Scripture: Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. Genesis 38:26 ESV
Observation: As chapter 38 concludes, the author tells us that the Ishmaelites (also called Midianites) sold Jacob to Potipher, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He then launches into another disturbing side story, which involves Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. As customary to the preservation of the family line, if the oldest son dies without leaving a son to carry on the family name and inheritance, then it was the familial duty of the next oldest brother to take on the widow as his wife and produce an heir. In this story, the Lord puts the wicked oldest son, Er, to death, leaving him without a son. Judah then instructs the next oldest to fulfill his duty, but Onan acts wickedly (refusing to bear Tamar a child) and also dies at the hand of God. Fearful for his youngest son’s well-being, Judah instructs Tamar to return to her father’s house and wait for his youngest son, Shelah, to mature into a man.
As time passes, Tamar learns of Judah’s wife’s death and that her father-in-law regularly travels to Timnah, where his friends comfort him in his loss. So she disguises herself as a cult prostitute and propositions Judah en route. Negotiating for his signet, cord, and staff as a pledge for services, she sleeps with Judah and becomes pregnant. When news reaches her father-in-law, he orders his men to burn her to death. But Tamar shrewdly sends Judah’s servants back to him to inform him that he was the child’s father as attested by his personal belongings, which his servants return. When Judah catches sight of his signet, cord, and staff, he declares that Tamar is more righteous since he did not give Tamar to his youngest son (above verse).
Takeaway: There are three teaching points from this text. First, it will not go well for us if we disobey God out of fear of our loved ones’ well-being. This shameful episode would never have happened if Judah had not withheld his youngest son from Tamar. His two oldest sons died for their sins, not because they couldn’t produce a child. Secondly, salving our grief with illicit, ungodly sex (or any other vice) will only make things worse. Lastly, we stand on shaky ground when judging others for their sins while failing to own ours. Jesus had something to say about each of these points. He admonished the religious leaders for their hypocrisy when they presented an adulterous woman to entrap him (John 8:1-11). He cautioned his disciples about misplaced fear of others over God (Matthew 10:28). And lastly, during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonished his audience about judging others, lest they reap equal measure of judgment (Matthew 7:1-5).
Put simply, when we take matters into our hands and leave God out of the formula, we compound the problem. But if we fear God over others and obey him, we place ourselves and our loved ones in the best possible position no matter the outcome.
Prayer: Father God, we confess that we would continue to stray apart from your good graces. So would you please help us fear and obey you over people and circumstances we cannot control and thereby position ourselves well to come under your blessings? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling