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  • Writer's pictureRuss Meek

Levirate Marriage: Why Tamar is More Righteous than Judah in Genesis 38

One evening my wife and I were walking downtown in a small southern town. We crossed the street, swimming through that thick, sticky air that engulfs the South every summer. A homeless man approached us to ask for some cash, and as he told his story he reached his hand toward me to shake my hand. I stared at his hand, then back up at him, and then I put my hands in my pockets and kept walking. This guy wasn’t threatening in any way; he had a kind face and soft voice, didn’t exhibit any aggression. I refused him the dignity of a handshake for the sole reason that he was homeless and I was a professor. I walked away confident in my superior righteousness. If you’re disgusted right now, you should be. I am.

Judah had a similar experience with this daughter-in-law Tamar. Like we talked about in the last column, when Judah found out his daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, he immediately called for her to be burned alive. Tamar sent word to Judah, though, that “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong. . . . Examine them. Whose signet ring, cord, and staff are these?”

They were Judah’s, of course, and rather than self-immolate, he confessed his sin. But, strangely enough, he didn’t confess to the sin of hiring a woman for sex. That’s the confession we certainly expect in our culture, where sexual sins most definitely outrank things like not paying child support or refusing to shake a homeless man’s hand.

Rather, Judah confesses to the sin of not giving his son Shelah to Tamar as a husband. What’s more, and truly bizarre if we don’t understand the ancient Near Eastern context, is that Judah called Tamar “more righteous than I.” What in the world?

In short, Judah refused to care for a widow in his household.

As we’ve looked at before, in ancient Israel families were organized in what’s called “Father’s Houses.” The patriarch of a family was responsible for the well-being of every member of the family, including his sons, their wives, and their children. A woman’s survival in that culture depended on her relationship to a man, whether her father, husband, son, or brother. When a woman married, she left her father’s household and became part of her husband’s household, but that relationship was based on a covenant, not blood, and covenants expire upon death.

So, when Tamar married Er (Judah’s oldest son), she became part of Judah’s household through marriage. Er died without having a son, which meant that Tamar no longer had 1) a protector or provider or 2) any relationship to Judah’s household.

Biblical law provided for a woman in such a situation by requiring the husband’s brother to marry the now-widow and thus reestablish the covenant relationship between the widow and her former husband’s household. Hopefully this marriage would produce a son, who would then carry on the name of the deceased father, not the biological father. However, the biological father would still be responsible for the well-being of the widow and their biological son, even though that son would not grow up to contribute to the new husband’s household in the same way his other sons would. This is called levirate marriage, and it’s complicated.

Love for our neighbor, it seems, is more important than sexual “purity.”

Judah’s middle son, Onan, was happy to have sex with Tamar but did not want to have another child to support, because there would be no return on his “investment.” So he practiced coitus interruptus, and God killed him for his wickedness. Judah, wanting to protect his dwindling household, severed his family’s covenant relationship with Tamar by sending her back to her father’s house. He promised Shelah, his youngest, but had no intentions (it seems) of making good on that promise. In short, Judah refused to care for a widow in his household.

In Israel’s patriarchal culture, it meant that Tamar would be utterly destitute—perhaps even so destitute that she would turn to prostitution to survive. So when Judah says that Tamar is more righteous than he is, he recognizes that his sin of expelling a person whose well-being he was responsible for is more wicked than Tamar’s prostitution. Love for our neighbor, it seems, is more important than sexual “purity.”

Which brings me back to my story about the homeless man whose hand I refused to shake. There are a lot of things wrong with that whole exchange, the biggest being that I have a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and have suffered from mental illness. It’s only by God’s grace that I’m not living on the streets. The second issue is that my self-righteousness blinded me to another person’s humanity. No, it’s not the same as Judah’s refusal to love Tamar, but it’s not all that different either. Even now I want to justify myself—I’m not responsible for a stranger on the street! I know of another guy who reasoned similarly, and Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan to lay bare his interlocutor’s (and my) hypocrisy.

When confronted with his refusal to love Tamar by caring and providing for her, Judah repented. He recognized that her sin of prostitution paled in comparison to his sin of not loving her. I guess I’m hoping that I’ll learn from Judah’s confession and recognize that Jesus was right when he said the second greatest command was to love my neighbor.


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