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Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and Tamar. At first Tamar was married to Er (Judah's firstborn son) but he was wicked and killed by the Lord v6-7. So Judah tells Tamar to wait until his youngest son, Shelah, grows up v11 (to marry her?). Years go by and Tamar is never given to Shelah as a wife so Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah sleeps with her since he doesn't recognize her. When he finds out she's pregnant, he wants her burned to death but she proves he is the one who impregnated her to which Judah replies, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah" v26.

Why does Judah say that Tamar is more righteous than himself? I feel like I'm missing something.

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Don't forget the bit where she steals his staff (which was not the agreed price - just a guarantee - the agreed price was sent as promised) and runs. There is very little righteousness here, by any measure. –  Marc Gravell Feb 5 '12 at 23:03
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Better at Biblical Hermeneutics. –  DJClayworth Feb 6 '12 at 14:43
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

From the Haydock commentary:

Juster. For Juda had been guilty of injustice; and had thus exposed her to the danger of following a life of lewdness. (Haydock) --- She remained a widow afterwards, as she was now rendered unfit to be married either to Juda or Sela. The latter married another woman, Numbers xxvi. 19. (Calmet) --- While Juda was engaged in this unlawful commerce, and yielded to the temptation, Joseph was triumphing over a much greater temptation, in rejecting the solicitations of his master's wife. (Haydock)

Basically, by not following through on his promise to have his son Sela marry her, Judah exposed Tamar to the danger of making a living as a prostitute as she did not have any other way to support herself in her widowhood. As such, Judah was more at fault; or stated the other way around: Tamar was more just than Judah (calling Tamar more just could be a vestigial idiomatic construct of the Hebrew language).

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It's not peculiar to Hebrew. Judah in English might have said, 'And she is a better person than I.' –  RiverC Feb 6 '12 at 19:36
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Unlike Tamar, who had been fighting for what was simply her just due (namely an heir), Judah was all about taking whatever he could get (including some no-strings sex) protecting what was his (his last remaining son) and not caring who got the short end of the stick (ie Tamar who was left without anything). That's why even Judah can recognize the injustice he'd been committing against his own daughter-in-law.

In the end, the only things that Tamar took were the things due her - the signet and seal (proof of inclusion in the family) and the seed of an heir.

Was she stealing? Well, Judah was stealing her rightful husband (the third son, Shelah). All Tamar took was a thing, not a legacy. And the thing she took, namely full membership in the family, was rightfully hers.

What she ultimately got, of course, was a place in the lineage of Jesus. I always tell kids I work with, Jesus was no dummy. He could have chosen any great-mothers he wanted, and he chose to include Tamar. She wanted in no matter what it took, and in the end, she got to be a mother of the King!

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Who would prolong the seed? The point of this introductory information is to show that the continuation of the house of Judah lay in Judah’s hands...The narrative that follows shows that Judah does nothing to further the offspring of his own household. It takes the “righteousness” (sadeqah) of the woman Tamar (v.26) to preserve the seed of Judah....it is the woman Tamar, not Judah the patriarch, who is ultimately responsible for the survival of the descendants of the house of Judah.

Sailhamer, J. H. (1990). Genesis. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (Vol. 2, p. 232). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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