Genesis 38:1-30 – The Righteousness of Tamar


Genesis 38:1-30


This story of Judah provides a remarkable witness to the faithfulness of Tamar, the wife of Judah’s son.


This story interrupts the story of Joseph’s enslavement by his brothers, creating suspense as to Joseph’s fate. The narrative focuses on Judah. He marries an unnamed Canaanite woman and fathers three sons by her. One of his sons (Er) marries a woman named Tamar; she is probably a Canaanite as well. After the wicked Er is put to death, Judah directs his second son, Onan, to perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her in order to raise up an heir for Er (levirate marriage; see also the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Onan sabotages this responsibility, and he is put to death as well. Judah should have directed his third son, Shelah, to assume this responsibility, but refuses to do so, a development that Tamar does not take lightly.

The death of Judah’s wife provides an opportunity for Tamar to find a way to bear a son for her deceased husband. She disguises herself, places herself along a road that she knows Judah will take, and he treats her like a prostitute. Before she allows Judah to have his way with her, she exacts a price (identifiable possessions). When Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah, he applies a double standard and assumes the role of judge, exacting the death penalty. Tamar proceeds to produce Judah’s possessions and catches him in the lie. Judah responds magnanimously and speaks of Tamar as being more righteous than he in the way she has responded to the situation (38:26).

Why would the word “righteous” (a better translation than NRSV’s “in the right”) be used for Tamar, given her behavior? Judah recognizes that her concern to provide an heir for her deceased husband was a proper way for her to “do justice” to the relationship (hence righteous; see 18:19). Tamar’s actions cannot be universalized so as to be declared righteous whenever it is committed, but she demonstrates that it may be necessary to go beyond the law in order to fulfill the law and thereby enable the well-being of a community (compare Jesus’ sabbath-breaking, Mark 2:27). Tamar was resourceful, working in and through her gifts (God does not directly act), and found a way into a more hopeful future. Among the descendants of one of her sons (Perez) is David (see Matthew 1:3).