Genesis Chapter 38
After the genesis of Joseph's trials in chapter 37, and the mourning of Reuben and Jacob, this chapter turns and focuses in on Judah.
Judah went down from his brothers and turned to Hirah, an Adullamite (38:1). He saw the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite, there (38:2). He was intimate with her (this assumes a marriage took place) and she had a son named Er, then she had Onan, then she had Shelah (all sons). Judah went to Chezib sometime when she was bearing them.
Eventually Judah's wife died. After he was comforted, he went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite. Shelah had grown and Judah had not given him to her in marriage, so when Tamar heard he was going to Timnah she changed out of her widows clothes, covered herself with a veil, and sat at the entrance to Enaim (on the road to Timnah).
Judah saw her and thought she was a prostitute (she had covered her face). He asked for her to be intimate with him, not knowing she was his daughter-in-law. She asked him what he would give her for her company, and he said he'd give her a goat. She asked for a pledge as a guarantee, asking for his signet, his cord, and his staff. He complied and gave them to her, and they were intimate. She conceived twins, and after all this she put her mourning garments back on and went back to her Father's house.
Later, Judah sent the goat to her with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite, so he could have his signet, cord, and staff back, but Hirah couldn't find her. He asked the men of Enaim where the cult prostitute at the entrance was, and they said there hadn't been one there. Hirah returned and told Judah about all of this, and in response Judah said, "Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at." (38:23) If they pursued it, his intimacy a prostitute would become public knowledge.
Three months later Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant from immorality. Judah commented, "Bring her out, and let her be burned." (38:24) She gave Judah's signet, cord, and staff to her father saying it was by the owner of these that she was impregnated. Judah then said, "She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah." And he was not intimate with her again (38:26).
She gave birth to twins. One put it's hand out and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the hand saying, "This one came out first." (38:28) The baby pulled his hand back and his brother came out first, and they named him Perez. Then his brother with the scarlet thread came out and he was named Zerah.
Reflections on Genesis 38
This chapter seems to interrupt the flow of the events in the life of Joseph. The last thing we hear before Genesis 38 is that Joseph is a slave to Potiphar...that's it. The focus totally shifts to Judah. This creates suspense as we wait to see what happens to Joseph, but it serves another more important purpose too.
As Moses is being carried along by the Holy Spirit to write this, why would he focus in on Judah's intimacy with his daughter-in-law Tamar? How does this push forward God's salvation-historical purposes?
First, Judah is one of God's chosen people of the covenant. Along with his brothers, his name is written on the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:12). Even though Judah is a sinner and fails again and again to exemplify holiness, by God's grace alone he is chosen by God. Just to be plainly clear, what Judah did here was wrong. Here's how Bruce Waltke put it, "Even the worst sort of sinners can enter heaven by God's redemptive grace." (Waltke, 515) Praise the Lord for this truth!
Second, have you ever read the genealogies for Jesus Christ? Look at Matthew 1:3, "and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron," and look at Luke 3:33, "the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah[.]" So, what's going on here? Jesus Christ, God's only Son became a man, through even this messed up encounter between Judah and Tamar. God is sovereignly orchestrating a lineage through which he would bring the one true Messiah. One of the reasons God focuses on Judah as opposed to Joseph's 10 other brothers here is because Judah's lineage ultimately points to and is used by God to bring the promised Messiah. Judah is God's chosen one out of Jacob's 12 sons to carry on the seed of His Messiah that would, "save His people from their sins," (Matt. 1:21) by dying on the cross as a substitute.
This chapter outlines Judah's depravity, as if selling his younger brother into slavery from chapter 37 weren't enough! Notice a few things. First, he pursues and marries a Canaanite woman, something strictly forbidden to God's chosen line at this time. Second, his sons, Er and Onan, were wicked. Third, he refuses to give his youngest son, Shelah, to Tamar as a husband to raise up a family in Er's stead. Fourth, Judah is acquiescing to the foreign god's of the Canaanites. He not only lay with who he thought was a prostitute, he lay with what he thought was a cult prostitute. Further, it would have been known that the cult prostitute with a veil was married to another man (Kidner, 200).
This chapter also outlines the beginning of a change in the heart and character of Judah, and even what appears to be his taking humble responsibility for his sin. He confessed how he had sinned in regard to being with Tamar (38:26). He appears to be repentant.
Notice the irony of the third point above, namely that he refuses to give his youngest son for fear of his death of the likes of Er and Onan. Through these circumstances God is humbling Judah from his heartless condition of selling his brother, and even more his father's favored son, Joseph, into slavery. Judah does not want to lose his youngest son like he lost Er and Onan, so he holds off giving him to Tamar. Judah is learning what it would be like to lose a son. Judah is learning what it must have felt like for his father, Jacob, when he betrayed Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites. Judah is learning humility. Later on in Genesis we'll see God soften Judah's heart to the point that he offers himself as a slave rather than betray his other youngest brother, Benjamin, to be a slave (Gen. 44:18-33). He grows in empathy for his father, Jacob, in what it would be like to lose his youngest son, Benjamin. Regarding this, Bruce Waltke wrote, "The partisan father is not transformed; his wicked son becomes a saint." (Waltke, 515) In the end Judah is able empathize with his father and his youngest brother to the point that he is willing to be a substitute. This character of becoming a substitute is a mere foreshadow of Jesus Christ's substitution, but we'll consider that more later.
Chapter 38 is putting the spotlight on Judah, because in the history of redemption it's Judah through whom the Messiah will come in Jesus Christ. Judah is the promised seed of the Savior who would come, so it's important to witness God's work in his life even here, in the midst of his sin.