Judah was outraged when he heard Tamar, the widow of his deceased son, had become pregnant because of prostitution. He demanded, “Bring her out, and let her be burned!” (Gen. 38:24, NLT). What a shame to their family name! What an embarrassment for her! But this story exposes Judah’s poor character, not Tamar’s.
Judah’s firstborn son was Er who married Tamar, but Er died. So Judah had his second-born son, Onan, marry Tamar, as was customary to continue the family name and keep their land secure. But Onan died too (Gen. 38:3-10). Judah’s only living son was too young to marry Tamar, so Judah told Tamar to go live with her parents and remain a widow until his youngest son, Shelah, could marry Tamar. Although “Judah didn’t really intend to do this because he was afraid Shelah would also die, like his two brothers” (Gen. 38:11).
When Shelah was old enough to marry, Tamar realized no arrangements had been made for them to wed (Gen. 38:14). So Tamar devised a plan. She put on a veil to disguise herself, sat beside the road, and waited for Judah. Judah thought that Tamar was a prostitute and told her he would pay her with a goat from his flock if she had sex with him (Gen. 38:14-17).
Tamar was smart. She asked Judah to leave his identification seal, cord, and his walking stick as a guarantee that he would bring the goat (Gen. 38:18). After their night together when Judah sent the goat to the woman he thought was a prostitute, she was gone (Gen. 38:20).
Three months later Judah heard that Tamar had “acted like a prostitute” and had become pregnant. In response Judah demanded, “Bring her out, and let her be burned!” (Gen. 38:24). But before anyone could kill Tamar she sent the seal, cord, and walking stick to Judah saying, “The man who owns these things made me pregnant. Look closely. Whose seal and cord and walking stick are these?” (Gen. 38:25).
Judah recognized his items and admitted, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:26). Judah’s poor character caused him pain, shame, and heartache.
There were three significant failures of Judah’s character. First, Judah never intended to do what he said he would do. His two older sons had died. He told his daughter-in-law, Tamar, that when his youngest son was old enough for marriage, he would allow them to get married. However, the text in parenthesis provides an insight into what Judah was truly thinking, “But Judah didn’t really intend to do this because he was afraid Shelah would also die, like his two brothers” (Gen. 38:11b).
Second, Judah didn’t maintain sexual purity. He had gone to the city of Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep (Gen. 38:12). While on that business trip he must have had time to spare and decided to pay for sex (Gen. 38:15-16). Without knowing it he paid for sex from his daughter-in-law!
Third, Judah did not follow Israel’s customs to protect property ownership and family lineage. When a married man died his brother was supposed to marry the widow and have children through her (Deut. 25:5-10). Judah was scared to do this because he thought his youngest son would die like his other two sons had died.
In a postmodern culture sometimes we are confused about what “character” is. Let’s define it. The Dictionary of Bible Themes defines character, “The moral and mental features that define a person, whether good or evil. The term also means moral strength, which Scripture regards as something to be highly valued.” The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.”
As you can see from those two definitions, character is the reputation someone has based on his or her actions. As Christians we want to cultivate a righteous character. Righteous character is good and ethical – the kind of character that reflects our love for people, as well as our love for God. One way we cultivate this type of character is by doing what we say we will do.
A CONTRAST IN CHARACTER: JOSEPH
Joseph was the half-brother of Judah. As a teenager he didn’t always exhibit the best judgment. In one situation he gave a bad report to his father about his brothers pasturing a flock (Gen. 37:2). He told his brothers about a dream in which they bowed down before him (Gen. 37:5-8). (This meant Joseph would reign over his brothers.) And he also told his brothers and father about another dream he had in which the sun, moon, and stars were all bowing down before him (Gen. 37:9-11). One person told me Joseph in his younger years was “a little bit haughty,” and I agree.
But as Joseph grew older his character got better. His brothers, in their hate for Joseph, sold him to some Ishmaelite travelers, who eventually sold him as a slave to Potiphar in Egypt.
Joseph grew into a smart and handsome man. Joseph “succeeded in everything he did” while serving Potiphar (Gen. 39:2). Everything that Joseph did prospered (Gen. 39:3). Joseph soon found favor in Potiphar’s mind (Gen. 39:4) and he put Joseph in charge of everything that Potiphar owned. Joseph was so competent that Potiphar only decided what he was going to eat because Joseph took care of everything else (Gen. 39:6).
When Potiphar’s wife expressed her desire to have sex with Joseph (Gen. 39:7) he refused and tried to avoid her (Gen. 39:8-10). When Potiphar’s wife was alone with Joseph she grabbed him and demanded he have sex with her. But Joseph ran away from her (Gen. 39:12)! Potiphar’s wife lied and said that Joseph had tried to rape her, so Joseph was placed in jail (Gen. 39:13-20).
While in jail Joseph proved himself a faithful servant and good manager, just as he had been under Potiphar. Soon the chief jailer put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners (Gen. 39:21-23). Later Joseph was released and given responsibility by the Pharaoh of Egypt.
In Pharaoh’s service, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of his court and all the people of Egypt took orders from him (Gen. 41:40). Joseph gathered food during the seven years of good crops in Egypt (Gen. 41:47-49). And when the crops stopped producing food and the people were hungry, they all came to Joseph because he had stored the extra food from the seven good years of harvests. When famine came, people from all over the earth came to Joseph and he sold food to them (Gen. 41:56-57).
During the severe famine Joseph’s brothers, which had sold him into slavery 13 years earlier, came to him asking him for food. Joseph told them to bring their families to live in Egypt so that Joseph could provide for them (Gen. 49:9-11). Which he did until his father died.
CULTIVATING GOOD CHARACTER IN OUR LIVES
How can we cultivate a good character for our lives? First, we need to do what we say we will do. Judah said one thing but planned to do something different. Judah could have avoided a lot of embarrassment and shame if he would have simply done what he told Tamar he was going to do. Or if he would have been honest and told her he had no intention of marrying Shelah to her, she could have found another person to marry (see Ruth 4 for an example). But he did not. He said one thing knowing he intended to do something different. But Joseph said he would help his brothers and he did help them multiple times (even when he didn’t have to, and when no one would blame him for not helping them). For us to be people of good character, we need to do what we say we will do.
Second, we need to stay away from sin. Sin can be blatant gossip about others, uncontrollable anger, drunkenness, or envy of others. Judah sought sex with a prostitute while traveling. Joseph fled the sexual advances of his boss’ wife. There are several things we can do to stay away from sin. The place to start is to not put ourselves in front of temptations. If we are particularly vulnerable to a certain vice, we should do everything possible to remove opportunities for temptation from our lives. Another way we can stay away from sin is to pick specific verses of Scripture to memorize that will aid us in our time of need. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” When we lean on the Lord, he will help us to resist the temptations that are trying to pull us away from him. When we feel tempted, we should pray as Jesus instructs in Luke 22:40 that we would not fall into temptation. Galatians 5:16 says that if we “walk in step with the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Having verses like these in our memory bank and in our heart can help us rely on the Holy Spirit to combat the temptations that we face.
Third, we need to look different. Judah was “one of the guys.” He had a business and enjoyed the luxuries of travels. Joseph stood out among everyone he was around. Potiphar, the jail warden, and Pharaoh all recognized that something was different about Joseph. As Christians in a non-Christian world people should look at us and see that something is different. Paul told the believers in Philippi that even though they lived in the city of Philippi (which was part of the Roman Empire) they were “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 1:27; 3:20). To live as a citizen of heaven includes praying unceasingly, participating in a faith community, and providing for our family, our church, and more. Regardless of where we physically find ourselves, living as citizens of heaven should make us look different.
Character counts. It effects our lives in more ways than we realize. We saw this in Judah’s story above. Hopefully we can cultivate a good character and be more like Joseph.