Genesis 38 – Judah and the Providence of God

1And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.

12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.

28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.

29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.

30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.


Sandwiched in between chapters 37 and 39 is a story that provides a stark contrast with the life of Joseph.  This story involves his older brother Judah, and in this episode we see a rich, carefree, yet sad and unGodly life.

Contrast this with Joseph in bondage and one would wonder what secret sin Joseph had committed to end up in such a calamity.  But that is just it: Joseph had done absolutely nothing to cause such a bad thing to happen in his life, they believed this in Jesus’ day and even today, we still believe that this is the case when trouble comes.  Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no other reason but the glory of God and this is what we shall see in the life of Joseph as well as the life of Judah.

One interesting aspect of these chapters is that Judah was the brother who had suggested that he and the rest of the guys sell Joseph in order to get rid of him.  He may have had a self-serving reason behind the suggestion.  Judah might have seen Joseph as a threat to Judah’s stature.  Reuben had messed things up when he slept with Jacob’s concubine, while the next two in line, Levi and Simeon had messed their chances up when they slaughtered the men at Schechem.  This would have left Judah, the fourth in line, in a position to receive the firstborn blessing.

Judah had been born to Leah, while Joseph had been born to Rachel, who Jacob had favored more.  This favor had rolled over to Joseph, so between this, his special tunic, and those haughty dreams, Joseph never stood a chance.

This struggle for power is something we see again through their descendants where Judah and Ephraim, one of the two sons of Joseph who were both adopted by Jacob as direct sons, eventually become the dominant tribes when the kingdom splits.  These two war on and off again until the coming of the Assyrians.

They are also mentioned again in a prophecy by Ezekiel when they are brought back to Israel in the future and we see it playing out now.

According to verse 1, Judah had left his family and now he was hanging around with a Pagan buddy, Hiah.  We need to be careful who we hang around and spend time with.  He had obviously been up to no good by leaving his family and spending time away from God.

While hanging out with his new buddy, Judah meets a Canaanite woman, who gives him three children, Er, Onan, and Shelah.  The fact that he was not supposed to intermingle with Canaanite women didn’t seem to bother him and he soon finds a wife who was named Tamar, for his eldest son Er.

This is also an indication that he had stayed here for a long time.

Scripture doesn’t tell us how but Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and was slain for it.

Judah tells his second son, Onan, to go to Tamar and raise an heir for Er.  Evidently this was a custom of the area but it does become a part of Levitical Law later on in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.    If he had children with Tamar, then the firstborn would have been considered an heir of Er but the rest would have been considered offspring from Onan.

Onan goes in to Tamar but instead of following his father’s instructions, he spills his seed on the ground.  This was not a form of birth control but an act of self satisfaction through sex.  Also, the death of his elder brother would now make him the recipiant of the firstborn portion.  If he had children for his elder brother, then it would have lessened his share.  This meant that his brother’s line would have stopped and Tamar would not have a child to take care of her when she was old.  This was a disaster in ancient times.  He was also going against his father as well as disrespecting his brother and this was wickedness in the sight of the Lord and he was slain as well.  So Judah tells Tamar to wait until his last son, Shelah, is old enough to wed.

Judah’s wife eventually dies, so he and his pagan buddy go up to his sheepshearers at Timnath.  This wasn’t just a place of work he was going to, it was also a place where, when they were done working, they would then host a large party that would last for a long time.

Tamar finds out where Judah is headed, takes off her mourning clothes, dresses up like a temple prostitute, and sets in an open place on the way.  The Canaanites had adopted prostitution as an act of “worship” which was connected to the temples of Baal.  This “sacred sex” was seen as an honor and a legitimate practice by both the prostitutes and their clients.  Judah, whose mentally so far away from God, thinks nothing about joining in this practice and he comes to Tamar seeking some company.

He offers her a goat kid from his flock as payment, but she asks for a pledge from him in the form of his signet, his bracelet, and his staff.  His signet was probably a ring with his seal on it.  It would signify his signature.  His bracelets, or necklace, showed his wealth, and his staff spoke of his position.

She wanted his person, his possessions, and his position.

When a man gets pulled into wickedness, into sexual deviance through sin, he loses ALL!

He gives her what she wants and she becomes pregnant.  Now this all started because Judah had not done what he said that he would do.  His last son, Shelah, was old enough to wed, but he had not sent him to Tamar as he had promised.  Perhaps he saw her as bad luck and he didn’t want to lose his third son.  He obviously had no idea that their wickedness had killed his children because his mind was now so far from God that he saw things through a completely worldly perspective.

It comes to his attention that tamar had played the harlot and was now pregnant.  He demands that she be burnt.  This also becomes a Levitical Law later on in Leviticus 21:9, but notice what it says:

9 And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.

Did he think of himself as more spiritual than he was?

She reveals his things and he finally acknowledges that she had been more righteous than he.  He never knew her again, he never spoke to her again, and he never takes the opportunity to make things right.  This tells us that he still didn’t get it; he didn’t really walk the talk.

The last few verses are the beginning of the scarlet thread of understanding the line of Jesus Christ.  Tamar has twins, Perez and Zarah.  It is through Perez, that we see a direct line from Judah to Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;

4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;

5 And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse;

6 And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;

7 And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa;

8 And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;

9 And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias;

10 And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias;

11 And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:

12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel;

13 And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;

14 And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud;

15 And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob;

16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

So Judah has moved away from his family and from God, but we see something at work in the life of Judah and Tamar.  Neither acted in a right way, but we still see the Providence of the Lord working out.  Judah’s sons had Canaanite blood and they would not have been acceptable to be used to further the line of Israel.  The rabbis tell us something that we don’t see in Scripture.  They claim that Tamar was a Semite, and this union as well as the offspring would have been acceptable to God.

Either way we see God working out His will in spite of such wicked and selfish actions on the part of man.


About Clint Rodgers

I am a father of 2 wonderful children and the husband of a beautiful woman who has taught me more about compassion for goofballs than I could have ever learned. I have know Jesus for many years but about 5 years ago I truly met Him and now I do my best to follow Him as I walk in this world
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