Genesis 38: Judah and Tamar

1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3 and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. 4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him. 6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.

-We are now focusing in on Joseph’s story in this and the previous chapter and while we don’t have exact ages, Joseph was significantly younger than his brothers. Judah was already a grown man and took a wife and it seems not much time later, Er, his son, was already old enough to have a wife. It may even be possible Er, Judah’s son, was about the same age as Joseph, even older. Chezib is also known as Aczib and is located here:

7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.

-We have no information about this but this one sentence. How? Why? What exactly he did? We don’t know. God is in command of life and death and has every right to end anyone’s life that he chooses. This could simply be a poetic way of saying that he simply died, maybe from an accident or disease but given this is in scripture it’s probably more literal. It makes me consider what might have happened if Abraham had decided to reject God’s speaking to him and not go to Canaan. Would he have been killed and the offer then passed to Nahor or Lot? We just don’t know. Jonah rejected his given role as a prophet but was spit up by a whale after three days and became a prophet anyway. But he also called upon the Lord for rescue. Had Jonah not called upon the Lord would God simply have let him die since he was rejecting God and chosen someone else? We are told about an unforgivable sin in Mathew 12 by blaspheming the Holy Spirit so it may be possible Er was given a message by the Holy Spirit about what God wanted him to do and rejected it, so the Lord chose to end his life since there was no hope of righteous to be found in him.

8 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.” 9 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. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.

-This is an admittedly difficult passage of scripture. Onan was killed because he did not want his brother’s wife? This seems entirely unfair. This was the standard practice of the day though that if the older son died, the next in line would take his brothers wife so that children can be born to the wife. But it says here Judah, Onan’s father, commanded this of him and then the Lord put him to death for it. It’s important to note this wasn’t just a refusal to take Er’s wife but he was having sexual intercourse with her but deliberately making sure not to impregnate her. This was cruel to his brother’s wife by denying her children and Onan was just using her for his own pleasure. But still, was it really deserving of death? All sins are deserving of death, but why Onan’s when people were being murdered and women raped and continue to be to this day. Why was first his brother and than Onan singled out for punishment by death from God? Keep in mind, we are talking about Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons and one of the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s people. God is setting up the future descendants of his people including the human body of Jesus Christ Himself who was a descendant of Judah. Jesus descended from this brother’s wife, Tamar, and so it may be that Er and then Onan were offered the honor of being ancestors to the tribe of Judah and to Jesus Christ Himself but were turning this offer down and rejecting God. We’ve seen how wicked Abraham’s line has become with the sons wanting to kill but then choosing instead to sell of Joseph. Perhaps these 12 sons of Jacob had gotten so corrupted that were nearing the level of evil of Sodom and Gomorrah which God utterly destroyed. This section and story of Onan has been used over time as an example that masturbation is a sin yet the context of the story has nothing to do with that and the sin Onan had committed was not providing his brother’s wife with children.

11 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. 12 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. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 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.

-Timnah is located here: . So the third son in line should receive the first son’s wife as was their custom but he was still too young. Over the course of time, Judah wife dies. Once the third son, Shelah, grows up he is afraid he is going to die to and they do not give him to her. Based on the custom of the people, Tamar had done nothing wrong. Again, there is no law given to these people yet and no basis for distinguishing right and wrong outside of honesty and obedience when God speaks. Since Tamar could not have the third son, she takes it upon herself to try and half children no matter what.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 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?” 17 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—” 18 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. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

-Tamar pretends to be a prostitute so that Judah can impregnate her instead. Judah did not have a wife so technically and because there is no law given by God about the way marriages are supposed to work, there was not anything done wrong here that they could have known. Tamar is included and even mentioned specially in the genealogy of Jesus and was certainly not put to death by her actions so she was acting in accordance with God’s plan. Judah had appeared to do right by passing the brother’s wife to the next son, as was the culture of the day, but the third son had not received Tamar as his wife. Perhaps Judah feared to lose his last son and neglected to do his duty. God is carrying out a plan for the descendants of Judah and so because Judah did not ensure his third son be given to Tamar God used him instead to beget the offspring and begin the tribe of Judah. Tamar is very clever and has asked Judah proof of who she is so later she can prove the offspring was his.

20 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. 21 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.” 22 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.’” 23 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.” 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 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.

-What a double standard that Judah had seen a prostitute (or so he thought) yet he was ready to burn Tamar for becoming pregnant by a man that she was not married to since Shelah had not taken her. But when Judah saw his possessions and realized what had happened, he recognized Tamar as “righteous” for trying to get children through Judah’s line no matter what because she was promised into that household.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 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.” 29 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. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

-There have been many different interpretations of this as to its meaning because what is described here is a physical impossibility. What happened here was a miracle. It is as if Zerah was going to be born and then God performed a miracle to ensure Perez was born first instead. But why not simply have Perez born first without a miracle if that was God’s will? This chapter is full of God’s influence in who is born and to whom so there is definitely something special going on. According to the genealogy of Jesus, Jesus is a descendant of BOTH Perez and Zerah. The most reasonable assumption was that descendants of both intermarried later but there is no record to prove this for sure. The significance of the scarlet thread later became identified with royalty. Tamar’s firstborn was supposed to be the heir to Er’s household, the first son, so the thread was tied to show who the firstborn was out of the twins. This may have been a communication by God that though Perez was technically the firstborn, Zerah was the heir of Er’s household.


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