Judah, Tamar, and the Breach

Kenneth McRaeMar 15, 2023
Ascension by John Singleton Copley in 1775 (Public domain)
In this articleThe Story of Judah and TamarJudah over His BrothersMystery of the VavFootnotes

This article is complimentary to the chapter Living Shadows from the book Seed of God: Jesus Christ available free on Kindle Unlimited or purchased as eBook or paperback.

Within the context of the Genesis narrative on Jacob’s sons, the bizarre affair between Judah and Tamar appears to some as a footnote, if not a non-sequitur. But the implications of this chapter are not only inextricably connected to the outcome of the grander narrative, but to the outcome of the grandest narrative of all—the protoevangelium—the birth of the promised seed of the woman, Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:15).

The chapter describes in detail the forbidden sexual union between Judah, the son of Jacob, and his daughter-in-law Tamar which leads to the birth of twins. We learn much later, in the book of Ruth, that their son Perez is a descendant of David (and in the NT, Jesus), but the significance of the chapter within its surrounding context in Genesis seems less obvious. That is because it comes one chapter into the grand narrative of chapters 37 to 50 and seemingly interrupts the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Numerous scholars and commentators have called it “an awkward interpolation within the Joseph story … isolated from the rest of Genesis 37-50” which “has no connection at all with the strictly organized Joseph story at whose beginning it is now inserted.” Scholar Gerhard von Rad contended that “the Joseph story knows nothing at all about Judah's separation from his brothers.”

Again, I do not believe this to be the case. First, we can address the placement of the chapter and its chronological consistency with the Joseph story. The opening verse of Judah’s story establishes that the events occur within the indeterminate gap between the previous and following chapters:

  • Joseph story begins in Genesis 37 and ends with verse: “Now the Midianites had sold him [Joseph] in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard” (Gen. 37:36 NKJV).
  • Judah and Tamar’s story interjects in Genesis 38 and begins with verse: “It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers” (Gen. 38:1 NKJV).
  • Joseph story resumed in Genesis 39 and begins with verse: “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there” (Gen. 39:1 NKJV).

So, what purpose does the Judah and Tamar story serve within the “Joseph story” to explain its inclusion here? Let us go down that line of inquiry now to unpack its importance within the narrative of Jacob’s sons (Gen. 37-50), and more generally, to the coming of Jesus Christ.

The beginning of the chapter establishes the setting of Judah living amongst the Canaanites, having departed from his brothers sometime after they sold Joseph. Not unlike his uncle Esau, Judah violated the explicit command from the patriarchs not to marry outside the line of Shem by marrying the Canaanite daughter of Shua (Gen. 24:1-4, 28:1-9). Together they had the three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah. At the time when the firstborn Er came of age, Judah arranged a wife for him named Tamar. God killed Er before he could bear a son with Tamar because he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” (Gen. 38:7). Judah then ordered the next eldest son, Onan, to “go in to your brother’s wife and marry her [Tamar], and raise up an heir to your brother” (Gen. 38:8). This custom was later codified in the Levirate Law (Deut. 25:5-10) and served to honour the dead brother and protect his widow's status in his family. Onan denied his obligation to Er and Tamar by spilling his seed on the ground, “lest he should give an heir to his brother” (Gen. 38:9). God was displeased by this to the degree that he killed Onan also (Gen. 38:10). The divine judgement upon Judah’s rebellious Canaanite sons foreshadowed a divine purpose intended not for them, but for Judah. Perhaps at this point God had already predestined for Judah to inherit the godly line from Jacob over his brothers, and even his sons. This would make sense of the events soon to come.

Continuing on with the story now, we see that Judah feared that his third son Shelah would “also die like his brothers” (Gen. 38:11). For this reason, he reneged on his obligation to Tamar, instead telling her to “remain a widow in [her] father’s house” until Shelah was grown. Tamar recognised that Judah did not intend on upholding the agreement when she “saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife” (Gen. 38:14). To resecure her place in the family from which she was sent away, Tamar devised a plan to work around Judah’s sinful inaction. The opportunity came when Tamar heard about Judah “going up to Timnah to shear his sheep” (Gen. 38:12-13). She waited for him on the way there in in a disguise so that “when Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face [with a veil].” Without knowing “that she was his daughter-in-law,” Judah had a sexual encounter with Tamar (Gen. 38:14-16).

Using methods that we may find ethically questionable in modern times, God uses Tamar to redeem the House of Judah and provide the heir that would produce the Kingly and Messianic lineage.

We can relate this to when Rebekah used cunning deception to secure the birthright blessing for Jacob over Esau (Gen. 27). Both women risked everything to ensure the inheritance of the godly line would not be undermined by the choice of men but reflect the divine choice of God. Remember, “Abraham chose Ishmael, but God chose Isaac; Isaac chose Esau, but God chose Jacob. Jacob favoured Joseph, but God chose Judah.”

Three months later, Judah found out that Tamar was pregnant. Despite he himself being guilty under the law, he callously called for her to be burned to death for prostitution (a punishment reserved for a priest’s daughter - Gen. 38:18-24). Prepared for this very scenario, Tamar presented the items which Judah had left with her as a pledge of payment, and thus revealed to Judah that he was the father (Gen. 38:16-18, 25). Where he could have denied his wrongdoing and insisted Tamar be punished unto death, we instead see “a humble acknowledgment of his sin, especially of his refusal to give Tamar to Shelah in levirate marriage.” Judah humbly conceded: “she is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:25-26). With a humbled heart Judah could now see that where he had sinned and ignored the divine purpose from God, Tamar had been faithful. Tamar, like Rebekah, had stopped at nothing to ensure the birthright went to the son whom God had chosen.

The product of their divine conception, the twin sons Perez and Zerah, is announced at the end of the chapter (Gen. 38:27-30). The birthright would go to Perez who establishes the family of Judah (and Tamar) as the royal line to David, to whom God promised the king, Jesus Christ (Gen. 46:12; Ruth 4:12, 18-22; Matt. 1:3; Luke 3:33). Before discussing Perez, let us first outline how it came to be that Perez was the next son of promise. To do so, we must make sense of God’s choice of Judah over the expected Joseph.

He rejected the tent of Joseph, and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which He loved (Psa. 78:67-68 NKJV).

In the words of the biblical scholar Carol Newsom: “in the context of the larger story, this [Judah and Tamar] episode serves as the redemptive moment that marks the transition of Judah's character from one of moral ambivalence to the moral leadership that enables him to resolve Joseph's hesitancy to reconcile with his brothers” (Gen. 44:18-34). The development of Judah as a moral leader is emphasised throughout the narrative to show how he was responsible for this reconciliation, and not Joseph as expected (Gen. 43:3-10; 44:14-34; 46:28). It was his selfless petitioning that changed the heart of Joseph as Tamar had done for him. Because of Judah, the whole family was moved from famine-stricken Canaan to the best land of Egypt, and Jacob was reunited with his two beloved sons Joseph and Benjamin.

In light of these things, we can understand the decision by Jacob to pass on the patriarchal blessing to Judah, rather than Joseph as initially expected. This conclusion was especially relevant to salvation history because the blessing endowed Judah with the “sceptre,” or seat of royal power over all the tribes of Israel and therefore the privilege of bearing the royal messianic lineage (Gen. 49:8-12).

Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s children shall bow down before you … The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people (Gen. 49:8-10 NKJV).

The tribal staff of authority to enforce the Mosaic laws would belong to Judah “until Shiloh comes,” to whom the obedience of the people would ultimately be (Gen. 49:8-12). As evidenced by many early rabbinical writings, the term Shiloh was always understood to be a personal designation of the Messiah. The first great manifestation of this royal promise came with King David and his United Kingdom of Israel. The book of Ruth explicitly traces the genealogy of David to Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar mentioned in Genesis 38:

Now this is the genealogy [toldot – תולדות] of Perez: Perez begot Hezron; Hezron begot Ram, and Ram begot Amminadab; Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon; Salmon begot Boaz, and Boaz begot Obed; Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David (Ruth 4:18-22 NKJV).

The writers of the New Testament continued this genealogy from David until its termination with “Jesus Christ, the Son of David,” the “the Root and the Offspring of David” (Matt. 1:1-16; 2:1-8; Luke 2:4-11; 3:23-38; John 7:42; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). Their assertion that Jesus Christ was the greater David, the Shiloh figure prophesied to come from Judah, is symbolically affirmed in the aforementioned genealogy from Ruth. Even the early rabbis, although they denied the Messiah whom they waited upon, noticed the messianic significance of the passage. The generations are not only traced from David back to Perez by the way of Judah and Tamar’s union, but more broadly, to the first Adam and second Adam in Jesus Christ. Take for example the following rabbinic midrashim:

With the exception of two places—‘These are the generations of the heaven and the earth’ (Gen. 2:4) and ‘Now these are the generations of Perez’ (Ruth 4: 18)—the word ‘toledoth’ whenever it occurs in the Bible is spelt defectively, and for a very significant reason. Thus the word is spelt fully [with a waw] in the case of ‘ These are the generations of the heaven and the earth’, because when God created His world, there was no Angel of Death in the world, and on this account is it spelt fully’; but as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, God made defective all the ‘toledoth’ mentioned in the Bible. But when Perez arose, his ‘generations’ were spelt fully again, because from him Messiah would arise, and in his days God would cause death to be swallowed up, as it says, He will swallow up death for ever (Isa. xxv, 8); on this account is the ‘toledoth’ of ‘The heaven and the earth’ and of Perez spelt fully.

All toledoth found in Scripture are defective, except two. These are the toledoth (generations) of Perez (Ruth iv, 18), and the present instance [Gen. 2:4] ... Though these things were created in their fulness, yet when Adam sinned they were spoiled, and they will not again return to their perfection until the son of Perez [viz. Messiah] comes ; [for in the verse] ' These are the toledoth (generations) of Perez', toledoth is spelled fully, with a waw.

The rabbis showed that out of 39 instances of the generations or “toledoth (תולדות)” in the Tanakh (Old Testament), only the first and last instances were spelt with a second vav. This happened to be in the toledoth in which God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4), and in the toledoth of Perez, the fruits of Judah and Tamar’s questionable union (Ruth 4:18). The removal of the second vav coincides with the banishment of Adam (man) from the garden of Eden in which man dwelled with God. The reinsertion of the second vav coincides with the last toledoth in the Tanakh (Old Testament), that of Perez.

What then is the significance? To make sense of the symbolism, we should first unpack the meanings of the vav (waw). Both the letter vav and the word vav denotes a hook, peg, or nail—essentially something that connects or joins things together. A common usage of the letter vav as a “hook” is as the conjunction “and,” which hooks two clauses together. For example, the vav-conjunctive is prefixed to form the word “and” in the phrase “the heavens and the earth” from Genesis 1:1. Furthermore, the word vav is itself used exclusively to describe the tent pegs (וָו plural vavim וָוִים) which held down the Tabernacle in the wilderness—the earthly abode of God (Exod. 26:32, 37; 27:10-11, 17; 36:36-38; 38:10-12, 17-19, 28). Reinforced is the theme of the vav as what joins heaven and earth together.

Another dimension of the vav is expressed in numbers. The vav is both the sixth letter and the number six in the Hebrew alphabet (aleph-bet), which is a number biblically associated with man. For example, man was created on the sixth day (Gen. 1:26-31), man works six days (holy rest of Sabbath) (Gen. 2:1-3), and “the number of the beast [666] … is the number of a man” (Rev. 13:18). Furthermore, the sixth word of scripture, the “and” between the heavens and the earth is prefixed with the vav (Gen. 1:1). Here is an apt observation by Sarah Fisher, who studied the mystery of the toledoth:

It is interesting, therefore, that after the fall of man, a vav goes missing. The letter that represents man has fallen out of the word.

Interesting as it may be, can we find precedent in scripture for a man who becomes the “hook” reconnecting the heavens and the earth? The answer is yes—precedent is established immediately after Adam and Eve had torn apart God’s perfect order and brought separation. God could have left the toledoth of Adam to forever die in sin, never to restore the missing vav, but instead He promised them a redeemer (Gen. 3:15).

So the Lord God said to the serpent: … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:15 NKJV).

The insertion of the missing vav in the toledoth of Perez indicated that God was actively working through the line of Judah via Perez to deliver the redeemer. This is supported by the verses immediately preceding the genealogy which seem to speak prophetically of a redeemer son (beyond Obed):

“Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you one who restores life and sustains your old age” … Now these are the generations of Perez … (Ruth 4:14-15, 18 NASB).

Perhaps the missing vav was inserted here because it was the final toledoth in the Tanakh in which the necessary prophetic steps for the seed of the woman to incarnate had culminated. This is because the final genealogical prophecies related to him were associated with David.

We are also told that the name Perez means “breach” or “break through” at the end of Genesis 38 (Gen. 38:30). His mother Tamar had made a breach into the family of Judah to conceive him, and by unnatural means. God similarly made a breach into the families of mankind to bear His son through unnatural (supernatural) means. The parallel may be incidental, but what is certain is that the redeemer could not be simply man born from simple means. Since all men are bound to sin, it was necessary for him to be begotten of man (“the seed of the woman [Eve]”) and begotten of God, to be without sin like the original Adam (1 John 5:18).For even the high priest, the mediator between God and man, could never atone for the sins of the people, nor even himself, without performing sacrifices.

Jesus Christ, being the only man born of both heaven and earth and living without sin, is therefore the identity of the second vav (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-35; John 1:1-14; Heb. 1:5-6; 5:5-10; Phil. 2:6-7; Col. 2:9; 1 John 4:9). His hypostatic union allowed him to serve as a divine high priest and a sinless human sacrifice necessary to make atonement for the sins of the first Adam (man). In this way he could be the second vav—the “one mediator between God and man” (John 1:51; 1 Tim. 2:5).

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone … Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same … in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:9, 14, 17 NKJV).

To these ends, he was “called by God as High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” not of Aaron (Psa. 110; Heb. 5:5-10; 7-9). “According to the power of an endless life,” “not according to the law of a fleshly commandment” (Heb. 7:16). That is to say he was divinely appointed to a heavenly priesthood in succession of the earthly priesthood. Consequently, the mediator between heaven and earth was no longer designated to the tribe of Levi, but of Judah. The prophesied Shiloh figure (Messiah) promised to Judah, “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting,” was therefore fulfilled in Christ, the “Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Gen. 49:9-10; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Chr. 17:11-14; 2 Chr. 6:16; Jer. 23:5; 33:15-16; Isa. 11:1-5; 53:2; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 3:8; 6:12-13).The same priestly king whom David prophesied was to come after him:

The Lord said to my Lord,“sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool” … The Lord has sworn and will not relent, “you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psa. 110:1, 4 NKJV).

The typology of the high priest, and its reality in Christ is discussed at much greater length in Seed of God: Jesus Christ, but just know that Christ is the High Priest who fulfilled, once and for all, the atonement for our sins enabling us to live again with God:

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption … For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (Heb. 9:11-12, 23-24).

The symbolism here from Hebrews 9 recalls the Day of Atonement as practiced by previous high priests, which was God’s temporary provision of atonement, having foreseen the righteous atonement to come which secured our inheritance (Rom. 3:21-26). The typology of the Day of Atonement and its heavenly fulfillment by Christ is reinforced in the gospel accounts of his sacrificial death:

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him [nail = vav] … Now it was about the sixth [vav] hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last (Luke 23:33, 44-46 NKJV).

The imagery of the darkness over earth and the tearing of the temple veil represents the Day of Atonement sacrifice performed by the high priest in the Most Holy Place. The temple veil covered the Most Holy Place to separate God’s small partition of heaven from earth. The high priest, being unable to behold the Lord directly, would enter through the veil backwards, and while in complete darkness, sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the mercy seat.

However, from the sixth (vav = six) hour when darkness covered earth, Christ on the cross (vav = nails) presented himself as the sinless human sacrifice in the Most Holy Place of heaven, not of earth. The temple veil was torn from top to bottom because, since the righteousness of God was satisfied “through the blood of His cross,” he could “reconcile all things to Himself … whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Matt. 27:50-51; Mark 15:37-38; Luke 23:44-46; Col. 1:20).

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21 NKJV).

The barrier between heaven and earth was no longer impenetrable, for there was a new pathway to God through a second Adam. The first Adam introduced death, but the second Adam, Jesus Christ, introduced resurrection. The first Adam lost heaven for man, but the second Adam won heaven for man. To those who receive him as the second vav, “He gave the right to become children of God”—begotten again from sons of Adam to sons of God (John 1:12-13; Rom. 5:12-16; 6:8, 23; Gal. 3:26; 1 Pet. 1:3-4; Rev. 14:13):

For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive … And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49 NKJV).

God's final breach into the families of mankind had been made for their redemption, as enabled by the breach of Tamar into the family of Judah for his redemption and glorification as the tribe of authority with Christ as its patriarch.

To learn more about the relationship between the priesthood and Jesus Christ, as well as the typology of Judah and Joseph, consider reading my book, Seed of God: Jesus Christ. A free chapter can be read here.


  1. Kim, Dohyung. “A Literary-Critical Analysis of the Role of Genesis 38 within Genesis 37-50 as Part of the Primary Narrative (Genesis – 2 Kings) of the Hebrew Bible.” PhD thesis, University of Sheffield (2010): 28: "Claus Westermann concurs with the above saying, 'Ch. 38 is a self-contained individual narrative.' [Claus Westerrmann, Genesis 37-50: A Commentary (trans. John 1. Scullion; Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 49.] … Walter Brueggemann also alleges that, 'This peculiar chapter [Gen. 38] stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic.' [Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 307.])" 
  2. von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1972. 356-357.  
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Harvey, Chadwick. "The Mystery of Judah and Tamar & the Missing Vav." Faithful Performance, September 19, 2022. https://faithfulperformance.com/the-mystery-of-judah-and-tamar-the-missing-vav/ 
  5. McRae, Kenneth. Seed of God: Jesus Christ. Invercargill: Behold Messiah, September 14, 2021. 56.  
  6. Clifford, Richard J. "Genesis 38: Its Contribution to the Joseph Story." The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2004): 531. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43725321 
  7. Newsom, Carol A. The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 197.  
  8. McRae, Kenneth. Seed of God: Jesus Christ. Invercargill: Behold Messiah, September 14, 2021. 57.  
  9. See also Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 6:1: "These are the generations (Toledot) of the heaven and the earth when they were created (Gen. 2:4) … The word toledot in Scripture lacks the letter vav in all but two verses. These verses are: These are the generations of Perez (Ruth 4:18) and the (verse quoted) above. (The full spelling of the word toledot, with the vav, is found only in these two instances.) ... The Holy One, blessed be He, will restore these things to man in the future" 
  10. Freedman, Harry. Midrash Rabbah: Exodus. London: Soncino Press, 1939. 30:3 
  11. Freedman, Harry. Midrash Rabbah: Genesis. London: Soncino Press, 1939. 12:6 
  12. Toledoth references: Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10, 27; 25:12-13, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2; Exod. 6:16, 19; 28:10; Num. 1:20-42; 3:1; 1 Chr. 1:29; 5:7; 7:2-9; 8:28; 9:9; 9:34; 26:31; Ruth 4:18 
  13. While the design of the vav looks like a hook, the word vav actually means “hook.”A hook is something that holds two things together. It is also a means to connect the spiritual and the physical … On a syntactic level, adding a vav to the beginning of any word creates the meaning “and” … Within a sentence, “and” is the hook that connects one word or clause to the next (Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin. Vav - The sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chabad. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/137078/jewish/Vav.htm) 
  14. Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 2053. וָו (vav) 
  15. Fisher, Sarah. "The Mysteries of TOLEDOT." Hebrew Word Lessons, April 22, 2018. https://hebrewwordlessons.com/2018/04/22/876/