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Deeper Commentary

Gen 38:1 It happened at that time- Judah was intended to be in the line of Messiah. And yet he married an unbeliever. It would seem that he married young, and he made his sons marry young likewise. Note that his sons are recorded as dying “in Canaan”, before Judah left Canaan to emigrate to Egypt. This requires that the events of Gen. 38 occurred whilst Joseph was suffering in Egypt, and are typical of the sin of Israel / Judah in the Gentile world before their repentance and acceptance by Joseph / Jesus. As discussed on :6, there is a chronological issue with this chapter, and the Hebrew may mean that these events happened at the time that Judah went down from his brothers sometime earlier, rather than "that time" connecting with Gen. 37.

That Judah went down from his brothers- See on Gen. 44:33. He separated himself from God's people, associated with Gentiles and was led into sin. But the point of the story is that God still worked through him, because Tamar was directly in the line of Messiah. God's purposes were not stopped by human failure. There were only 22 years from this time to the emigration of the family to Egypt, and it is noted that Judah's adult sons died in Canaan. Therefore we can conclude that this separation was immediately after the attempted murder of Joseph (:1), so perhaps the result of the sin was a disagreement between the brothers, so that Judah went off on his own.

And visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah- "Visited" is AV "turned in"- Heb. 'to bend away', the language of apostasy.

Gen 38:2 Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her, and went in to her- Shua was the name of her father, according to the LXX and also :12. "Saw... took... went in to her" is the language of David's sin with Bathsheba; note the use of messengers to try to get themselves out of the consequences of their action. Judah took a Canaanite woman and shamefully treated her. Esau took [s.w.] Canaanite women, but married them and treated them responsibly (Gen. 36:2). But by grace, it is Jacob's line and not Esau's who were chosen. There is a theme in the record that the sons of Jacob were not better than the sons of Ishmael and Esau who chose not to continue in God's covenant purpose, indeed they were often worse; the only difference was that they chose to hand in with God's grace.

Gen 38:3 She conceived, and bore a son; and he named him Er- He was slain for his wickedness (:7) and yet Judah's son Shelah had a son of the same name, to as it were replace him rather than leave this wicked man unremembered in the family (1 Chron. 4:21). This chapter emphasizes the deep unspirituality of Judah; and yet from him was to come the Messiah and future people of God. The function of the chapter is to show "that the pre-eminence of Judah in the patriarchal family was due exclusively to grace". We may also be left to perceive that unless God had providentially moved the family into Egypt, they would have intermingled with the Canaanites and lost their covenant relationship with Yahweh. Which again is an example of grace.


Gen 38:4 She conceived again, and bore a son; and she named him Onan- Judah was probably only a few years older than Joseph, who was 17 at this time (:1); perhaps he was 21 (Gen. 29:35 cp. Gen. 30:25). See on :6.


Gen 38:5 She yet again bore a son, and named him Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bore him- Chezib means 'falsehood'. Why else mention the place? Maybe the idea is that Judah wasn't present at the birth of his third child because he was away at 'falsehood', perhaps implying he was involved in an illicit relationship there.


Gen 38:6 Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar- Er would have been very young at this time; for there were only 22 years from the this time when Joseph was 17 (:1) to when the family moved to Egypt. The 22 years can be calculated from Gen. 30:31; 31:41; 37:2,25; 41:46; 46:5,12. Judah was keen to see his sons married and to build up his family; Isaac and Jacob married much older. So perhaps Judah, like his fathers, was trying to force through the fulfilment of God's promises of a multitudinous seed, although his attempts failed. Indeed for the history to fit, it has been argued by Adam Clarke that Judah would have married as a teenager and Er likewise. An alternative is to think that this chapter is out of historical sequence and has been placed here for some narrative purpose, and the "at that time" of :1 refers to some time other than the events of Gen. 37. But the record may be demonstrating Judah's manic desire to have children and force the fulfilment of the promises of fruitfulness. Another possibility is that :1 should mean "It had come to pass at the time that Judah went down from his brethren...". The incident would then refer to an earlier incident; but if Joseph was 17 at the time of chapter 37, then it would still mean that Judah was very young when he married and these events happened.


Gen 38:7 Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of Yahweh. Yahweh killed him- Despite his youth (see on :6). We may think that behaviour in our late teens or early 20s can be as it were scribbled because we were young. But human behaviour counts to God, at whatever age. We note that Yahweh killed wicked people at this time. And yet the sons of Jacob had committed major wickedness in the effective murder of Joseph and the massacre of Shechem. And yet Yahweh didn't kill them. This note about Er demonstrates not only that once again, being the literal firstborn was not related to spirituality; but also that the founding fathers of Israel were preserved by pure grace. See on :10. "Wicked in the sight of Yahweh" is the phrase used about the sins of Sodom (Gen. 13:13).


Gen 38:8 Judah said to Onan, Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and raise up seed to your brother- As noted on :6, Judah was desperate to generate a multitudinous seed in his own strength and by his own devices. The Levirate laws in the later law of Moses were clearly in existence before Moses' time. Some argue that we should keep the Sabbath because it was in existence before Moses' time; but on that basis, so should we keep this principle of raising up seed, and also the separation between clean and unclean animals which was clearly known at the time of the flood.


Gen 38:9 Onan knew that the seed wouldn’t be his; and it happened, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother- The sin was not masturbation as such, as has wrongly been supposed, but not loving his brother and being selfish. The same Hebrew phrase is used repeatedly of how the world's population in Noah's time corrupted God's way in the earth, and how God in appropriate response destroyed the earth (Gen. 6:11,12,13,17). There is therefore the implication that Judah wasn't interested in raising up a seed for God, but rather just wanted his own seed on the terms he wished. The phrase is repeatedly used in the prophets for how the earth / land of Judah was to be 'destroyed'. Judah were destroyed because like the historical Judah, they didn't want to raise a Godly seed. Ewald suggests the Hebrew suggests that Onan did this 'whenever he went in...' to her, taking sexual gratification from her without consummation. He therefore treated her as a prostitute, for his own pleasure; and was slain for it. And yet Judah his father used a prostitute at least once (and we could infer that he often used prostitutes, as Tamar knew his behaviour to be predictable) and was not slain. Again we see that Judah, one of the prominent founders of Israel, was saved by grace. 

Gen 38:10 The thing which he did was evil in the sight of Yahweh, and He killed him also- Even in the darkness of a tent or inner room, God's eyes noticed every detail. Time and again Biblical history demonstrates that sins of silence and omission are just as fatal as sins of public, physical commission. Onan omitted to raise up seed to his brother, and was slain. Given the serious sins of the family, this judgment may appear severe. But as noted on :7, the function of this chapter is to underline that the development and preservation of the people of God was by grace alone. They had done far worse things than these young men who were punished so severely, and yet they were preserved by grace.

Gen 38:11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, Remain a widow in your father’s house, until Shelah, my son, is grown up; for he said, Lest he also die, like his brothers. Tamar went and lived in her father’s house- Judah saw Tamar as some kind of femme fatale, responsible for the deaths of his two sons when clearly they died for their own sins. And yet she was to become the source of fruitfulness (Ruth 4:12) and directly in the line of Messiah (Mt. 1:3). Judah is again portrayed as totally wrong in his judgments and attitudes.


Gen 38:12 After many days, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died. Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers to Timnah, he and his friend Hirah, the Adullamite- One wonders if Judah was in an illicit homosexual relationship with this man. The word for "friend" is also translated "lover". Having lost his wife early, Judah was in the mood for living as a single man; and Tamar knew this meant using prostitutes and capitalized upon that. We see here how so many factors worked together, including serious human sin and dysfunction, to result in a pregnancy given by God which led to the Messianic seed (Ruth 4:12; Mt. 1:3). It is all an example of how God never gives up with human weakness amongst His covenant people, but seeks to work His purpose out despite it and through it.

 Gen 38:13 It was told Tamar, saying, Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep- Sheep shearing was associated with immorality and alcohol abuse. Tamar knew that Judah was the type who would sleep with prostitutes at such a time- again indicating his low moral character at this time.


Gen 38:14 She took off of her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gate of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she wasn’t given to him as a wife- The camera is trained as it were directly upon her, so that we imagine her wrapping herself and sitting in the gate, in the shadows.

There is a connection with how Rachel was not given [s.w.] to Jacob to wife when she ought to have been (Gen. 29:26). Circumstances repeated within the lives of the Abraham family, just as they do within and between our lives, that we might learn the lessons. Given the chronological issues discussed on :6, she was expecting to marry Shelah when he was just a teenager, which seems to mean that Judah had given her other reasons to think that he would not let her marry Shelah. Her motives may well have been simply revenge against Judah, whom she rightly considered a hypocrite. And yet from these poor motives came the one who would be in the direct line to the Messiah. We wonder if she did in the end marry Shelah, because he had children, who became respected within Judah (Num. 26:20; 1 Chron. 4:21-23).

Gen 38:15 When Judah saw her, he thought that she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face- There may be a connection with how Jacob didn't know he had slept with Leah rather than Rachel. Perhaps there was such a culture of shame about sex that women covered their faces during intercourse; and we can understand a prostitute in those shame based societies wishing to do that. Again we see the strange continuities within the Abraham family, the same experiences passing from father to son. A different word for "prostitute" is used in :21,22; that word means a cult prostitute. It could be that Judah thought nothing of sleeping with cult prostitutes as part of idol worship, which makes his spirituality appear at an all time low.

In Gen. 37:26 Judah argued that there would be no cash advantage if they just killed Joseph and concealed or covered their [responsibility for] his blood. The same word is now used twice of how Judah in turn is deceived by Tamar covering / concealing herself (:14,15). This is not simply an example of 'what goes around, comes around'. God makes such circumstances repeat because He wants to help people to repent, to realize the effect of what they have done to others in the hope it will elicit sensitivity and repentance.

Gen 38:16 He turned to her by the way, and said, Please come, let me come in to you, for he didn’t know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, What will you give me, that you may come in to me?- Tamar's plan was based upon the assumption that Judah on returning from a sheep shearing celebration would likely want a prostitute. And she was correct. Judah later sees her as "righteous" for what she did (:26). He presumably was felt to have a legal duty to get her pregnant even if Shelah refused.


Gen 38:17 He said, I will send you a young goat from the flock. She said, Will you give me a pledge, until you send it?- The fact Judah was apparently unprepared for sleeping with a prostitute, having nothing of value upon him to pay her apart from his personal identity items, all suggests that he was drunk and just looking for opportunistic sex under the influence of alcohol and lust.


Gen 38:18 He said, What pledge will I give you? She said, Your signet and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. He gave them to her, and came in to her, and she conceived by him- These sound like large demands, from a woman who was anonymous behind her veil. Judah perhaps only agreed because he was drunk at the time, and felt desperate to have sex at any cost.


Gen 38:19 She arose, and went away, and put off her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood- The camera is as it were close in now upon her, as we see her removing the veil and returning to who she was.


Gen 38:20 Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend, the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, but he didn’t find her- The connections within the record continue; for Judah had been party to using a goat to deceive his father (Gen. 37:31) just as his father Jacob had used goat skin to deceive his father. Yet this family who apparently 'never learnt', never 'got it', were the family God chose from which to build His covenant people- in order to display His grace and sovereign choice. The way Judah sent the payment through another person reflects his desire for anonymity, and we note his subsequent fear of shame over the issue. The fact he parted with his personal identity documents, as it were, is therefore confirmation of my earlier suggestion that he was a drunk man desperate to have sex at that moment at whatever personal cost to his reputation.


Gen 38:21 Then he asked the men of her place, saying, Where is the prostitute, that was at Enaim by the road? They said, There has been no prostitute here- The word for "prostitute" differs from that in :15; this one means a cult prostitute. Again the implication is that Judah thought nothing of such idolatry.


Gen 38:22 He returned to Judah, and said, I haven’t found her; and also the men of the place said, ‘There has been no prostitute here’- All this enquiry would have meant that everyone knew what had happened. Rotherham gives "devotee" for "prostitute", confirming the idea that Judah slept with her on the basis of idolatry.


Gen 38:23 Judah said, Let her keep it, lest we be shamed. Behold, I sent this young goat, and you haven’t found her- The fear of shame confirms my earlier suggestion that he must have been drunk to behave like this, giving his personal identification to an anonymous prostitute.


Gen 38:24 It happened about three months later, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has played the prostitute; and moreover, behold, she is with child by prostitution- The person who told Judah this was presumably part of Tamar's plot. Because she was technically free to marry. The reason given for the death penalty was that she was a prostitute; and only Tamar or those party to her plan knew that she had acted as one only for Judah.

Judah said, Bring her out, and let her be burnt- This may not necessarily mean to be burnt to death, but rather to be branded in the cheek or forehead so that she would be stigmatized as a prostitute. If burning to death, this was a more extreme punishment than death by stoning. We note the obvious hypocrisy in Judah- it's a classic. He transferred his own guilt for immorality and usage of prostitutes onto another, namely a prostitute. And this is why religious people often condemn others in the strongest terms for what they themselves do. They subconsciously transfer their own sense of guilt and need for punishment onto another, whom they punish. And they at times do this by slandering and then punishing another person for the very sins which they themselves commit.

Burning to death for adultery was stipulated only for the wife of a priest (Lev. 21:9). Judah perhaps considered himself or Shelah to be the family priest, again showing his deep unspirituality and the tragic state of affairs within Jacob's family.

Judah didn't give Shelah to Tamar because he clearly feared that he would lose his son, just as he had lost two other sons and his daughter by Tamar. He was concerned about preserving his own inheritance, and assumed that Tamar was somehow cursed by God and would be the source of death rather than the continuation of his line. Whereas God worked through that woman, by utter grace, to ensure that Judah would have children through Tamar who would be in the line of Messiah. God works through human sin, in order to show His grace, as it comes to a climax in Jesus.

Gen 38:25 When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man, whose these are, I am with child. She also said, Examine, please, whose these are- the signet, and the cords, and the staff - Just as Judah had said to his father, "See, is this your son's coat" (Gen. 37:32); so it was now said to him, in order to try to bring him to repentance for what he had done to Joseph and Jacob. We see similar repetition of circumstance in the brothers' encounters with Joseph- to try to lead them to repentance. It's not merely some poetic justice; but these things were worked through by the Spirit to bring people to realize how others felt when we sinned against them.

Gen 38:26 Judah recognized them and said, She is more righteous than I, because I didn’t give her to Shelah, my son- Her motives may have been partly revenge against the hypocritical Judah who had purposefully tried to leave her in her father's house without children. But perhaps she believed in the promises of the Messianic seed and believed that Judah should produce Messianic ancestors; and indeed, the Lord's line is traced through their son Perez (Mt. 1:3). And this was her 'righteousness' in the matter.

He knew her again no more- This could suggest that he had used her several times as a prostitute. Pregnancy after one act of intercourse is unusual, although clearly God's hand was in it. Her whole plan depended upon her getting pregnant by Judah so it would be unsurprising if she had played her trick several times.


Gen 38:27 It happened in the time of her travail that, behold, twins were in her womb- The similarities are clear with Rebekah bringing forth Esau and Jacob, and we are going to read a similar tension over the matter of the firstborn. By now we are fully prepared for the firstborn not to be the most blessed; and we are not disappointed. This was something which God kept trying to teach the family over the generations, but like us in some areas, they were very resistant to it.


Gen 38:28 When she travailed, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, This came out first- Scarlet seems a strange colour to use, seeing that there is plenty of red blood flowing anyway at childbirth. Scarlet is the colour of kings and rulers; they all realized that there was going to be tension over the issue of which child emerged first from the womb, as in that culture, this was so important. What now happens is God's way of trying again to teach the family that the firstborn was not so significant, because the ultimate firstborn was the promised Messianic seed of the future.


Gen 38:29 It happened, as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out, and she said, Why have you made a breach for yourself? Therefore his name was called Perez- The theme of the second born being the chosen one continues. It was accepted that Perez was the one in the line of the Messianic seed and that this pregnancy was of God (Ruth 4:12), even though he was not technically the firstborn. "Made a breach" is literally 'to spread abroad', and is the word used in the promises of how the Messianic seed was to break forth or spread abroad (Gen. 28:14).


Gen 38:30 Afterward his brother came out, that had the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah- As noted above, the firstborn was to come "after" the younger. But the entire family struggled to learn this. Although Jacob had made Joseph firstborn instead of Reuben by giving him the priestly robe of many colours, at the end of his life, Jacob still seems to bless Judah as the firstborn. They just would not learn that order of birth was irrelevant to the only blessing that really mattered. We too can be blind to some whole area of thinking or behaviour, despite the Father's continual efforts to help us get our priorities right.