Some observations about the story of Tamar and Judah, recorded in Genesis 38, inspired by a lively discussion of the narrative at the Theopolis Regional Course in Dallas last weekend.
1) The chapter has a chiastic structure:
A. Judah’s family, vv 1-5: take wife and conceive; births; replacement of firstborn
B. Sons die: Tamar returns to father’s house, vv 6-10
C. Judah sends Tamar back to father’s house, 11
D. Tamar prepares for her encounter with Judah by disguise as harlot, 12-14
E. Judah and Tamar, 15-18
D’. puts back on her widow’s clothes, 19
C’. Judah can’t find Tamar, 20-23
B’. Tamar pregnant, 24-26: harlotry
A’. Judah’s sons, 27-30: birth of twins: replacement of firstborn
The structure reinforces a fundamental theme of the chapter, the death and rebirth of the line of Judah. Judah’s line dies several times at the beginning of the chapter (as it does in the related genealogy in 1 Chronicles 2), but is finally revived.
Importantly, it’s revived by the incorporation of an outsider, Tamar, who is never identified as such but appears to be a Gentile (the same pattern reappears in Ruth and 1 Chronicles). The royal line rises from the dead only when the nations are incorporated.
2) Tamar’s deception is parallel to Rebekah’s deception of her husband Isaac. In both cases, a woman deceives an erring man in order to set him on track (see James Jordan’s comments on Rebekah in Primeval Saints).
Judah is a cad throughout the chapter. He separates from his brothers and marries a Canaanite. He mistreats Tamar at multiple levels. He denies Tamar marriage to his youngest son, Shelah. He sends her back to her father’s house, and treats her as if he has no obligation to her. Tamar not only loses husbands and the possibility of children, but the inheritance that should be hers through Judah’s sons. She is excluded from Israel’s line of descent, which seems to have been important to her. Why doesn’t Judah know his own daughter-in-law? Because he is, narratively if not literally, as blind as Isaac.
Tamar is clearly more concerned about the future of Judah’s family than Judah is. His ancestry is stillborn, but he does nothing to correct the situation. Tamar has to take things into her own hands, deceiving Judah into fulfilling his obligation to provide a seed for her and forcing him to recognize his sin. His confession “She is more righteous than I” shows that he, like Isaac, acknowledges his sin. He recognizes that he was responsible for ensuring that she had children, and Tamar has arranged things so that he fulfills this obligation in the most direct way imaginable. It’s a foreshadowing of Judah’s later transformation, from a brother-persecutor of Joseph to a brother-substitute for Benjamin.
3) Tamar’s conduct is scandalous; it’s not an example for women to follow! But Judah is right to judge her righteous. She’s a female Jacob, cunningly pursuing what is rightfully hers, cunningly seeking a place in the line of Israel’s kings. Her ploy is successful, as she secures a place in the ancestry of the Messiah (Matthew 1).
Typologically, she resembles the Bride of the Song of Songs, who seeks her lover in the streets, looking for all the world like Lady Folly of Proverbs. She is not a harlot, but she impersonates a harlot in pursuit of covenant blessing. She is willing to be mistaken for a prostitute, as Jacob was willing to disguise himself as Esau, if that was necessary for the fulfillment of promise.