An Abridged Version of Genesis 38 (Based on the NIV.)
Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and she became pregnant and gave [him] sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. Er was wicked so the Lord put him to death.
Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan was wicked so the Lord put him to death also.
Judah then said to Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” He thought, “He may die too, like his brothers.”
Judah’s wife died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went to shearing his sheep. When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil, and sat down on the road to Timnah. Though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he said, “Come, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me?” she asked.
“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me as a pledge your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand?”
He gave them to her and she became pregnant by him. [Later] Judah sent the young goat in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road?”
“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.”
So Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will
become a laughingstock.”
Three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-
in-law Tamar is pregnant.” He said, “Bring her out and have
her burned to death!”
She sent a message to her father-in-law; “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son.”
When the time came for her to give birth, one of them put out his hand; the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.[a] Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.[b]
MESSAGE: Regardless of how badly we sin, God wants to love and save us and use us to love and save others.
CONTEXT: From chapter 37 on, the focus of Genesis is on Joseph, the most godly of Jacob’s sons. The exception is chapter 38, this weird pause to tell this oddball story about Judah. This is the only occasion when one of Joseph’s brothers is the subject of so much biblical attention.
What we have here is the kind of story I dislike: there is no one good or evil; they’re an uncomfortably realistic portrayal of people. Real people, even the ones who are supposed to be saints, are mixtures of good and evil attitudes and actions. I prefer stories where there’s someone I can admire. There’s nobody admirable in this story.
- Judah was at least half a scoundrel.
Judah was one of Jacob’s twelve sons (see Genesis 35:23). Why leave his family? Maybe this was a shady deal to make some money on the side: he did have a flock of his own there and the name Shua (his father-in-law) means “wealthy.” Or he went because Jacob would not approve of his marriage to a pagan woman. (This was strictly forbidden to later generations of God’s people.) Or, to his credit, he may have been too ashamed of how he and his brothers treated Joseph. He did not want to have to face his father and lie to him.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 1 virtue, 0 vices. He talked them into selling Joseph instead of killing him (see Genesis 37:26-27).
Judah’s Character Score Card = 2 virtues, 0 vices. Jacob’s blessing (see Genesis 49:8-12) was complimentary. He called Judah a “lion.” This image would later be picked up by the Apostle John who referred to Jesus as THE LION OF JUDAH.
Not all of the sons of Jacob were treated so generously before his death. Some of them he cursed but Judah he blessed generously. Does this imply some virtue in his character? Remember, Jacob was no slouch. We can assume he was a good judge of character and he judged Judah with complimentary words.
Judah was blessed because he was being treated like the firstborn son, though he was actually fourth in line. His three older brothers had lost their spots by being cruel and treacherous men. So – blessed by default? That’s not a sparkling thing to add to one’s resume, but better by comparison.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 2 virtues, 1 vice. He didn’t keep his promise to Tamar (see Genesis 38:11+14). You can understand Judah being concerned for his third son’s life, but at the same time it seems a bit like “blaming the victim.” The text plainly says that his two sons died because they were wicked, not because any fault lay with Tamar. She is the “victim” in this situation. The text also makes plain the difference between what Judah said to Tamar & what he thought to himself. This is hypocrisy at least.
His decision cost Tamar a great deal. Judah’s request effectively kept Tamar’s life “on hold;” she was pledged to Shelah and was to wait to marry him. In that society, to LIVE AS A WIDOW meant to be forsaken, destitute, dependant on charity. To return to her father’s home was not to live quietly in his basement. It was more likely a life of abasement.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 2 virtues, 2 vices. He solicited a “prostitute” (see 38:16-18). The sheep-shearing that was going on in this account was part harvest and part celebration. Imagine the poor sheep being sheared by dudes at a kegger. Judah’s actions here may have been “assisted” by drunkenness. Before rushing to condemn too harshly, let’s remember this is a very primitive culture and these events occurred before the Law was given to Moses. For example, incest had not yet been identified as a sin. Judah and Tamar were effectively guilty of adultery, not incest.
Worst of all, Judah’s actions here are likely involved with idolatry. He called the woman he met on the road a “SHRINE PROSTITUTE.” Having relations with her was considered “worshipful.” That’s why he offered payment not in the form of money, but a goat instead. This is not an oddball kind of bartering; it was an animal to be sacrificed to an idol.
The things Tamar as “the prostitute” asked for as a pledge were not just personal, but related to idolatry. The SEAL was worn around the neck by means of a CORD. It was a medallion bearing the image of a false god. The STAFF was ornately carved – perhaps with images of false gods.
Whether they were idol-worshiping items or not, they were certainly unique and unmistakable items that positively identified the owner. In an age before DNA testing, paternity suits, and fingerprints, these items would be undisputable proof of the identity of the father of her children.
“LET ME SLEEP WITH YOU” is a polite euphemism. It’s likely the transaction was done right there beside the road. This was a degrading act.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 2 virtues, 3 vices. He was more concerned about his reputation than paying his debts or retrieving his sacred signs (see Genesis 38:23). He was willing to part with his idolatrous necklace and staff rather than face the teasing of his friends for trusting a prostitute with his personal items. It’s ironic, isn’t it, when we go to such lengths and costs to preserve a reputation we don’t deserve? It’s sad how we fear men but not God. Judah was more concerned about being embarrassed than coming under God’s wrath.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 3 virtues, 3 vices. He took his humiliation graciously (see Genesis 38:26). To Judah’s credit, when the proof was there before him, when the uncontestable evidence was shown, he ceased his hypocrisy and took his lumps like a man. He admitted his sin and honored his daughter-in-law; HE DID NOT SLEEP WITH HER AGAIN.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 4 virtues, 3 vices. The tribe named for him would be the people to become the Jews and the tribe into which Jesus was born. Based on what little we know about him, Judah was not the sort of person who deserved this honor. But that’s the very definition of grace, isn’t it? God recklessly forgives, restores, and even honors the one who repents.
Judah’s Character Score Card = 4 virtues, 4 vices. His first two sons were so wicked that God cut their lives short, adding what their contemporaries would’ve understood as dishonor to death as their punishment. You can’t always blame the parents, but there was something clearly rotting within this “family tree.”
Judah’s Character Score Card = 4 virtues, 5 vices. He became angry and vengeful when Tamar’s pregnancy was revealed (see Genesis 38:24). Those who accused Tamar called her Kedeshah, or “prostitute.” They assumed her pregnancy was the result of an act of adultery, unfaithfulness to her deceased husbands.
- Tamar (“palm tree”) resorted to a desperate deceit.
Tamar’s Character Score Card = 1 virtue, 0 vices. Though she suffered the loss of two husbands and though it would cost her a great deal personally, Tamar was obedient to Judah’s instructions (see Genesis 38:11). Later in the history of Israel it became customary – perhaps based on this passage – to not require the third brother to marry and produce an heir. In this case, the unfortunate twice-widowed woman was called Katlannith, “murderess.” It’s important to notice this good aspect of Tamar’s character. She tried to do right and Judah lied to her and cheated her.
She had waited a long time for Judah to keep his promise (see Genesis 38:12) but it became clear to her that he would not keep it. Justice demanded better treatment of Tamar and when she saw that Shelah was of marrying age and she was not given to him, she took matters into her own hands and acted to force justice to be done.
But her motive was not merely revenge or some hard-hearted justice; Tamar acted to secure a future and a life for herself. In that society, widows were unattached females who had no financial recourse other than charity. She needed the inheritance due her from her first husband, denied her by her second husband and her father-in-law.
Tamar’s Character Score Card = 1 virtue, 1 vice. So – she devised and enacted a plan to humiliate her father-in-law AND get the children she deserved (see Genesis 38:13). She put off the garments usual for a widow, a woman in mourning, and put on a disguise. She was not a SHRINE PROSTITUTE, but she dressed like one and put herself in the place of one to deceive her father-in-law. The VEIL was part of the dress of priestesses of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, so we can guess that a similar practice was in place at this time. It also served to conceal her face, so Judah wouldn’t know it was her. She sat by the road as common prostitutes of the day did, to solicit business. Judah’s bachelorhood and drunkenness caused him to be easy prey and he propositioned his daughter-in-law.
To us, this story is repugnant and Tamar’s behavior is not much better than Judah’s. Yet Jewish culture regards Tamar as the heroine of this story. Oriental cultures prize cleverness as a virtue. The way Tamar plotted this, she showed great guile. She behaved deceitfully, but got justice. In fact, it was perfect justice; she had lost two husbands and was rewarded with two sons.
Another important virtue in Oriental culture is genealogy. Tamar was honored because her actions preserved her husband’s line. This is seen in Matthew 1:3, where Tamar and one of her sons, Perez, is specifically mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.
- The product of their union, Perez, is listed in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 as one of the ancestors of Jesus.
NOTE: I’m not saying that a passing mention in the log of Jesus’ ancestors is a stamp of divine approval. But it does mean that the person was used by God to bring about the most miraculous and significant birth ever. To put it another way, Jesus was special because of who He was: in SPITE of some of His ancestors, not because of them!
Israel’s attitude toward Perez is interesting. Not caring a bit about his incestuous beginnings, they regarded him as an important figure in their ancestry.
– In the OT book of Ruth, the women of Bethlehem invoked the name of Perez as they blessed the marriage of Ruth and Boaz (who are also mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus).
– In the years after they returned from exile in Babylon, prominent Jewish families proudly traced their ancestry back to Perez (see 1 Chronicles 9:4; 27:3; Nehemiah 11:4-6).
Other than his mention in the Gospels, we are not told any more about Perez. Other than his very interesting birth story, and being a link in the chain that connected Adam and Jesus, I don’t know of a single reason why Perez was so honored by the Jews. SIDEBAR: Since Shelah had children by another woman, it seems unlikely that Shelah ever married Tamar (see Numbers 26:20).
Here’s the big question: why is this in the Bible? The fact that it’s shoe-horned in here between chapters 37 and 39 – it is a kind of misfit – gives us more impetus to answer this question.
A Theological Reason = God wanted this in His word to remind us that even the most revered human beings have a checkered past. The point is to contrast man’s moral and spiritual helplessness with the perfection of God, reminding us of our need for grace.
A Moral Reason for this story is that it dramatically underscores our need to obey God. There are some notable exceptions, but otherwise no one in this story provides a good moral example for us to follow. It is a “cautionary tale.”
A Historical Reason for this story is to show how the most important royal lineage was preserved in spite of the disobedience of Judah. Tamar is getting the credit she deserves for acting decisively to preserve the family tree.
A Spiritual Reason for this account is the point I’ve been making all along. The biblical record is very candid – perhaps one wants to say, “TMI!” – but it makes the point that no one is too messed up to repent and turn to God. This odd, embarrassing moment was something God used to turn into a big, historical event. But whether big or small in its outcome, God did not first require Judah, Tamar, or Perez to clean up their act before He used them.
Genesis 38 is a story that needs to be told because we all need to hear that every one of our dysfunctional families – complete with all of the skeletons in our closets – are not forsaken by the Lord. The soap opera-like events of Genesis 38 are garish, but the story is there to dispute the lie that there are some sinners who are too far gone for God to save. On this side of the grave, there is always hope. There is always a chance. There will always be an opportunity to repent and be healed.