From Genesis 37 until 50 the book deals and concludes with the story of Joseph. The story of Joseph tells us how Jacob- Israel ended up in Egypt. Ultimately this was in fulfilment of God's word to Abraham in Genesis 15:13ff where God said to Abraham: “know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for 400 years.” The story of Joseph also tells us how the promises of God in Genesis 12:1ff would be fulfilled. There God had promised Abram that he would become a great nation. In the days of Joseph Israel had indeed become a big nation.
Although Joseph occupies the centre stage in the closing chapters, there will be a brief digression in Chapter 38. Here we will consider what Judah, the 4th born son of Jacob, and brother of the 11th born Joseph was up to. This chapter does not make nice reading, and if it were up to me I might have been tempted to circumvent it. But we cannot do that. This too is God’s Word, and it forms part of the whole, and God will bless this reading and meditation to our heart.
This chapter is very important in determining the succession of the line of Judah, and we shall see in conclusion that the line of Judah eventually is going to pass through Perez instead of Zerah. Perez will be one of the forefathers of our Lord Jesus. And that is going to be important for God's redemptive plan in the long run.
(i) 38:1-11: Judah’s Canaanite wife and the crisis arising in the line of Judah.
(ii) 38:12-26: Tamar’s plan to get her rights as wife and widow of Judah’s firstborn.
(iii) 38:27-30: Tamar gives birth to twins – and again we see the second son taking primacy in the line of Judah.
(i) 38:1-11: Judah’s Canaanite wife and the crisis arising in the line of Judah.
The chapter begins with these words, “it happened at that time…”, with reference to chapter 37, when Joseph, hated by his brothers was sold to an Egyptian. At that time his older brother Judah “went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite”. He went from his father’s home in Hebron (37:14) which is one of the highest points in southern Canaan down to the foothills northwest of Hebron (37:14) to Adulam. He went down in more ways than one. He left his covenant community and fraternised with a Canaanite family. He fell in love with a Canaanite girl- the daughter of Shua (38:2). This story is somewhat similar to the story of Esau (26:34,35) who deliberately went to look for a wife from among the Hittites, much to his parents dismay. The same thing also happens to Samson, who deliberately goes after a Canaanite wife (Judges 14:1-3), and incidentally from the same place – Timnah.
We read that this woman (only known as the daughter of Shua) bears Judah three sons. Er (v.3), Onan (v.4), and Shelah (v.5). The story moves very quickly. In v.6 Er, the oldest son grows up and his father finds him a wife called Tamar (contrary to his own example). We are told that Er was wicked in the sight of God and God put him to death (v.7). This left Tamar as a widow and childless. Things could not be worse for a woman in her day. Judah then commands his second son Onan, to fulfil the duties of a husband to her in what is called a levirate marriage. The term comes from the Latin ‘levir’, which means brother-in-law. Such marriages are also found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and in Ruth 4. The idea behind this was that if a man died leaving his wife without a son to propagate his family line, then his brother had a responsibility to enable her to bear a son who would propagate the deceased brother’s family line. Onan doesn't want to do this and we are told in 38:8-9 that God put him to death also.
Having lost two sons now, Judah’s third son, Shelah who is still very young, becomes the next possible option. But Judah is afraid that he too would die, and so he suggests that Tamar should move back to her father's home to wait. When Shelah is ready, arrangements for marriage will be made. But it doesn’t look good for Tamar.
2.38: 12-26 Tamar’s Plan
Tamar’s father in law, Judah now becomes a widower (38:12). After his time of mourning he and his old Canaanite friend Hirah the Adullamite visit his sheepshearers at Timnah. Tamar who obviously lives in the region receives no indication that she will receive Shelah as husband. It seems as if Judah conveniently forgets her, and because of this he will get himself into a greater mess.
But what is going on in Tamar’s mind? Apart from being a widow, and having no prospects of a family line, she knows that the answer would lie in having a baby from this family. Moreover , since she was the wife of Judah’s firstborn she had the right to be the mother of the heir to Judah’s line! With this in mind she made a plan. It is a horrible plan, and we shall have to read this at face value. The purpose of this account is not to make a moral judgement, but to report as to what happened. Having said that we must take note of the difference of the sexual ethics of a man like Judah and a woman like Tamar when compared with a man like Joseph, our main character at the end of the book of Genesis. In fact, in the next chapter (39), he refuses to fall for the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He flees, and we admire him for his fortitude. We learn of the sexual ethics of Scripture as we read the Bible in general.
And so we read that as Judah is on his way to Timnah during sheep shearing time. All the time he is in the presence the Canaanites, a pagan people whose lives werethoroughly immoral. At the heart of their practises lay a fertility cult, which was associated with their pagan temple cult. In this temple, (cult ESV) prostitutes (38:21,22) were used to invoke the Canaanite gods to cause one’s flocks and lands to be fruitful. And so temple prostitutes were used in ritual fornication. The time of sheep shearing was such a time in which this kind of thing happened. Tamar takes advantage of that moment, knowing that Judah is on his way to sheep-shearing season.
As Judah makes his way up to Timnah, he finds this temple prostitute along the road, not knowing that this was his daughter in law. And so Judah does a wicked thing in Israel. He again engages in a sexual act with a foreign woman. It tells us something about where Judah’s heart was rooted. He certainly did not fear God. He had no thoughts of keeping the terms of the covenant which God had made with his fathers. Judah has thoroughly compromised himself.
We need to make this a vital lesson to the Christian church. The church lives in the world, and the danger for the church is that she is easily attracted to it and absorbed into the culture of the world. I am saying this at a time when the Christian church has had much favour in our African context. The church has been a powerful voice in Africa. But in the midst of this favour, the church has been too much at peace with our world. The church has fed upon and absorbed the prevailing values of our world system, and many Christian preachers and church members have intermarried with this system, especially when it comes to the sexual values of the world and our nation. Here are a few reflections:
1. The matter of marrying in the Lord is disregarded by many young Christians.
2. The matter of living together or having a number of sexual partners outside of the context of Christian marriage is increasingly accepted in the church.
3. Marriage is no longer a sacred bond. It is entered into and dissolved at will. We do not see marriage as God sees it. The church has given into this spirit and does not fight to preserve marriages.
4. The free availability of pornography on the internet and in every other movie causes our people to become less vigilant about the dangers of sex outside the boundaries of marriage.
5. An area of sexual deviation not addressed here in our passage is the increasing acceptance in the church of homosexual practise (Sodomy), as found in Genesis 19.
Judah did not look for a wife that shared a God centred perspective on marriage. Judah had no scruples when it came to engaging a prostitute. His heart and his mind had become blunted because the soil of his heart was not carefully cultivated by cultivating the presence of God and keeping the Word of God.
Where you spend your time and affections does matter. It makes you who you are. If you share a lot of time with those who do not share your faith, you are going to find yourself where Judah found himself. And coming from where he came from, namely the tribes of Israel, God’s own people, a people blessed with the presence and knowledge of God, we see the hypocritical behaviour which He now reflects. Upon hearing that Tamar was three months pregnant (38:24-26), he was ready to have her killed and burned. But Tamar had the trump card: “As she was being brought out, she sent out word to her father in law, ‘By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant’.” (38:25). Judah had to confess that she was more righteous than he (38:26). In fact, Tamar was in one sense more concerned to preserve the covenant line than Judah. From his example and from David’s example with Bathsheba we are reminded that we can be very self- righteous, and in condemning other we often condemn ourselves. This is the kind of judgement that Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:1, when he says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.”
3. 38:27-30: Tamar gives birth to twins - and the grace of God
Tamar gave birth to twin sons. A strange thing happens here. There is a struggle between Perez and Zerah, somewhat similar to the struggle that we have described in Genesis 25:22- 26 between the twins of Isaac and Rebekah- Jacob and Esau. As it stands, even though Zerah made first appearance – his hand showed, and then he drew it back (38:28), somehow Perez was born first. And so it is that Perez becomes the one to continue the line of Judah.
In Matthew 1:3 (Luke 3:33) Tamar and Perez appear in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus. Perez who has Canaanite blood becomes a father to the Lord Jesus. Truly, God loves to turn that which is twisted and warped by us people to His own grand purposes.
The entire Bible shows us that our human inclinations and character, unaided by the help and grace of God, lead us but one way – down, down, down. Our human nature is intensely bent on hypocritical behaviour, even as believers, and that is why God must humble us, time and again. The closer we remain to God, the more we shall understand His holy nature and his abhorrence of sin, and the holier our inclinations will be. We can be more like Joseph than Judah
But at the end of the day, when we shall appear before Him, we shall confess: Not my righteousness oh Lord, but yours. I am in heaven entirely on the merits of my Lord Jesus. Amen.
 Cf. 1 Samuel 22:1. David hid in a cave at Adullam