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Tamar was the first wife of Er, Judah’s oldest son. Judah had arranged the marriage himself—unfortunately, Er was guilty of some unspecified sin and died before producing an heir. As was the custom of the day, Judah then gave Onan, his second son, to Tamar.
But history repeated itself. Onan died, too, leaving Tamar still without a son. Women who had no sons or husbands were vulnerable indeed. Judah had promised his third son to Tamar—just as soon as he was old enough to marry—but the years began to pass, and it became clear that Judah had no intention of keeping his word.
One day, after getting word that Judah was out and about, Tamar covered her face with a veil and situated herself on the road, waiting for Judah to pass. Pretending to be a prostitute, she solicited her own father-in-law, who just recently finished mourning his deceased wife. Not having anything with which to pay a prostitute, Judah gave Tamar his seal—sometimes attached to a cord and worn like a necklace—and staff as a pledge of good faith.
Three months later, when Tamar was no longer able to hide her pregnancy, Judah ordered her burned alive for her adultery. This was Tamar’s no-win situation: As long as she was pledged to Judah’s third son, she could not enter into another man’s protection, but Judah had not kept his word and had failed to provide the protection Tamar needed. Judah had been a poor father-in-law, a fact that dawned on him when Tamar produced his seal and staff, saving her own life and the lives of her twin sons. Judah was shamed into acknowledging that Tamar was more righteous than he had been.
While not condoning Tamar and Judah’s sexual immorality in any way, the writer of Genesis seemed far more troubled about Judah’s failure to meet his obligations to his family. Judah’s story is an example of what can happen when God’s people forget that the second greatest command in the whole Bible is to
“love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22:37–39).