Most of Genesis 37-50 is about the Joseph story. The Joseph story is how God in his sovereignty uses the sin if Joseph’s brothers, his being in a pit and being raised as ruler to further his purpose in relation to his promises made to Abraham. However, intermingled within the story of Joseph is also the story of Judah.
In Genesis 38 Judah moves away from his brothers to live amongst the Canaanites. He marries a Canaanite and the arranges the marriage of his firstborn son to a Canaanite, Tamar. Perhaps due to Canaanite influence and Er’s separation from the family of Abraham, Er is wicked and the LORD puts him to death. Onan, Er’s brother marries his brother’s widow and due to his own wickedness is also put to death. Judah is left with only his youngest son, Shelah.
In this period of history both Canaanites and the family of Abraham shared a common practice. When a man died childless his widow would marry his brother to raise up a son who would be counted the deceased’s son. The Canaanites, but not Abraham’s family, would also allow the deceased’s father to marry the widow. Judah abandons his responsibilities toward Tamar possibly regarding her as the cause of his sons’ deaths rather than their own wickedness. Years later, Judah still does not give Tamar in marriage to Shelah.
Tamar removes her widow’s clothing and covers herself up wears a veil and sat outside the town on a main road. Her purpose is to rectify the situation where Judah has cast her off from the family. When Judah sees her, he thinks that she is a prostitute. Why does he think this? Firstly, he does not recognize her because she is veiled and covered up. But this is not the clothing of a prostitute but of a betrothed woman – prostitutes expose themselves; betrothed women cover themselves. Judah thinks that she is a prostitute because she is a woman on her own outside the city gates. It is her isolation and location that causes him to assume she is a prostitute. He should have taken pause though … she is dressed like a betrothed woman!
Judah literally ‘turns aside’. Ordinarily this expression is used of transgression. He initiates a sexual encounter. Tamar sees an opportunity to address a wrong – instead of being excluded she will potentially bear a child into the family. Tamar’s passive agreement to Judah’s sleeping with her was wrong (according to Mosaic law but not according to Hittite law in the absence of a brother) but necessitated by Judah’s breaking the law.
Tamar is not motivated by lust (unlike Judah). She is motivated by her desire to be a part of the family of Abraham. Judah had forsaken his place in Israel by moving away from his brothers to live among Canaanites, but Tamar seeks her place in Israel. Judah’s unrighteousness was his failure to care for Tamar in her vulnerability (alien, widow) and his failure to build his own line. In fact, Judah’s unrighteousness endangered his own family line!
Tamar however is righteous in the story – she desires by faith to belong to the family of Abraham. Despite her acting ignorantly in relation to the Canaanite law that allowed her to marry her father-in-law (it is all she knew), God counts her as righteous!
How can this be argued from the text? Throughout Genesis a common theme has been that God is the one who opens wombs (evidenced by Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel). So, Tamar’s pregnancy must be understood as an act of God. In fact, she bears not one son but twin sons (a double blessing). Whereas Judah endangered his family line by disobedience and moving away from his brothers, Tamar the Canaanite saves the family line of Judah by her faith in desiring to belong.
What an extraordinary person Tamar was and who would have thought that God’s blessing the family of Abraham could extend to a Canaanite! No wonder she is mentioned in the family tree of Boaz, David, and Jesus.
A more detailed study of the story of Judah within Genesis 37-50 would demonstrate that this becomes Judah’s conversion story as he returns to take up his role among his brothers and the family of Abraham. Later Judah, who suggested selling Joseph, will offer to substitute himself for Benjamin. Finally, at the end of Jacob’s life when he blesses his sons, the surprise is that the messianic line will come not through Joseph but Judah! From Judah will come the lion of Judah, the promised seed, the king.
The promise to restore Eden through the promises made to Abraham (promises involving covenant, sign and a substitute ransom) are worked through and include the faith of a Canaanite woman named Tamar!