38 24 About three New-Moons later Judah was told, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has played-the-whore, and what’s more she is pregnant from whoring.”
Judah said, “Take her out. Let her be burned!”
25 As she was being taken out, she sent a message to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Do you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are?”
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I am, for I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he was drawing his hand back, out came his brother, and she said, “What a breach you have made. So this is how you have burst forth!” And he was named Perez/Breach. 30 Afterward, out came his brother, on whose hand was the scarlet thread. And he was named Zerah/Shining.
It appears that sending Tamar back to her father does not remove her from the authority of Judah. When he learns that Tama is pregnant, the immediate charge is that she conceived by way of prostitution (one of a few ways women on their own could survive).
In an instant, Judah pronounces judgment in only two Hebrew words: “Take-her-out!” “That-she-be-burned.” For Judah, there can be no extenuating circumstance. This provides the excuse Judah needs to pay her back for the deaths of Er and Onan, and to further protect Shelah.
As Tamar is taken out to be burned, she appeals her case by sending the seal, cord, and staff to Judah with the message that she is with child by the owner of these items.
Judah recognizes them and stops the proceedings with the recognition that her right to a child by a son of Judah has been met by Tamar’s going to the source—Judah himself. If Shelah is withheld, Tamar is still family and cannot be put to death.
Remembering this interruption may have come before Judah interceded on behalf of Joseph-of-the-Pit, readers may store this self-awareness and ability to see more than his own righteousness as positive leadership qualities.
Again we have a twin story and issues of who is firstborn. Zerah-of-the-Scarlet-Thread parallels Esau the Red—firstborns who are displaced from their position.
Jacob secures his blessing through his trickery of Esau and Isaac. Perez overtakes Zerah in the process of his being born and bursts through. As Jacob’s grandson, Perez becomes the one through whom will come (spoiler alert) the kings of Judah—particularly David and a non-king named Jesus.
Such is the strange story of Judah and Tamar, and levirate marriage. Responsibility to the larger family is not an easy lesson for Judah.