Why wasn’t Judah punished for seeing a prostitute?



There is something that has been nagging me for a long time. I am a young Christian man, and I have this question about the story of Judah and Tamar. As you know, Tamar tricked Judah into fathering a child with her by disguising herself as a prostitute. In the narrative, at least in my NIV and NASB translations, the telling of Judah's act on the road to Timna makes it sound so nonchalant as if men visiting temple prostitutes were as ordinary an event as going to the well to fetch a pail of water. The only shame and remorse felt by Judah were in the fact that he had been duped out of his seal. The embarrassment of losing his seal and becoming a laughingstock seemed to be the main motivation for him to keep the incident out of public knowledge. But the biggest question I have is, where was God's wrath in all of this? It seemed that Judah got off scot-free, as far as punishment from God.

When David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, God's response was clear: the death of his son, who was conceived from that relationship.

Sodom and Gomorrah were clearly destroyed because the men of that city preferred homosexual relations, choosing to go after sex with the angels who were visiting Lot rather than even accepting his virgin daughters for their evil designs. And I find it shocking that Lot is able to offer his daughters for this purpose, yet still be good enough in God's eyes to be spared from the fate met by the rest of the city.

This narrative seems to be telling me that having sex with a prostitute (Judah) is OK with God, or at least not as egregious a transgression as having sex with a married woman (David) or having homosexual relations (inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah). And having sex with a young unmarried virgin woman (Lot's daughters), or causing such a woman to have sex (Lot's action) is just fine!

How do you explain God's apparent indifference to Judah's and Lot's actions? And to top it off, Judah's bloodline led to Jesus! I would really appreciate an answer to this. I am afraid to ask my Christian friends in real life because I'm afraid of being judged, so I've come here. I've also tried asking in Christian chat rooms, but the only response I got was to be labeled a troll, and "why does everything have to be about sex?" and "Stop talking about this!"


There are several mistakes you are making. First, you are forgetting that the Bible covers about four thousand years of the world's history. Everything that happened is not recorded on its pages. All we have are the highlights of what God considers to be the important events that can teach us lessons.

Second, you cannot assume from what isn't said that nothing had happened or will happen. When there is silence in the Scriptures, all you can say is that God didn't say. You cannot put words into God's mouth. "Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar" (Proverbs 30:6).

Unlike other religious books, the Bible shows us that even "heroes" have flaws. We are told about the mistakes people made, even those we see as being good people. Sometimes we are directly told why what a person did was wrong, but not always. Sometimes we are left to figure it out by seeing what God said in other places.

While God made examples out of some people's misdeeds, He didn't do so every time. Think about it for a moment. If God zapped every sinner when they sinned, how many people would be left? (Romans 3:23). When a person isn't immediately punished, the better assumption is that God sees there is a possibility for that person to repent of his sin and He gives them the chance to change. "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9).

Thus, when Cain committed murder, he got a personal warning in advance (Genesis 4:6-7) and an immediate punishment (Genesis 4:9-12). But several generations later, Lamech, the first polygamist, killed a man and boasted about it (Genesis 4:23-24); yet, nothing is recorded as having happened to him. This doesn't mean God approved of Lamech's sins or that He let him get off. We know that murder is a sin (what happened to Cain is proof), and we know that ultimately every person is going to be judged by God. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (II Corinthians 5:10). No sinner really escapes the consequences of his sins.

Lot faced a dilemma familiar to many people. He tried to stop a sin with another sin. "And why not say, "Let us do evil that good may come"? -- as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just" (Romans 3:8). Fortunately for Lot, the angels intervene and prevented that sin. The point of the rescue of Lot is one you are missing. None of us are perfect. Are you worth saving with all of your sins? Why would God even bother? "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). God saved Lot because he was, in general, a righteous man. "And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds) -- then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment" (II Peter 2:6-9). Lot wasn't perfect, but God saw that he was worth saving. And we later learn that despite being saved by God, he still fell into sin later. His story then becomes an example for us.

You seem to have missed many of the key points in Judah's story. Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. We aren't told what Er had done, but shortly after he married a woman named Tamar, he was killed. "But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him" (Genesis 38:7). Because he died without heirs, his wife was given to the next oldest son. Any children that they had would be counted as the Er's children. But Onan didn't want to lose the extra inheritance that would come to him if Er remained childless, so he tried to keep Tamar from getting pregnant. "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also" (Genesis 38:10). Judah was down to one son left and he couldn't help noticing that the other two died shortly after marrying Tamar. Using the fact that Shelah was technically too young for marriage, he told Tamar to return to her father's house until Shelah was old enough. But out of sight, out of mind, and Judah conveniently forgot to send for Tamar over the years.

Tamar got it into her head to have a child one way or another. What she did was not right. It is noted that by this time Judah's wife had died (Genesis 38:12). We aren't told why she pick this particular location, but I suspect that she heard rumors that Judah was seeing prostitutes. I conclude this because she seems confident that he would visit her. She dressed up as a prostitute and then waited for Judah. Judah didn't have payment with him, so Tamar insisted on his signature seal and staff to be held until payment arrived. Judah sent the payment with a friend, but by that time Tamar had disappeared and no one in the area knew of a prostitute working in that area. Take note of what Judah said, "Then Judah said, "Let her take them for herself, lest we be shamed; for I sent this young goat and you have not found her"" (Genesis 38:23). Judah knew that what he did was wrong. He didn't want to make a big deal looking for the prostitute just to pay her and get his seal and staff back. Like many sinners, he didn't want his sin to be public knowledge and he thought he was hiding what he had done.

Later, Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant. Like many sinners, he took his own personal guilt out on someone else. "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things" (Romans 2:1). Judah demanded that she die a horrible death by burning. When she was brought to Judah, she told him that the man who got her pregnant had this seal and staff. Judah admitted that these were his. Until this time, he thought his visits to prostitutes were private sins. Now, in front of others, he not only had to admit that he was seeing prostitutes, but that he unknowingly had sex with his daughter-in-law. "So Judah acknowledged them and said, "She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son." And he never knew her again" (Genesis 38:26). What Tamar did was wrong, but Judah is saying that compared to her, his own sins were so much greater than she in comparison was more righteous than he.

But take note that Judah never had sex with Tamar again. He knew this was sinful. Yet, he also owned up to his sin. He took the twin boys of Tamar and acknowledged them as his own sons. Tamar was also supported for the rest of her life. These are actions that indicate a man who had repented of his sins and was trying to make the best of the mess he created. As Elihu pointed out, the proper response to sin is to quit. "For has anyone said to God, 'I have borne chastening; I will offend no more; teach me what I do not see; if I have done iniquity, I will do no more'?" (Job 38:31-32). Judah was publicly chastised and he quit his sin.

Where is God's wrath? It is standing aside as God demonstrates His mercy, just as He has shown mercy to you.

"Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I had said, "I will speak thus," Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me - until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors. As a dream when one awakes, so, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image" (Psalms 73:12-20).


I am greatly moved and deeply touched by the fact that you have invested so much time to provide a detailed answer to my query. You are the person that I have been seeking for years. Someone knowledgeable enough in the Bible to give me accurate, scholarly answers, yet someone I may ask questions with some degree of anonymity. As you can probably tell, these questions of mine would instantly set off red flags within any Christian social sphere. If I asked them of my friends and acquaintances, I would be instantly judged!

That said, I would like to give you some follow-up questions, if I may. As you are probably aware, the male sex drive is a very powerful, compelling force within the male psyche. I know, God put it there as a way for a man to bond tightly to his wife. However, when a young man has no wife, and for various reasons has been unsuccessful in finding his partner, this force becomes a very wide avenue for temptation, even for married men, it is so. You know that kings have renounced their thrones, CEOs have fallen from power and into public disgrace, and many politicians have ended their public careers, due to their inability to control this force. Names come up, such as Sen. Bob Packwood, Sen. Gary Hart, Elliott Spitzer, Dominic Strauss-Kahn (former heir-apparent to the French Presidency), Charles, Prince of Wales, Mark Hurd (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard), and congressman Anthony Weiner. These are only names of a few men who recently ran afoul of their hormones. I am no historian, but I know that history is littered with famous men who succumbed to this urge, and as a result, had their lives, and the course of history, altered.

So it is with some bewilderment that I see in the Bible, God never chose to show us direct examples of men who visited prostitutes or otherwise paid for sex, and were subsequently punished by God. Instead, there are examples of men who visited prostitutes, and no punishment was mentioned. Since my last writing, I've also come across the story of Samson (Judges 16:1). I've known the story of Samson since I was a kid, but only now, through an adult lens, does this passage pop out at me like a bright neon sign! What can you say about this apparent oversight? I hear you about the fact that the Bible covers much time, and not every little act was recorded. However, I think, due to the irresistibility of the sex drive, visiting prostitutes should have been one of the "highlights" in God's instructions. When we were children, our parents warned us "don't play with matches" and "look both ways before crossing the street" for a very good reason. In my mind, the sex drive is a very similar thing.

Thank you again for your help!


What you are complaining about isn't in the Bible, is in there. An example and condemnation of visiting prostitutes are given in detail in Proverbs 7:6-27. Allow me to quote the conclusion given from this particular example: "Now therefore, listen to me, my children; pay attention to the words of my mouth: do not let your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths; for she has cast down many wounded, and all who were slain by her were strong men. Her house is the way to hell, descending to the chambers of death" (Proverbs 7:24-27).

I have written quite a bit about sexuality (four books dealing with this topic so far). I would like you to read the chapter I wrote for teenage boys about what the Bible says about prostitution (see Immoral Sex). The topic of prostitution is addressed and condemned and the passages mentioned in this chapter aren't a complete list. God often used prostitution as an illustration of how Israel was behaving in their sins. That you didn't find the type of condemnation that you wanted between its pages doesn't matter. What is important is that God does deal with the issue.

We know that Judah and Samson sinned because God condemned prostitution. But then as now, God did not always visit each sin with instant punishment. If He did, the world would be empty of human beings (Romans 3:23). God delays punishment because He desires people to change. Some do, as Samson illustrates at the end of his life. Others do not. "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9).

The wicked frequently make the mistake of assuming that because God did not punish, that He doesn't care, or that they did no wrong. "This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, "I have done no wickedness" " (Proverbs 30:20).

"But to the wicked God says: "What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth, seeing you hate instruction and cast My words behind you? When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers. You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son. These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought that I was altogether like you; but I will rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes" (Psalms 50:16-21).

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