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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-30

Genesis 38:1. At that time. All the events of this chapter could not happen in the twenty-two years from the selling of Joseph, to Israel’s going down into Egypt; but according to Eben Ezra, as quoted by critics, Judah must have married a Canaanite before the sale of his brother. At the age of fourteen he left his father, and married this strange woman, by whom he had Er, Onan, and Shelah in three years. Judah’s morals were therefore corrupted at an early age, and this accounts for the tragic occurrences of his house.

Genesis 38:7. Er, though very young was so extremely wicked, that the Lord slew him. God having concealed the nature of his crimes in the dark cloud of his vengeance, we ought not to make farther inquiry.

Genesis 38:9. Onan was not better than his brother Er. His crime was double; first, in denying issue to Tamar, and thereby depriving her of all her covenant rights; and secondly, in secret wickedness, for which the Lord slew him. Both these sons, it should be remembered, were educated by a heathen mother. Onanism is not only to be avoided by early rising, but all that leads to it abhorred, as idleness and novel reading. This sin superinduces every disease incident to the body. The Greeks have a proverb which applies here. Το νικαν αυτον εαυτον πασων νικων πρωτη και αριστη , το δε ετασθαι αυτον υφ εαυτον , αισχιστον τε και κακιστον . To conquer one’s self is the first and best of all victories; but for a man to be conquered by himself, is the vilest and worst of sins.

Genesis 38:13. It was told Tamar. This young widow had borne much reproach for the singular loss of two young husbands. She had been defrauded by Onan, and disappointed of Shelah; and considering her marriage claims of issue and of property from the family, she took this bold and singular step. Her peculiar situation, and the laws of her people should be well considered, before we too far censure a mysterious deed.

Genesis 38:17. A kid. How lost to reason, and blinded by passion. How deplorably wretched must both the man and the woman be, who can barter their virtue for so paltry a price.

Genesis 38:18. Thy signet. This was usually a precious stone; the writing was often a short and ingenious monogram, so that it could not be counterfeited without aid of a goldsmith and a lapidary. Thus Tamar by getting possession of the signet outwitted Judah.

Genesis 38:21. Where is the harlot that was openly by the wayside? קדשׁ kedaish, that was separated from her family, and devoted to hire. So is the sense of Hosea 4:14. “They are separated with whores, and they sacrifice with harlots.” Neither families, nor society can know a woman who devotes herself to prostitution; and the magistrate is bound to punish the crime. Brothels provoke the anger of heaven against a nation; all such women should be put in some asylum. Tamar’s case was unique, not a case of imitation.

Genesis 38:24. Let her be burnt. She was betrothed to Shelah, and in that case she ought to have suffered death. Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Leviticus 21:9. It is highly probable that she was a priest’s daughter.


Here is a chapter painted with the deepest tints of vice. Here is a black catalogue of persons, extremely young, who had made a daring progress in the worst of vices, all of which began in youthful folly. Judah obstinately left his father’s house to live with Hirah; and marrying a Canaanite immediately, he lost the modesty of youth, and imbibed the corruptions of the country. How instructive is Judah’s error to all young men, whose hearts are ready to be carried away with a torrent of vice. Their weakness has need to be protected by a parent’s eye, or sheltered by the care of a righteous family.

In Er and in Onan, two depraved young men of a wicked age, we have instruction and warning of the most awful kind. Oh what purity of heart, what sanctity of life, what rigour of piety should be here inculcated! And with what horror should we start at the slightest propensity to evil; for sin worketh death. Let us listen to that warning voice, “The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are; and if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy.”

But here the father offended as well as the sons; one would have thought, heaven had now given up these royal branches to their own ways, that the whole might be destroyed body and soul. Judah wrought folly in Israel when shearing his sheep, when in company with a Canaanite, and on a day of feasting and wine. He lost his staff and signet, his princely honours were in possession of a harlot; and must this man still be addressed, my lord, and sit in the first place at table, who but last night left all his laurels in the chamber of a mistress! Let all men learn the strictest laws of temperance and sobriety, nourishing and feeding the body for the service of God, and the duties of life.

But did Judah desist from repeating the inquiry after the harlot, and was he content to lose his staff, his bracelets and his ring for fear of shame? Ah, and sinners are too often actuated merely by the same sentiment. It is detection and public shame which alarm their fears, and induce them not unfrequently to fabricate a multitude of lies to cover the guilt of one foul and scandalous offence. But the language of true repentance is “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

Here is also instruction for magistrates, and for those who exercise discipline in the church. Bring her forth, said Judah, and let her be burnt; for the heads of tribes were invested of God with power to punish crimes with death. It often happens however, that great men, guilty themselves, are much more disposed to punish vices which tarnish their honour, or affect their interest, than because those sins are odious in the eyes of heaven.

We also see the mysterious conduct of grace and justice largely unfolded. After God had made an awful example of Er and Onan, and after granting repentance, we would hope, to Judah and Tamar, he was graciously pleased to consecrate one of their offspring to be primogenitor of the Messiah. Surely the largeness of this grace is intended to comfort the chief of sinners, when like Judah and Tamar they never repeat their sin. He who abhorred not Judah’s line, will not disdain to make their souls a habitation of his glory. Happy, happy indeed the Magdalen who is more devoted to God and his glory, than she has been to the world; but happier still, thrice happier the youth, who keeps himself unspotted as a branch of righteousness from the pollutions of the age.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 38". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/genesis-38.html. 1835.
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