Sunday, November 24, 2013

Judah Demands the Death of Tamar for Adultery (Genesis 38:24-26)

Genesis 38

King James Version (KJV)

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.
25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.
26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Some may suggest that verse 38 implies knowledge on the part of Judah that God required the death penalty for adultery prior to the Mosaic legislation. Not that we disagree that the death penalty for adultery is binding on all nations, but we recommend caution when referring to this text on the matter. 

First, does Judah here really know that adultery should be capitally punished, or does he demand the death penalty out of anger? Or for another reason?

Second, Scripture does not permit the accused to be punished without a fair trial, as the accused must be proven guilty on the testimony of two or three reliable witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). Tamar would have to be caught in the act. In a trial, simply being pregnant is not enough evidence of guilt. It is always possible that the woman was raped, or even that her husbandin a malicious desire to rid himself of his wifeblamed her pregnancy on adultery when he  himself knowingly made her pregnant. 

Third, when guilt is proven, the woman should be examined to see if she is with child. If she is, her punishment must be postponed until the child is born. To kill an unborn child while punishing the mother violates Exodus 21:22-25, as well as the principle that "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deuteronomy 24:16).

Therefore, if Judah was aware of the death penalty for adultery, he was derelict by not insisting on a trial, and in an unwillingness to spare the unborn child.

John Gill, writing about Judah's demand that Tamar be burned, offers some helpful commentary, and also offers a perspective somewhat different than ours:  
and Judah said, bring her forth, and let her be burntnot that Judah can be thought to be a civil magistrate in a Canaanitish and Heathen city where he sojourned, and as such pronounced this sentence on her at once, or even had the power of life and death in his own family; and besides Tamar was not in his, but in her own father's house: but the sense seems to be, that as he was a man of credit and esteem in the neighbourhood, and had an influence and interest in it; he moved that she might be brought out of her father's house, and take her trial before the civil magistrates, and be committed to prison until she was delivered, for it would have been barbarous, and contrary to the law and light of nature, to have burnt her when quick with child, and then indeed to be burnt to death, according to the usage of this country; and as we find adultery in later times was punished with this kind of death, even among Heathens, (Jeremiah 29:22 Jeremiah 29:23 ) ; as it was in Egypt in the times of Sesostris the second; so Salaethus, prince of Croton in Italy, made a law that adulterers should be burnt alive, as Lucian relates; as did also Macrinus the emperor, that those that were guilty of adultery should be burnt alive together, their bodies joined to each other: and this criminal action of Tamar was judged adultery, because she was, of right, and according to a custom or law then in use, the wife of Shelah: the Targum of Jonathan intimates, she was judged deserving of this death, because the daughter of a priest; the same law obtaining among the patriarchs as did in the times of Moses, (Leviticus 21:9 ) ; and some, as Jarchi relates, say she was the daughter of Shem, the same with Melchizedek, priest of the most high God: one reason why Judah was in haste to have the sentence pronounced on her, and as soon as could be executed, was not only the disgrace she brought upon his family, but that she might be dispatched, and so his son Shelah freed from being obliged to marry her, which he did not care he should, and was glad of this opportunity to prevent it.