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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


3. Judah and Tamar ch. 38

This chapter seems at first out of place since it interrupts the story of Joseph, but we must remember that this is the toledot of Jacob. This is the story of what happened to his whole family, not just Joseph. The central problem with which the chapter deals is childlessness. The events of the chapter must span at least 20 years, years during which Joseph was lost to his family (cf. Genesis 37:2; Genesis 41:46-47; Genesis 45:6).

Judah tried unsuccessfully to ensure the levirite rights of his daughter-in-law Tamar. As a last resort Tamar deceived him into having sexual intercourse with her by masquerading as a prostitute. She thereby maintained her right to become the mother of Judah’s children, the younger of which displaced his older twin in an unusual birth.

"The following sketch from the life of Judah is intended to point out the origin of the three leading families of the future princely tribe in Israel [Shelah, Perez, and Zerah] and at the same time to show in what danger the sons of Jacob would have been of forgetting the sacred vocation of their race, through marriages with Canaanitish women, and of perishing in the sin of Canaan, if the mercy of God had not interposed, and by leading Joseph into Egypt prepared the way for the removal of the whole house of Jacob into that land, and thus protected the family, just as it was expanding into a nation, from the corrupting influence of the manners and customs of Canaan." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:338-39.]

This chapter records the compromise of the Israelites, specifically Judah, with the Canaanites, Shua and Tamar, that resulted in the confusion of seed, the chosen with the condemned. This is the first time one of the chosen seed selected a wife outside the preferred families of the patriarchs. Like Esau, Judah chose a wife from the women of the land, even one of the cursed Canaanites (cf. Genesis 24:3-4; Genesis 27:46 to Genesis 28:2). It is perhaps the basis for the prohibition against mixing various kinds of seed, yoking two different kinds of animals together, weaving two kinds of thread into cloth, etc., in the Mosaic Law. [Note: Cf. Carmichael, pp. 394-415.]

"One gets the distinct impression that ever since the Dinah incident (ch. 34) Jacob has less and less control over the behavior of his family." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 433.]

Verses 1-11

Levirite marriage (the marriage of a man to his deceased brother’s wife to provide his brother with an heir) was a common custom in the ancient Near East at this time (Genesis 38:8-10). [Note: de Vaux, pp. 37-38. See Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, pp. 705-10, for an excursus on levirate marrage.] It was common also in Asia, Africa, and other areas, but it evidently originated in Mesopotamia. The Mosaic Law did not abolish it but restricted it in Israel to preserve the sanctity of marriage (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

"The enormity of Onan’s sin is in its studied outrage against the family, against his brother’s widow and against his own body. The standard English versions fail to make clear that this was his persistent practice. When (9) should be translated ’whenever.’" [Note: Kidner, p. 188.]

Onan’s refusal to give Tamar a child not only demonstrated a lack of love for his deceased brother. It also revealed Onan’s selfish heart that wanted for himself what would have gone to his elder brother’s heir. If Tamar had borne him a son, that child would have been the perpetuator of Er’s name as well as that of Onan (cf. Ruth 4:5; Ruth 4:21-22). God judged Onan’s sin severely because descendants were important in His plans for the Israelite patriarchs. Onan was frustrating the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Genesis 11:4). This is the first text that states explicitly that God put someone to death.

Judah sinned against Tamar by forcing her to live as a widow (Genesis 38:11). He wrongly blamed Tamar for the death of his sons (cf. Genesis 38:26) rather than blaming his sons. Tamar had every right to children. Moreover as a member of the chosen family, Judah should have made certain that she had another legitimate opportunity to bear children.

Judah comes across at the beginning of this incident again as a hard and callous man. He had previously suggested selling Joseph into slavery to make money from him and deceiving Jacob despite Reuben’s protests (Genesis 37:26-27; Genesis 37:29-30). Now the writer portrayed him as showing no grief over the deaths of his sons, in contrast to Jacob who mourned inconsolably over Joseph’s apparent death (Genesis 37:34-35). Judah also ordered the burning of his daughter-in-law (Genesis 38:24).

Verses 12-30

When Judah deceived Jacob (Genesis 37:31-32), a goat and an item of clothing featured in the trick, and here a goat and an item of clothing again figure in Tamar’s deception of Judah. Tamar’s strategy for obtaining her right was not commendable. She played the role of a common whore (Heb. zona). Judah’s Canaanite friend described her as a shrine prostitute later (Genesis 38:21, Heb. qedesa), but he probably said this to elevate her social status in the eyes of the other men he was addressing. Though ancient Near Eastern society condemned adultery, it permitted prostitution. [Note: Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992 ed., s.v. "Prostitution (OT)," by E. A. Goodfriend.] By wearing a veil Tamar hid her identity from Judah but also presented herself as a betrothed (to Shelah) woman, since engaged women wore veils (cf. Genesis 24:65; Genesis 29:21-25). However the fact that she sought to obtain seed by Judah shows her legitimate desire for children at least. It probably also reveals her desire to enter into the Abrahamic promises by bearing children for Judah and his sons. Jacob’s family experienced deception again.

"Tamar qualifies as a heroine in the story, for she risked everything for her right to be the mother in the family of Judah and to protect the family." [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p. 612.]

"Although Tamar’s actions in this regard may seem strange to us, there is evidence that among ancient Assyrian and Hittite peoples, part of the custom was that the levirite responsibility could pass to the father of the widow’s husband if there were no brothers to fulfill it. Thus Tamar was only trying to acquire that to which she had a legal right." [Note: Aalders, 2:194.]

Moses did not clarify her motivation. Whether or not she understood and believed the promises to the patriarchs regarding their sacred vocation, she did become an ancestor of the Messiah (Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:3; Matthew 1:16).

"Just as in chapter 20 where the seed of Abraham was protected by the ’righteous’ (saddiq, Genesis 20:4; NIV, ’innocent’) Abimelech (cf. also Genesis 26:9-11), it is the woman Tamar, not Judah the patriarch, who is ultimately responsible for the survival of the descendants of the house of Judah." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 232.]

Judah’s response to his sins against God and Tamar seems to have been genuine repentance (Genesis 38:26). He confessed his wrong and repented by ceasing from further sexual relations with her, his daughter-in-law. It is evidently because his repentance was genuine that Jacob did not exclude him from receiving a special blessing as he excluded Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. Because he humbled himself God raised him to be the chief of the house of Israel and blessed the children that he fathered even though they were a result of his sin. Compare God’s blessing of Solomon even though he was the fruit of the unlawful union of David and Bathsheba.

"The scene marks the beginning of Judah’s transformation when he declares of Tamar, ’She is righteous, not I’ (lit., Genesis 38:26)." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 506.]

". . . in its biographical sketches, character change is what Genesis is all about: Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel. Particularly in Jacob’s family we see examples of character change: Reuben, violator of his father’s concubine, later shows great concern for both Joseph and his father, while the upstart cocky Joseph becomes the wise statesman who forgives his brothers. Thus, this chapter has a most important role in clarifying the course of the subsequent narrative; without it we should find its development inexplicable." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 364.]

Perez (meaning a breach or one who breaks through) was the first of the twins born (Genesis 38:27-30). He became the ancestor of David and Messiah (Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:3; Matthew 1:16). Moses may have included the unusual circumstances surrounding the birth of these twins in the record to emphasize God’s selection of the son through whom the line of blessing would descend.

"He [Judah] and his brothers sold their younger brother into Egypt, thinking they could thwart God’s design that the elder brothers would serve the younger Joseph. Yet in Judah’s own family, despite his attempts to hinder Tamar’s marriage, God’s will worked out in a poignant confirmation of the principle that the elder would serve the younger." [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 89. See also the NET Bible note on 38:29.]

The scarlet thread marked the second-born, Zerah (dawning, i.e., red or scarlet). It did not indicate the Messianic line. That line came through the other son, Perez. The thread is perhaps just a detail of the story that explains the names given.

"A key to this story is the remarkable similarity between the births of Perez and Zerah and of Jacob and Esau. Both births involve twins; in both the younger thrusts ahead of the elder and displaces him; and in both the one who is naturally expected to get the birthright, but loses it, is associated with red: red stew in the case of Esau and a red string in the case of Zerah." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, pp. 506-7.]

The only mothers in the Bible who bore twins were Rebekah and Tamar.

"As the Jacob narrative began with an account of the struggle of the twins Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:22), so now the conclusion of the Jacob narrative is marked by a similar struggle of twins. In both cases the struggle resulted in a reversal of the right of the firstborn and the right of the blessing. . . . The brevity and austerity with which the narrative is recounted leaves the impression that the meaning of the passage is self-evident to the reader. Indeed, coming as it does on the heels of a long series of reversals in which the younger gains the upper hand on the elder, its sense is transparent." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 232. For a comparison of the births of Jacob and Esau with those of Perez and Zerah, see K. Luke, "Two Birth Narratives in Genesis," Indian Theological Studies 17:2 (June 1980):155-80.]

Judah’s hedonistic willfulness in this chapter contrasts with Joseph’s self-control in sexual temptation in the next. Here promiscuous Judah grasps Tamar’s seductive offer and enlarges his family. Later chaste Joseph resists Potiphar’s wife’s seductive offer and ends his career (temporarily) in prison.

God corrects those who disregard His plan and pursue lives of self-gratification often using talionic justice (i.e., reaping the same kind of punishment as the sin that they sow) in His discipline.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 38". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-38.html. 2012.
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