Moses does not fully share the misgivings we may have regarding Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law. After all, she is really the victim in this story though she has done all that she can to faithfully bear a son for her dead husband, Er. Genesis 38 really condemns Judah, implying at least that his sin partially justifies Tamar’s acts.
Judah’s wickedness is plain. He defied his forefathers’ wisdom (24:1–9; 26:34–35; 28:1–2) and married a Canaanite (38:1–3). He showed no drive to give Abraham offspring and ignored a helpless widow when he withheld Shelah from his daughter-in-law (38:11, 14b). He made Esau’s errors (26:34–35; Heb. 12:12–17), for he married a pagan and lustfully played the fool in seeking after a prostitute (Gen. 38:15–19; Prov. 23:27). Judah also felt eye-for-an-eye justice when Tamar’s deception of him involved a goat and clothing (38:15–26) since he earlier deceived Jacob with these things (37:29–35).
Today’s passage continues to reveal Judah’s evil. In 38:20–23, he sends his friend with a goat to pay his debt to Tamar and retrieve his seal and staff. Both of these would bear his name, and he would have been embarrassed if they were found in a harlot’s possession. This potential embarrassment, with no hint of remorse for his lust, moves Judah to stop looking for Tamar lest his dalliances be publicized.
Not surprisingly, Judah is harsher with Tamar for her alleged immorality than he is with himself for his own sins (v. 24). Tamar was technically betrothed to Shelah (v. 11), and her apparent adultery merited execution under the proper conditions. Yet Judah changes his tune when Tamar produces his staff and ring as capital punishment rightly applies to him as well (Deut. 22:22–24). Judah also sees his refusal to give Tamar a husband for the sin that it is. Tamar is more righteous than he because his refusal to find her a husband has forced her to take such drastic action. (Gen. 38:25–26).
Judah, the son from the chosen line, has cared little to live according to God’s promise (15:1–6) and give Abraham many grandsons. In contrast, by faith Tamar has risked her life to increase the patriarch’s progeny even though she was not brought up knowing his Lord.
Judah’s disobedient refusal to give Tamar a husband showed his faith was weak (James 2:14–26). We likewise show our faith to be wanting when we sin. Like Judah, we should be willing to confess our sins before God and others whom we trust when the Spirit pricks our consciences. John Calvin writes: “Truth should so far prevail with us, that we should not be ashamed to confess, before the whole world, those sins with which God charges us.”