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Genesis 38, a parenthetical chapter, is a flashback in Canaan to Joseph older brother Judah. It is a story of Judah's sin and Tamar's vindication.
- Tamar was the wife of Er, the eldest son of Judah.
- Er was slain by God, so Judah gave his next son Onan the task of a levirate marriage to Tamar.
- Onan practiced coitus interruptus with Tamar, so God also killed him.
- Judah tried to preserve his lone remaining third son Shelah by not giving him in marriage to Tamar.
- Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and had sexual relations with Judah.
- Tamar bore twin sons, Perez and Zerah, through Judah. And through the line of Perez came David (Ruth 4:12, 18–22; 1 Chr 2–4) and our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 1:3).
So why is Genesis 38 here? It seems to interrupt the plot development of the Genesis narrative of Joseph.
5 Reasons Genesis 38 Is Important
It is a part of Jacob’s story.
Remember that the heading of Genesis 37:2 is “These are the generations of Jacob.” Even though I have consistently referred to Genesis 37-50 as the Joseph narrative, it is really the story of Jacob’s household. We will soon see that in this story of Jacob’s children, Judah becomes a central protagonist.
It explains why God brought Israel to Egypt.
Jacob’s sons were intermarrying with the Canaanites and in danger of being swallowed up by Canaan’s culture. God chose to preserve the Jews in Egypt as a separate people, since the Egyptians disliked foreigners, particularly shepherds.
It contrasts Judah with Joseph
The shortcoming of Judah in Genesis 38 is justaposed with the uprightness of Joseph in Genesis 39.
It sets up Genesis 44 when Judah becomes surety for Benjamin.
I can’t wait until chapter 44 when we see one of the strongest foreshadowing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It explains Judah’s lineage and the genealogy of the Messiah.
We learn that God’s promised Messiah, Christ Jesus, will come through the line of Judah through Tamar.
Both Joseph and Judah, the chief protagonists of the Joseph narrative, live in isolation from their brothers and father.
Judah is a major player in the account of the generations of Jacob. In this chapter, Judah is at his worst. But later in Genesis 44, we will see Judah at his best.
Outline of Genesis 38
- Judah marries a pagan wife (v.1-5)
- Judah breaks his promise with Tamar (v.6-14)
- Judah solicits a prostitute (v.15-23)
- Tamar is vindicated and bears twins (v.24-30)
1. First Sin: Marrying a Pagan Wife (v.1-5)
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him. (Genesis 38:1-5)
- “It happened at that time” in verse 1 may refer to the preceding event in the end of chapter 37
- So the events of Genesis 38 may have all taken place in the 22 year period between the sale of Joseph and the departure of Jacob’s family for Egypt.
- The alternative view is that Judah left his father and brothers while they were still in Shechem during the events of Genesis 34 and 35.
- The phrase “went down” in verse 1 means that just like Joseph, Judah left his father’s house.
- If Judah had left from Hebron (hill country) to Adullam (lowland), he traveled about 20 km.
- Judah leaves his father and his brothers and travels south of Bethlehem and then west into the hills of the Shephelah.
- Similar to Esau leaving his father and going to Seir (Genesis 33)
- Similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11ff)
- Judah may have left because of the guilt over the “death” of Joseph.
- His brothers may have blamed him for suggesting that they sell Joseph into slavery, causing the subsequent unending grief of his father. This could explain his decision to distance himself from his brothers.
- He becomes friends with Hirah, a citizen of Adullam, and he married a woman from that town.
- The Hebrew text does not give his wife’s name and identifies her solely as the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua.
- LXX attributes Judah’s wife as Shua.
- LXX and MT disagree here.
- Judah'a marriage to a Canaanite woman was prohibited by Abraham (Genesis 24:3) and by the Torah in Deuteronomy 7:3.
- Judah would have known from Jacob his grandfather Isaac’s displeasure when his uncle Esau married foreign Hittite wives.
- The Hebrew text does not give his wife’s name and identifies her solely as the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua.
- Judah’s wife bore him three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
- The last son was born at Kezib, usually identified with Achzib, a site southwest of Adullam.
- Chezib is Achzib, a town belonging to tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:44)
- All of Judah’s children were thus born in the territory that will belong to his tribe during the time of Joshua.
Let’s now look at Judah’s second sin, his broken promise beginning in verse 6.
2. Second Sin: Breaking a Promise (v.6-14)
And 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 put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.
In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. (Genesis 38:6-14)
Tamar’s ethnicity is undisclosed, but commentators often assume a Canaanite lineage since the text does not indicate any Israelite connection.
The Bible does not identify Er’s specific offense. He is just described as “evil in the Lord’s eyes,” or “wicked in the sight of Yahweh.”
Usually when God takes a person’s life, the reason is always given.
- No explicit reason is given, but it must have been a grave offense.
- Er is the first named individual in Genesis whose life God took as punishment.
- Levirate marriage is the marriage of a widow to her husband’s brother. The Latin term for “brother-in-law” (Hb. yābām) is levir (although the term does not occur in the Vulgate), so that the custom is identified as “levirate marriage.”
- This law obligated a man whose brother had died childless to marry and impregnate his brother’s widow. The resulting child was customarily given the dead brother’s name and was considered to be a successor to the dead brother’s line.
- During Judah’s time, the surviving brother had no choice in the matter, nor was the widow free to decline marriage to her dead husband’s brother.
- This may sound terrible, but a levirate marriage was a means of showing mercy to help a widow have both children and economic security.
- God modifies this practice later in Deuteronomy by allowing a brother to refuse to marry his brother’s widow (in a public ceremony, halitzah, in which the late brother’s widow removed the man’s sandal and spat at him because he refused to “preserve his brother’s name in Israel”—see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Since Tamar predates the Torah, halitzah may not have been an option, leaving a brother with no choice but to marry his late brother’s widow.
Verse 10 states that what Onan “did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.”
Onan’s sin was insuring that he did not impregnate Tamar when he slept with her. In so doing, he cheated Tamar, his father, his father-in-law, and his late brother.
- Onan cheated Tamar by preventing her from having children.
- Onan cheated his father and father-in-law by pretending to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage.
- Onan cheated his late brother by denying him an heir and the “preservation of his name in Israel.”
Since Judah’s first two sons both died after marrying Tamar, Judah feared that his third and only remaining son would also die should he marry Tamar, so he did not want Shelah to marry Tamar.
- Here is one of the rare times that the author, who I believe is Moses, explains what a person was thinking - using the literary viewpoint of 3rd person omniscient.
Judah felt Tamar brought bad luck. So, he sent Tamar home to her father.
Judah did not simply forget his promise to give his third son Shelah in marriage to Tamar. He intentionally broke his promise.
Judah’s subsequent behavior takes place once he is again an unmarried man. Verse 12 notes that “in the course of time,” Judah’s wife died—long enough for Shelah to have reached a marriageable age.
At the end of the period of mourning, Judah went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah to visit the men who were shearing his sheep.
- Sheep shearing involves hard work and a great, joyous feast.
With Hiram accompanying him, Judah was identifying with the Canaanites. Tamar learned of Judah’s journey to Timnah.
- Timnah is about 7 km northeast of Adullam
Since Shelah had grown up, she concluded that Judah no longer intended to keep the obligations of levirate marriage.
So Tamar removed her widow’s clothes, dressed up, put on a veil, went out, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, a town on the road to Timnah.
Let’s look at Judah’s third sin, soliciting a prostitute.
3. Third Sin: Soliciting A Prostitute (v.15-23)
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”(Genesis 38:15-23)
When Judah passed by that place in the road, he noticed a woman sitting at the entrance to the gate, and he took her to be a prostitute.
- Prostitutes in the Ancient Near East covered their face with a veil.
- Betrothed women also wore veils
- Judah assumed Tamar was a prostitute by virtue of her wearing a veil and standing by herself on the roadside near the gate entrance to the city/
- Tamar’s veil hid her identity to Judah who did not recognize her.
- Prostitutes in the Ancient Near East covered their face with a veil.
Tamar asked Judah what he was willing to pay for her to sleep with him.
She wanted to implicate her father-in-law Judah.
Since Judah did not have any money with him, he promised to send her a young goat from the flock which was a generous offer.
But Tamar asked him for a pledge. This word pledge is the same Hebrew word (Heb: ʿā̊rā̊bon) that Judah later uses as a pledge for Benjamin in Genesis 43 and 44. Keep this mental note for later.
She requested the pledge of his seal, cord, and staff.
- A seal was usually a small precious stone in the form of a cylinder on which were inscribed a person’s name along with some symbols that were closely connected with that person. When it was rolled over wax or a soft clay tablet, the seal imprinted the owner’s name and symbol.
- Many of these seals had a hole through the center for a custom made cord that can be worn around the neck.
- Tribal leaders carried a staff, which often had carved heads depicting the symbol of that tribe.
- These three items unmistakably identified their owner.
- A modern equivalent is asking for someone’s driver’s license, credit card, and personal phone.
So Judah slept with Tamar, and Tamar conceived. Tamar went home, took off her veil, and put on her widow’s clothes.
- She had no intention of living as a prostitute.
- This was Tamar’s desperate response to Judah’s sin against her and Er, Judah’s firstborn.
When Judah returned home, he sent Hirah to pay the woman (ʾishah) the kid goat and retrieve his pledge.
- Hirah made inquiry as to the whereabouts of the cult prostitute.
- The men of Enaim did not know about any cult prostitutes having visited their area.
- Interestingly, experts in the Ancient Near East claim there was no cult prostitution in ancient Canaan.
Tamar prevented Judah from paying to redeem his small pledge because she had been prevent from marrying Judah’s youngest son.
- It’s not that in this story that Tamar was righteous, but rather Judah was worse.
4. Tamar’s vindication (v.24-26)
About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Genesis 38:24-26)
About three months later, Judah was informed that Tamar had acted as a prostitute and was now pregnant.
Judah ordered that she be brought out and burned to death.
- Note that the Torah (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-34) teaches that both the adulterer and adulteress were to be put to death.
- Similar to David’s initial indignation with Nathan (2 Samuel 12)
As Tamar was being brought out to be put to death, she sent a confrontational message to Judah (v.25) that she had become pregnant by the man who owns the three items: the seal, cord, and staff.
- These objects immediately revealed to all the bystanders who had impregnated her.
Judah recognized that his sin was greater than Tamar.
- Tamar had kept herself for marriage to Shelah, but Judah had failed to keep his promise to her.
5. Tamar Bears Twins (v.27-30)
When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah. (Genesis 38:27-30)
The ending of this chapter is a testament of God’s undeserving grace.
Tamar gave birth to twins, and Perez the firstborn became the ancestor of Christ Jesus.
Tamar was not only a sinner, she was a Gentile. She was a Canaanite.
In fact, the four women in the Matthew’s genealogy of Christ Jesus were all Gentiles.
- Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites
- Ruth was a Moabite
- Bathsheba was likely a Hittite like her husband Uriah.
The inclusion of four Gentile women proves that God’s grace, even in the Old Testament, abounded not just to Israel but for all who accept and receive God’s redemption.
Genesis 38 is a story of grace.
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. (Romans 5:20)
- Judah and Tamar deserved death.
- Yet God forgave them and gave them mercy and grace. Through their son Perez came the promised Messiah.
- No man could have authored this story.
- Judah was like the prodigal son in Luke. He ran away from home to live a pagan life. But we will soon see that God saves him. And Christ Jesus will later be given the title, lion of Judah.
- This story of grace in Genesis could only be conceived by Yahweh.
Edward Lipinski, “Cult Prostitution in Ancient Israel?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2014, https://members.bib-arch.org/biblical-archaeology-review/40/1/10. ↩︎
Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph
- Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
- Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
- Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
- Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
- Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
- God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
- Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
- Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
- Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
- Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
- Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
- Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
- Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
- Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
- A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
- It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
- Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
- God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
- "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
- Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
- God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)