Sure enough, Judah encounters the disguised Tamar on his way to Timnah. Apparently it was the custom for prostitutes to veil their faces in public, so when Judah sees her veiled countenance, he assumes he recognizes her profession but fails to identify her–yet another layer of irony in a deeply ironic story. Judah approaches her and declares his desire for her services. Playing her part flawlessly, Tamar begins to haggle with him.

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

After shearing he will have coin. A few weeks after that, the lambs and kids will be born. But on the day they meet he has neither. He promises to send her a goat kid from his flock. In a culture where wealth is measured in livestock, it is a healthy sum. Yet he offers only a promise that he will do something in the future. Any real prostitute would refuse to accept a promise for future payment from someone she might never see again. So she quite logically asks,

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered.

Savvy woman. Tamar asks for the equivalent of his checkbook and credit cards. They were linked to his identity, and that is what she needs. Apparently eager for her favors, he agrees.

So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.

Ever economical, the biblical author provides everything we need to know in very few words. Her veil, disguising herself as a prostitute, is just that, a disguise. Having achieved her goal, she takes off her veil, puts on her widow’s clothes again, and returns home. By doing this, she eliminates any questions regarding paternity.

Her only “customer” had been Judah. Only Judah encountered her disguised as a prostitute, and immediately after he left she returned to her modest widow’s attire. Only Judah could possibly have impregnated her. Lest there be the slightest doubt, we are treated to this informative episode.

Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her.  He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”

“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”

By now you’ll be getting the hang of how the biblical authors make their points. We have not only the author’s account of her actions, we now have the testimony of the men of Enaim. To erase all doubts, the author has the men of Enaim tell Adullam, “There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” and then he has Adullam repeat it to Judah verbatim: There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here. The repetition makes the point emphatic: no one saw Tamar-as-prostitute except Judah. If she’s pregnant, only Judah can be the father. Why such emphasis? It’s all about paternity.

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

Deep, deep, irony here. Judah had patronized a prostitute whom he could not find for payment, and now he is informed that Tamar must have been a prostitute, but he is blind to any connection between the two pieces of information. No doubt he is relieved by all this. If she is indeed guilty, this eliminates a problem for him. He doesn’t have to risk losing his third and final son by giving him to Tamar as a husband, she will be eliminated from making any further claims of him, and she won’t be sitting in her father’s home, a living reminder of Judah’s neglect of his obligation. Rather too eagerly, Judah sentences her to a painful death.

Now we see that the pledge she asked for is her only means of survival. She can escape death only if she is able to prove that: 1) Judah is the father of the child she is carrying, and 2) Judah owes her either husband or child.

As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.

Whatever else we may think of all this, Judah recognizes that Tamar had merely collected a debt, a legitimate debt — albeit in a very unusual fashion.

Of course this whole episode is terribly troubling to a modern audience. We view this through the morals of our own time and place, and our sensibilities rebel against the notion of a daughter-in-law pretending to be a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, or for the respected patriarch to be patronizing a prostitute and paying for sex at all! But those are our problems. There is the matter of an incestuous relationship, but we will deal with that in the final installment. Clearly, the narrator is not concerned with this, and moreover, he does not expect his audience to be put off either.

They will see this much more as a simple issue of justice: in a culture where a woman’s security, especially in old age, is a husband or a son to care for her, this poor woman has no husband, even though her father-in-law is obligated and has promised to provide one. He has not been faithful to his responsibility to her, and she is not going to go into spinsterhood and poverty quietly.

The real question for us, however, is not whether we approve of Tamar’s actions, or even whether Judah approved. After all, Judah’s judgment in this whole episode has been sorely lacking. And remember, the narrator placed this whole episode in the middle of another, larger story, and explicitly invited us to compare and contrast Judah’s actions–and Tamar’s–with those of Joseph. What we need to understand is God’s verdict on all this.

To do that, we will have to examine this entire episode–which has not quite finished–in relation to the larger context. It is to that we turn next.

Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.