Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.
Genesis 38:21 (KJV)
Harlot – Hirah is the one who asked the question. He was Judah’s friend, and an Adullamite. The story, as you might know, begins with Judah marrying off his sons – one of which, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. Er was wicked and dies before his wife bears any children, and so Judah promises his younger son, Shelah, to her for a future marriage. This is the law of the kinsman redeemer from Deuteronomy 25:5. As the story goes, Shelah becomes of age, but Judah never gets around to giving him to Tamar. So Tamar becomes anxious and sets out to persuade Judah on his way to the sheering floor (where he’s going to sheer his sheep). She covers her face and seemingly pretends to be a harlot.
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
So Judah goes in to her (not recognizing her) and has relations. From our understanding, it appears quite ridiculous, but men are men, right? And sometimes men like Judah resort to prostitution. Or is there something more?
The word Judah uses for “harlot” is quite plainly that – zanah. But what’s interesting is that the word Hirah uses gives much more insight. In verse 21, Hirah is searching for a qĕdeshah – a temple prostitute. This brings more understanding to what’s going on here. Did Tamar present herself as a temple prostitute to Judah? The answer is, yes. She realized that in the pagan culture of Canaan, Judah would be susceptible to pagan ideals and practices. Judah is familiar with pagan practices – one of which is having sexual relations with pagan religious prostitutes which ensures fertility among families and livestock. Judah is on his way to see his sheep, he sees a pagan prostitute and decides to take part in this practice to ensure the longevity/fertility of himself and his belongings.
This makes much more sense in light of what Judah says later on. Once Tamar is found to be pregnant and brought before Judah, she then reveals who she had relations with – Judah himself. And Judah responds:
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.
He doesn’t accuse her of sin, or justify it by ascertaining adultery. Rather he says that she has been more righteous than he. This is because Judah realizes he took part in unrighteous pagan fertility rituals, and had relations with Tamar. He sees his unrighteousness.
The story takes on a much deeper understanding once we dig into the Hebrew words. Much more is revealed. Do you wish for God’s revelations to be revealed in your life? Then how much are you dedicating to the revelations he’s already shared in His Word?