Yes, I know this story isn't from this week's reading, but the question was asked and I thought I'd answer it for anyone wondering.
In Genesis 38 we read the story of Judah and Tamar. Here Judah's eldest son, Er, gets married to a woman named Tamar. However, before he is able to get her pregnant he dies (the Bible says that God put him to death because Er was wicked). Tamar is then given to Er's brother, Onan, whose responsibility is now to have a child with Tamar. The catch is that this child will be his brother, Er's, not his. So, Onan decides to prevent his late-brother's wife from becoming pregnant. So God kills him too, because of his wickedness.
Judah tells Tamar to wait until Judah's youngest, Shelah, has grown up more, so she enters Judah's house and lives with him as a widow. Eventually, Shelah has grown up, but Tamar notices that Judah hasn't made any arrangements for their marriage. Tamar dresses as a prostitute and lays in wait for Judah, getting him to sleep with her and leave her with a pledge for his payment. She purposely asks for a very identifiable pledge and then sleeps with him.
When Judah comes back to trade the pledge for his payment, he cannot find the woman he had been with, so he returns home. Later, it turns out that Tamar is pregnant and Judah is indignant and is going to have her killed for having sex outside of marriage; however, Tamar uses Judah's pledge to show him that he is the father to which he replies that she is not to be put to death because she is more righteous than he.
This post will examine why Onan was killed, and why Tamar was considered more righteous than Judah after her act of prostitution.
Why was Onan considered wicked?
Onan's wicked deed comes down to two things: he was not doing what was considered the proper thing to do, and he was being selfish. In the times of Genesis 38 it was considered proper, if a man died with no heir, for his brother to take his wife as his own and sleep with her. Their first child would be the brother's heir whereas all further offspring would be his own. After Er was killed, Onan was supposed to produce an heir for his brother, for all his brother's lands and possessions to pass down to. However, Onan realized that, should Tamar not have a child, all Er's land and possessions would be his own and would pass through his own line (remember, Er--as the oldest--would have received a sizeable inheritance).
So Onan devised a plan whereby he would have sex with Tamar, but would then pull-out before climax--ensuring no heir would be produced and allowing him to keep the inheritance for himself and any offspring produced by him with another wife. God found this selfishness despicable and killed him.
Why was Tamar Righteous?
As Er and Onan were both dead and no heir had been produced, Tamar rightfully was to be passed to the next oldest brother to produce an heir by him. However, Judah was afraid his final son would be killed too (as Tamar has become a bit of a black widow at this point) so he says that Shelah needs to be older before they marry.
Tamar soon realizes that Judah has absolutely no intention of following through on his promise (which is also his duty) and she devises a plan of her own in order to secure the heir that is rightfully due her. She tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute and gets pregnant by him. She also makes sure to have proof that it was Judah that did this.
Judah realizes that he sinned both by having sex with a prostitute (and having sex outside of marriage), and by trying to withhold his son from marrying Tamar. While Tamar's actions were not perfect (she was guilty of fornication and some trickery) she actually ended up forcing Judah to give her what was rightfully hers and is therefore considered more righteous than Judah. Recognize as well, the Bible does not say that Tamar's actions were righteous. All it notes is that Judah said she was more righteous than he was.
Is this a case of the ends justifying the means? What's your take? Leave your comments and questions below!
--Pastor Stephen Valcourt