All Americans are urged to wear masks for health reasons, but some Christians wear masks that reveal more than they conceal. The story of Judah, the most powerful of Jacob’s 12 sons (Gen. 38), includes embedded truths about the dangers of wearing masks that disgrace those who wear them.
Judah had watched the Ishmaelites carry his brother, Joseph, to Egypt. Judah could have saved Joseph from the pit and his father from the perils of grief, but he chose to mask his feelings.
Judah married a Canaanite, who bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah married Er, his firstborn, to Tamar, but Tamar quickly became a young widow. So Judah gave her Onan in a levirate marriage, but he also died.
Judah feared if he gave Shelah to Tamar, his last and only living son would also die. Perhaps because deception was part of his way of life, Judah directed Tamar to return to her father’s house until Shelah came of age. Judah may never have intended to fulfill his promise.
The outcome of repentance is always positive and life transforming.
When Tamar heard that Judah was coming to Timnah, she wrapped herself in colorful garments and sat at the entrance of her village. As Judah approached, all he saw was a Canaanite prostitute. In contrast, Tamar knew Judah’s truth and had come to conclude that he had no intention of allowing Shelah to marry her.
She secured the pledge of a young goat in exchange for her sexual favors. For her, that young goat would enable her demand against Judah’s unkept promise to her: family status to which she was never given access.
Ironically, when Judah offered the kid to Tamar, he failed to remember the connection with the blood of the young kid that he and his brothers used to cover his brother’s coat and deceive their father. Tamar, knowing Judah well, demanded pledge symbols of his status, power, and tribal standing: his signet ring, his cord or sash, and his staff.
Three months after Judah’s rendezvous with Tamar, it became obvious that she was pregnant. In a fit of self-righteous rage, Judah ordered her to be burned to death. When she was brought out to be put to death, she said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. . . . See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are” (Gen. 38:25). Tamar’s words were similar to those Judah used when he and his brothers showed Jacob Joseph’s tattered coat covered with blood: “Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe” (Gen. 37:32).
Tamar’s words pierced Judah’s deceptive heart like a dagger. His disgraceful actions toward Joseph, so carefully disguised, were suddenly connected to the loss of all that defined him as a respectable person. Judah was forced to connect the injustice of selling his brother to the deep pain he caused Tamar. He blurted out: “She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26).
That day, Judah took the first step toward personal repentance that brought great change to him and his family’s life. In return, Perez, one of the twins born to Tamar, was the first person mentioned in the Davidic genealogy (Ruth 4:18-22). The line of kingship, which included Jesus, was traced through Judah. Judah’s story shows that a disguise of hypocritical respectability often brings disgrace. But the outcome of repentance is always positive and life-transforming.
Hyveth Williams is a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University.