12 ¶ And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep. 14 And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. 16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me? 17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? 18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him. 19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not. 21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place. 22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place. 23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
Tamar, promised Shelah, is ignored. This culture is rather bizarre to us but certain economic factors should be considered, particularly the powerlessness of women. Tamar concocted a plan to have a child, a plan which we find, at best, strange and very objectionable morally. She disguised herself as a prostitute would look and went to Timnath where Judah was shearing sheep. Covering her face, an action that, in some modern cultures has come to mean severe modesty, signified her then as a harlot. Notice how it was an act of modesty with Rebekah in 24:65.
When he negotiated with her a price for her services she demanded of him some things that would definitely be identified as belonging to him as a deposit until he could send her a kid of his goats. After the deed was done she went back to being Tamar, the widow of Onan and Er. Judah could not find her and witnesses denied there ever was a prostitute there, a harlot. Judah then acknowledged that he had done his part to make good on the deal and decided to leave things as they were.
Lest an unbalanced, carnal, or wicked person think that this passage justifies men going to prostitutes as being acceptable to God let us examine something important. First, it is vital to a clear understanding of reality as explained in the Bible that God permits man to do many things man wants to do that are against God’s preferences and standards but that none of man’s moves can prevent God’s ultimate will from being accomplished. Women had no political power in this culture. A woman had to accomplish her wishes sometimes by being clever or subtle or appealing to a man’s sense of ego or honor. Woman was no longer Adam’s helper, worthy or meet to be his partner or as would be said later, his fellow heir in the grace of life as in 1Peter 3:7 or equal to him in God’s eyes as in Galatians 3:28. Woman had become a servant, a pack animal, not much better than an oven in which to create the next generation, preferably of men.
Finally, there are enough admonitions about adultery that harlotry and prostitution are clearly not acceptable behavior. Although God will use a harlot in His ministry of reconciliation of man to Himself such as Rahab of Jericho (Joshua 2:1) the behavior is proscribed as adultery and fornication are forbidden (for adultery see Exodus 20:14).
Judah has had sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, unknowingly, but things will become even more complicated in a short time. Judah followed the impulses of his culture in comforting himself with who he thought was a harlot when his wife died and Tamar did what she thought she must do to secure a child, hopefully a son, lest she be a widow for the rest of her life in Judah’s household. We know in life that human beings often do things that were better done differently and yet God uses them anyway. This is one argument against both abortion and suicide. No matter how you got here or what you are or have done God can and will give you a special purpose in His plans.
This passage is a warning to us to be careful of viewing cultural references or desperation as doctrine lest someone think this activity is acceptable behavior for a Christian.