When I read this passage, at first I wondered why the story of Judah and Tamar was included. Yes, it’s one of the sons of Israel, and yes, there are interesting lessons involved, like his willingness to admit he was wrong once he was called out. I just didn’t understand why that was quite significant enough to warrant inclusion as Scripture.
Then I read the Faithlife Study Bible notes on this story, and I was reminded that David, and ultimately Jesus, were descendants of Judah and Tamar through one of the twins. That was the piece I was missing. How could I forget that? Well, that’s what commentaries and study Bibles are for.
When I was trying to work it out on my own, one of the aspects I considered significant was the failure of Judah in regards to the kinsman redeemer. When a woman loses her husband before there are children, one of his brothers or close relatives is supposed to marry her. Their first child becomes the heir of the deceased. This not only ensures that the widow is cared for with another husband, but ensures that the line of the deceased continues, that his name is not forgotten.
Jesus is our redeemer. He is man, eligible to pay, and he is God, able to pay our debt in full. We see a positive image of the kinsman redeemer in Boaz as he redeems Ruth. Here we see a failure to redeem.
First, Judah did not marry wisely, and his children were not faithful. Er, the eldest, is called wicked, enough so that God put him to death for his wickedness. When Judah sent Onan to fulfill the role of redeemer, Onan pretended to obey but refused to give his brother an heir. Was this because he just hated his brother? Giving Er an heir did not mean he would never have one of his own. Not to mention that it’s entirely possible he already had other wives and heirs, or at least could. It was only the firstborn of Tamar that was legally the son of the deceased. Whatever the reason, it was clearly an evil act, as God took his life in judgment.
Judah was now worried that his youngest would also be lost to him. We aren’t told how much he knows about Onan’s actions. Could he have felt this was judgment on him for mingling with the Canaanites? If so, it didn’t change his behavior much. His solution, whether he feared it was judgment on him or a curse on Tamar somehow, or Tamar herself, whatever he feared, he promised her his youngest and sent her home to her father to wait. He had no intention of fulfilling his promise. He answered his sons deceit with his own.
She took matters into her own hands, deceived him in turn, and secured her redemption. When he heard of her unfaithfulness, he reacted angrily, ready to defend the public honor of himself and his sons, none of whom have behaved honorably.
When he’s called out, he at least admits that he was wrong, but this is about as wrong as redemption can go. The first redeemer doesn’t pass, doesn’t refuse and free her to look elsewhere, he just… it’s pretty awful what he does. Then Judah lies to her. He doesn’t just lie to her, he makes a promise he has no intention of keeping. He doesn’t free her, either. He expects her to stay home with her father for the rest of her life waiting for something that is never going to come. This is the opposite of the love, compassion, and sacrifice we see in Boaz, in Christ.
This is the contrast between self-interest and righteousness, Judah and Boaz. But God does not forget us when we are forsaken by others; both women are mentioned in the lineage of Christ.