We pick up our story of Tamar as we see her still in her widow's garments, living with her family, and realizing that Judah (her father-in-law) was not going to fulfill his obligation under the law. He was not going to send his third son Shelah to her, so that Er's line would continue, and Tamar would be cared for.
We read in Genesis that Judah's wife passed away, and he set out for Timnah to shear his sheep. Tamar heard of his plans and devised a plan -- she would trick Judah just as he had tricked her into thinking he would care for her. She put aside her widow's garments and put on a veil -- perhaps a very exotic one, or one that would identify her as a prostitute. She arranged her veil carefully to hide her face, and sat in the city gate where prostitutes typically sat, and where their customers knew to find them. No respectable woman would be found there!
Now, it's possible that when Judah saw her there, he thought she was one of the "sacred" prostitutes of that era. Having intercourse with one of them was thought to be like having sex with the fertility goddess and was supposed to ensure the fertility of one's flocks and herds, and to ensure good yields of wool and meat from them. (Did that raise your eyebrows?) In any event, having sex with someone he wasn't married to was wrong, and we'll get back to that later.
Judah had intercourse with Tamar, and her disguise made it easy to hide her face from him. The usual payment was money or an animal, and Judah promised to send a kid from his flock. Tamar told him that he would need to leave a pledge with her -- a guarantee that he would come back and bring the kid to her. In a way, she was asking for collateral, right? So she specified that he would leave his personal seal and cord with her, along with his staff, in promise of the future payment.
These items, the seal, cord, and staff, were symbols of a man's identity at the time. They were very important and of great personal worth. The seal would have been a cylinder with a personal emblem carved on the top of it, that was unique to Judah. And his staff wasn't just a walking stick, either. The staff of a tribal leader was a symbol of his authority -- almost like a king's scepter. It often had the lineage of the man carved into it, so that it showed the genealogy of his people.
For Judah to give up these items, is very surprising, and it may show the state of his mind after the deaths of his sons and his wife. It doesn't look like he is thinking very clearly, does it? But Tamar is thinking very clearly. These items are a symbol to her as well -- of the son that she hopes to bear. The son that might succeed Judah.
Tamar removes her veil after Judah is gone, and puts her widow's garments back on. She goes home to her family, with her plan accomplished.
It may be later that day, or perhaps the next day, but Judah sends one of his men to the city gate with the little animal that he'd promised. Tamar is nowhere to be found. He was forced to return to Judah and tell him that he could not find the "prostitute" and reclaim his important items.
Three months later, it was evident to those around Tamar that she was pregnant. And word got to Judah, who immediately ordered her death. Here's the background behind that: as head of the family, Judah had the right to pass judgment on her, and condemn her to death. Both the Code of Hammurabi, which other nations followed, and the law we read in Deuteronomy say that both the man and woman who are caught in sex without marriage, would be killed.
But Tamar wasn't finished yet! She pulled the seal, cord, and staff out of her belongings and sent them to Judah, along with the message that they belonged to the father of her child!
We'll finish our study of Tamar tomorrow, and see what applications we can make to our own lives.