Judah was Jacob’s fourth son by Leah. He must have been persuasive for it is his voice his brothers heed in selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:1-28). After this episode, Judah—perhaps out of guilt?—moves away from his brothers and settles near a Canaanite friend named Hirah (Genesis 38:1).
While there, Judah meets and marries a foreign woman and their union produces three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er becomes of age, Judah arranges his marriage to a Canaanite woman named Tamar. Er however is so wicked that God brings about his death in order to remove him from His sight (Genesis 38:7). Fearsome!
But how did Er’s wickedness manifest itself? What was it like to be married to such a man? How did he treat Tamar? Did she fear him? Did she love him? Did she grieve from the heart at his passing or was there relief?
One thing we do know for certain is that, as first born, Er had the birthright to Judah’s inheritance. So whatever the treatment, Tamar at least had some security as the wife of Judah’s future heir. And this might have been a significant inheritance for we’re later told that Judah possessed a signet ring with a cord (Genesis 38:18). These were items that belonged to men of significance. “A prominent man in the ancient Near East endorsed contracts with a cylinder signet he wore on a cord around his neck.”
Certainly, the inheritance was large enough for Onan, Judah’s second son, to want it for himself. In his greed, he spills his semen whenever he sleeps with Tamar so as to avoid an offspring for Er (Genesis 38:8-9). The practice was called a levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) was expected to marry the widow. The first male born of the union would be considered the son and heir of the deceased--and the security of his mother, the widow.
In our story, this meant that, while Onan was now in the position of eldest, the first male child with Tamar would legally receive Er’s birthright and with it, Judah’s inheritance. Thus Onan—in a selfish plot to maintain his new position as first-born while exploiting his new wife—spills his seed, a deplorable act that prompts his death by the will of the LORD (Genesis 38:10). Our God is holy!
Judah however does not see God’s holiness but reckons Tamar as cursed. Fearing for the life of his last remaining son, he instructs Tamar to leave and remain in her father’s household as a widow (Genesis 38:11). Judah promises Shelah as a husband, once grown, but does not keep his word (Genesis 38:12-14).
A daughter was supposed to leave her father’s house and establish life in another family. She was not to return as a childless, poor, bereaved of two husbands, and presumably cursed widow. Oh how the town must have talked about Tamar! To be sure, she was the topic of the rumor mill for weeks: the once wife of Judah’s prominent heir, now a widow in her father’s house with no prospect of a husband or child. You don’t say!
And so Tamar—after the pattern of Eve, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel—takes things into her own hands. She would right the wrong done to her as a result of Judah’s superstition and neglect of duty. And what a choice of she makes! Apparently knowing her father-in-law’s sexual vices, as well as her own ovulation cycle, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sleeps with Judah (Genesis 38:12-19). The plan was to conceive and it works! Without knowing it, Judah, impregnates his daughter-in-law.
And here, the tale begins to baffle. In a short chapter where two people are killed for wicked acts, why does Tamar live? Much more, she is given the gift of not one, but two sons from her encounter with Judah. And Judah, who initially sentences her to death, pardons her and declares her to be more righteous than he (Genesis 38:24-30). Moreover, Tamar’s son Perez is honored and listed in the ancestry of Christ, placing Tamar in the line of the Messiah (Matthew 1:3).
So why are Er and Onan killed while Tamar—and even Judah remain? The answer is the same for another question: why am I promised an eternal place with God in spite of my own wickedness? You see, one day on a hill called Calvary, God placed my sins on the head of a man named Jesus. And so heinous were those sins that God put that man to death, removing Him from His sight. Christ took my place before God!
Know that God is a Perfect Judge. He does not sweep anything under a rug—punishing one transgression yet excusing another. Every sin ever committed will be accounted for and rightly judged. Judgment will either be placed on the sinner or it will be placed on Christ on behalf of those who look to Him for mercy (Romans 8:1-2). So “kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).
*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!
 The MacArthur Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) 72.