In Genesis chapter 38, Judah’s oldest son (Er) marries a girl named Tamar. But Er is considered by God to be wicked, and he dies before he and Tamar have a child.
In their culture, Tamar is to conceive a child with the next oldest son, Onan, and that child will be considered Er’s child. (This is for the purpose of carrying on a family name.) But Onan doesn’t like the idea that the child will not be his, so He sabotages the conception. God judges Onan for not honoring his obligation, and Onan dies.
Judah only has one son left…Shelah. Shelah is too young to conceive with Tamar, so Judah tells Tamar to wait until he is old enough. But when Shelah is old enough, Judah ignores the promise he made to Tamar. This leaves Tamar childless, vulnerable, and frustrated.
Sometime after Judah’s wife dies, he takes a trip to Timnah. When Tamar hears this, she dons a veil, disguises herself as a prostitute, and goes out to meet Judah by the roadside. Not recognizing her, Judah sleeps with her and leaves some of his possessions as a promise of future payment.
Tamar conceives a child from this encounter. Three months later, Judah finds out Tamar is pregnant and he is incensed that she didn’t wait for the youngest son. Judah makes plans to put her to death, according to the laws and customs of the day. Then Tamar reveals to Judah the possessions he had left with her when he thought she was a prostitute, and Judah is forced to admit that he had wickedly refused to fulfill his obligation to her.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the sex and secrecy of this story, but those are story elements to communicate a larger principle. We, like Judah, Er, and Onan need to remember that failing to keep our obligations, whether to God or other people, is a sin. (Ecclesiastes 5:4) (Romans 13:7.)
Have you made an obligation to a spouse, child, friend or employer you’ve not yet kept? Now would be a great time to take steps towards fulfilling that obligation.
Bret Legg is the Teaching and Counseling Pastor at Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.