Questions From Readers

What circumstances caused Judah to have sexual relations with a woman he thought was a harlot, as stated at Genesis 38:15, 16?

While Judah did have sexual relations with a woman he thought was a harlot, in reality she was not a harlot. According to Genesis chapter 38, this is what happened.

Before Judah’s firstborn son had any sons by his wife, Tamar, he was put to death because he “proved to be bad in the eyes of Jehovah.” (Genesis 38:7) At that time, the custom of brother-in-law marriage was practiced. This required that when a man died without an heir, his brother was to provide the widow with the basis for an heir. But Judah’s second son, Onan, refused to fulfill his obligation. Hence, he died as a result of divine judgment. Judah then sent his daughter-in-law Tamar back to her father’s home until such time as Judah’s third son, Shelah, was old enough to be united with her. As the years went by, however, Judah failed to give Shelah in marriage to Tamar. So when Judah lost his wife in death, Tamar devised a plan to get an heir by Judah, the Israelite who had been her father-in-law. This she did by disguising herself as a temple prostitute and seating herself on the road along which she knew Judah would be passing.

Not knowing who Tamar was, Judah had relations with her. For her favors, she shrewdly obtained tokens from him, and by these she later proved that she had become pregnant by him. When the truth came out, Judah did not blame her but humbly said: “She is more righteous than I am, for the reason that I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And most fittingly, “he had no further intercourse with her.”​—Genesis 38:26.

Judah acted wrongly in that he did not give Tamar to his son Shelah as promised. He also had relations with a woman he thought was a temple prostitute. This was contrary to God’s purpose, which was for a man to have sexual relations only in the marriage arrangement. (Genesis 2:24) In reality, though, Judah did not have relations with a harlot. Rather, he unwittingly took the place of his son Shelah in performing brother-in-law marriage and thus fathered legal offspring.

As for Tamar, her course was not an immoral one. Her twin sons were not considered to be the sons of fornication. When Boaz of Bethlehem took the Moabitess Ruth in brother-in-law marriage, the elders of Bethlehem spoke favorably of Tamar’s son Perez, saying to Boaz: “May your house become like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, from the offspring that Jehovah will give you out of this young woman.” (Ruth 4:12) Perez is also listed among the ancestors of Jesus Christ.​—Matthew 1:1-3; Luke 3:23-33.