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Why did Judah say Tamar was “more righteous” than he was?

judah-and-tamar Tamar is the first woman listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ — be sure you look at the right Tamar. (There are three Tamar’s mentioned in Scripture — but this one’s story is in Genesis 38.) You may find this story surprising — especially that Tamar, who poses as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law, is commended, both by him — and later, indirectly, by the women of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:12), and finally, by being the first woman in the genealogy of Christ.

Is God condoning prostitution? Incest?

No. But as you read the story in Genesis 38, let me give you a little background and also a clue in order to help you find the answer to the above question.

Family was extremely important in biblical days — and when a woman’s husband died and left her with no children, God had a way for that husband’s name to not die out. A brother or a near kinsman was to marry her and raise up the first son in the late husband’s name. Tamar knew that. She loved her late husband. She knew that her father-in-law had an obligation to help her carry on her late husband’s name.  Read the story in Genesis 38 with that in mind.

Then, here’s the clue: It’s actually another question — one posed by Jerram Barrs in his book, “Through His Eyes:  God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible.” Dr. Barrs is one of the godliest men I know, a leading professor at Covenant Seminary. His book is one of the best I’ve read on women in the Bible.  After his chapter on Tamar, he asks: “What is your response that righteousness is not about observing a set of rules, of holding to legality, or even simply about keeping a written code of morality, but that righteousness is, at its heart, a matter of proving oneself true in relationships?”

I also recommend Tim Keller’s excellent sermon, titled, simply, “Tamar.” You can find it at the sermon store at redeemer.com — It’s 2.50 to download an MP3.

Read Genesis 38 carefully — with this background and Jerram Barr’s thought-provoking question in mind. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on “Why did Judah say Tamar was “more righteous” than he was?”

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  1. What a thought provoking statement by Jerram Barrs! Why I believe Judah said Tamar was “more righteous” than he was and in pondering Jerram Barrs’ statement, I believe he said that because he failed in his commitment to Tamar. By reneging on his commitment to Tamar, he was “sentencing” her to a bleak futute. In my Bible there is a little commentary and it asks the question, “Why did Tamar prefer to be a single parent rather than a childless widow?” This is the answer it gives: “The shame of barrenness was intense in the ancient Middle East. There was less dishonor in being an unwed mother than in being childless and children provided security for the future. Since the sons born belonged to Judah, Tamar was entitled to benefits from his clan, possibly even a partial inheritance. If Tamar were unable to provide for herself in her old age, her sons would be compelled to provide for her.”

    Relationally, I just think he cared more about himself than he did her.

  2. Oops! When I posted yesterday, I had not taken the time to get my story straight. I said that Tamar was raped by her brother. My face is red. Forgive me for my haste. Kinda speaks of pride again, doesn’t it.

  3. Hi Dee! Hi all!
    Wow, that is an amazing statement – really makes you think! I think about being “true in relationship.” Then, I was thinking what does that mean? I was thinking of the “normal” things, like Jesus said, love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself. And the verse that says something like, “Love does no wrong to his neighbor”. Jesus said all the law and the commandments are tied up in these two commandments. But then I was perhaps thinking a bit deeper, asking myself, what does it mean to be “true in relationship”? There is a lot to think about in that statement – that goes deeper than just a casual thought.

  4. The word “righteous” used to bother me a lot. It always seemed to be an unattainable state of saintliness, far beyond my reach. Then somewhere in my reading I found righteous defined as being right with God. The explanation had to do with relationship, being in right relationship with God. That gave the word a whole new meaning for me. I can be in right relationship with God even when I’m wrong. Actually I can probably be in a more right reltionship with God when I’ve done something wrong and acknowledged it, asked for forgiveness, and set out to right the wrong, seeking God’s help in the task.

    Judah was quick to judge Tamar as a pregnant prostitute even though he had no reason to think this of her. He succumbed to peer pressure rather than rely on his personal experience of his daughter-in-law’s behavior. Tamar did not respond in anger, nor did she publically accuse her father-in-law of incest or rape. She allowed him to save face by sending his possessions back to him and letting him make the public declaration. She showed respect to him, a righteousness that he did not extend to her. She was the one in right relationship with God in this event.

  5. The thought that came to my mind, when I read Judah’s harsh response to Tamar – was that maybe he acted so harshly to assuage his own guilt. If Tamar was put to death, then Judah would be free of his responsibility.

  6. I would love your thoughts Dee on what “being true in relationship” means to you. The statement itself is a great statement! Just curious what your thoughts are. Thank you.

  7. Yes Dee, that does make sense! And thank you for your comments! I love your openness and your willingness to look upon your own self. It encourages me to do the same. Thank you!

  8. “True in relationships.” I love that to no end. All of God’s heart is to get us in right or true relationship with ourselves, Him, and others.

    In The Message Bible: He[Judah] said, “She’s in the right; I’m in the wrong–I wouldn’t let her marry my son Shelah.” As Janet H. mentioned, right relationship.

    In this whole story, the beat of being true in relationship is profoundly heard: Tamar submits to her father-in-law and goes and lives with him instead of insisting on marrying Shelah, there is a trust there as well.

    Judah, I felt, felt shame it was his daughter-in-law he had sex with. He could have denied the items were not his, but admits ownership and accounts Tamar as more righteous than him. There, to me is that depth of heart true relationship between two people, rather than the law; I love it that trueness is between a man and a woman; father-in-law and daughter-in-law, which seems to be the more distant of relationships.

    Abraham, even after lying, David, even after committing adultery, both were accounted faithful and a man after God’s own heart. God consistently and constantly is looking not at our sacrifices but our contrite hearts in relationship to Him, ourselves and others.

    Love covers a multitude of sin.

  9. Thanks, Dee. It happens every once in awhile. 🙂

  10. I too was touched by your vulnerability, Dee. We need to remember Timothy didn’t believe Jesus until he was allowed to touch Jesus’ wounds. Thanks all for sharing your wounds and weaknesses which comforts and heals me and others.

  11. The Message reads, “But Onan knew that the child wouldn’t be his, ….”

    To me, this is pride, God gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud. Some translations say “crush” the proud. I’d say Onan was crushed.

    Also, By spilling his seed, Onan had no sense of sacredness on many levels. Not only did he disrespect Tamar when it came to having intercourse, he disrespected God’s heart, and himself, acting like his seed was something which could be wasted. Onan also disrespected his father’s desires and had no sense of living for another or for a future generation. This was just the opposite of being true in relationships.

      1. yep, thanks.

  12. This is a great contrast between obeying the letter of the law as opposed to the law of the heart. Something that stands out to me about how Ruth was true in her relationship with her father in law is that she caused him to do the right thing. Whether her method was right or not the end result was that Judah did the right thing and the line of Christ was preserved. I think it may have been counted to him as righteousness.