Genesis 38

Judah and Tamar
Genesis 38
Genesis 38. In this chapter we have the awful hypocrisy of Judah’s character developed. There is much of the flesh in this chapter. Judah’s descent into Canaanite culture and associations, his sons’ wickedness and untimely death, Judah’s unwillingness to give Shelah to Tamar, Tamar’s shameless plot to obtain an heir by incest, and Judah’s hypocrisy in calling for her death. Yet Judah is forced to take personal responsibility, and this prepares him to accept his responsibility in a far greater matter in following chapters.

Judah’s Family (38:1-11)

1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a man of Adullam whose name was Hirah. 2 And Judah saw there the daughter of a Canaanitish man whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went in to her. 3 And she conceived and bore a son; and he called his name Er. 4 And she again conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5 And again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah; and he was at Chezib when she bore him. vv.1-5 Now the scene changes, and all the brothers are out of the picture but one; Judah. Judah in this chapter is a type of the Jews during the last 2000 years, scattered among the Gentiles, guilty of killing their Messiah in a national sense. We must remember that Judah took the lead in selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Judah is singled out now; “Judah went down from his brethren”. We do not know why he separated himself, or whether it had something to do with the guilt of selling Joseph into slavery. He “turned in to a man of Adullam”, which means he lodged with him and probably became his business partner. He intermarries with the Canaanites, and has sons by a woman named Shua. Later we will read of a cave called Adullam where David would hide when fleeing from Saul. Judah was settling in the area that would later become his tribal allocation.
6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of Jehovah, and Jehovah slew him. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, Go in to thy brother’s wife, and fulfil to her the brother-in-law’s duty, and raise up seed to thy brother. 9 But when Onan knew that the seed should not be his own, it came to pass when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, in order to give no seed to his brother. 10 And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of Jehovah, and he slew him also. 11 And Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, Remain a widow in thy father’s house, until Shelah my son is grown; for he said, Lest he die also, as his brethren. And Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. vv.6-11 There is a downward progression with marriage in the family of Abraham. When sending his servant to get a wife for Isaac, Abraham insisted that she not come from the Canaanites, and said “Beware thou that thou bring not my son thither again” (Gen. 24:6). Isaac told Jacob to go to Padan-Aram to get a wife; i.e. he was still careful about not having his son marry a Canaanite, but not careful about letting him go there. There is a further decline in the second generation, when Judah married a daughter of a Canaanite without any direction from Jacob. But then in the third generation, Judah gave a Canaanite woman (Tamar) to his son to wife. It is common among believers that carefulness as to separation from evil can deteriorate with each successive generation. However, Judah’s firstborn was “wicked in the sight of Jehovah, and Jehovah slew him”. We do not know what Er’s sin was, but it must have been severe. “The fear of the LORD prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened” (Prov. 10:27). Tamar was not able to become pregnant before Er was killed. According to the duty of brothers, Judah told Onan to fulfil his duty and raise up seed to his brother’s name. Note this this was long before the Mosaic law was given, in which the duty of the brother-in-law was given by God (Deut. 25:5-7). This duty must have also been part of some cultures in the ancient world. Onan knew that if he gave Er a son posthumously, the blessing of the firstborn would pass to that son, rather than fall to Onan. But Onan selfishly refused to honor his brother, and “the thing which he did was evil in the sight of Jehovah, and he slew him also”. Note that it says “when he went in to his brother’s wife”, indicating that it was his practice to do this, not merely once but possibly several times. It was premeditated. Two of Judah’s three sons were now dead. Judah was afraid for Shelah’s life also, perhaps fearing that Tamar was cursed (although he may have also suspected that the youngest son also was wicked), and asked Tamar to be patient until his son was grown. From what follows, it would seem that Judah really didn’t plan on following through giving Tamar to Shelah. Judah was afraid to do so because he was not trusting the Lord.

Judah Deceived by Tamar (38:12-26)

12 And as the days were multiplied, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. And Judah was comforted, and he went up to his sheep-shearers, to Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep. 14 And she put the garments of her widowhood off from her, and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entry of Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as wife. 15 And Judah saw her, and took her for a harlot; because she had covered her face. 16 And he turned aside to her by the way, and said, Come, I pray thee, let me go in to thee; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in to me? 17 And he said, I will send thee a kid of the goats from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, until thou send it? 18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy lace, and thy staff which is in thy hand. And he gave it her, and went in to her; and she conceived by him. 19 And she arose and went away; and she laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 And Judah sent the kid of the goats by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand; but he found her not. 21 And he asked the men of her place, saying, Where is the prostitute that was at Enaim, by the way-side? And they said, There was no prostitute here. 22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I have not found her; and also the men of the place said, No prostitute has been here. 23 Then Judah said, Let her take it for herself, lest we be put to shame. Behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her. vv.12-23 Judah’s wife died, and he mourned for her, and was comforted. He seemed to have no interest in getting remarried. But then the time of sheep-shearing came, which was often the occasion of partying among shepherd-folk (1 Sam. 25).1 Tamar knew what state Judah would be in. We are not told exactly why Tamar deceived Judah into getting her pregnant. Tamar would be in the royal line of the Messiah, and her son Pharez would be marked by special blessing from the Lord (Ruth 4:12). Some commentators have speculated that Tamar had some inclination of the promises related to Judah, and that her actions were somehow motivated by faith. However, the blessing of Judah which identified his tribe as the royal one was not uttered until Jacob was on his deathbed. The aforementioned speculation seems to me unsupported. Whatever work the Lord did in her heart afterwards, and perhaps she did come to faith in Jehovah, at this time she was a determined and immoral woman. Judah was procrastinating. Time had passed, “Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as wife”. She took things into her own hands in a twisted way. Tamar deceived Judah into committing fornication with her, in order to get pregnant. This reminds us of how Judah had deceived Jacob, and of how Jacob had deceived Isaac. Do you see the pattern here? The deceptions are getting more and more twisted: first lying to steal, then lying to cover kidnapping, and now lying to get pregnant by incest. Interestingly, there is a “kid of the goats” somehow involved in each deception. Tamar knew Judah’s own weaknesses and lusts. She also knew that she would need protection once her pregnancy was known, therefore she took Judah’s signet, lace, and staff. She wanted something that was unique, recognizable as belonging only to Judah. She knew she was taking her life in her hand. It would have struck Judah as strange that there was no sign or trace of the harlot by the wayside when his friend returned to pay her. His reply to his friend the Adullamite reveals that he knew what he had done was wrong, and didn’t want it coming to light; “lest we be put to shame”.
24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter-in-law has committed fornication, and behold, she is also with child by fornication. And Judah said, Bring her forth, that she may be burned. 25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man to whom these belong am I with child; and she said, Acknowledge, I pray thee, whose are this signet, and this lace, and this staff. 26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She is more righteous than I, because I have not given her to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more. vv.24-26 When Judah was told of Tamar’s pregnancy, it was presented as a foregone conclusion that she had committed fornication. Judah was the head of his own clan, and therefore he would be the final legal authority on these matters. He immediately called for her to be brought forth and burned. In the law a woman found in adultery would be stoned, and only the daughter of a priest would be burned. Judah was extreme in his hypocrisy. It would appear that Judah was glad to have a righteous reason to be rid of a troubling person in his family. It is interesting that he had taken the lead in getting rid of Joseph as well. This time he would be called up short. Tamar had been waiting for this moment, and produced the missing articles that belonged to Judah. At the most dramatic moment, she produced the evidence. Judah was forced to take responsibility, and said “She is more righteous than I, because I have not given her to Shelah my son”. In reality Tamar was not righteous either, but Judah was more unrighteous. Judah would not take Tamar as his wife, because it was incest. Still, there was a vast difference between Judah’s morals and Joseph’s when it comes to sexual sin, as we will see in ch.39. We can see in Judah the Canaanite influence that the Lord had warned of.

The Birth of Pharez and Zarah (vv.27-30)

27 And it came to pass at the time of her delivery, that behold, twins were in her womb. 28 And it came to pass when she brought forth, that one stretched out his hand, and the midwife took it and bound round his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. 29 And it came to pass as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out; and she said, How hast thou broken forth! on thee be the breach! And they called his name Pherez [‘breaking through’]. 30 And afterwards came out his brother, round whose hand was the scarlet thread; and they called his name Zerah [‘clearness’]. vv.27-30 Similar to Rebecca, Tamar had twins in her womb. It was cultural that the first child to break the womb was the firstborn, and therefore the midwife marked him by tying a scarlet thread on his hand. However, in a strange (and probably painful) twist, he pulled his hand back inside, and his brother broke through first! Isn’t this the lesson we saw with Ishmael and Isaac, with Esau and Jacob, and now with Pherez and Zerah? What by nature seems to be great is not God’s choice. So Pharez got the right of the firstborn, and through him came the royal line, and the Messiah. His house was blessed in a special way, as we read, “And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the LORD shall give thee of this young woman” (Ruth 4:12). It is beautiful to see that the Lord can bring blessing out of the most awful of circumstances. Tamar’s name is mentioned in the genealogy of the Messiah in Matthew 1, along with Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
  1. Sheep-shearing is mentioned four times in the Bible and the context is never good. See Gen. 31:19; Gen. 38:13; 1 Sam. 25:2; 2 Kings 10:12.
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