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A Righteous Prostitute

Making Things Right: A Step Towards Recognition

What would people say your story is about? An unmarried pregnancy? A secret affair? A financial failure? An abusive and destructive past? A series of unfortunate events? Would that be all they would remember? A guy in the Bible whose story is chuck full of fiasco and scandal isn’t commemorated for the things he did wrong. Instead, he is revered as the forefather of the Davidic Kingship. But, what did this character, Judah, do right? How could he have possibly come out on top after the “incident” with this daughter-in-law, Tamar?

If you aren’t familiar with their story, here is my quick paraphrase (please also read the account in Genesis 38):

Judah had three sons. The first son, Er, married Tamar, but before they could have any children, God took his life because he was evil. His younger brother, Onan, was supposed to give her a child that would be raised as an heir for Er. But, Onan would waste his semen on the ground instead of impregnating her. He also was killed for his wickedness. Judah told Tamar to go live in her father’s house until his last son, Shelah, was old enough to marry her. But, Judah was afraid Shelah would also die if he married Tamar. And so, instead of releasing her from a perpetual state of mourning and waiting, he strung her along.

When Shelah was old enough to marry, Tamar seeing that Judah intended to do nothing to give her a child for Er, tricked him, through prostitution, into impregnating her. Tamar took his form of identification as collateral for payment of a goat. When Judah couldn’t find “the prostitute” later to exchange the goat for his I.D., he abandoned his quest lest people laugh at him. Months later, when he learned Tamar was pregnant, he condemned her to death (because he was the judge in their town). Tamar quietly sent his I.D. back to him and asked him to please recognize who they belonged to, for that was the father of her child. Judah chose to own up to his wrongdoing, crowned her righteous and reversed her fate. Tamar had twins; the oldest one became the ancestor of King David.
When was the last time you read that story and thought, “Wow, I learned so much about redemption, recognition of wrongs and how to make things right in my own life?” Usually, we’re a little bit too much like my friend’s grandmother who taped together the pages of the Old Testament before giving a Bible to her grandson because it contained “too much scandal and killing, and no little boy needs to know about that!” It’s kind of funny, but how often do we struggle with the thorny stories to get at the reasons our Guidebook decided to include them in the first place? Do we just skip over them, hoping nobody will ask us a question we have no answers for, or do we dig in and search for their lessons?

Let’s give Judah and Tamar’s story a go.

This sordid tale illustrates all that was on the line for Judah’s legacy, even though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. Without this story, we would have never heard of a King David or a Messiah that was destined to be born from a Davidic lineage. We, too, often do not realize what is on the line for us: the consequences of not acknowledging our behavior, of not admitting wrongs, of allowing imbalance to reign in our relationships, of not recognizing how much pain our actions or words cause others.

Judah and Tamar’s story is one worth telling, even if it makes us feel uneasy. I think it’s meant to make us squirm, for how else could we recognize and make things right in our own lives? Their story is included in the Bible to instruct us. To warn us. To give us guidance in our decisions so that we won’t miss out.

Judah’s story begins with two textual clues as to how far he had fallen, “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers…”⁠1 “At that time” indicates the previous story of the sale of Joseph.⁠2 Judah physically moved away from his brothers after that family disaster, but it seems that he also took a step down from a leadership role among his brothers.⁠3 During the emotionally charged discussion regarding whether or not to kill Joseph, Judah had stepped up as their leader and convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph, because after all “he is our brother.” But he didn’t quite go far enough in his persuasive powers. He should have convinced them that selling Joseph wasn’t an option either.⁠4 His brothers continued to follow his lead, and it just got worse.

When the brothers devised a scheme to deceive their father about Joseph’s whereabouts, Judah watched the scene play out and chose to do nothing. Jacob saw Joseph’s bloody coat and assumed Joseph was dead. Perhaps the brothers hoped that with Joseph gone, things would eventually be okay at home, but they weren’t. Jacob went into a perpetual state of mourning. They had to live with a lie. And, Judah, the leader of the plot, was ultimately to blame.⁠5 Therefore, Judah “went down” from his brothers.

Judah’s decision making abilities continued to spiral downwards with his own family.⁠6 After two of his sons died, he probably should have released his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to remarry and continue with her life as he had no intention of letting his third son marry her. Instead, he destined her to a life of widowhood and a perpetual state of mourning waiting for a levirate marriage with Shelah so she could have a child.⁠7

Tamar, seeing that Judah would never make things right for her, took matters into her own hands. Feeling as if no other options existed, she dressed as a prostitute intending to get pregnant by Judah.⁠8 And, for this act, Judah overturned her death sentence and declared, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”⁠9

How are we to understand this? Deception and prostitution seem a far cry from righteousness! Simply speaking, Tamar did what Judah himself should have done. Did she choose the best way? No. Could she have handled her situation differently? Probably. But, she did do what was expected of her, and that is the simple meaning of righteousness: being what you were created to be, doing what you are supposed to do.⁠10 Tamar conceived a child for her dead husband while Judah did nothing, though it was his responsibility, and that is why he said she was more righteous than he.

Tamar also provided an opportunity for Judah to recognize and redeem his mistakes, and she did it rightly. If it had been me, and Judah had condemned me to die, I would’ve been tempted to barge into his courtroom with my evidence and expose the whole shameful affair in front of his peers. But, instead of making a public spectacle of him, Tamar risked her life, handed over the evidence and asked him to recognize the signet ring, cord and staff that she had received in payment for her services.⁠11

Let’s pause right here. A question we should be asking as we read any narrative in the Bible is, “Why do we need to know so many details?” Details (and sometimes lack of them) reveal textual clues. And, the particular detail of what Judah offered her as payment discloses how much farther Judah had fallen.⁠12 The ring, cord and staff symbolize the implements of a king, and he was willing to just hand his destiny over to a prostitute!

It would seem, at this point, that he’d never be able to recover. (I think we can relate to that feeling.) This was it. His choice would be the defining moment. Would he be able to do the righteous thing now? Would he recognize and claim the very things that could make him the father of kings, or would he deceive, hide the truth once more and lose his children whom he didn’t know existed?

Just as Judah had once asked his father, Jacob, to recognize Joseph’s coat, Tamar was now asking Judah to recognize his own coat.⁠13 She was giving Judah a chance to relive the mistakes of his past, to recognize how his actions affected those he loved and to make things right. It was a courageous thing to do, exposing the truth, because Judah could have pretended he knew nothing about it to avoid scandal (the very thing he was so concerned about in the first place).⁠14

The end of the story is that Judah rose to the challenge, regardless of the public shame and dishonor it would bring to his status of leader and judge in his community. Though this created a stain on his public record, Judah, much like his “great”-grandson, King David, became the man God had created him to be. Judah became the father of the line of King David (through Tamar’s son Perez), the father of the line of Messiah, and a leader and king among his brothers.⁠15

If Judah had chosen to ignore, to not recognize his “stuff,” he would have lost everything, and he may never have even realized it. What about us? What do we stand to lose when we’ve said harsh words but never admit it? What ensues when we’ve wronged somebody, but because it’s terribly uncomfortable to confront the situation, we do nothing? What about when we intentionally deceive or hide the truth? What do we deprive ourselves and others of when we let the proverbial elephant take over the room?⁠16

What would happen if we were courageous enough to risk it all, as Tamar did, in order to make things right?⁠17 I wonder what new things God might birth….

Questions for Reflection:

• What things in your life would you rather not recognize and make right? Think about what might be at stake. How could you begin the process of acknowledging a wrong done to someone else? How could you bring balance back to your relationships?


See Genesis 38:1 (emphasis mine).
See Genesis 37 for that story.
If killing a brother was not an option, selling a brother shouldn’t have been an option either. See Genesis 37:27.
He could have used his persuasive powers to get Joseph home safely. When that didn’t happen, he could’ve stepped up and told his father the truth. Who knows? Maybe their family could have tracked Joseph down and brought him home. Either way, the brothers seemingly held Judah responsible.
The details of Judah and Tamar’s story are meant to haunt the reader. We’ve heard them before in the sale of Joseph story…
A levirate marriage is when a widow marries her deceased husband’s brother, and they have a child to perpetuate the name and inheritance rights of the dead husband. See Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
This is not to say she made the right decision. She, like Jacob when he deceived Isaac, could have handled the situation in a more direct manner without using tools of deception.
See Genesis 38:26.
10 A simple definition of righteous is doing or being what you were created to do or be. Inanimate objects, such as scales, are referred to in the Scriptures as righteous because they rightly perform the function that they were created to perform. Leviticus 19:36 is an example of a scale being righteous. Though the English translates the word as “just,” the same Hebrew word, Tzadik, is used to describe a person who is righteous.
11 He initially gave these 3 things to Tamar as collateral for her services. See Genesis 38:18. Then when he sent his friend to find the prostitute to give her a coat in exchange for his signet, cord and staff, she was nowhere to be found. He decided to forget about his things and to stop looking because people would begin to laugh at him. See Genesis 38:23.
12 These 3 items are implements of a king. The signet ring was for clay seals, the cord was the fringes of the hem of a garment unique to the wearer and the staff was a form of I.D.
13 See Genesis 37:32. The same words that Tamar uses, “please identify” are the same Hebrew words the brothers use. The brothers are asking their father more than just to identify if the coat was Joseph’s or not. They were asking him to recognize who really was his firstborn. The laws of the firstborn in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 also use the same language. These laws were written to ensure that another father would not make the same mistakes that Jacob had made. That a father would recognize the rights of his firstborn regardless of his personal feelings.
14 Judah didn’t initially pursue getting his implements of a king back because “ we shall be laughed at.” (Genesis 38:23) But, now he faced a much bigger reason to be laughed at.
15 See Matthew 1:3-6 for Judah’s genealogy. Also see Genesis 49:8-12 for Jacob’s blessing for Judah and the description of Judah’s leadership role among his brothers.
16 I always thought this phrase was a “cute” saying, but an elephant can be the most destructive force because nothing can stop it. An African bush elephant, weighing 13,000 pounds, is the largest land animal and has no predators. Though we think of them as being docile, a young male elephant has been known to kill a rhinoceros as a means of protection. See
17 Tamar risked her life and the life of her unborn baby because Judah could have ignored her, “saved face,” and gone through with her punishment of death and no one would have known of his role in her pregnancy.


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