At the end of the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, in verse 26 Judah states Tamar "...is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah."

In the story, Judah is tricked into barely-above-incestuous relations through Tamar pretending to be a prostitute. How can Judah be considered "Righteous" in any way, shape, or form and how can Tamar be considered "more righteous" in light of this?

9 Answers 9


Tamar was more righteous because she saw the whole situation and Judah did not. She was “at the end of her rope,” in the society in which she lived. She had complied with Judah’s wishes as far as she could; she married two of his sons (Er and Onan), but she was at the point where she didn’t have any options left. It seems clear that Judah wasn’t going to help her of his own volition.

Not only was he was running out of sons for Tamar to marry, but she had become an unwelcome burden on him and on her father. Maybe Judah was afraid that Tamar was a harbinger of death and he surely didn’t want his third son to die, so he dithered and procrastinated, until Tamar decided to act on her own understanding of the whole situation.

She tricked Judah into taking his responsibilities seriously by tempting him to consort with a veiled woman whom he believed to be a prostitute. When he finds out that the prostitute was his daughter-in-law, he realizes what has happened, and we have to admire his honesty when he says (Genesis 38: 26) that she is more righteous than he is. He recognized his own shortcomings and his guilt.

Furthermore, by this time, she was also acting on behalf of her unborn children, and, what she did evidently had God’s approval or she would have been struck down as her first two husbands were.

The society in which Tamar lived was dominated by the rules of a patriarchy and a levirate. Women had few choices in those days, but Tamar brilliantly used the ones she had. She was a strong, clever and astute woman who apparently had God’s approval for what she did.


There are some helpful reflections in the existing answers, although one flaw affects them all, and it is embedded in the question, as posed, itself...

The Meaning of ṢDQ?

The flaw is the assumption that Hebrew verb (in Gen 38:26) ṣādaq should be understood here as "righteous", where "righteous" stands for some kind of ethical purity next to holiness (implied -- the thread so far has not shown much interest in the semantics of ṣedeq [as noun] or ṣādaq [as verb]).

Even the older lexica (like the venerable Brown-Driver-Briggs which I'm usually fond of quoting on BH.SE) aren't as helpful as usual, although they do point in the right direction -- the point being that we start from the basic meaning of the root ṣ-d-q being something like "[be] right, in accordance with (some) standard". Cyril Rodd, in his work on biblical ethics, has a fine discussion of this issue.1 Rodd points out that the term has different shades of meaning in different contexts, e.g. social ("according to prevailing norms"), or judicial ("giving true judgment"), and so on.

And this takes the discussion in quite a different direction.

The Idiom in Gen 38:26

The term is, of course, embedded in a particular discourse:

MT: ... וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי
wayyōʾmer ṣādĕqâ mimmenî kî...
and he said, "She is more ṣ-d-q than me because..."

That is, there is a comparative construction here. This is not the only place in the Hebrew Bible where this sort of language occurs, the closest comparator being 1 Sam 24:18:2

MT: ...וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־דָּוִד צַדִּיק אַתָּה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי
wayyōʾmer ʾel-dāwīd ṣaddîq ʾattâ mimmenî kî...
And he [Saul] said to David, "You are more ṣaddîq than me because..."

What both of these texts share is the admission of culpability from a social "superior" to a social "inferior".3 On those few occasions in the Hebrew Bible when we see someone saying "sorry" to someone else (be that Jacob to Esau, Joseph's brothers to Joseph, or Abigail to David -- aren't (m)any more), it's always the "inferior" to "superior". This idiom ("You are more ṣ-d-q than me") appears to be the way that a "superior" says "sorry" (admits guilt) to an "inferior".

By way of corroboration, both Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley and Waltke-O'Connor cite this verse as an example of "comparison of exclussion". See Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, §133b, note 4: "...the phrase צָדַק מִן־‎ expresses not a comparison, but only a relation existing between one person and another..."; also B. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 265, §14.4e: "In a comparison of exclusion, the subject alone possesses the quality connoted by the adjective or stative verb, to the exclusion of the thing compared". This again indicates that we are not dealing with a "more-or-less righteous" scenario as assumed in most of this Q&A.


The "confession" of Judah regarding Tamar in Genesis 38:26 isn't about who places where in relative terms on a sliding scale of sanctimoniousness. It's Judah repairing his broken relationship with Tamar by admitting his own guilt. "Right" here (better than "righteousness") belongs to Tamar (or in the case of 1 Sam 24:18, to David rather than Saul).


  1. C. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (T & T Clark, 2001), see esp. pp. 47-51, although his discussion extends beyond that.
  2. Others that could be considered here: Job 35:2; Jeremiah 3:11; Ezekiel 16:52; Habakkuk 1:13. They are not quite the same construction -- nor social setting -- as the two cited above, however.
  3. For what follows, see D.J. Reimer “Stories of Forgiveness: Narrative Ethics and the Old Testament”, in R. Rezetko, T.H. Lim and W.B. Aucker (eds.), Reflection and Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honour of A. Graeme Auld (Vetus Testamentum Supplements, 113; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2006), pp. 359-78, esp. 372-4.
  • David - quick honest, bona-fide, sincere, well-meaning question: In the Comparison of Exclusion, would the comparison between Judah and Tamar mean that Tamar was righteous when Judah was not righteous (that is, mutually exclusive)? Thanks!
    – Joseph
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 19:30
  • @Joseph : That is what the grammarians are telling us here. But -- that notion also needs to be allied with a translation of ṢDQ that isn't so "theological/ethical" here. See how Waltke-O'Connor gloss it in their treatment of the "comparison of exclusion" = "she is in the right, not I". IMO, "righteous" is too "loaded" a wording in this context: that's not what Judah is talking about. (IMO!! Grateful your thoughtful contributions!)
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 20:09

You focus on Tamar. But first I would encourage you to focus on Judah.

Judah was familiar with the law (as were all players in this family drama.) Yet his two eldest sons were so badly behaved that God struck them down. What does that say about the kind of father (and man) Judah was, that he should have two sons who so displeased the Lord? And why, then, does he secretly believe their deaths were Tamar's fault instead of the will of God?

We don't know Er's sin, but it was clear that he was not righteous. Judah did the correct thing in telling Onan to take Tamar for a wife, but Onan didn't want to lose the inheritance he would have if Tamar stayed childless, so he also turned his back on the will of the Lord, and God struck him down for it. Judah, fearing the same fate for his third son, tells her to go to her father's house and wait for Shelah to grow up. She obeyed him. But her reward was to be deceived by her father-in-law, who was willing to let this righteous woman die childless (which was a huge deal and disgrace back then) rather than obey the law. She wasn't stupid, and she wasn't a prostitute: she wasn't having sex for money. She was going to get her husband's birthright. And it was highly doubtful that she would get it by asking Judah for it (or she probably would have; indeed we have no way of knowing if she did or didn't.)

Hittite law (for comparison) was that if there were no brothers left for the childless widow, the obligation fell to the father-in-law to father a child; if he could not/would not, the obligation fell to the next nearest male relative, and so on (see Boaz and Ruth.) Common levirate practice of that day would say that Judah as the father-in-law was next in line to fulfill this duty if the brothers didn’t. So, let's not rush to judgement of Tamar. Her life was bad enough: Judah chose her as a wife for evil Er; Onan had intercourse with her but deceived her by spilling his seed (the appearance of righteousness here, seeing a pattern?) and finally she is deceived by Judah. Well, she deceived him into doing his duty, what was right in the eyes of the law*. And she was blessed for this by conceiving, having twins, and being in the line of David.

When Judah's friend could not find her at the gate or in the city, what was Judah's reaction? *“Let her keep (his seal and staff), otherwise we will become a laughingstock *. After all, I sent this young goat, but you did not find her.” So, he's willing, for the sake of his pride, to let her be unpaid though he was in debt to her.

Finally, when she is with child, he had no compassion for her; he called for her to be burned. Fornication was not a capital sin; adultery was usually punished by stoning; burning was reserved for the daughter of a priest who became a harlot. So his call for her to be burned was drastically ungodly. One wonders why he chose to call for her death in this manner.

And you ask why she was called more righteous than he? It seems to me that he broke the law of the Lord far more than she did, both the spirit and the letter. She did deceive Judah. But it was deceiving him into doing the right thing.

Before looking to knock dawn Tamar, you should ask yourself, how righteous was Judah, and if you had to rank their respective righteousnesses, where would he and Tamar fall. The Bible states it: “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

  • 1
    This is a fantastic answer, though you say that Judah was familiar with the Law, but the law was not given until Exodus - well after Judah lived. I wonder if that is the Author's way of providing Judah and Tamar with some wiggle room in terms of the deception and calling for Tamar's burning. Despite this, clearly the readers of Genesis should know the law, so I'll bet the author is using this fact to hint and imply a great deal. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:04
  • 1
    The Law given later was already pretty much covered by levirite practice; God codified it for His people. You can assume they knew the law since Judah knew he had done wrong on multiple occasions, and that Tamar had not. Look at his contemporaries: Jacob, Joseph, his brothers, etc. all the way back to Cain. Should we excuse Cain because there was no "Law" yet? Why did he think he would be killed? The absence of recorded history doesn't mean there is none. We just don't know it, but since they all seemed to know it, we can assume God didn't say these things for the very first time on Mt. Sinai. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 6:19

You must keep in mind that these societies predate any concept of "inalienable rights" or "personal integrity". Whether someone is righteous or not is up to the perception of their peers and chain of patrons (possibly all the way up to God). The god, patron, or public determine on a very subjective case-by-case basis what is right or wrong.

Judah was not righteous because he had failed to give his third son to Tamar at the proper time. Women in those days (with very few exceptions) had honor only through that of their man, whether their father before marriage or husband after. This was carried to the extent that the protection of a woman's shame was the responsibility of her man, not of the woman herself.

When Tamar's first husband died, she became a widow, incapable of participating in the honor game, and it was expected that Judah's second son would take her in order to embed her into his honor. When he did so but then also died, the third son should have taken her, but he was not yet old enough. So she returned to her father to live under his (now somewhat lessened) honor until Shelah was old enough.

But Judah did not restore her to full honor through Shelah when it was time, which was at least not as righteous as he could have been. And his peers and patrons would have noted that.

Since Judah failed to act, Tamar took the matter into her own hands in order to restore her own honor (and thereby also improve that of Judah's whole family). As mentioned above, it was simply not expected that a woman would be able to manage her own shame, or even act honorably when not governed by a man (cf. so many ancient texts about the deceitfulness of women). So I think society would have given her a pass for her trickery to a large extent, given her circumstances. Judah apparently agreed or would not have called her "more righteous".

The context of Judah's statement is also important because he had just ordered her to be brought out and burned for her unrighteous shamelessness in getting pregnant outside of marriage. So for him to declare that she was more righteous than he was partly in response to what he himself had just ordered, as if he had said, "she is unrighteous! whoops, no: she is actually more righteous than I am!".


I do not want to suggest any heresy, so I'll put it out there and be rebuked if necessary. Perhaps Judah secretly lusted after Tamar, which is why he kept her in the house "for a considerable amount of time" but wouldn't give her to Shelah. She knew this, and though she disguised herself, she knew he would pick her up because she would remind him of Tamar, and thus he would unknowingly fulfill his desire for her. When it was found she was pregnant by prostitution, he wanted her to be burned both out of righteous anger but also because he was both jealous and envious; but when he was found out that the staff and cord were his, this may explain why he answered, "She is more righteous than I, because I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah."

Is that reading too far into the story and putting words in that the Bible doesn't say? In any case, Tamar knew that Judah was given to lust and adultery, and knew that he would pick up a prostitute. But Judah repented, and never had relations with Tamar again. Did he help raise the children? Did Tamar continue to live with Judah? The Bible doesn't say.

  • If he did desire her and she knew it, I don't believe it was welcome to her. She felt held back from what she was due--children according to her right as a widow--because of Judah's secret desire, which would explain why she acted as she did. Of course, her reasons don't excuse what she did, but would explain Judah's statement of her being more righteous than he.
    – sbeall
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 22:17

The birthright was common practice and knowledge, was it not? She would have known how important it was, even without any spiritual significance attached to it. . A few simple questions from Tamar about why there were no idols in the house (except maybe any setup by Judah's wife - we are not told) but people are people, and a few embarrassed, disgruntled comments from a half-guilty (about Joseph) Judah, and Tamar would soon know enough facts about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the promise to put two and two together. Yes, she probably did not know Jesus name, but is it too unrealistic to think she knew enough to know that she was now a part, through marriage, of some special promises of the one true God, with regard to Judah's offspring?

Remember Jacob is still alive at this time. Joseph is slaving in Egypt. Judah is trying to run away from his guilty conscience and his grieving father, and showing some major character flaws in doing so But back to the incest comments, and I used to think like that too. We MUST remember that in the culture of the day, and later written through Moses, it was Judah's DUTY to provide a child for Tamar, by his sons or by himself. It seems like incest to us, but at that time, it was not, even, it would appear, incest in God's sight. That boggles our western Christian mindset I know, but is that not the reality of the day, and the later scriptures? It was God's loving provision to a widow, so there was provision for her in her old age. And honor of her husband's name not being forgotten. We note Judah did not know her again. The act (on her side) was purely for the sake of raising up the heir. She was not unrighteous in being with Judah. Yes, she pretended.... but only to do what was right. German believers pretended in all sorts of ways to save Jewish children. Should we judge them unrighteous for the lie on the outside, or righteous for the love within the heart? And we fail to see what a BIG thing it was, what high esteem she became held in by Hebrews,/Jews. What a shining example of womanhood later generations considered her to be, that her name became a blessing at weddings. And it is interesting... so often we hear about how awful Tamar was. But so few scathing comments about her neglectful, careless, running from truth, relationships and God, running into the arms of a prostitute, father in law. He avoided duty/doing what was right. She made sure he did it. But did not cross his free will in the end: she gave him the dignity of making the choice: to confess the staff and seal was his, or to burn her! She was the tool God used to bring Judah to repentance. And God blessed her. And apparently the Jew's have a saying that says something like: better to burn than to publicly dishonor someone, which some link back to Tamar in the final crisis of this episode of her life. And , she became one of the 70 that went down to Egypt with Jacob! We need to hear more of why God blessed this woman! What was in her heart that God so blessed her, doubly it would seem, with twins - in the midst of such an unenviable situation?May our daughters be as Tamar. May they do what is righteous even when all the men around them aren't. And may they so act with raw faith in God and tenacious courage as to bring such men to repentance. Probably digressing from the topic a little here, but has God put this story here to say: this is the sort of woman I will bless with double (and surely that is hinting at aforesaid birthright?). Look at Tamar and learn.


Judah married a Canaanite woman and had three sons by her – Er, Onan, and Shelah. The text tells us that “Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord slew him,” 38:7.

The law of the brother's widow demanded that the nearest kin of the dead man should take his brother’s widow in order to give her children so that the dead man’s line and inheritance would not cease. Only the first-born son would carry the line of the dead husband. All subsequent children would then be the heir of their father. God incorporated this law into the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

In accordance with this law, Tamar is then given by Judah to Onan to bear a son to his deceased brother. This law was so binding that when Onan refused to fulfill this obligation he incurred the wrath of God and God slew him as well. Judah told Tamar to remain in her father's house until Shelah grew up and he would give her to him.

Later, Judah’s wife died and verse 12 says that in time, “Judah was comforted...” This is simply an expression meaning that he had ceased his time of mourning. Tamar later discovered Judah had not kept his word. When Shelah had grown up, Judah had not given Tamar to his son, verse 13, and she discovered she has been lied to.

She then disguised herself as a prostitute and enticed Judah so that she could still have a son to preserve the inheritance of her dead husband, 14-19. The bargain of a kid is struck as payment for her affections and Judah gives her his signet ring, his chord, and his staff as a surety against the payment.

After Tamar conceived and left town. Judah sent his payment to reclaim his surety but she was not found. He preferred to let her keep the things to avoid being laughed at but her pregnancy would not allow the matter to remain concealed. When Judah discovered she was pregnant, he was willing to see her burned to death for her “harlotry.” Since the power of life and death regarding family members rested with the patriarch, he would have been justified under normal circumstances. But this is not a normal circumstance.

The surety items did precisely what they were designed to do. They linked Judah to the child and give legitimacy to the pregnancy. When she presented these things to Judah, he realized he was the one who was in the wrong and declared her more righteous than he. Although the deception by Tamar was certainly a calculated deception, Judah recognized the fact that she was more just in her deception of him than he was in his rejection of her by not giving her to Shelah as he had promised according to the custom. Thus, Judah showed himself to be a not all-together unjust man. He does not lie with her again. The obligation was fulfilled in the producing of an heir but, he does not appear to have taken her as a wife as he should have. In this, Judah wronged her again.


The Idea in Brief

Tamar was more righteous than Judah because she recognized the Abrahamic Covenant in the seed of the sons of Jacob. Like Ruth, who later coveted the same seed of promise, Tamar was the line through whom King David was to be born. This hope in the promise of Abraham's Covenant reflected the same righteousness which Abraham had for believing God.


Tamar was in the line of King David, who later became the anointed King of Israel.

Ruth 4:11-13 (NASB)
11 All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem. 12 Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman.” 13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.

Boaz was descended from Tamar, and the subsequent descendent was King David. Therefore Tamar had captured the "Promised Seed" from Judah. This seed would now pass through Tamar (and later Ruth) to become the anointed seed in the Davidic Covenant.

In other words, the promise to Abraham was that he would have seed, which was both collective and in the singular. (Please click here for further discussion.) The collective seed were all biological descendants of Abraham, and the individual seed was one particular son. Tamar was aiming at this individual seed of promise when she deceived Judah. Tamar knew that this individual seed was tied to the Abrahamic Covenant. For example, later in the Hebrew Bible we see Covenant of David and Covenant of Abraham tied together.

Jeremiah 33:25-26 (NASB)
25 Thus says the Lord, ‘If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, 26 then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.’”

The line of David was the means by which the promised individual seed of Abraham would appear, who would become the anointed seed in the Davidic Covenant. Tamar knew (like Ruth who would follow) that the hope of the "Promised Seed" of Abraham was the direct promise of blessing from God.


Judah and his sons failed to fulfill the rite of levirate marriage with Tamar, who, unlike them, had hoped in the Abrahamic Covenant that an individual seed would fulfill the promise of God's blessings. (This hope would later appear as the anointed seed in the David Covenant.) By eying this Abrahamic Covenant, and acting like Judah's father Jacob, who stole the promise from his brother Esau by deception, Tamar was more righteous than Judah, who failed to appreciate and value the importance of the "Promised Seed" of the Abrahamic Covenant.


Tamar conceived through committing incest with her father-in-law (Gen. 38:6-27). Morally speaking, this was deplorable and ethically speaking, it was awful. Nobody would justify this. In a sense, what Tamar did was not good at all. Nevertheless, she was righteous. The fault was not on her side, but on the side of her father-in-law, Judah, who admitted that she was more righteous than he (Gen. 38:26). You may say that there was no excuse for Tamar’s deed and that incest always involves both sides. Although Tamar may be held responsible to a certain extent, she was righteous, and she had a heart for the birthright.

In Tamar’s time, the birthright meant a great deal (Gen. 38:6-8). The birthright included a double portion of the land, the priesthood, and the kingship. The double portion of the land refers in typology to the double enjoyment of Christ. The land is Christ, and the double portion of the land is not the ordinary, common enjoyment of Christ, but something special, something extraordinary in the enjoyment of Christ. Both the priesthood and the kingship are also related to Christ. For the generation after Abraham, the birthright was altogether a matter of inheriting Christ. In Ephesians 2:12, we are told that when we were unbelievers, we were without Christ. But by believing in the Lord Jesus, we have been brought into the birthright. We have been put into Christ, Christ has become our portion, and He will even be our double portion. Through Him, in Him, and with Him we have the priesthood and the kingship. Christ Himself is our good land, our priesthood, and our kingship.

Now we can understand why Tamar was anxious to have the birthright. She knew that if she were cut off, she would be through with God’s promise. And God’s promise was simply the promise of Himself to be the portion of His chosen people in Christ. Tamar was not willing to miss this blessing.

Tamar was the wife of the first son of Judah. This son should have inherited the birthright. But Tamar’s husband was wicked in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord took his life (Gen. 38:7). The Lord also slew Judah’s second son (Gen. 38:8-10). According to the ancient regulations, Judah should have arranged for his next son to marry Tamar in order that a son might be brought forth to inherit the birthright. Judah, however, did not fulfill his responsibility. In a sense, Judah cheated Tamar (Gen. 38:11-14). But Tamar did not give up; rather, she even used an unseemly means to obtain the birthright. Whether the means was unseemly or not, Tamar did her best to get that birthright.

EDIT (on the birthright):

The birthright included three elements: the double portion of the land, the priesthood, and the kingship. Although Reuben lost his birthright because of his defilement (Gen. 49:3-4; 1 Chron. 5:1-2). The the double portion of the land went to Joseph. This must have been due to his purity (Gen. 39:7-20). He was the son closest to his father and the one most after his father’s heart (Gen. 37:2-3, 12-17). Each of Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, received a portion of the land (Joshua 16 and 17). Thus through his two sons he inherited two portions of the good land.

The priesthood portion of the birthright went to Levi (Deut. 33:8-10). In order to fulfill God’s desire, Levi forgot his parents, his brothers, and his children and only took care of God’s desire. Thus, he received the priesthood portion of the birthright.

The kingship, another portion of the birthright, was given to Judah (Gen. 49:10; 1 Chron. 5:2). The reason is when Joseph was suffering under the conspiracy of his brothers, Judah took care of him (Gen. 37:26). He also took care of Benjamin in time of suffering (Gen. 43:8-9; 44:14-34). Because of this, I believe, the kingship went to Judah.

  • I'm not sure I agree that Tamar was trying to get the birthright because Jesus would have come through her lineage. How could she possibly have known this so far before the birth of Christ? She would have had to have some secret knowledge that no other prophets or patriarchs had... Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:14
  • I am not saying or implying that Tamar knew the spiritual significance of the birthright [like how we understand it since we are the New Testament believers] but she definitely knew the importance of having the birthright. Why the downvote though? I am sorry if I confused you in that I interweave the account with spiritual significance of the types.
    – pehkay
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:22
  • Did you asked on the birthright?
    – pehkay
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:26
  • 1
    You took a Hebrew Bible text and jumped to talking about Jesus without showing any work for making such a connection. Check out this post on showing work, specifically the third paragraph.
    – Dan
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 5:01

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.