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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-5


Verses 1-5:

This chapter is a brief glimpse into the history of Judah. It appears here as a part of the reason God found it necessary to remove the Chosen People from the Land of Promise, and place them temporarily in Egypt. The events recorded in this chapter likely include some which occurred after Judah had moved to Egypt, along with Jacob and his family.

"At that time" is the time immediately following the sale of Joseph to the traveling merchantmen. Judah had successfully argued against the murder of Joseph It is likely he was deeply smitten in conscience by what the brothers had done. He went to another territory in order to escape the daily reminders of his complicity in Joseph’s abduction. Judah was about four years older than Joseph, or about twenty-one or twenty-two at this time.

Judah went to the territory of Adullam, a city of the Hebron valley (Jos 15:35). It was the site of a Canaanite dominion during Israel’s conquest of the Land under Joshua (Jos 12:15). It later achieved fame because of the role the region played in David’s life (Isaa 22:1, 2; 2SA 23:13).

In this town Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shuah, and took her to himself as his wife. This man’s name means "wealth," and implies that he was a man of some wealth, perhaps a merchant. Judah’s wife bore him three sons: Er, the first-born, whose name means "watchman"; Onan, whose name means "strength"; and Shelah, whose name means "prayer" or "peace." The birth of the third son occurred while Judah and his family lived at Chezib, probably the same as "Achzib" (Jos 15:44). Judah’s actions show the danger of the Promised Seed faced. God did not want them to intermarry with the natives of the Land of Canaan. To do so would corrupt the Faith-line, by exposing it to the dangers of idolatry. Judah’s violation of this Divine directive shows the necessity of God’s plan to move Israel out of this land of Egypt, where the Promised Seed would not be exposed to the temptation to marry outside the Faith-line.

Verses 6-11

Verses 6-11:

Judah selected a wife for his firstborn son Er. This likely occurred at an early age. Her name, Tamar, meaning "palm tree," is Shemitic, suggesting that she was not of Canaanite (Hamitic) origin. Before this marriage resulted in the birth of children, Jehovah killed Er, for some unnamed wickedness in his life. The Hebrew context suggests the possibility that it was some unnatural abomination like that of the men of Sodom (Ge 13:13; 19:5).

The Levitical law of marriage among the Jews provided that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother (or near kinsman) and raise up a child who would be the heir of the deceased, for the perpetuation of the family, see De 25:5-10. This was the custom long before the Law was given from Sinai. When this custom began is not known; that it was incorporated into the Levitical statutes indicates Divine approval of it.

After Er’s death, Judah instructed his second son Onan to marry Tamar, and produce a child who would be the heir to Er. Onan was unwilling to father a child which would not be recognized as his. When he had sexual relations with Tamar, he ejaculated on the ground rather than into Tamar’s womb. For this, God took his life.

God did not disapprove of Onan’s act as a form of birth control. He disapproved of it because Onan sinned against the sanctity of the theocratic family by refusing to perpetuate the lineage of the firstborn.

Evidently Judah’s third son was too young for marriage. Following Onan’s death, Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house, where she should wait until Shelah was old enough for marriage; then Tamar would become his wife. The context implies that this was but a subterfuge; that Judah had no intention of allowing his third son to marry her, considering her to be "unlucky."

Verses 12-23

Verses 12-23:

An undetermined period of time went by. Judah’s wife died, and when the time for mourning passed, Judah returned to his normal pastoral duties. He went to Timnath where his sheep-shearers were working. This was a town between Ekron and Bethshemesh (Jos 15:10), evidently not far from where Judah made his home. His friend Hirah the Adullamite accompanied him.

Tamar had waited for Judah to keep his promise and give her in marriage to his son Shelah. Time went by and Shelah grew to maturity and still Judah did not keep his promise. Tamar saw in Judah’s visit to Timnath an opportunity to put a plan into operation which would give her the heir she wanted. She laid aside her widow’s garments and dressed in clothes such as courtesans wore and veiled herself to conceal her identity. She then stationed herself in a place Judah was sure to pass by.

Judah did not recognize his daughter-in-law, for she was veiled. He thought she was a harlot, and asked to have sexual relations with her. She followed her carefully laid plan and asked for a "pledge" or payment for her services. Judah promised to give her a young goat from his flocks. Tamar asked for collateral, in the form of Judah’s signet, bracelets (chain) and staff. The signet, chotham, was worn either on the finger or as a pendant about the neck. The impression of the signet was a sign of property and a means of security. The bracelets, pithil, likely was a chain about the neck. The staff, mateh, was an essential part of the well-dressed patrician’s accessories. Judah gave these to this woman he thought was a harlot, as security that he would send her the promised payment for her sexual services. The relationship between Judah and Tamar resulted in her becoming pregnant.

Following this liaison, Tamar returned home where she resumed her role as a widow. Judah went on his way to Timnath. The following day he sent the kid by the hand of his friend Hirah, to where he had met Tamar No harlot could be found, and the men of that area had no knowledge of her. Judah realized he had been the victim of some kind of hoax, but at this time had no idea as to what was involved. He did not press the matter further, because he did not want to be held in contempt by the men of that area. He expressed no repentance for his sexual immorality. Like many today, he was more concerned with his own reputation than with the honor of God’s holy Name.

Verses 24-26

Verses 24-26:

Three months after Judah’s liaison with Tamar, her pregnancy became evident and was brought to Judah’s attention. Though not so stated, it is implied that Tamar had left her father’s house to live once more with Judah and his family. The charge against Tamar: that she had become a prostitute, and had become pregnant in her whoredom.

Judah was highly incensed. He ordered that Tamar be put to death and burned because of her sin. His actions reveal a double standard apparent in almost every age. The world (and some’ Christians) does not consider a man to be as guilty as a woman in the matter of sexual immorality. But in the eyes of God, it is just as wrong for a man to commit sexual sins as for a woman. Judah did not consider his own guilt in seeking the services of a harlot. He was only concerned with the (presumed) guilt of his daughter-in-law.

Tamar presented the evidence that identified the man by whom she had become pregnant. This was Judah’s own signet, chain, and staff. He recognized these as his, and acknowledged his own culpability. Tamar was not innocent in the matter. There is no moral justification for what she did. But Judah was also guilty. Not only had he committed an act of sexual immorality; he had violated his own promise, and the Divine provision for preserving a family lineage.

Judah could not undo the sins he had committed. But he did show evidence of repentance and restitution. And God blessed that repentant spirit and included Judah’s offspring by Tamar in the lineage of Messiah (Mt 1:3).

Verses 27-30

Verses 27-30

As had Rebekah before her, Tamar bore twin sons (Ge 25:24). The birth of these twins was abnormal and dangerous. The hand of one came forth first, and the midwife tied a scarlet thread about it. Then this hand was withdrawn into the birth canal, and the other twin was born before the one whose hand came first. Both twins, as well as the mother, survived this experience.

The first-born twin was named "Pharez," which means "breach." The second was named "Zarah," which means "splendor."

This narrative of Judah’s life reveals that he was self-willed, sensual, self-righteous, and devious. These faulty character traits must be removed from his life. God so moved in his life that his sin was publicly exposed, with all its ugly consequences. The implication is that he repented promptly, and that God blessed his repentant spirit. God chose the lineage of Judah as the one to bring Messiah into the world.

This is a beautiful illustration of God’s grace toward sinful man. "All have sinned" (Ro 3:23) is just as true today as when these words were written. Although God does not condone sin in the life of any of his children, He does not demand sinless perfection in His child before He will use and bless. He supplies the righteousness He demands, in the Person and ministry of Him who is the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah" (Re 5:5).

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Genesis 38". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ghb/genesis-38.html. 1985.
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