February 28, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The story of Judah and Tamar

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Before I write about the great masterpiece in Genesis about Joseph and his brothers, let me cover Chapter 38, which is inserted in the story but has nothing to do with Joseph. It’s an important chapter, though, for several reasons.

It tells the story of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons, who married a Canaanite woman with whom he had three sons—Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er grew up, he married a woman named Tamar.

Then Er died. Jacob told Onan to marry Tamar, following the ancient Israelites’ “law of the levirate” that required the deceased man’s brother to have children with the widow to preserve the deceased man’s line.

That law still existed in New Testament time when Sadducees questioned Jesus about the resurrection of the body by using the law of the levirate. In their test of Jesus, they said that seven brothers married the woman and asked whose wife she would be at the resurrection. (See Mt 22:23-33.)

Onan married Tamar. However, knowing that any children they had would be considered his brother’s and not his, “whenever he had relations with his brother’s widow, he wasted his seed on the ground, to avoid contributing offspring for his brother” (Gn 38:9). Because that act greatly offended God, Genesis says, the Lord took his life, as he had done to Er.

One of the reasons sometimes given for the Church condemnation of contraception was this so-called “sin of Onan,” although in this case it seems that God took his life because of Onan’s violation of the law of the levirate rather than the means he used.

Judah, fearing that his third son, Shelah, might also die if he married Tamar, told Tamar to remain a widow. Years passed, and Judah’s wife died.

One day, Tamar learned that Judah was going someplace, so she veiled her face and sat by the roadside. Judah thought she was a harlot and propositioned her. He promised her a kid from his flock if she would have intercourse with him. She agreed, provided that Judah would leave his seal, cord and staff as a pledge until she received the kid.

Later, when Judah tried to send the kid, the prostitute could not be found.

Three months later, Judah learned that Tamar was pregnant. Indignantly, he demanded that she be brought out and burned. Then Tamar sent word to her father-in-law that she was with child by the man whose seal, cord and staff she displayed. Judah conceded that Tamar was more in the right than he was.

When Tamar gave birth, she had twins whom she named Perez and Zerah.

This episode is important because the Gospel of St. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus and it includes this line: “Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Mt 1:3).

Tamar is one of four women in the genealogy—the others are Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba—all of whom were considered aliens by the Israelites, and who bore sons in strange and unexpected ways. †

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