After changing the main character from Jacob to Joseph, the author of Genesis inserts a story in Chapter 38 that seemingly has nothing to do with Joseph and doesn’t appear to move the overall narrative forward at all. It’s an unpleasant story that seems somewhat random in the overall scope of the book. As a matter of fact, Chapter 39 goes back to the Joseph story as if Chapter 38 doesn’t exist. From that standpoint it presents somewhat of a challenge to a study of the book. The story can leave the reader with a feeling of, “What was the point of that?” It is only with study in a broader context and upon understanding the story’s conclusion that it becomes clearer what its point is. The bottom line to Genesis 38 is that God uses sinful men to accomplish His purposes. And the chapter actually shows God using man at his worst to start the story of mankind’s redemption.
Chapter 38 likely covers more than 20 years. There is time enough for Judah to marry, raise three sons to adulthood, preside over the marriages of at least two of those sons, become a widower upon the death of his wife, and, finally, father two additional sons that are actually as much grandsons as sons to him.
We don’t know when in the overall narrative of Genesis the story begins. Verse 1 says that it happens about at that time, seemingly referring to the story of Joseph going down to Egypt that precedes it. If that’s the case, it means the story can only cover the roughly 22 years from the time Joseph is sold to the Midianites to the time Jacob and his family move to Egypt (based on 37:2 it is assumed that Joseph is 17 when he goes to Egypt – per 41:46 he’s 30 when he becomes ruler – and per 45:6 Jacob’s family goes to Egypt in the second year of the famine, which is nine years after Joseph assumes the throne [two years of famine added to seven years of plenty]).
Regardless of when it happens, the text says Judah moves away from his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman who is the daughter of a man named Shua. The text gives this information without comment, but it is perhaps notable that Judah marries a Canaanite rather than someone from within the family of Abraham. Judah’s wife bears three sons. Their names are Er, Onan, and Shelah.
The text jumps forward several years to when Er reaches marrying age. Judah arranges for him to marry a girl named Tamar. The text doesn’t give any explanation, but Er is so evil – perhaps in his treatment of Tamar or perhaps just generally (we don’t know if the evil comes about as a result of his marriage or if he was evil even before the marriage – some Jewish traditions hold that he refuses to sleep with Tamar because his mother wanted him to marry someone else or because he doesn’t want her to become pregnant and spoil her beauty) – that God kills him. Er becomes the first individual in the Bible that God kills.
After Er’s death, Judah instructs his second son – Onan – to take Tamar as his wife and raise up offspring in his brother’s name. This is an example of levirate marriage. In this custom, the brother of a deceased man takes the widow of his brother as a wife and the resulting offspring are accounted to the older brother. This way the birthright stays with the older brother and the family name is assured of living on. This will later become part of the Mosaic Law (Deut 25:5-10).
Onan takes Tamar and goes in to her, but he makes sure that she doesn’t conceive. Every time he sleeps with her he withdraws from her before he can impregnate her. The reason for this is likely because of the inheritance. If he allows Tamar to conceive and bear a son, that son inherits Er’s birthright. If Tamar remains childless, the birthright falls to him.
[Historical note. For years it was taught that Onan wastes his seed on the ground by masturbating. Masturbation even came to be called ‘Onanism’ and it was understood that this story condemns the act. However, it is much more likely that Onan engages in ‘coitus interruptus’ rather than masturbation. So while Genesis 38 certainly illustrates all kinds of evil, it’s not a lesson on the evils of masturbation.]
By doing what he does, Onan makes it look like Tamar is barren. He sleeps with her and she doesn’t conceive; therefore she must be barren. Note that at this time there’s no consideration that a man could be sterile. If a couple can’t conceive it’s on the woman. That means Onan not only betrays his brother’s name, he also deceitfully shames Tamar.
Onan’s evil doesn’t go unnoticed. God sees what he does and kills him; just like his older brother. Thus Tamar is now twice a widow. Of all the men in Canaan she’s apparently married the only two so wicked that God had to kill them. Hers has not been a storybook love story to this point.
Judah has one more son. Per the levirate custom, that son should now marry Tamar. However, he is not yet of marrying age. Thus Judah tells her to go back to her father’s house and remain a widow until my son Shelah grows up. By saying this, Judah means for her to live a chaste and single life. And as a widow, she remains under his authority and is effectively betrothed to Shelah.
It is important to understand Tamar’s situation. She is completely dependent on Judah. She can’t marry anyone other than Shelah. She has no support outside of her father’s house or Judah’s. If she doesn’t marry Shelah she doesn’t marry. She can’t support herself and she can’t choose someone else to marry. She simply has to wait and hope that Judah keeps his word to give her to Shelah (and this after marrying two men that God decided were too evil to live).
The problem is that Judah has no plans to follow through. He has watched two sons marry Tamar and two sons die. He doesn’t want his last son to meet the same fate. He only has one more son. His last hope of a grandson and the furtherance of his name rest on him. Thus he doesn’t want Shelah to marry the woman who causes men to die. To Judah, Tamar is a Black Widow to be avoided at all costs.
Judah’s decision to forget about Tamar is both blind and cruel. He closes his eyes to the wickedness of his sons and cruelly sentences Tamar to a life of dependence, loneliness and childlessness. He doesn’t uphold his responsibility to her and forces her back to her family for support. He chooses to blame her instead of his sons and thus treats her unjustly.
After a considerable time – we don’t know how long, but it’s apparently years – Judah’s wife dies. After the mourning period is over he decides to go to where his flocks are for the shearing of the sheep. This is typically a festive time so perhaps it is his way of reentering society after his wife’s death. Since his wife is dead and since he’s going to a celebration, he also is perhaps a little more prone to sexual temptation.
Tamar hears about Judah’s plans. She also presumably knows about the death of his wife. She also knows that Shelah is now of marrying age and nothing’s been said about her becoming his wife. It’s apparent that Judah isn’t going to keep his promise and her life will never change from what it is right now – a widow with no prospects living in her father’s house.
She decides to do something about it. She changes out of her widow’s garments (which apparently somehow show her status) and puts on a veil and otherwise hides her identity. She then goes to a city gate that Judah will pass on his way to the shearing. She seems to know her father-in-law well enough – as well as his newly unmarried status – to predict how he will react if he sees her by the road as he comes into the city.
Sure enough, when Judah passes by he notices her. He assumes she’s a prostitute and negotiates a price for her services (notice that Judah doesn’t exactly use the subtle approach – he effectively says to her, “Let me sleep with you.”). He promises to give her a kid from the flocks. She accepts the price but asks for some kind of pledge she can hold until he delivers the goat. She says if he gives her his seal and cord and staff (all of which are unique to him – she effectively asks him for his wallet and driver’s license), she will accept it as payment until he sends the kid.
Judah sleeps with her and leaves. It is interesting to note that – like Jacob and Leah – they are able to come together without her giving up her identity. After their time together – during which she conceives – Tamar returns to her house and puts her widow’s clothes back on. Whether anyone in her house knows what she’s done is not explained. Seemingly she’s been able to go and come back without raising any suspicion.
After Judah gets to the sheep shearing, he sends his friend back to the city with a kid to pay the prostitute. His friend, however, can’t find her. He asks around but finds that no one knows anything about a prostitute by the city gate (he refers to her as a temple prostitute but this is likely just a nicer way of saying prostitute). The friend returns to Judah with the news that the woman is nowhere to be found. Judah tells him to forget about finding her as he doesn’t want to be a laughingstock. He doesn’t want the whole world to know what he did and especially doesn’t want them to know that a prostitute possibly tricked him out of his identification. At this point he’d just like to forget about the whole encounter.
Three months later Judah receives word that Tamar is pregnant. The actual message he hears is that Tamar has played the harlot and is with child by harlotry. He reacts quickly and harshly. He commands that she be brought out and burned to death (she’s technically his responsibility and so under his authority). She has committed adultery – remember that she’s betrothed to Shelah – and must be punished.
That he sentences her to be burned to death is likely an extreme response. Capital punishment for adultery is customary, but death by burning seems to be much more severe than is typical. Under future Mosaic Law she would be stoned. Judah’s vicious response is thus telling. It probably points to his earlier belief about the death of his sons. He thought she was evil or cursed and caused his sons to die. Now that he finds she’s committed adultery it shows all his earlier thoughts about her to be true. She’s truly evil and deserves the worst of punishments (and perhaps he’s justified his behavior toward her over the years by building up a hatred of her).
His viciousness may also point to his hypocrisy. What is it she’s accused of? Playing the harlot. What did he do on his way to the sheep shearing? Avail himself of a harlot. So he’s saying she deserves to die for effectively doing the same thing he did. Hypocrisy breeds mercilessness. It’s what Nathan will use against David after David sins with Bathsheba (II Sam 12:5). Concealed sin causes us to see others’ sin in the harshest of lights. Hypocrisy enables us to look in a mirror and see someone else’s reflection.
When the men go to get Tamar and carry out Judah’s orders, she sends a message to Judah (it’s not clear in the text if she’s in the same town as Judah, but apparently she’s close enough to get a message to him very quickly) along with his staff, cord, and seal. She instructs the messenger to tell Judah that she’s pregnant by the man who owns these things. She then asks in the message, “Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?”
Interestingly, her question to him about who the items belong to is the same question the brothers asked Jacob about Joseph’s bloody coat (37:32). This is perhaps not a coincidence. God seems to use this episode to affect Judah and it could be that it’s not lost on him that these are the same words. He was the one who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, as it were, it perhaps gives him a better appreciation not only for Tamar but perhaps for what he did to his brother and father.
Judah immediately understands what’s happened. He tells the messenger or perhaps just says to himself, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Notice that he doesn’t say she’s righteous. He just says that she’s more righteous than he is because he didn’t carry out his responsibility to her and forced her to act. He doesn’t condone what she did, but he does readily take responsibility for putting her in that position.
From that perspective, it could be that this marks the beginning of a change in Judah. He moves from being the instigator of Joseph’s slavery in Chapter 37 to offering himself as a sacrifice for Benjamin in 44:18-34. Perhaps his repentance and actions in regard to Tamar are the first steps in that change.
The text says he doesn’t have relations with her again. This seems to mean that he takes her into his house and raises her sons as his own but doesn’t live with her as a husband. Acknowledging his fatherhood may include some public humiliation. That he goes from wanting her burned to death to bringing her into his home is a picture of true repentance.
Tamar gives birth to twin boys – just like Rebekah. And just like Rebekah, the delivery isn’t without excitement. The first boy puts his hand out of the womb to signify he’s the firstborn, but then the second son somehow pushes himself around the first and actually comes out before him. The two boys are named Perez and Zerah.
This is where the point of the story lies. Perez – even though technically the second-born – begins the line through which the Messiah will come. Perez represents the ongoing custom of God choosing the younger over the older. Just like Isaac and Jacob, Perez takes the place of honor in front of his older brother. He is why the story exists. The insertion of Genesis 38 may appear to be random and unnecessary, but its place in the redemption narrative is critical.
It’s amazing that this story kicks off the line of the Messiah. Judah – the man who talked his brothers into selling their younger brother into slavery – has three sons. Two of the sons are so evil that God kills them. The woman both sons were married to becomes so desperate as a result of Judah’s horribly uncaring actions toward her that she disguises herself as a prostitute so she can sleep with her father-in-law and conceive a child. One of the twin sons she gives birth to as a result of her incestuous tryst becomes one of the earliest members of the Messianic line.
So God takes this morass of selfishness and immorality and uses it to further His redemptive ends. It is both incredible and entirely fitting. Since Jesus will come to save sinners it’s appropriate that His line extends from them. The earliest ancestors of the Messiah illustrate perfectly why He has to come. He will save people from their merciless, uncaring, desperate, and immoral acts.
Something else to notice in this story. Tamar will be the first of four women mentioned in Christ’s genealogy in Matthew 1. She is mentioned along with Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (actually not named but referred to as the wife of Uriah). What do they all have in common? All have sin or curse associated with them. Rahab is a gentile and prostitute. Ruth is a cursed Moabite who marries under unusual circumstances. Bathsheba – perhaps unwillingly – commits adultery with David and brings down his kingdom. All four women have some kind of stain. Yet they are instrumental in the line of the Messiah and Matthew highlights them to show their stories are included in God’s plan. Even more, they share with Mary – Jesus’ mother – the hint of scandal. So Tamar becomes – in one sense – not only an ancestor of Jesus but also a predecessor of Mary. And the fact that she – along with Rahab and Ruth – is a gentile shows that her Descendant will come not only to save the Jews but all people.
So an awful story about awful people acting awfully is actually a critical piece of God’s redemptive plan. What an AMAZING God! How wonderful that He can take man’s sin – even the worst of it – and use it to further His ends. Man never stands in the way of God’s sovereignty. And for that we should be extremely grateful and feel enormously secure.