In ancient patriarchal societies of the Near East it was very important for the name and property of the deceased to be carried on through his posterity (one’s children). If a married man died childless, he would be forgotten and his property unaccounted for but if his brother took on the duty of giving him a seed, then all would be well. We have a reference to that in the Mosaic Law for levirate marriage: if a married man died without having children, his brother was required to marry the widow and raise a seed for her and her deceased husband. This seed would inherit the dead man’s property and carry on his name (Deuteronomy 25:5–10).
The widow was not to become a second wife. Once a pregnancy occurred, the duty of the brother was over. In fact, God punished a brother for abusing this law. The Bible narrates of an individual named Onan who used his brother’s widow for his pleasure but purposefully did not get her pregnant. For this evil action, he was punished by the Lord. “Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him. And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.” But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also. Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown” (Genesis 38:6-11).
But when Shelah grew and was not given to Tamar to raise his brother’s seed (v. 14), she was forced to think of another plan. So, when Judah’s wife died, Tamar hid her identity and pretended to be a harlot so Judah will give her seed. And he did. Tamar’s action was not considered wrong since Judah failed to fulfill his legal right to her and raise a seed for his son. When Judah found out what Tamar did, He said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” Incidentally, he never slept with her again (v. 26).
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