Sleeping with a prostitute part 2: Genesis 38:15-26

In payment for Tamar’s services Judah offers her a young goat (38:17). The expression, “kid from the goats” here is idiomatic Hebrew, but the mention of a goat may recall how Judah and his brothers slaughtered a goat (in that case, belonging to their father’s livestock) to cover Joseph’s disappearance (37:31). No goat, however, will cover Judah’s sin here. That Tamar asks a pledge to guarantee Judah’s promise may have taken him aback (38:17), but Tamar has good reason to secure evidence. Judah has already shown his promises to be unreliable on even more urgent matters by not providing Shelah to Tamar (38:14). (It’s always prudent to be able to document abuse.)

When Judah sends the kid and his friend does not find the prostitute (38:20-22), Judah lets her keep his staff and seal, which would be worth less to her (though not necessarily to him) than the goat. He fears being ridiculed if they keep looking (38:23). It is possible that Judah’s fear of ridicule is partly embarrassment that the prostitute tricked him into giving her his identifying marks. It is also likely, however, that he does not want it to be widely known that he had slept with a prostitute, evidence of which act she now possesses. Even though Judah does not share the scruples articulated later in Scripture, he recognizes the shame in his behavior. Meanwhile, Tamar has taken a big risk. She now had his signet, cord and staff but if she does not conceive and bear a son her ruse will fail. Yet even her pregnancy will constitute a large risk: can she shame her father-in-law into responding justly?

Tamar does conceive, and when Judah learns that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he demands that she be burned for her offense (38:24). Her death would conveniently resolve his obligation to send his son Shelah to her, but it also probably upheld an honor code (cf. later burning of a priest’s daughter for desecrating his ministry by prostitution, Lev 21:9). Judah wanted no one to know about his own escapades (38:23), but he was especially ashamed to learn of escapades by a female member of his household.

Tamar had, after all, married into his household; that was why he had sent Onan to raise up an heir for his older brother, so that Tamar’s son would receive the firstborn’s inheritance. Undoubtedly Judah and Er had paid a steep bride price for this woman, and she was a woman of status, making alternative arrangements difficult. Yet Judah, though disposing of her like a member of his household, had sent her back to her father’s household (38:11), undoubtedly shaming her. The rest of the narrative will underline the hypocrisy of Judah’s gender-based double standard.

Thus Tamar sends to Judah his staff, cord and signet ring, thereby revealing that he was the one who had impregnated his daughter-in-law, believing her to be a prostitute. Tamar’s invitation to Judah to “examine” the tokens in 38:25 may evoke for the reader Jacob’s sons callously inviting him to “examine” Joseph’s bloodied robe in 37:32. Because Judah, who participated in deceiving his father, experiences deception, he is confronted with his own sin (38:26). Such painful confrontations, however, can help make us better people: Judah does change (see 44:33-34). Judah’s sexual sin contrasts starkly with Joseph’s refusal to sin in the next chapter of Genesis, the subject of our next lesson. (See also

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