Redemption seeded in a fallen world.
It may seem strange to us to read this sordid sub plot in the midst of the majestic redemptive narrative concerning Yosef and his brothers. We may even conclude that it seems out of place, even irrelevant. However, as is the case throughout the Torah, these words affect a greater understanding of the meta-narrative. The account of Judah and Tamar sheds light on the dynamics of Yaakov’s family and specifically reveal Judah’s poor spiritual health. The previous chapter shows us that Judah had become the de-facto leader of the sons of Yaakov. He has now parted company with his brothers of his own fruition and has sought out a heathen wife.
All of this serves to show the unworthiness of Judah to lead Yisrael at this point in her journey. The Patriarchs Avraham and Yitzchak gave their families into the hands of chosen younger sons, now Yaakov’s family will also be led by someone other than the first–born (Yosef). Time and again God uses the small, the young, the weak and the hated, to bring about His redemptive purpose for His beloved children.
As tragic as this story is, it ends with a scarlet sign of redemption. A symbol of blood that will permeate the historical narrative of Israel. A son will break out (Perez) from the womb of his mother and the line of Judah. And as a result a greater Son will be born to the Davidic line. A Son Who will break out from the womb of the earth bringing the dawn of eternity to humanity (Zerah).
38:1 And it came to pass at that time Y’hudah (Praise) went down from his brothers and he vayit stretched out (camped) near an Adulami (Justice of my people) man, whose name was Chirah (Noble family, from charar: old, white hair).
Adulam is thought to be approximately 13 km south west of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 11:5, 7).
We should ask why Judah left the company of his brothers and what spiritual significance this might have. Yosef was forced to leave but Judah chose to leave. We have established from the previous chapter that Judah had become the leader of the brothers (Gen. 37:26-27). Therefore, by leaving them he was in effect, despising his new found birth right (Esau). Or, at very least, he was despising his position of authority over his brothers.
2 There Y’hudah (Praise) saw the daughter of a K’naani (Lowlander) man whose name was Shua (Wealth, cry for help), and he took her (Shua’s daughter Gen. 38:12) as wife and slept with her.
Shua was from Adulam, and was probably an idolater. Why then did Judah take his daughter as a wife, knowing that his family were to be set apart unto HaShem?
Judah’s actions are in stark contrast to those of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, all of whom married women from their own ancestral land. While a number of Orthodox Jewish commentators interpret “K’naani” to mean “Merchant”, there is no textual reason for this translation. It is simply motivated by a desire to show Judah in a more saintly light than is reasonable. Judah is not chosen because he is perfect but because God has decided to work out His plan of redemption through him. This is the core message of the Gospel of our Mashiyach.
3 Then she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and he named him Er (Awake, arose, incite, laid bare) 4 She became pregnant again and gave birth to a son, and she named him Onan (Strong, vigorous from a root meaning sorrow, loss). 5 She gave birth to yet another son and she called him Shelah (Petition, request, demand). He was in Cheziv (false, to lie, deception) when she gave birth to him.
Targum Yonatan says Er was so named, "because he should die without children;'' the Targum links the name Er to Ariri, "childless". The same Targum says that Onan was so named, "because his father would mourn for him;'' In other words, he was a Ben-oni (Gen. 35:18), a son of my failing strength.
Shelah can signify tranquillity, quietness, and is a word that comes from the same root as Shiloh (Gen. 49:10). Targum Yonatan suggests that he is given this name,"because her (Daughter of Shua) husband forgot her:"
Cheziv [approx. 8km west of Adulam) has been linked to the city of Achiziv (Micah 1:14; Joshua 15:44), apparently a city of the tribe of Judah, part of her allotted inheritance among the tribes of Israel. “The men of Kozeba (Cheziv)” are descendants of Shelah son of Judah (1 Chronicles 4:21-22)
The text mentions only Shelah’s place of birth. It seems that this is done for two reasons. First, Shelah is the only one of the three sons who will remain on the earth long enough to produce progeny. Second, Cheziv means “deception”, and is possibly an allusion to the deception Y’hudah will perpetrate against Tamar regarding the possibility of her marrying his son Shelah, who is linked to deception (Cheziv) at his birth.
6 Then Y’hudah (Praise) got a wife for Er (Awake, arose, incite, laid bare), his firstborn, and her name was Tamar (Date palm) 7 But Er (Awake, arose, incite, laid bare), Y’hudah’s (Praise) firstborn, was evil in the eyes of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy), so HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) put him to death.
Er is said to be evil (raah), meaning all his deeds were evil in HaShem’s eyes. In other words, God saw the intention of his heart and it was set on evil. The Hebrew raah (evil) is used in a similar way to describe the men of Sodom (Gen. 13:13). This gives us a good idea of the extent of Er’s wickedness.
Targum Yonatan suggests that Tamar is a daughter of Shem (Bereishit Rabbah 85:10) If “daughter” here is understood in the Hebraic sense, then it can refer to a granddaughter or great granddaughter, making this a possibility at least.
8 Then Y’hudah (Praise) said to Onan (Strong, vigorous), go to your brother’s wife to perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up a seed for your brother. 9 But Onan (Strong, vigorous) knew that the seed would not be his. So every time he went to his brother’s wife he would shicheit destroy, allow his seed to decay on the ground so as not to provide a seed for his brother.
The duty to provide offspring is illuminated in the Torah (Deut. 25:5-10), and is known by the term levirate: a word taken from the Latin Levir meaning brother-in-law. The name and family honour of Israel came through the father’s line, which meant that to provide a man with progeny was of the utmost importance in ancient Hebrew culture. Those questioning the Mashiyach in Matthew 22:24 are alluding to this obligation as recorded in the Torah. The associated practice of chalitzah is revealed in the story of Ruth (2:20, 3:12, and 4:5). This exception regarding the Kinsman Redeemer was a halakhic practise employed when all the eligible sons were dead or unable to fulfil the levirate obligation.
Onan’s sin was his failure to provide his brother with an heir upon the earth. HaShem takes this very seriously as can be seen from the subsequent punishment. This is because failure to provide for the continuation of a man’s name was, at this time in history, proof of a desire to see his identity and memory snuffed out completely. In the case of a family member, this was one of the worst forms of sin. The naming and recording of ancestors is a picture of the eternal and speaks to generational blessing and curse. More importantly, by refusing to produce this particular heir, both Er and Onan were (albeit unknowingly) intentionally seeking to prevent the line of the Davidic dynasty and the coming Mashiyach (Matt. 1:3).
10 What he did was evil in HaShem’s (YHVH: Mercy) eyes, so He put him to death also.
While his older brother Er was evil (to the core), the text says that what Onan did was evil. This is a subtle but important distinction.
11 Then Y’hudah (Praise) said to his daughter-in-law Tamar (Date palm), “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah (Petition, request, demand) grows up,” because he thought, “Otherwise he too might die, like his brothers.” So Tamar (Date palm) went and stayed in her father’s house.
Shelah is obviously already sexually mature, or Judah (whose reason for asking Tamar to wait was the fear that his third son would also die) wouldn’t have asked Tamar to wait. By saying, “wait until my son has grown up” Judah is making it clear to Tamar that he has no intention of allowing her to marry his youngest son. This based on superstition. Judah, like so many others before and after him, has decided to place the blame for his sons’ deaths on Tamar. This shows Judah’s own lack of faith in HaShem at this point in his journey, and his unwillingness to accept that his sons have been acting wickedly. Ironically, Judah’s youngest son Shelah (Request, demand, Petition) was born in Chizev, a place of deceit and falseness.
“Went to her father’s house” means that she left the camp of Judah and returned to live with her father in their family camp/township. This would have been considered extremely shameful. Tamar had not provided children for her husband according to societal norms, nor had she been accepted as a fit bride for the youngest son, an expected union that could only be refused if the woman concerned had been unfaithful or the son was incapable of procreation. Tamar remained bound to Judah’s family as a widow in perpetual betrothal according to ancient custom. Therefore, any attempt by Tamar to have sexual relations with anyone other than Judah’s son would be considered adultery.
The loss of his two sons and Judah’s unwillingness to let his son Shelah enter into harm’s way is a foreshadowing of Yaakov’s withholding of Benjamin after the perceived loss of both Yosef and Simeon (Gen. 42:36-38).
12 Now many days passed, and Shua’s (Wealth, cry for help) daughter, Y’hudah’s wife, died. After Y’hudah consoled himself, he went up to shear his sheep, he and his friend Chirah (Noble family, from charar: old, white hair) the Adulami (Justice of my people) at Timnatah (portion, to count, recon, number).
Timnatah is a city that will later belong to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:57).
13 Then Tamar (Date palm) was told, “Look! Your father-in-law is going up to Timnatah (portion, to count, reckon, number) to shear his flocks.”
Judah would probably have to travel past the encampment of his daughter-in-law on his way from Adulam to Timnatah in the north.
14 And she removed her widow’s clothes from herself, covered herself with a veil, wrapped herself, and sat by the entrance to Eiynayim (Two springs, eyes) on the way to Timnatah [portion, to count, reckon, number] (for she saw that Shelah [Petition, request, demand] had grown up and she had not been given to him as a wife).
Like Yaakov (Gen. 27) before her, Tamar had been denied her legal rights and being bound by betrothal to Judah’s family, is left with no other option but to seek out her father-in-law. She positions herself at the entrance to Eiynayim, a town in the lowlands of Judah (territory), which probably had two natural springs (as per the name) [Ibn Ezra].
Targum of Yonatan paraphrases this verse to read, "In the division of the ways where all eyes look (Eiynayim)”: understanding Eiynayim from its root ayin (eye).
As previously explained, Shelah had been of marrying age since the time of the death of Onan. He was now obviously grown and probably already being matched to another bride.
15 When Y’hudah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute because she had covered her face.
In spite of the protests of a number of scholars, the plan meaning of the text is clear. It is because of Tamar’s covered face that Judah presumes she is a prostitute.
This ancient form of attire, warn by prostitutes of the east, was a means of objectifying and demeaning women, while at the same time causing the imagination to wander; creating an intoxicating lure.
16 So he vayit stretched out (camped), turned aside to her along the way and said, “Please let me come in toward you (have sex with you)” (for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law). “What,” she asked, “will you give me to come in toward me?”
The Hebrew “vayit” meaning to stretch out, is used in verse 1 to refer to the fact that Judah camped, that is, pitched his tent. It is possible that this is the intended meaning here. He wasn’t just engaging in a passing fancy, he was being intentional, devoting the night to his sexual conquest. He obviously didn’t see Tamar unveiled in the daylight, however, due to her use of the veil, he may have stayed several days and still not had an opportunity to recognize her. One recalls the equally difficult circumstances of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19).
The phrase, “He turned aside to her on the way” offers a poignant drash. When we have been set a righteous goal, we should not turn aside from the way in order to pursue an unrighteous distraction.
“What will you give me?” is not a petition for money or payment, although this is the way Judah understood it at the time. Tamar was seeking symbols of Judah’s identity because it was her intention from the beginning to provide progeny for her husband’s name, a righteous desire, though technically it was not a righteous act. A harlot is identified by the intention of her heart, she sells what is sacred for temporary gain. Tamar does not qualify as a harlot in the traditional sense because she is seeking eternal gain and has been forced to sacrifice that which is sacred in order to achieve her goal.
17 “I will send you a young goat from the flock,” he said,
“Provided you give a pledge until you send it,” she said.
18 “What kind of pledge shall I give you?” he asked.
“Your seal (ring), and your p’tilecha garment (Thread, bracelet, cord, twisted), and your tribal staff in your hand,” she said. So he gave them to her and he came in toward her, and she got pregnant by him.
My translation follows Yarchi and Ben Melech and Targum Yonatan, which understand p’tilech to mean cloak. If this is the correct translation, Judah’s giving away of his cloak is antithesis to Joseph’s cloak being taken from him. In the case of Judah, he despises the cloak of his authority (Like Esau).
All three items were symbolic of Y’hudah and his household. They were signs of his tribe and his familial authority.
It is because of this pregnancy that Tamar is found in the genealogy of the Messiah (Matt. 1:3), along with another woman considered to be a prostitute, Rahab (Joshua 6: Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25; Matt. 1:5). Thus, like Rahab, Tamar is justified by faith in the purposes of God and not remembered for her sin.
19 After she got up and left, she removed her veil from herself and put on her widow’s clothes.
Note that a number of years have passed, so many that Shelah has grown much older. Tamar has been wearing her widow’s cloths the entire time, with the exception of this short period where she seeks out Y’hudah. This devotion to Judah’s family shows the righteous character of this woman, who will become one of only five women mentioned in the genealogy of the Messiah (Bathsheba being mentioned but unnamed).
20 When Y’hudah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adulami (Justice of my people) to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he could not find her. 21 He asked the men of her area saying, “Where is ha-k’deishah the (Sanctified, temple, cult) prostitute? She was at the springs along the way.”
But they said, “There hasn’t been a k’deishah temple/cult prostitute here.”
The reason she had been at the springs along the way was probably because of the ease of washing up following the act.
Notice that Y’hudah had thought Tamar to be a devotee to an idolatrous cult, a holy prostitute. The word k’deishah comes from the root kadash, meaning to consecrate, sanctify etc. In this case Y’hudah slept with Tamar thinking she was the devoted prostitute of a heathen deity. This sheds light on the extreme lack of integrity and low spiritual state of Y’hudah at the time of these events. Alternatively, given than a number of scholars who believe cult prostitution was not practiced at this time, we can understand the Hebrew text to infer that this union, because it will bring about the line of David and the birth of the Messiah, is a K’deishah (holy, sanctified) union, in spite of the way it was consummated. Redemption seeded in a fallen world.
22 So he returned to Y’hudah and said, “I couldn’t find her, and the people of that place also said, ‘There hasn’t been a k’deishah (Sanctified, temple, cult) prostitute here.’” 23 Then Y’hudah said, “Let her take them for herself, or we’ll be held in contempt. Behold, I did send this young goat, but you couldn’t find her.”
Judah was afraid of being held in moral contempt, not only by his own family but also by the surrounding peoples, Chirah included. This is an acknowledgement by him that even among the Godless peoples what he has done would be considered immoral.
24 About three months later, Y’hudah (Praise) was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar (Date palm) has been a prostitute—look, she’s even pregnant by prostitution.”
“Bring her out!” Y’hudah said, “and let her be burned.”
Targum of Yonatan suggests, Tamar was judged deserving of this death, because she was the daughter (granddaughter) of a priest (Not an Israelite priest); and therefore, comes under the same law recorded in the times of Moses, Lev. 21:9, which calls for the offender to be burned. Both Yarchi and Rashi say that Tamar was the daughter of Shem, who was thought to be the same person as Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God. [Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 4. 1. Rashi, sighting the Midrash]
25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law saying, “I’m pregnant by the man to whom these things belong.” Then she said, “Do you recognize whose these are—the seal (ring), the garment (bracelet, bound thread) and the tribal staff?” 26 Then Y’hudah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I didn’t give her to my son Shelah.” He was not intimate with her again.
Judah did not say, “She is righteous”, thus ignoring the defiling sexual act, rather he said, “She is more righteous than I”. While we may empathize with Tamar’s situation and even honour her tenacity and motivation, we must none the less conclude that even under these circumstances both Judah and Tamar are guilty of a sin which is considered sexual immorality by the Torah (Leviticus 18:15).
The progeny of this relationship serve the redemptive purpose of God because He is able to work all things (even the fruit of sin) together for good to them that love Him, to them who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Both Judah and Tamar will become lovers of God, they are members of the called. They are chosen and will be redeemed.
27 Now when it was time for her to give birth, behold there were twins in her womb. 28 While she was giving birth, one stuck out his hand, and the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it to his hand saying, “This one came out first.”
The significance of the scarlet thread should not be overlooked. It is a sign of the first born and a symbol of blood covenant and redemption. The colour scarlet will continue to play an important part in the symbolism of Israel’s redemption. On her door posts in Egypt, on the wall of Jericho, and at the cross of the Mashiyach. Here, the sacrificial blood comes first but the resurrection (Perez: breaking out, rising) follows.
29 But as he was pulling his hand back in, behold, his brother came out. So she said, “How you have broken through! The breach is because of you.” And he (Y’hudah) named him Perez (Break out, arise). 30 Afterward his brother, on whose hand was the scarlet thread, came out. And he (Y’hudah) named him Zerah (rising, dawning, shinning, and appearing).
From Perez, in a line of succession, the Messiah will break forth, (Micah 2:13; Matt.1:3).
The names Perez and Zerah both contribute to identifying the Messiah. He will be One Who is born of the earth, sheds blood (Scarlet thread), and then is to the earth’s womb [death] (Zerah), only to re-emerge, break out, resurrect, and breach (Perez) death’s prison; to appear shinning as the dawning light (Zerah) of eternal life. It is not difficult to see the correlation with Joseph’s life story.
Having read the account of the birth of Judah’s two sons and realised the redemptive message in their names and the direct link from Perez to David and finally the Messiah, we are able to observe a comparison between Joseph and Judah. Joseph is clearly a type for Messiah and is affirmed in his role as a redeemer in Israel through dreams and events. His apparent death and later, his rise to glory, allude to the life of the coming Messiah, his death and resurrection. All this is taking place over a thousand years before Yeshua’s birth. The birth of Zerah and Perez also tells of the death and resurrection of the Messiah but has the added aspect of physical connection to Yeshua’s genealogy. In Perez is the seed that will make way for the Messiah to be born into humanity. Where Joseph is a type for Messiah, Perez is a literal forebear of the Messiah. It makes sense for these events to be included at this juncture, in order to show that the coming of the Messiah has been firmly decided and will be further illuminated in the outworking of Joseph’s calling.
© Yaakov Brown 2017
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.