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Saturday, June 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The next event recorded in the [~toledowth] of Jacob is the continuity of the Messianic line through Judah by Tamar his daughter-in-law. The weakness and nobility, alike, of Judah appear in this somewhat sordid narrative. His immorality while away from home was shameful, but his acknowledgement of his sin and his acceptance of the consequences represented in him a type of honor absolutely unknown to the tribal leaders of that era.

One cannot fail to be amazed that critical scholars generally denominate this chapter as “a completely independent unit,”(F1) and that, “It has no connection with the story of Joseph.”(F2) Of course, it is true that this chapter is unrelated to the story of Joseph, for the section is the [~toledowth] of Jacob, not Joseph, and with relationship to the subject of the whole section it is definitely not a completely independent unit. It pertains very significantly to the story of Jacob in his capacity as the head of the Chosen Nation.

The immoral conduct of Judah, here related, shows why it was necessary for God to remove Israel from the pagan environment where they lived. As Leupold accurately observed:

“No matter how strongly Jacob’s sons may have believed in the divine destiny of their family, they were in grave danger of being submerged by the Canaanite element, making matrimonial alliances with them, adopting Canaanite ideals of life, and so being ultimately absorbed by the dominant element.”(F3)

This danger was compounded and multiplied by the friendly nature of the pagan Canaanites who sought alliances and matrimonial connections with Israel. Thus, we can easily see why it was absolutely necessary for God to remove the whole people from that environment, as was definitely accomplished by their transfer to Egypt. “The Egyptians of old were noted for their aversion to strangers, especially shepherds (Genesis 46:34).”(F4) If the Lord had left Israel in Canaan, they would most certainly have fallen “before the temptation of marrying with the daughters of the land, resulting in a great and rapid moral deterioration in the holy seed.”(F5) Furthermore, there would eventually have disappeared completely the line of demarcation between God’s people and the pagan world in which they lived. How marvelous was the providence of God that removed His people from a situation in which they would surely have failed, to another, in which their temptations were offset by the aversion in which the Egyptians held them!

From these observations, it is clear enough that the episode of this chapter is a vital link in the [~toledowth] of Jacob. We appreciate the wise words of Willis on this: “Although Joseph is the chief character in these chapters (Genesis 37—50), these chapters deal with the family of Jacob.”(F6) Keil also affirmed that, “This chapter is no interpolation, but an integral part of the history of Israel.”(F7)

This chapter deals with matters that cannot be the subject of social conversation, but they are honestly and plainly set forth. As Dummelow said, “The honesty and truthfulness of the historian are shown in his not concealing the dark spots in the history of Judah, whose descendants attained such greatness.”(F8)

Verse 1


“And 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.”

“At that time” From this, some have concluded that all of the following incidents occurred shortly after the sale of Joseph into Egypt, just related. Keil reached this conclusion, as did also Willis; but we have concluded that such a conclusion is not necessary. As Speiser said, “The Hebrew phrase here is formulaic.”(F9) and thus used merely as an introductory remark. We agree with Skinner (without accepting his reasons) that, “We cannot tell when or where the separation took place.”(F10) Whitelaw has fully discussed the chronological problems involved in any effort to nail down any firm placement, as to time, when these events happened.

Verse 2

“And Judah saw there the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went in unto her.”

Without consulting his father, and with total disregard of the Canaanite nature of Shua’s daughter, Judah simply took her. That he actually married her appears in Genesis 38:12. God could not have been pleased with this union of the prince of Israel, destined to receive the birthright of Jacob, with one of the women of Canaan. It is stated in the previous verse that Judah “went down”; and it is clear that he not only descended to a lower level, geographically, but that he also descended to a lower level spiritually.

Verses 3-5

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

It is of interest that Judah named Er, but that his wife named the other sons. Morris gave the names this meaning: “Er means watcher; Onan means strong; and the meaning of Shelah is not known.”(F11) None of these first three sons of Judah was destined to receive the birthright, in all probability, because of the pagan persuasion of their mother. There might have been a strong aversion on the part of the mother to Judah’s choice of Tamar, evidently a believer in God, as the bride for her sons. Certainly, there was some reason why neither Er nor Onan consented to have a child by Tamar.

Verse 6

“And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.”

Whereas, Judah had married without parental consent, he nevertheless chose a wife for Er, no doubt having seen what a mistake he had made in his own marriage. The childless state of that union with Er can only be explained on the basis of Er’s objection to the union, which we have supposed was due to the pagan convictions of his mother. Although it is assumed by most scholars that Tamar was also a Canaanite. Nevertheless, it appears that Judah had won her over to an acceptance of God. The blessings that she later received, in fact, would be proof of this. It is apparent that our narrative here conveys the impression that Tamar was a woman of remarkably fine character, despite her deceiving Judah.

Verse 7

“And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of Jehovah; and Jehovah slew him.”

Here, and in the following verses, where it is stated that God also slew Onan, some profess to find a difficulty, but no difficulty exists. “There could have been many ways in which he died, but, whatever the manner of death, the wrath of God lay behind it.”(F12) Willis also noted that, “The fact that the Lord kills people because of their wickedness is taught in both the O.T. and N.T.”(F13) N.T. examples of this are in Acts 5:1-11; Acts 12:23; and in Revelation 2:22. Such summary judgments of God never fell upon anyone capriciously, or without due cause. And in all the recorded instances of it, some very grave danger to the covenant people was thus averted. Certainly that was the case in the instances of it here given.

Verses 8-10

“And Judah said unto Onan, Go unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed would 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 he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of Jehovah: and he slew him also.”

There are a number of extremely interesting questions that hinge upon what is revealed in this passage.

(1) From this it appears that the social custom of brothers raising up children to a deceased brother’s name through marriage to his widow is much older than the Mosaic Law, which elevated this custom to the status of a divine command about four hundred years afterwards (Deuteronomy 25:5). This does not indicate a late date for Genesis; for, “The existence of the practice has been traced in different forms in Indians, Persians, and other nations of Asia and Africa.”(F14) As a matter of fact, “The custom of levirate marriage prevailed widely in primitive times.”(F15) The family or tribal ownership of land required this arrangement in order to assure a more equitable distribution of real estate. Without such an arrangement, the death of a childless man would have transferred his estate to another branch of the family. In this example of it, if Onan had been willing to give Tamar a child, the child would have inherited an estate which would have reverted to Onan in the absence of any heir to his brother Er. This would have substantially reduced the wealth which Onan would have received, since his brother Er was the firstborn and would have received the double portion.

(2) It should be particularly noted that the word “seed” is used with two different meanings here. It is used for offspring in Genesis 38:9 a, and a physical emission in Genesis 38:9 b. A similar diversity is seen in God’s promise to give Abraham innumerable “seed,” (offspring) and that in his “seed” (singular) all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Although our version uses “it” for “seed” in Genesis 38:9 b, the true meaning is “seed.”(F16) “The same Hebrew noun [~zera`] in this verse is used both in its literal sense and in the secondary sense.”(F17)

(3) Onanism is allegedly founded here. “Catholic theologians, lacking any authority for their extreme position on birth control, have taken this ancient story of Onan, distorted its meaning by declaring that Jehovah slew Onan for his “coitus interruptus”, and inflated this interpretation (!) into a whole system of social hygiene for the 20th Century.”(F18) If this event has any moral at all, it is that every man who refuses to marry his brother’s widow and have a child by her should be killed. That, of course, is what happened to Onan. His willful disobedience to his father, his shameful disregard of the rights of his deceased older brother, his heartless fraud perpetrated against Tamar who desperately desired a child, and his selfish greed in hoping to have a bigger estate himself by cheating Tamar … that was his sin. As Hobbs stated it: “He was condemned, not just for spilling his seed, but for doing it in order to avoid his marital responsibility.”(F19) “This has nothing to do with masturbation (`onanism’). It was selfish greed.”(F20) Why is it that such sins are not punished by death today? This sin of Onan required the fatal judgment of God because it could have thwarted the proper foundation of the Messianic family, and was therefore a threat to God’s purpose of redeeming mankind. There can be no doubt, that if a similar threat existed today, the judgment of God would be executed in such a manner as to remove it.

(4) “The thing which he did” This should not be construed as reference to a single act. “The verbs in the second and third clauses of Genesis 38:9 are frequentative and should be translated, `whenever he went,’“(F21) thus indicating, not a single act, but a long sustained purpose. Payne read it properly as a declaration that Onan, “persistently and maliciously cheated Tamar of her legal rights.”(F22)

Verse 11

“Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter-in-law, Remain a widow in thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown-up; for he said, Lest he also die, like his brethren. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.”

This was an impossible arrangement for Tamar, having been defrauded by two husbands, she was now to be defrauded by her father-in-law Judah, who had no intention of marrying her to Shelah. Yet, at the same time, any breach of this so-called betrothal to Shelah would, according to custom, have exposed her to the most brutal penalties. There is no wonder that God judged her case. However, Tamar was a most remarkable woman, and she would eventually claim her rightful place as a mother in Messiah’s line. One cannot fail to be outraged by the vicious double standard of morals prevalent in those times.

Verse 12

“And in process of time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheep-shearers to Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.”

There would appear to be something of a sinister nature in Judah’s close connection with the pagan Hirah, the whole context favoring the thought that Judah and Hirah were “on the town” in an unfavorable sense. Sure, Judah “went up” to Timnah, but the altitude of his spirituality remained low. “This cannot be the Danite Timnah, for it is even lower than Abdullam,”(F23) and it is usually identified as, “The Timnah of Joshua 15:57, the modern Tibne, some ten miles west of Bethlehem.”(F24)

Verses 13-14

“And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold, thy father-in-law goeth up to Timnah to shear his sheep. And she put off from 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 of Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife.”

Thus, Tamar was keeping abreast of all developments. She could see the transparent fraud Judah was practicing against her, and she doubtless had also become aware of Judah’s immoral habits. Whatever stories got around about Judah, Tamar remembered. Therefore, she took matters into her own hands, stripped off the garments of her widowhood, clothed herself in the garb of one of the sacred prostitutes seen everywhere in Canaan, and placed herself in a likely place to attract the attention of Judah. Sheep-shearings were usually fiesta occasions, and Tamar accurately understood the things that usually went on at such celebrations.

“Covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself” Those who accept the medieval superstition that even found its way into the KJV and ASV versions of the Bible, that the wearing of a veil by women was in some manner a mark of virtue and chastity, should take a look at this. It had the very opposite meaning. “According to Assyrian law, only a cult prostitute was to wear a veil.”(F25) Evidently, Judah did not know this; and thus he mistook Tamar for a common prostitute (Genesis 38:15), but when he sent Hirah to redeem his pledge (Hirah having in all probability inquired of Judah as to how the woman was dressed), Hirah, pagan that he was, promptly recognized by the attire what he assumed to be one of the cult priestesses, using the technical word for sacred, or temple prostitute repeatedly in Genesis 38:21 and Genesis 38:22. This very evil was the backbone of pagan worship in Canaan.

Verses 15-18

“When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face. And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Come, 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? And he said, I will send thee a kid of goats from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy cord, and thy staff that is in thy hand. And he gave them to her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.”

The stratagem worked. Tamar had completely outwitted him. Little could Judah have realized that he had just become the father of a great multitude through Tamar, including the Christ himself. Why did God permit such a thing? Simply because Tamar was a convert from the paganism to the true faith, and, by her, God would cut off the fountain head of paganism in the Chosen People, an influence which had already entrenched itself in the household of Judah through the Canaanite daughter of Shua.

It is useless to inquire about the exact nature of the signet, the cord, the staff, etc. They were simply valuable personal ornaments worn by Judah, and, what was most important to Tamar, they made in possible for her to identify the father of her child with absolute certainty.

Verses 19-23

“And she arose, and went away, and put off her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. And Judah sent the kid of the goats by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not. Then he asked the men of the place, saying, Where is the prostitute, that was at Enaim by the wayside? And they said, There hath been no prostitute here. And he returned to Judah, and said, I have not found her; and also the men of the place said, There hath been no prostitute here. And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be put to shame: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.”

“Where is the prostitute… ?” The word here for prostitute is [~qªdeshah], strictly sacred prostitute.”(F26) “All of the other places in the O.T. where this word is used, namely, in Deuteronomy 23:17-18 and Hosea 4:14, use the word in this sense.”(F27) If we inquire as to why Judah did not himself go to redeem the pledge, it would appear that he was ashamed to do so. Some commentators try to make excuses for Judah on the grounds that he “lived in that kind of a society.” Sure he did, but he knew better, and his conduct here proves it. Keil rendered Genesis 38:23 thus: “Let her take them (the signet, etc.) for herself, that we may not become (an object of) ridicule!”(F28) It would have involved publicity that Judah did not want if they had made any further inquiry about the Kedeshah. All of this shows clearly that Judah was ashamed and wished, as much as possible, to avoid any talk about his deed. Little could he have imagined that people thousands of years afterward would know all about it and keep on speaking of it! Yes, Judah would get his signet, cord and staff back again, but in circumstances he never dreamed of.

Verse 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, moreover, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.”

Like many another, Judah could see sins in others a lot easier that he could see sin in himself. Even as David the king was outraged by the prophet’s parable about killing the lamb, and then discovered that he himself was the guilty person, when the prophet said, “Thou art the man!” In the same way, Judah here realized his own guilt. It appears that Judah here exceeded the usual penalty for offenses such as Tamar’s by commanding her to be burnt, whereas stoning was the customary penalty. Only the daughter of a priest was condemned to be burned for adultery. Judah, however, would promptly be blessed with the opening of his eyes!

Verse 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 these are, the signet, and the cords, and the staff.”

One can hardly resist putting an exclamation point after the above verse. Who brought those tokens to Judah, the clan leader, who had the power of life and death over its members? Did Tamar’s father do so? Whoever did it, there was not a soul in the whole company attending what they thought would be an execution who did not recognize the items as the personal property of Judah. It was a climax nobody but Tamar had anticipated. This event can never die, for it is the truth. There was no way for Judah to deny it; to have done so would have made his name infamous forever, and it would have incurred the hostility and revenge of Tamar’s entire generation. Judah did the honorable thing, with one little face-saving exception. (See the next verse.)

Verse 26

“And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She is more righteous than I, forasmuch as I gave her not Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.”

“More righteous than I” A better word would have been, “She is less sinful than I”, but, under the circumstances, it was an astounding victory for Tamar. God had vindicated her case against the house of Judah, in effect, taking the Messianic line away from it and bestowing it upon Tamar, making it the new household of Judah. It was unlawful for Judah to continue his relationship with Tamar, and he strictly honored it. There is a glimpse of greatness in this patriarch, who in time would justify his right to stand in the line of Messiah, who in fact, would be forever known as, “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”

Sinful as were the deeds of Tamar here, it should be remembered that she was not motivated by lust, but by her lawful desire for a child. That God indeed overlooked her mistakes would appear to be certain in the light of subsequent developments.

In the blood-line of the Messiah, there were no less than three women who attained their status through adultery — Tamar, Ruth the Moabitess, and Rahab the harlot of Jericho. Perhaps, we should not ascribe such a sin to Ruth, but going to bed with Boaz is not far removed from it. Some would include Bathsheba in this list, but she was not in the blood-line of Jesus. (Mary was descended not through Solomon but through Nathan.)

Verses 27-30

“And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb. And it came to pass when she travailed, that one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold his brother came out; and she said, Wherefore hast thou made a breach for thyself?, therefore his name was called Perez. And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zerah.”

Such details were recorded because of the importance of the key link in Messiah’s line. Perez, the firstborn, was the one through whom Jesus came. It was only an oddity that the firstborn was not Zerah; and perhaps the ancients saw in this a figure of how narrowly the Messianic line was spared the necessity of passing down from the daughter of Shua the Canaanite.

“This incident testifies to the importance and privileges attached to the firstborn.”(F29)

It is inconceivable that some scholars, vainly trying to make this event fit into the story of Joseph, which they erroneously suppose to be the subject of this section of Genesis, appear to be totally blind to the fundamental importance of this narrative regarding the posterity of Jacob, which, of course, is the true subject all the way to the end of Genesis.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 38". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-38.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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