Genesis (Part 175)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 38:24-30

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 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.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


This incident with Tamar is an interesting tale of morality and hypocrisy. Let’s start a review of the verses with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary and verse 24:

(24) Let her be burnt.—As being by law the wife of Shelah, Tamar was condemned by Judah in right of his position, as head of the family, to the punishment usual for adultery. In subsequent times, this penalty was limited to one who had married mother and daughter (Leviticus 20:14); or to the daughter of a priest guilty of unchastity (Leviticus 21:9). On this account, the Jewish expositors argue that Tamar belonged to a priestly family, and some even think that she was descended from Melchisedek.

As the note states, the punishment is difficult to reconcile with the crime so some have theorized about extra-textual information that might explain things.

The Pulpit Commentaries makes the same point about the issue of the punishment. Tamar’s proposed penalty is in excess of what we might think it should be (based on the law of Judah’s family as we understand it.) As a result, we get the proposed theories regarding the punishment that Ellicott mentions.

Genesis 38:24

And it same to pass about three months after (the usual time at which pregnancy is certainly determined), that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter-in-law hath played the harlot (or, acted as a zonah); and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said (altogether unmindful of his own iniquity three months previous), Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. Under the law stoning was the punishment allotted to the crime of Tamar (Deuteronomy 22:20-24), burning being added only in cases of excessive criminality (Le Genesis 20:14Genesis 21:9). It is obvious that the power of life and death lay in the hand of Judah, as the head of his family.

Continuing with Ellicott we see that later writers praise Tamar:

(25, 26) She sent . . . —The Talmud praises Tamar for so acting, as to bring no public disgrace upon Judah; and he acknowledges that he was most to blame, because the cause of her crime was his own failure to act justly by her.

The includes a lengthy and interesting article concerning the dealings of Tamar, Judah, and his sons, by Dr. Mahri Leonard, HERE. I include some excerpts below:

The reader knows that the brothers are to blame for their own deaths, but Judah believes Tamar is to blame, a “fatal woman” (אשה קטלנית) somehow for the men. He therefore sends her back to her father’s house (wherever that is) ostensibly until his third child is grown, though in reality he has no intention of allowing the marriage to proceed (v. 11).

When she realizes that he is lying to her, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She covers her face to be unrecognizable and sits down on the side of road that Judah will be taking. Covered with a veil, Judah believes his daughter-in-law is a prostitute and asks to sleep with her; she agrees, providing Judah leave his seal, cord, and staff as pledges for payment. Tamar’s plan, it seems, is to become pregnant, thus forcing Judah to fulfill the levirate duties in place of his son Shelah.

Judah only realizes this later, when he is about to have his daughter-in-law executed (for adultery, apparently!), and she pulls out the seal, cord, and staff that he left with her, forcing Judah to declare in the end that צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי “[Tamar] is more in the right than I” or literally “more righteous than I” (v. 26), likely making more of a legal claim about Tamar’s “righteousness” than a moral one.[7] The story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins, Zerah and Peretz, both of whom become the eponymous fathers of Judahite clans; later texts claim that King David was descended from the line of Peretz.[8]

Unlike other narratives in Genesis (such as Rebecca’s complaint in Genesis 27:46, or the Dinah story in Genesis 34), this narrative betrays no concern about marrying locals, starting with Judah marrying the daughter of a Canaanite, and moving on to Tamar’s likely outsider status.

Instead, the narrative elevates Tamar as an essential link in the continuation of Judah’s line. If Judah stands for the tribe of Judah or the southern geographical region of Israel, then Tamar stands for something uncertain and ambiguous but non-threatening. This point is highlighted in the historical-geographic setting of their sexual encounter: Timnah.

Wiki also adds some interesting perspective on how this story is viewed:

Literary critics have focused on the relationship between the Judah story in chapter 38 and the Joseph story in chapters 37 and 39. Victor P. Hamilton notes some “intentional literary parallels” between the chapters, such as the exhortation to “identify” (38:25–26 and 37:32–33).[7] John Emerton regards the connections as evidence for including chapter 38 in the J corpus, and suggests that the J writer dovetailed the Joseph and Judah traditions.[8] Derek Kidner points out that the insertion of chapter 38 “creates suspense for the reader”,[9] but Robert Alter goes further and suggests it is a result of the “brilliant splicing of sources by a literary artist.” He notes that the same verb “identify” will play “a crucial thematic role in the dénouement of the Joseph story when he confronts his brothers in Egypt, he recognizing them, they failing to recognize him.”[10]

J. A. Emerton also suggests that the Judah and Tamar narrative contains “aetiological motifs concerned with the eponymous ancestors of the clans of Judah.’[11] Emerton notes that Dillman and Noth considered the account of the deaths of Er and Onan to “reflect the dying out of two clans of Judah bearing their names, or at least of their failure to maintain a separate existence.” However, this view was “trenchantly criticized” by Thomas L. Thompson.[11]

Jewish views

Aert de Gelder, Tamar and Judah, 1667

According to the Talmud, Judah’s confession of guilt itself atoned for some of his prior faults, and resulted in his being divinely rewarded by a share in the future world.[12] The Talmud also suggests that Tamar’s actions were for the purpose of avoiding Judah’s humiliation,[13][14] although the Genesis Rabbah portrays her as boastful and unashamed in regard to the pregnancy itself.[15]

Both the Genesis Rabbah and Talmud state that Tamar was an Israelite,[16][17] and that Judah ended up marrying her and had further sexual liaisons with her as a result.[18]

Frymer-Kensky finds Tamar’s traits of assertiveness in action, willingness to be unconventional, and deep loyalty to family to be qualities that distinguish her descendant, King David.[4]

According to Legends of the Jews, Tamar was endowed with a prophetic gift which allowed her to know the future of her descendants. From this gift, she knew that she would be the ancestress of royal line of David and mighty prophets. While she was standing in gate of Timnah and wearing a veil; Judah, who was intoxicated from wine that twisted his understanding away,[19] came to her. After that, he left her with three symbolical pledges; his staff, the stay of Tribe of Judah; his mantle, representation of his strength; and his signet-diadem, the glory of kingdom of Judah.[20] When her state became known, Tamar was dragged before the court, in which IsaacJacob, and Judah as the judges.

As a judge, Judah gave a decision that Tamar was liable to the death penalty by burning according to the law, for she was the daughter of the high priest (Shem) who was accused of leading an unchaste demeanor. After Tamar showed the three pledges from the man who came to her, Judah’s countenance grew pale to green color when he publicly confessed his relationship with her.[21]

Christian views

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judah and Tamar are ancestors of Jesus through their son Perez. (Matthew 1:1–3)

The section of verses continues on with the story of Tamar giving birth to twins. From The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 27:

Genesis 38:27

And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb. Cf. the case of Rebekah (Genesis 25:24).

Genesis 38:28

And it came to pass, when she travailed,—literally, in her bringing forth (cf. Genesis 35:17)—that the one put out his hand:—literally, and it (sc. the child) gave a hand, i.e. it was an abnormal and dangerous presentation—and the midwife (vide Genesis 35:17took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.

Genesis 38:29

And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she (i.e. the midwife) said, How hast thou broken forth! this breach be upon thee:—literally, What a breach hast thou made! upon thee, a breach, or, Why hast thou broken forth for thyself a breach (Delitzsch)? or, How hast thou made for thee a breach? (Murphy)—therefore his name was called Pharez—or Breach (cf. Genesis 46:12Numbers 26:201 Chronicles 2:4Matthew 1:3).

Genesis 38:30

And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and hi, name was called Zarah—Splendor.

We have a bit of a strange story here with one of the twins sticking his hand out first, getting marked with a scarlet thread to indicate that he is first, then pulling his hand and scarf back in and letting his brother actually be born first.

There is some meaning to be drawn from the name of the baby with the scarlet thread. From Ellicott:

(30) Zarah.—Heb., the rising, especially of the sun. There is in the name an allusion to the red streak placed (upon the child’s hand.

We return to the story of Joseph in Chapter 39.