10 Lessons from the Dramatic Story of Judah and Tamar

Jessica Brodie

Award-winning Christian Novelist and Journalist
Published Jan 30, 2024
10 Lessons from the Dramatic Story of Judah and Tamar

In the story of Judah and Tamar, God produced much good out of what could have been a great evil. Likewise, he does the same in our lives today and has done the same throughout history, using wrongs to draw people closer to Him where they belong.

Sometimes the juiciest, most drama-ridden stories can be found in the most unexpected of places: the Holy Bible. One case in point is the story of Judah and Tamar, a bizarre tale about a father-in-law who mistakenly impregnates his daughter-in-law—who’d concealed her identity from him on purpose.

Yet before we rush to judgment and incorrect assumptions, rest assured that God uses this story to illuminate some important lessons about deception, righteousness, and undeserved mercy.

Who Are Judah and Tamar?

The story of Judah and Tamar is complicated, messy, and filled with trickery. Judah was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and one of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery. Indeed, he was the brother who suggested they sell Joseph instead of killing him (Genesis 37:26-27).

After this, Judah left his brothers and ended up marrying a Canaanite woman, who bore him three sons. And this is where we meet Tamar, in Genesis 38. Judah’s oldest son, Er, married Tamar, and she became Judah’s daughter-in-law. However, the Bible tells us, Er was wicked, so God had him killed.

Judah followed Jewish custom and gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. But Onan, too, was wicked, so God killed him, as well.

By custom, Judah should then have married Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah, but he didn’t want to lose a third son. So he sent Tamar back to her father’s house, promising to wed her to Shelah when he was old enough—but Judah did not do as he’d promised.

After many years passed and Judah’s wife died, he was traveling and came to the town where she lived. However, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Recognizing him, she quickly disguised herself as a shrine prostitute, covered her face with a veil, and positioned herself along his path. Judah didn’t recognize her as his daughter-in-law, and when he encountered her, he asked to sleep with her in exchange for one of his goats, giving her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge. After this, she disappeared, keeping his items.

Three months later, when she was found to be pregnant, Judah was outraged to learn his daughter-in-law had engaged in prostitution, and he ordered her to be burned to death. But as she was being led out to her execution, she delivered some shocking news: She’s pregnant by the man who gave her a seal, cord, and staff—that is, by him.

Immediately Judah recognized his items, halted the execution, and confessed that she was more righteous than he, for he didn’t fulfill his promise to give her to his thirdborn son.

Tamar went on to birth twin boys, Perez and Zerah. King David and Jesus are descended from the bloodline of Perez, bringing special significance to this story—for in spite of the treachery and deceit, mercy and righteousness ultimately prevail.

We can learn much from this tale. Here, then, are 10 lessons God teaches us from the story of Judah and Tamar:

1. Transformation Was Necessary

We know from reading the rest of God’s story that Judah went on to become the father of the southern kingdom. What Tamar did led to a fully necessary change in character for Judah. Confronted with the truth, and confronted with his sin, he chose to repent. Acknowledging Tamar’s righteousness and his wrongdoing was the first step in Judah’s transformation.

2. Confession and Repentance Are What God Wants

God knows we all are sinful creatures, but He wants us to rise above our nature and choose the better way: Him. When we do the wrong thing, we are to confess—to God and to others—what we did, then turn from that path and walk with Him. As Jesus many years later told the adulterous woman saved from a brutal stoning execution, “Neither do I condemn you. … Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

This was Judah’s version of the adulterous woman’s reckoning. While the Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to her, we know that Judah went on to play a major role in reconciling with Joseph.  

God blessed Judah when he did the right thing. He wants us all to do the same.

3. The Story Is Tied in with the Joseph Narrative

This isn’t just a digression from the “main” story – that of what happened to Joseph, who was sold into slavery, rose to become so respected under the king of Egypt that he was appointed second in command, and ultimately saved the lives of God’s chosen people. Judah’s story is woven in with Joseph’s. Joseph, too, experienced transformation. He learned much during his time in Egypt. Judah’s transformation parallels Joseph’s own.

4. God Cares about Widows

But the story isn’t just about Judah and Joseph. God was outraged at what happened to Tamar and how she was treated. God cares about widows and others considered to be the “least” in the world, such as orphans. When God later set forth laws for the people to live under, caring for widows was one of His provisions. We see in Tamar’s story that she didn’t do anything to cause her first husband’s death. God put Er to death because he was wicked. God wanted Er’s brother Onan to then be her husband and continue the bloodline, but Onan, too, was wicked and circumvented God’s plan. When she took matters into her own hands, she’s not condemned for this, but rather plays a significant role in Judah’s transformation.

5. God Cares about Women

In the same vein, the story of Judah and Tamar shows us God cares about women. What happened to Tamar was an injustice. She was mistreated, and the death of her first two husbands, Er and Onan, was not her fault. Instead of showing her respect and caring for her properly, Judah chose to keep his third son to himself and send her away. In doing so, he essentially denied Tamar a life and a future. God allowed her to achieve triumph over this situation, not only because it helped transform Judah’s moral character, but because God cares about women and doesn’t want women to be treated poorly.

6. Out of Trickery Comes Mercy

Judah did wrong by Tamar. Yet, when confronted with his sin, he repented. Out of his trickery, God’s great mercy is glorified. God works through all things, even messy, complicated sexual relationships, to redeem us.

7. Sacrificial Parallels

While Judah did the wrong thing initially, when confronted with his sin, he is willing to sacrifice his reputation for his daughter-in-law’s. This foreshadows the later sacrifice Judah makes when he agrees to accompany his younger brother, Benjamin, and father, Jacob, into Egypt (Genesis 44), as well as the sacrifice Jesus makes for all of us when He, the unblemished lamb, pays the sin-debt for humanity on the cross (Matthew 27).

8. Redemption Is Possible for Everyone

None of us is ever “too far gone” for redemption. Judah found his way back to God after going astray, and so did his father, Jacob, and his future great-great-great grandson, King David. What is important is that when we are finally awakened to the reality of our evil through sin, we make a choice to stop living in our old way.

9. God Makes All Things Good

In Romans 8:28, we’re reminded, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God had plans for Judah and Tamar. But first, Judah needed to learn important lessons and make an important choice. He made the right choice, and in this, God used the situation for good.

10. Taking a Risk Can Pay Off

Tamar is ultimately responsible for the continuation of the family line, but her dreams are shattered when first one husband and then the next are killed, and then her father-in-law doesn’t come through on his promise to wed her to his youngest son. She risked everything—her reputation and her very life—to ensure the family line continued. Her risk could have backfired, but it did not, and because of her actions, she is part of the lineage of the Messiah himself.

In the story of Judah and Tamar, God produced much good out of what could have been a great evil. Likewise, he does the same in our lives today and has done the same throughout history, using wrongs to draw people closer to Him where they belong.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Deagreez

Jessica Brodie author photo headshotJessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.com/advent. Learn more about Jessica’s fiction and read her faith blog at http://jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional and podcast. You can also connect with her on Facebook,Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed