Genesis 38 – Tamar and the Sin of Judah
A. Tamar’s widowhood and Judah’s unfairness.
1. (1-5) Judah and his three sons.
It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her. So 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. And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. He was at Chezib when she bore him.
a. Judah departed from his brothers: Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob through Leah (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were before him), had not yet distinguished himself as someone great among his brothers. He was the one who suggested they sell Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:26).
b. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her: Through an ungodly and unwise marriage to a Canaanite woman, Judah fathered three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.
i. Consistently, marriage with Canaanite women had been discouraged among the patriarchs and those connected to them (Genesis 24:3, 28:1, 28:8). The Canaanite neighbors were rapidly corrupting the family of Israel. Their future looked like a combination of corruption and assimilation. God had a plan to bring them out of Canaan.
2. (6-7) Er’s marriage to Tamar and his death.
Then 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 killed him.
a. Her name was Tamar: It is not surprising that Judah chose a Canaanite wife for his son Er, since he himself was married to a Canaanite.
b. Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him: We are never told what Er’s wickedness was, but obviously it was evil enough that God brought immediate judgment upon him. Growing up with a father from such a troubled family and with a mother who was a Canaanite did not help Er to live a godly life.
3. (8-10) Onan’s refusal to raise up offspring for Tamar.
And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.” But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.
a. Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother: This was done according to the custom of levirate marriage (later codified into law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). If a man died before providing sons to his wife, it was the duty of his brothers to marry her and to give her sons. The child was considered the son of the brother who died, because the living brother only acted in his place (Onan knew that the heir would not be his).
i. This was done so the dead brother’s name would be carried on, but also it was so the widow would have children to support her. Apart from this, she would likely live the rest of her life as a destitute widow.
b. When he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother: Onan refused to seriously regard the responsibility to father descendants for his dead brother. He was more than happy to use Tamar for his sexual gratification, but he did not want to give Tamar a son he would have to support but would be considered to be the son of Er.
i. Onan pursued sex as only a pleasurable experience. If he really didn’t want to father a child by Tamar, he should never have had sex with her at all. He refused to fulfill his obligation to his dead brother and Tamar.
ii. Many Christians have used this passage as a proof-text against masturbation. Indeed, masturbation has been called onanism. However, this does not seem to be the case here. Whatever Onan did, he was not masturbating. This was not a sin of masturbation, but a sin of refusing to care for his brother’s widow by giving her offspring, and the sin of a selfish use of sex.
4. (11) Judah’s unfair dealing with Tamar.
Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.” For he said, “Lest he also die like his brothers.” And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
a. Lest he also die like his brothers: One can understand that Judah did not want to give his last son as a husband to Tamar. God already judged two of her previous husbands. Judah vowed he would not give Shelah as husband to Tamar as custom and righteousness commanded, but he would continually delay the fulfillment of his dishonest promise.
b. Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house: This was no place for a young, childless widow to be. There were still additional brothers in her husband’s family who could fulfill the obligation they owed to their late brother. None of this was the fault of Tamar. All the blame belonged to Judah and his sons.
B. Tamar bears a child by Judah.
1. (12-14) Judah’s wife dies, and Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute.
Now in the process of time the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And it was told Tamar, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” So she took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.
a. She saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife: Tamar did not want to face what would be a difficult existence in that culture – life with no husband or children.
b. She was not given to him as a wife: Tamar didn’t have the option of just finding another man to marry. She was under the headship of her father-in-law Judah, and he had to give her a husband. He determined whom and when she could marry.
c. Covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place: Knowing that Judah would be away from home (to Timnah), Tamar dressed herself as a prostitute and went to the place prostitutes met their customers. She planned to meet only one customer – Judah.
2. (15-18) Disguised as a prostitute, Tamar has sex with Judah and conceives.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face. Then he turned to her by the way, and said, “Please let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. So she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” And he said, “I will send a young goat from the flock.” So she said, “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?” Then he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” So she said, “Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.
a. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face: In her disguise, Tamar successfully met Judah. After negotiating the price, Tamar demanded a pledge of the future payment of the agreed-upon price (a young goat).
b. Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him: When Tamar conceived, it certainly was not intended by Judah, but it was in Tamar’s plan; more importantly, it was in God’s plan.
3. (19-23) Tamar disappears.
So she arose and went away, and laid aside her veil and put on the garments of her widowhood. And Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her. Then he asked the men of that place, saying, “Where is the harlot who was openly by the roadside?” And they said, “There was no harlot in this place.” So he returned to Judah and said, “I cannot find her. Also, the men of the place said there was no harlot in this place.” Then Judah said, “Let her take them for herself, lest we be shamed; for I sent this young goat and you have not found her.”
a. She arose and went away, and laid aside her veil: After her meeting with Judah, Tamar immediately put away her disguise and resumed her normal life.
b. Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her: Judah sent a friend to pay Tamar, and to retrieve the pledge he left with her. Because Tamar disappeared, he gave up the pledge, leaving it with her.
4. (24-26) Tamar is vindicated and Judah is reproved.
And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.” So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are—the signet and cord, and staff.” So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.
a. She is with child by harlotry: When the widowed, unmarried Tamar was found to be pregnant, it was evident that it was from some kind of sexual immorality. Perhaps Tamar even told others that she had played the harlot.
b. Bring her out and let her be burned: Judah did not care for Tamar, the widowed wife of two of his sons. He found it easy to pass judgment on someone who sinned just as he sinned, without passing the same judgment on himself.
c. Please determine whose these are: Tamar acted shrewdly and vindicated herself against the charge of harlotry. She made the logical appeal of noting that the man who hired her was just as guilty as she was.
d. She has been more righteous than I: However, even Judah could see through to the real issue. He was at fault for not providing for Tamar a son through his last son Shelah.
5. (27-30) Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.
Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb. And so it was, when she was giving birth, that the one put out his hand; and the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” Then it happened, as he drew back his hand, that his brother came out unexpectedly; and she said, “How did you break through? This breach be upon you!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.
a. Therefore his name was called Perez… his name was called Zerah: Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33 each list Perez as an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. God took the son of this ungodly situation and put him in the family line of the Messiah, despite the fact that neither Judah nor Tamar were examples of godliness.
i. This is a wonderful example of grace. God chose them, despite their works, to both be in the line of the Messiah and to have their role in God’s plan of redemption.
b. His brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand… his name was called Zerah: The second-born son Zerah had the red thread on his wrist, but the first-born son Perez would be found in the Messianic line.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission