Following Joseph’s sale, Judah parts ways with his brothers and lives instead with an Adullamite named Hirah. He marries the daughter of a merchant named Shua and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. When they reach marriageable age, he pairs Er with Tamar. Er, however, did evil in God’s eyes, and He kills him.
Following the tradition of levirate marriage, Judah has Onan marry his brother’s widow. Onan, however, does not want to father a son in his brother’s name, and God kills him, as well. Judah, meanwhile, grows fearful of Tamar, and makes excuses not to marry her to his youngest, Shelah.
As time goes by, Tamar realizes Judah has no intention of allowing her to marry Shelah, yet she cannot marry outside Judah’s family. She decides to take action. Taking advantage of Judah’s grief over the recent loss of his own wife, she disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces him, taking some of his personal effects as collateral for her promised price. When Judah sends his friend Hirah to pay her, though, she is gone.
Time goes by, and Judah hears his daughter-in-law is mysteriously pregnant. He orders her execution for what he presumes was adultery. Tamar, however, brings forth Judah’s personal effects, saying the owner of the staff, signet and cord is the father of her child. Judah acknowledges that they belong to him, and he vindicates Tamar. She gives birth to twins: Peretz and Zerah.
The Israel Bible cites the Sages, who teach a beautiful lesson about the juxtaposition of these stories in the Torah. “While the tribes were busy with the sale of Joseph, and Reuben, Joseph and Jacob were busy with their sackcloth and mourning, and Judah was busy taking a wife, God was busy creating the light of the Messiah.” After all, it is Peretz who is the forebear of the Davidic line. At a time when life seems to be unravelling and Jewish history appears to be at its worst, with brother turning on brother, God is working behind the scenes, ensuring the future redemption.
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