her. Part of the festivities included temple prostitutes whose job was to encourage the gods to provide a fertile year. Tamar disguised herself as one of these women in order to trap Judah. It worked.
All Tamar wanted was to have a son. She was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen, even risking death. She knew when she deceived Judah that she faced being put to death when she was found to be with child. That’s why she took Judah’s signet ring, cord, and staff. They were her insurance policy.
Sure enough, when word reached Judah that Tamah was pregnant, he called for her to be brought out and burned to death. But she brought out Judah’s things, sending them to him saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” (Genesis 38:25 ESV)
Judah recognized his ring, cord, and staff, and acknowledged that Tamar was in fact more righteous than he’d been.
Tamar went on to give birth to twin boys. When she was giving birth, one put out his hand, and the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it to his hand, saying, “This one came out first,” (v. 28) But then he withdrew his hand and his brother came out first, surprising everyone. They named the first son Perez, which means “breach”. The son with the scarlet thread they named Zerah, which means “rising”.
Did Tamar know about the promised Messiah? Did she realize that the Messiah would come through the line of Judah? Was she working to make sure that the line continued? Or was she merely a woman wanting to be a mother?
Regardless of her motivation, God used Tamar to get the attention of Judah, and in his mercy, allowed Tamar, a Canannite woman, to hold a coveted spot in the lineage of Jesus.
It’s hard for us to imagine why God chose Judah and Tamar to be part of His son’s lineage. But they show us His grace. His lineage is not filled with perfect souls but rather flawed individuals who were undeserving yet redeemed.
Tamar in Scripture: Genesis 38