Tamar married Er, Judah’s firstborn son, who died young and childless. Judah told his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar and thus provide offspring for his dead brother. Onan, unwilling to have his children carry his brother’s name, spilled his seed on the ground whenever he made love to Tamar. He also died childless.Judah, fearful that his youngest son, Shelah, would also go to an early grave if he married Tamar, told her, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up (Genesis 38:11).”
Years went by, Shelah grew up, but Judah didn’t marry him to Tamar. After Judah’s wife died and the mourning period was over, Judah went with his sheep shearers and his friend Hirah to Timnath, near the home of Tamar’s parents.
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Tamar was told that her father-in-law was coming for the sheep shearing. She took off her widow’s garments, wrapped herself, and–with her face covered by a veil–sat by the side of the road.
Judah saw her and didn’t recognize her. He approached her and, assuming that she was a harlot, told her that he wanted to sleep with her. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” “I will send a kid from my flock,” promised Judah.
Tamar said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” “What pledge shall I give you?” “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry,” said Tamar (Genesis 38:16–18). She received the pledges and slept with him. Then she went home, took off her veil, and put back her widow’s clothing.
Judah, a man of his word, sent his friend Hirah with the young goat to receive his pledges back from the harlot. Hirah asked some men, “Where is the cult prostitute, the one at Enaim, by the road?” “There has been no prostitute here,” they answered (Genesis 38:21).
Unable to find her, Hirah returned to Judah and told him that he couldn’t find the harlot. Judah said, “Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. I did send her this kid, but you did not find her (Genesis 38:23).”
Three months later, Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant. Judah, furious, ordered that she be brought to him and burned. Tamar, brought to the presence of Judah, showed him the pledges and said, “I am pregnant from the man who owns these things. Can you tell to whom do they belong?”
Judah examined them, recognized that they were his and said, “She is right, because I never gave her my son Shelah (Genesis 38:25–26).” He was never intimate with her again.
Six months later, Tamar gave birth to twins, who were called Perez and Zerah. During their birth, the midwife, seeing Zerah’s hand, tied a scarlet thread on it, but it was Perez who first came out.
Reprinted with permission from Who’s Who in the Hebrew Bible(The Jewish Publication Society).