[I've been presenting summaries of discussions in a group I convene at our church on Tuesday evenings. We're looking at the Old Testament book of Genesis. All the quoted Bible passages below come from The Message by Eugene Peterson.]
1. Genesis 38 is one of those places to which scholars point as evidence that a long oral tradition, usually thought to have come from four different sources, was brought together by a later editor, not always seamlessly.
Some are troubled by this notion. But I think that we have to assume that the editors who pulled these various strands of the Patriarchal History, the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ancestors of ancient Israel, together were not unaware of these seams and that they allowed them to remain, no matter the seeming inconsistencies. They did so for the sake of showing us different realities about God, God's grace, and God's people.
2. But personally, the excursion we take in Genesis 38 seems as irrelevant to me as the genealogy of Genesis 36. This seems especially so because we've been introduced to the compelling Joseph saga and then abruptly, find ourselves interrupted by the story of Joseph's brother, Judah.
Some scholars suggest that this abrupt intrusion heightens the suspense and interest in the Joseph story. It does have that effect.
3. To understand what happens in chapter 38, you need to know about levirate marriages. Under this system, if a married man died before fathering a male heir, the next oldest unmarried son in the deceased man's family was obligated to marry his brother's widow. The first son they produced would then fall heir to the late man's property. (Only the eldest son inherited property.)
4. Judah's oldest son is said to have "greivously offended God" and lost its life for it. Judah then instructed the next of his sons to sleep with his brother's widow. "But Onan knew that the child wouldn't be his," we're told, "so whenever he slept with his brother's widow he spilled his semen on the ground so he wouldn't produce a child for his brother." Genesis tells us that God was displeased with what Onan did and he too, died.
5. Judah's next son, Shelah, was much younger than the others. Judah told Tamar to live as a widow until the boy grew to manhood. But, fearful that Tamar (whose name means Palm) was bad luck and would prove fatal to yet another of his sons, Judah didn't fulfill his promise to provide his widowed daughter-in-law with a husband.
6. This is when Tamar concocted a plot. In ancient Hebrew culture, almost every life event and profession had its own peculiar attire, far more than is true today. Tamar had been dressed in the attire of a widow. She cast that aside and put on the veil of a prostitute. Her anonymity allowed her to spring a trap on Judah.
Another common practice those days, not among the Hebrews, but among the multiplicity of other religions practiced in the region, there were some that legitimized the practice of religious prostitution. As bizarre as it seems to us, there was an idea that consorting with such prostitutes was a sacred act. (See here.)
7. Of course, when the now-widowed Judah meets the woman he takes to be a prostitute at a sacred site, religion is far from his mind.
Tamar exacts a pledge of payment from Judah, his "seal-and-cord," or his signet, and his staff. As Gerhard von Rad notes, "The objective value of the two objects may have been small, and what could such a woman do with the signet of a strange man! But for Tamar the pledge was invaluable because it bound Judah quite personally to her." Von Rad goes on to explain "Herodotus says...that every Babylonian [of the era] carried a signet ring and a skillfully carved staff...; in Israel it can only have been the sign of a well-to-do-man, of a fine lord."
The seal, von Rad also says, was "a small cylinder that one rolled over the soft clay documents and wore on a cord around one's neck."
With these objects as blackmail, the relatively powerless Tamar hoped to force Judah into meeting his obligations under the provisions of the levirate marriage custom.
Judah was surprised to learn that when he sent his friend to recover his pledge and remit his payment, there was no prostitute "by the road near Enaim" and never had been. Surprised or not, Judah doesn't think anything more of it. He didn't care if the prostitute had his signet and staff.
8. Three months later, Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. He was outraged. Tamar was a member of Judah's household and as such, it was thought that he was, with the legitimization of witnesses from the community, able to execute judgment against her. Some Old Testament law provided that women caught in prostitution could be burned to death and others proscribed stoning. Judah was intent on burning Tamar!
(An interesting sidebar for us in light of contemporary discussions about abortion is that in his resolve to burn Tamar for whoredom, the only evidence for which was her pregnancy, Judah apparently gives no thought at all to whether it would be right to bring death to the child in her womb.)
9. In the midst of his righteous indignation, Tamar calmly sends a message to Judah: "I'm pregnant by the man who owns these things. Identify them please. Who's the owner of the seal-and-cord and the staff?"
Presented with this incriminating evidence, Judah says that Tamar was in the right and he had been wrong to withhold his youngest son from her.
10. After the improbable tale of the birth that follows, the story ends abruptly.
Is there some value to this story? Maybe it's this: God can work in the lives of imperfect people. The tribe of Judah would go on to play an important role in Israel's history. You could look it up.