Though Genesis 37 marked a shift from Jacob to Joseph as being the central character, chapter 38 documents a side story seemingly unrelated to either man. While Joseph (who’s been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery) has been taken to Egypt where he’s ultimately sold again to a man by the name of “Potiphar,” the bizarre events of Genesis 38 (which center upon Judah) coincide with this time of Joseph’s extended suffering.
Genesis 38:1-2, “It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited an Adullamite whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her.”
Though we aren’t given any of the specifics, the very fact “Judah departed from his brothers” is revealing. Keep in mind, it had been Judah (the fourth son of Jacob by Leah) who’d proposed selling Joseph into slavery - a plan everyone other than Reuben went along with.
Not only is it likely his conscious is naturally struggling with the guilt of his actions, but you can imagine the constant weeping and open grief of his father Jacob was more than he could bear. Everything in his home reminded him of the terrible thing he’d done to his brother.
As such Judah bounces! We’re told he goes to visit his pal “Hirah” who was “an Adullamite.” The city of Adullam was one of the royal cities of the Canaanites located in the hill country near the Valley of Elah. From Hebron Adullam was approximately 50 miles northwest.
Sadly, in seeking to run away from his guilt, Judah compounds his mistakes. Not only was it fundamentally unwise to “depart from his brothers,” but Judah has now surrounded himself with immoral influences. Hirah was a pagan. He was an idolater. He and Judah didn’t worship the same God nor share the same worldview. As Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’”
Well, it doesn’t take long for Judah’s moral slide to take another tragic turn. As he and Hirah are palling around, a “Canaanite” woman who was “the daughter of Shua” catches his eye.
Tragically, Judah “marries her” intentionally defying the precedent of remaining separate established long ago by Abraham. Not only had his grandfather Isaac and his father Jacob specifically married within the family, but Judah knew his uncle Esau had squandered any spiritual heritage afford to him because he’d broken tradition by marrying a Canaanite.
Genesis 38:3-6, “So she conceived and bore a son, and Judah called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. Judah was at Chezib when she bore Shelah. Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.”
Judah has not only committed a great sin by marrying this women, but he proceeds to compound matters by having three sons with her: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Moses tells us Judah ultimately settles in an area called “Chezib” and creates a life for himself there.
Understand… None of this was a snap decision. Judah has chosen to completely reject his family and father by creating a home separate from them. He’s taken a Canaanite bride and has started his own family with her. Because we quickly find Judah’s “firstborn Er” now of marrying age, we can assume two decades or so have passed since he first departed. Note: Chronologically this means Joseph has likely risen to second in command of all of Egypt.
There is much about this woman “Judah took as a wife for Er” that we don’t know. While likely “Tamar” was also a “Canaanite” Moses doesn’t provide us with any biographical details.
We can say Tamar was not of Hebrew descent for Moses would have included such a detail in the record; however, we aren’t told her ethnicity, who her father was, or even where she grew up. All we can say with certainty is that she was tall… “Tamar” means “palm-tree.”
Genesis 38:7, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord killed him.”
As you’re reading through the text verse seven demands a double-take! Because “Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord” Moses tells us “the Lord killed him.” In the Hebrew this word “wicked” would be better translated as “evil.” Once again, while we’re sparse on specifics, there was something fundamental to Er’s character that was simply rotten to the core.
This man was so evil God not only prohibited him from reproducing (we’ll see though married to Tamar she’d yet to conceive a child), but “the LORD” actively “killed him!” While we have no idea how it was that Er died everyone seemed to recognize the divine hand behind his death. The Hebrew word “killed” literally means “to have one executed or put to death.”
Genesis 38:8, “And Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.’”
What’s happening here is an ancient custom known as the Levirate Marriage. Because it was important for every male to possess an heir for the continuance of a families legacy, if a man died before his wife had conceived it was then the obligation of his younger brother to sleep with the widow so that his brothers legacy would continue on.
With this in mind, because Er passed away before his wife Tamar had conceived it was now the honorable and right thing for his brother Onan to impregnate Tamar thereby providing Er an heir. Note: This practice would be later codified in the law - Deuteronomy 25.
Genesis 38:9-10, “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.”
Before we look at the particulars of what Onan did, look at his motivation. We’re told his actions were driven by the knowledge “the heir would not be his.” Because Er was the firstborn son of Judah he possessed an exclusive claim to the birthright. Since his unexpected passing meant Er had not formally received his claim, Onan rightly understood that if he were to provide Tamar a son - that child would be Judah’s heir.
Since Onan was second in line, it’s likely he intentionally wanted to leave Tamar childless so he’d receive the birthright. Not only is his motivation selfish and reveals an even greater disrespect and distain for his brother Er, but it reveals a contempt for Judah as well.
So with Onan’s motivations in mind let’s discuss his actions. Moses tells us, “It came to pass, when Onan went into Tamar… that he emitted on the ground.” For starters, it’s important you understand this was not a one off occurrence. In the Hebrew, the tense indicates this was something he did repeatedly. Every time Tamar was ovulating she’d come to Onan - he’d have sex with her - only to, right before blowing his load, pull out and “emit on the ground.”
The word we have translated as “emitted” means “to destroy or spoil.” Aside from the fact Onan is intentionally using his brother’s widow to pleasure himself, this particular act of “emitting on the ground” served as a figurative middle finger to his dead brother, living father, and therefore the birthright itself. To make matters worse he did this over and over again!
There should be no surprise what Onan was doing “displeased the Lord.” Beyond the obvious, the way this man was abusing this innocent woman caused the Lord to literally “tremble or quiver” with indignation. Onan’s actions were so grievous to God that we’re told “the Lord killed him also.” It’s the same word that was used to describe what befell Er.
Before we move on there is an obvious truth conveyed in this passage most pastors would totally avoid making because it’s not seeker-friendly and is rather offensive to our secular mindset… God actively killed two men because of their wickedness! Though the actions of God seem extreme, you need to understand His actions were totally justified.
From the very beginning God has always made it clear “the wages of sin is death.” The truth is that it’s only on account of God’s grace manifesting in an act of continued mercy that any of us aren’t immediately struck dead as a result of our sin. In the end Er and Onan simply received what is destined to befall every wicked man - death and judgment!
If anything is offensive it’s not men who are committing such evil being opposed by God, what is offensive is the idea this evil man could actually be forgiven. Instead of recoiling at the idea a righteous God would judge the wicked, you should be ever thankful Jesus was killed by God specifically to take your place. How amazing that what was reserved for your sin Jesus willingly took upon Himself on the cross of Calvary.
Beyond this glorious truth… Please know, if you’ve rejected Jesus and are choosing to remain in a state of rebellion, God’s patience lasts only so long. Friend, because this is the truth what I’m about to say is the most seeker-friendly message I’ve got…
There is a day in your future when the righteous God can no longer tolerate your rebellion any longer… A day when your life on this earth will cease and you will stand before Him in judgment. And while it’s a day you cannot plan for and you’ll likely never see coming, I must tell you it’s a day you don’t have to face if you’ll accept Jesus and place your faith in Him.
Genesis 38:11, “Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.’ For he said, ‘Lest he also die like his brothers.’ And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.”
While the law of the Levirate still remained in place and now the youngest of Er’s brothers Shelah was obligated to provide Tamar a son and his brother an heir, Judah is obviously a little worried. Tamar has now worked her way through two of his three sons.
It will become evident Judah has no real intention of Shelah ever getting involved with this woman, but he can’t come right out and say this - to do so would be culturally taboo. Instead, Judah uses Shelah’s age as a reason to kick the can down the road. Tamar is instructed to “remain a widow” and live in her “father’s house” till Shelah comes of proper age.
Genesis 38:12, “Now in the process of time the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.”
Judah is around 40 years old when his wife unexpectedly dies. Not only has Judah had to burry two of his sons (which no father should ever have to do), but you can imagine the death of his wife rocks his world. Judah’s life has been filled with nothing but death!
Understandably, Judah is mired in grief. He’s depressed and alone. He’s filled with despair. Days of morning turn into weeks before transitioning into months. Finally, his pal Hirah intervenes. I can hear him coming to Judah and saying, “Bro, enough is enough. I know the last few years have been rough, but you’re still a young man. It’s time to get out of the house and have some fun. As a matter of fact, I hear there is a party this weekend in Timnah. Let’s check it out. It’ll be good for you.” Note: Sheep-shearing was a time of celebration.
Genesis 38:13-14, “And it was told Tamar, saying, ‘Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.’ So she took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.”
A few points we should consider… First, while we don’t know how much time has elapsed between the death of Onan and this particular scene, one thing has become evident to Tamar and her friends… Judah was not going to follow through with his promises. We’re told “Shelah was grown,” but she remained a widow in her father’s home.
Additionally, it would also appear this particular plot was not conceived or hatched by Tamar alone. Since Judah was defying a cultural norm, her support structure (which likely included her father) felt Tamar had no other choice but to take matters into her own hands.
Knowing Judah was going to Timnah to party with Hirah, Tamar removes “her widow’s garments, covering herself with a veil.” She then dawns the garments of a prostitute placing herself “in an open place on the way.” The plan is to catch the attention of an un-expecting Judah as he returns from the party. The bait has been placed and the trap set.
Genesis 38:15-17, “When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face. Then he turned to her by the way, and said, ‘Please let me come in to you’; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. So she said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ And he said, ‘I will send a young goat from the flock.’ So she said, ‘Will you give me a pledge till you send it?’”
As was the plan Tamar indeed catches the attention of Judah. Not only is it probably dark and he a bit passed tipsy from partying, but I can imagine since it’s been a while since he’d enjoyed the affections of a women Hiram probably encouraged him to get himself laid.
Not knowing the woman to be Tamar, but believing “she was a harlot” Judah approaches and asks what the going rate was. Not really knowing how a lady of the night operated, Tamar replies with a name your price proposition. Seeing this as a likely turn of luck Judah proposes to “send her a young goat from his flock” for a night of fun. Then, obviously a bit suspect any prostitute would preform her service on credit, Tamar asks Judah for a deposit.
Genesis 38:18-19, “Then Judah said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ So she said, ‘Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand.’ Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. So she arose and went away, and laid aside her veil and put on the garments of her widowhood.”
As the negotiation reaches its conclusion, Judah agrees to give Tamar his unique “signet and cord” as well as his “staff.” In those day this would be the equivalent of providing your drivers license and credit card number. If Judah reneged on the agreement, Tamar would be able to use these things to not only find Judah, but to publicly solicit what was owed her.
Judah agrees. He and his daughter-in-law Tamar knock boots. That fateful night they danced the horizontal tango ultimately falling asleep. Well… Upon waking the next morning, Judah realizes the harlot has already “arose and went away” therefore he does the same.
As it pertained to Tamar, knowing she’d “conceived by Judah” that night, she wisely removes her disguise, returns to her father’s home, and reassumes the role of grieving widow. What’s important is that Tamar is still in possession of both Judah’s “signet” and his “staff.”
Genesis 38:20-24, “And Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her. Then he asked the men of that place, saying, ‘Where is the harlot who was openly by the roadside?’ And they said, ‘There was no harlot in this place.’
So he returned to Judah and said, ‘I cannot find her. Also, the men of the place said there was no harlot in this place.’ 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.’
And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.’ So Judah said, ‘Bring her out and let her be burned!’”
After a failed attempt to fulfill his obligation by paying the harlot a “young goat,” Judah wisely drops the matter probably feeling a measure of shame about the entire situation. Note: In his pride he actually sends Hirah to complete the transaction for him. I’m sure he’s embarrassed.
Moses then tells us “about three months after” the events of that evening Judah receives a surprising, but encouraging bit of news. Tamar, who’s supposed to be faithfully waiting for his youngest son Shelah, has started showing the early signs of pregnancy. He now has an out!
Seeing Tamar’s obvious “harlotry” as the perfect opportunity to rid his family of this particular burden and therefore spare his son Shelah the responsibility of providing Er an heir, Judah commands for Tamar to be “brought out and burned!” Which would have been his right.
Genesis 38:25, “When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, ‘By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.’ And she said, ‘Please determine whose these are - the signet and cord, and staff.’”
Keep in mind, this phrase “she was brought out” spoke of a violent and unsettling scene. The men of the town come to the home of Tamar’s father and arrest her bringing her to the public square to face her shame and execution. Not only does Tamar refuse to mount any resistance, but to everyone’s surprise she’s more than willing to name her accomplice.
In front of Judah, likely Shelah, and this mob that had gathered to watch her burn, Tamar presents the “signet and staff” as the way of ascertaining the identity of her baby’s daddy! Can you image that sinking feeling Judah experiences when he puts it all together?
Genesis 38:26, “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.”
While Judah has been caught read handed, to his credit he “acknowledged” the fact both the “signet and staff” were indeed his. Not only does Judah admit he unknowingly had sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, but in a moment of humility he accepted full responsibility.
Judah even goes so far as to publicly concede that Tamar “had been more righteous than he.” In front of all, Judah confesses that he had no intention of honoring his promise to “give her to Shelah.” Tamar’s behavior had been noble. Her actions had proven a loyalty to honor his son Er by providing him an heir. Tamar cherished the birthright even more than he had.
This phrase “he never knew her again” indicates Judah honored the fact that Tamar’s son would be Er’s and therefore recipient of his birthright. While Judah would care for Tamar and her children, this was important as it insured Shelah could never make a claim.
Genesis 38:27-30, “Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb. And so it was, when she was giving birth, that the one put out his hand; and the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ Then it happened, as he drew back his hand, that his brother came out unexpectedly; and she said, ‘How did you break through? This breach be upon you!’ Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.”
What a bizarre way to end the story. We’re told that Tamar was actually pregnant with “twin sons.” Then upon delivery this boy they name Zerah “put out his hand” from the womb which is why “the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand.” The intention of doing this was to be able to identify which of these twins was actually the first born.
And yet, to the surprise of the midwife, Zerah proceeds to pull his hand back into Tamar’s womb only for Perez to “come out unexpectedly.” This meant Perez, not Zerah was in actuality the firstborn and therefore the rightful heir. You have to ask yourself why in the world would Moses go out of his way to include this strange detail?
Though it’s likely Moses tells this story so that the descendants of Judah would have a more complete accounting of their unique history, the ultimate reason Genesis 38 is included in the Bible Moses himself probably wouldn’t have realized until much later.
If you’ll quickly turn to Matthew 1 we find something interesting… We read this is “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron…” Matthew then continues this genealogy all the way out to Jesus’ adopted father Joseph which substantiated His claim to be King and our Savior.
Don’t miss the significance of this… Perez, Judah’s son by Tamar, ends up actually being a part of the Messianic lineage of Jesus! This shocking reality tells us two important things:
First, if God was still able to work through all of this dysfunction to bring about His will, He can work through whatever crazy set of circumstances you might find yourself presently facing. Never forget, no matter how dysfunctional and out of control your situation might be, it is not to out of control for God to still accomplish His will in your life.
Secondly, if God would include these people in Jesus’ family He will include anyone! What grace that such a story even exists in the lineage of Christ. This morning, while you may know Jesus died for your sins, maybe you’ve yet to approach Him and accept His gift of salvation believing whatever it is you’ve done or are presently doing is beyond the pale. Please know this story of Judah and Tamar fundamentally challenges your assumption.
Let me close with a quick story I believe addresses this very sentiment… In Mark 1:40-42 we read that “a leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.”
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