I’m so glad you asked! 🙂
This is another Bible story that confused me as a kid. In fact, the Old Testament is chalk full of Bible stories like Judah and Tamar–the ones that make you wonder why they’re in there and what we’re supposed to learn from them. Are we supposed to emulate the behavior of Judah when it seems he’s making poor choices? I mean really, what’s the deal?
Well, when you think about the Old Testament as foreshadowing/history of the coming Messiah, then it becomes a bit more clear.
One of the things the OT does is to track the line of the Messiah. God chose Noah, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob to his receive His blessing and His promise to make a great nation out of them. So which child of Jacob’s will be chosen?
To put the story in perspective, we have to go back to Leah. Remember Leah? She was the one her father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying when he had worked seven years to marry her younger sister, Rachel, the one with the “lovely figure” (Gen 29:17). (We might be tempted to feel sorry for Jacob, but it’s probably a what-comes-around-goes-around for having tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright/blessing.) The key is that God took pity on Leah and allowed her to have children first. “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he enabled her to have children, but Rachel count not conceive” (Gen 29:31). In fact, Leah had four sons before the whole “here, sleep with my handmaiden” war started. Since Leah’s sons were oldest, they we first in line to receive the birthright and blessing (think Jacob and Esau).
The oldest son, Reuben, took himself out of contention: “While he was living there, Reuben had intercourse with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Jacob soon heard about it.” ~Genesis 35:22 So Jacob’s blessing to his son was: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength, the child of my vigorous youth. You are first in rank and first in power. But you are as unruly as a flood, and you will be first no longer. For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch.” ~Genesis 49:3-4
The next two oldest, Simeon and Levi, made mistakes as well. They killed all the men of Shechem and plundered the town because of what happened to their sister, Dinah (Genesis 45). Because of this, Jacob’s blessing for them was: “Simeon and Levi are two of a kind; their weapons are instruments of violence. May I never join in their meetings; may I never be a party to their plans. For in their anger they murdered men, and they crippled oxen just for sport. A curse on their anger, for it is fierce; a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel. I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob; I will disperse them throughout Israel.” ~Genesis 49:5-7
So the next in line was Judah. He wasn’t taken out of the running, although he was no golden child. He sold his brother into slavery (Gen 37), he raised a couple of wicked sons (Gen 38), and then he broke his promise to Tamar (Gen 38). Yet, Judah earned Jacob’s blessing. Why?
It seems the story of Tamar is the turning point in the life of Judah. God killed Er, Judah’s oldest son after he married Tamar because he was wicked (Gen 38:7). Then Judah gave Tamar to his second oldest son, Onan, whom God killed for refusing to get Tamar pregnant (Gen 38:9-10). Both these men were in line for God’s blessing and the line of the Messiah. We don’t know what Er did that was wicked, but we do know what Onan (the second son did). By refusing to have a child with Tamar, Onan essentially told God that he didn’t want His blessing. Contrast that to Jacob, who wanted God’s blessing so badly that he lied and tricked his father and brother in order to get it.
At this point, Judah doesn’t want his last son to have anything to do with Tamar because he doesn’t want him to die too. (Faulty logic on his part). So he sends Tamar away with the false promise of an eventual marriage. When Tamar realizes that Judah has no plan to marry her to his youngest son, she takes matters into her own hands and tricks Judah into getting her pregnant. Like Jacob, Tamar used trickery to secure an offspring for Judah and the blessing of God. When Judah finds out what she has done, he recognizes that her actions were more righteous than his own. She did everything she could to secure the line of the promised Messiah, while Judah did everything he could to prevent it.
So, this little story in the middle of the story of Joseph’s has its purpose. After Tamar has twin sons, Judah is no longer the same man. He becomes a patriarch we can respect and is rewarded by his father with God’s blessing (Genesis 49:8-12, NLT):
8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you.
You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
All your relatives will bow before you.
9 Judah, my son, is a young lion
that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
the one whom all nations will honor.
11 He ties his foal to a grapevine,
the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth are whiter than milk.