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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

Verses 1-10

Judah Falls Further Into Sin (Genesis 38:1-30 ).

The compiler’s purpose in the insertion of this separate account of Judah’s private life here is to demonstrate that Judah, having betrayed Joseph (and Jacob) by instigating the selling of him to the Midianites, now as a consequence continues on a downward path. Thus the one who suggested selling Joseph to the Midianites demonstrates even more clearly his unworthiness by his subsequent behaviour which the compiler possibly sees as the fruit of his primary sin against Joseph.

It is interesting that all the oldest sons of Leah have now been discredited in Jacob’s eyes. Reuben because of his taking of his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), Simeon and Levi because they slew the men of Shechem (Genesis 34:30), and now Judah for marrying a Canaanite woman and breaking his oath to Tamar.

But why should the account have been written in the first place? It is not a covenant narrative and it is not part of the story of Joseph. The answer may well be that it is a kind of covenant narrative in the sense that it is a record of Tamar’s vindication after trial, a record necessary to maintain her position in the tribe. She would want it in writing for it is her vindication before all.

Genesis 38:1

‘And it happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned in to a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he took her and went in unto her. And she conceived and bore a son and he called his name Er. And she conceived again and bore a son and called his name Onan. And she yet again bore a son and called his name Shelah, and he was at Chezib when she bore him.’

“Went down from his brothers.” He goes to see a friend, Hirah an Adullamite. Adullam was a Canaanite city, later in the territory of Judah (Joshua 12:15). This emphasises his Canaanite associations. Then he compounds his position by marrying a Canaanite woman. This could only add to Jacob’s grief of heart, for he would undoubtedly have looked on this as going against the covenant. The lesson is that if we follow sin it will lead us and our children deeper and deeper into trouble.

It is not necessary to see this as signifying separation from the family tribe. There is no suggestion that he takes flocks and herds with him. It is a private friendship. And his visits to Shua to meet his daughter, under the guise of visiting his friend Hirah, may well have been in secret.

Nor does he necessarily lead a separate life from his brothers when he is married. While the marriage would be a shock to Jacob (compare Genesis 26:34-35) it was not a reason for his son leaving the family tribe. There is nothing to suggest that Judah did not bring his wife into the tribe. The point is rather stressed that he begets three sons, for this explains the following narrative. It is only when it comes to the third birth that we are told where he was. Chezeb is probably the same as Achzib, later a town of Judah, in the lowland hills. And there is nothing in this to cast doubt on the fact that he continued to work alongside his brothers. If they took the herds and flocks to Shechem they could also take them to Chezeb.

Later, however, we do read of ‘his sheep shearers’ (Genesis 38:12) which may suggest a level of independence. But we might expect the sons as they grow older to exert their authority independently, even establishing sub-groups within the tribe. (But not necessarily. These sheep shearers may simply represent the group he was in charge of at the time. The flocks were very extensive). Yet if this is so it is many years later when his wife has died after two of his children have grown up.

But what is significant is that the name of his wife is never mentioned, she is only ‘Shua’s daughter’ (Genesis 38:12). It is as though what follows puts her beyond the pale in the eyes of the writer. This may have been because she was seen as such an evil influence on her sons (see following).

Genesis 38:6-10

‘And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s firstborn was wicked in the sight of Yahweh, and Yahweh slew him. And Judah said to Onan, “Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and raise up seed to your brother.” And Onan knew that the seed would not be his. And it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife 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 Yahweh and he slew him also.’

We find here the fruit of the difference between the culture of the family tribe and the culture of the Canaanites. It is clear that the family tribe practised the custom of Levirate marriage. According to this custom, which is described later in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and illustrated in the Book of Ruth, a brother of a man who dies childless has a duty to marry his brother’s wife and go in to her to produce children on his brother’s behalf, and those children are seen as his brother’s. It was a law known and practised elsewhere. But Onan refused to accept the custom, possibly because his mother has brought him up in the Canaanite religion, and he took steps to ensure it did not work. No faithful member of the family tribe would have dared to refuse in that way. (Outwardly Onan would have to conform to the traditions of the tribe. But his mother’s influence may well have had a counter-effect).

“Er was wicked in the eyes of Yahweh.” Er may also have been brought up by his mother in the Canaanite religion, and even been taken secretly to some of their festivals, thus his experience of the Canaanite religion may have meant that he indulged in sexual practises that could only be seen as an abomination by the family tribe. So when he dies it is put down to his moral and sacrilegious behaviour. Note the reintroduction of the name of Yahweh. It is clear that Er’s crime is seen as going against the covenant.

“Yahweh slew him.” His early death, possibly through venereal disease exacerbated by some other disease, is seen as the judgment of Yahweh.

“And Judah said to Onan.” Onan dared not disobey the head of his sub-tribe. He carried out the motions of what he was required to do. But when he was about to ejaculate he withdrew and let the seed fall on the ground. This has nothing to do with birth control. His sin is that he refused to ‘give seed to his brother’ and it was a kind of fratricide. He has disobeyed the laws of the tribe which are seen as part of the covenant (Genesis 26:5). Thus he too comes under Yahweh’s disapproval and his subsequent early death is seen as the judgment of Yahweh.

But why should someone behave in this way? It may well be that he too had been brought up in the Canaanite religion and despised the tribal customs. Thus he may have seen the demand made on him as repugnant. Alternately it may have been just stubbornness and unwillingness to do his dead brother a good turn. Indeed inheritance was also involved. Er’s inheritance would go to the child. It may have been mainly the idea of this that Onan did not like. And indeed it may have been a combination of all three. Whatever it was it made him refuse to comply.

(Some have cast doubt on the chronology. We know from Genesis 37:2 that Joseph was probably about eighteen when he was sold as a slave, making Judah possibly about twenty two, and say twenty three when he married and bore Er. Then in Genesis 41:46 Joseph is thirty, although we may see this as a round number indicating that he has completed his period of preparation (three for completeness times ten for intensity), and this is followed by nine years (seven good years and two bad years) at which point Joseph seeks to persuade the family to come to Egypt. Thus at this point Joseph may be roughly forty and Judah roughly forty four. Then not too long afterwards they do make for Egypt and at this point Judah seemingly has grandchildren by Perez whom he begets after his third son has grown up (Genesis 46:12), when he must be at the earliest say forty (which assumes Er married when still quite young. But this could well be so. It may be that Canaanites with their ‘advanced’ sexual attitudes did marry much younger than those in the family tribe - as Judah’s wife presumably did ). This say some is impossible.

But this is to ignore the artificial nature of Genesis 46:0 (which see), for there the writer is seeking to bring the number of Jacob and his direct descendants to seventy by any means possible in order to indicate the divine perfection of the number who went up to Egypt - intensified seven (he also includes the two sons of Joseph who were born in Egypt). He is not counting them but expressing an idea. Thus it may well be that he includes the grandchildren, even though they have not yet been born, as being as it were ‘in Perez’s loins’).

Verse 11

‘Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until Shelah my son is grown up”, (for he said, ‘Lest he also die like his brothers’). And Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.’

Having lost two sons through premature death Judah is concerned for the safety of his third, who is also under obligation to raise up seed for his brother. But he is not yet of age for marriage. Thus he promises Tamar that as soon as he is (and it would not presumably be too long) he will carry out his duty with her.

“Remain a widow in your father” s house.’ It was the custom among many that a widow returned to the protection of her parents, although it was not necessarily required (Ruth 1:8; Leviticus 22:13). But the thought is that she remain there only until she can marry Shelah. Judah is here telling her not to marry again until Shelah is of age. Thus he puts himself under even deeper obligation, and his future conduct is inexcusable.

“Lest he also die like his brothers.” It may be that Judah felt she was under some evil influence that had caused the death of his sons (compare the Jewish book Tob 3:7-17 in the Apocrypha for such an idea). Alternately he may simply have feared that if Shelah did not fulfil his duty to his brother’s wife he also would die. But his later actions would not support this latter.

“And Tamar went and lived in her father” s house.’ She was separated from the tribe and returned home where she could not be a danger.

Verse 12

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

In the meanwhile Judah’s wife also dies. This is what makes what follows possible. Had she still been alive Tamar might not have done what she did. But once she learns of the death of her mother-in-law her mind turns in that direction.

“Judah was comforted.” The period of mourning comes to an end and Judah begins to live life again. It may be or not be that Judah genuinely grieved for her loss, either way the mourning ritual must be carried through. Until that had happened he could not join the sheep shearers in their celebrations at the time of sheep shearing which was a time of feasting (see 1 Samuel 25:11; 2 Samuel 13:23 on).

“Went up to his sheep shearers.” He takes with him his old friend Hirah, who has possibly helped him through his difficult time, and joins his sheep shearers to watch over the work and join in the celebrations.

Verse 13

‘And Tamar was told saying, “Look, your father-in-law goes up to Timnah to shear his sheep.’

It would appear that Tamar was not invited to the funeral and mourning for her mother-in-law and realises that she has been ostracised. He has completely ignored her. This brings home to her that he has no intention of carrying out his promise in giving her to Shelah, for she knows that Shelah is now of age. So when she hears that he is coming to nearby Timnah she decides to act.

Verse 14

‘And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gate of Enaim which is by the way to Timnah, for she saw that Shelah was grown up and she was not given to him to wife.’

When we consider Tamar’s actions we must recognise that she has been grievously wronged. Basically she has been deserted. She had a right to marriage to Shelah, and the children that would result, because Judah had given her a promise. Shelah, of course, would not be limited to one wife. He had merely to fulfil his duty to Tamar and take her into his household and then he could proceed with his own life as he would.

So she takes the situation into her own hands. It may well be that if all else fails she has a right under the Levirate law to marry and have a child by Judah now that her mother-in-law is dead, for it is clear that the Levirate law reaches beyond just a brother (in the Book of Ruth Naomi is the wife whose husband has died, but Ruth expects to be able to bear children for her and uses the Levirate law to marry a ‘near-kinsman’ of Naomi).

“She put off from her the garments of her widowhood.” Widows were expected to dress to demonstrate their status. We do not know of what this consisted but it seems that widows did not need to be veiled in public.

“And covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself.” She was not offering herself as a common prostitute but as a religious devotee. In many ancient religions a married woman would dedicate herself to the goddess of love, in this case Astarte, and would then be required to make love to a stranger, acting out that love. This may well have been a common practise to the Canaanites from whose background Judah’s wife, and probably Tamar, had come. But it was repulsive to such as the family tribe of which Judah was a part (compare Deuteronomy 23:17). However, Tamar is only pretending to be available to strangers. She has only one person in mind. She wants to be impregnated with the seed of a near-kinsman of her husband as is her right.

“Sat in the gate of Enaim which is by the way to Timnah.” She sat where such women would commonly sit knowing that Judah must pass by that way to reach his destination. Compare Jeremiah 3:2; Ezekiel 16:25).

Verses 15-16

‘When Judah saw her he thought her to be a prostitute for she had covered her face.’

Here the common word for prostitute is used (zonot) but in Genesis 38:21 the word is kedesha, a ‘holy one’, one dedicated to the service of a goddess. It is possible that he had realised the difference while in the act of intercourse, or it may be that in cases like these either word could be used. Both are used in Hosea 4:14.

Genesis 38:16 a

‘And he turned unto her by the way, and said, “Go to, I beg you, let me come in unto you.” For he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.’

It is typical of the hypocrisy of men that Judah has no compunction about going in to a prostitute while he would himself condemn the woman for her act. It was quite probably normal behaviour for him. He did not mind taking advantage of ‘pious’ Canaanite women. But this time his sin will catch him out.

Genesis 38:16 b

‘And she said, “What will you give me that you may come in to me?” ’

The sacred prostitute was normally paid for her services so that this would come as no surprise to him.

Verses 17-18

‘And he said, “I will send you a kid of the goats from the flock.” And she said, “Will you give me a pledge until you send it?” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said, “Your signet, and your cord, and your staff which is in your hand.” And he gave them to her and came in to her and she conceived by him.’

Judah now offers the payment of a kid (compare Judges 15:1). But clearly with no certainty that he will fulfil his promise a prostitute would want some guarantee. And Tamar has even more reason for her request. She asks for something as a pledge, an earnest. And the pledge she seeks is his signet, his cord and his staff, which he willingly gives in return for her services.

“Your signet and your cord.” The signet would be a cylinder carried on a cord round the neck and would be rolled over soft clay documents to authenticate them. It would be of no use to anyone else. Here we have clear evidence of the use of such writing materials by the family tribe. His staff would be personal to him identifying him in some way. While Judah does not realise it he is giving this woman a hold over him, but it indicates how common taking advantage of such prostitution was for he does not even consider the danger of blackmail.

“And she conceived by him.” Her aim is achieved. She has received effective seed from a near-kinsman of her husband. In the eyes of the people of that day she would be seen as perfectly justified. She is honouring the memory of her dead husband.

Verse 19

‘And she rose and went away and put her veil off from her and put on the garments of her widowhood.’

Having hopefully achieved her aim Tamar goes back to her previous respectability. No one would be aware of anything different about her unless her plan worked.

Verses 20-23

‘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, and he did not find her. Then he asked the men of her place, “Where is the sacred prostitute who was at Enaim by the way side?” And they said, “There has been no sacred prostitute here.” And he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her, and the men of the place also said, ‘There has been no sacred prostitute here’.” And Judah said, “Let her take it to her lest we be made ashamed. See, I did send this kid and you have not found her.” ’

It is an indication of his discretion that Judah sends his close friend and not a servant to find the prostitute. Such activities while common should not be publicised. But as we know the woman was not to be found. So Judah decides to let her keep the pledge. He does not want to make a great stir and bring shame on himself. Most men may behave like he had but it was not a thing you publicised. And his friend can witness that he kept his part of the bargain. As far as he was concerned the matter was finished.

Verse 24

‘And it happened about three months after that it was told to Judah, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has behaved as a prostitute, and what is more, she is with child by harlotry.” And Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned.”

Once her pregnancy became apparent Tamar was sure to be stigmatised. What possible explanation could there be? It was clear that she had behaved immorally. No doubt her father was horrified and immediately informed Judah. It was one thing for men to visit prostitutes, it was another for a daughter of the house to behave in that way. A lesson had to be taught.

It is possible that Judah was pleased to find a way of getting rid of Tamar. He probably had a conscience about her but was fearful lest she brought bad luck on his son. Thus what she had done gave him the perfect opportunity to dispose of her. As head of the household it was his to pass judgment on her. And his judgment is that she should die by burning.

She was only a dependent. She had no right to public trial. As widow of his first son and proposed wife to his third son, at least theoretically, it was his to pass the sentence. Her fate was in his hands. And there is no doubt that his sentence was severe, which brings home emphatically the strength of his conscience about her. Later burning was only utilised in the severest cases of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9), the more usual sentence was stoning so that all could partake in the punishment (Deuteronomy 22:22-24).

Nor seemingly did he question her about what had happened, as he should have done, for had she been forced in the open country she would not be punishable (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Thus the hardness of Judah’s heart is brought out again. The result is that she is brought out to face her punishment, while Judah looks on mercilessly and probably even pleased that things have turned out this way. But it was then that he received a great shock.

Verse 25

‘When she was brought out she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man whose these things are.” And she said, “Discern, I beg you, whose these things are, the signet and the cords and the staff.”

The mound for the fire has probably already been prepared, and the tribe will be gathered to watch the sentence carried out. Then the woman is dragged out into the centre of the crowd and faces her judge, probably being given final moments in which she can express her contrition and even name the culprit. And to her judge she says that the guilty man can be known for she possesses his signet and cords, and his staff of identification. And on this she asks him to identify them.

Verse 26

‘And Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more righteous than I inasmuch as I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he knew her again no more.’

To his credit Judah acknowledges the truth of the situation and recognises that she is not guilty after all. She has only done what she had a right should be done, to bear a son to her late husband by a near kinsman. Had it not been for his failure to fulfil his promise it would have been, as it should have been, through his son. It is he who is the more guilty for he had failed in his duty to his late son.

Thus he accepts that she is now his wife by right of the levirate law although a wife with whom he feels he can no longer have sexual relations because she is also his daughter-in-law. This brings out the unusualness of the situation. It was not usual for the father to be the near kinsman. But Tamar’s innocence is made clear, and we can have no doubt, for her sake and for the sake of her sons, that the verdict was made clear in written form. That is why the compiler later knew of this event.

And for Judah it was a time of shame and open admission of guilt. He could not deny that he had behaved very badly. What began with the cruel suggestion for the sale of Joseph into slavery results in this time of great shame for himself and his family.

Verses 27-30

‘And it happened that in the time of her labour pains, behold, twins were in her womb. And it happened that when she was enduring her suffering one put out his hand, and the midwife took and bound on his hand a scarlet thread, saying, “This came out first.” And it happened, that as he drew back his hand, behold his brother came out. And she said, “Why have you made a breach for yourself?” That is why his name was called Perez. And afterwards his brother came out, he who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.’

The happenings at the birth of her children were as confusing as the story of their conception, and it was so unusual that it was remembered in detail. It was no doubt looked on as significant for the future.

“Perez”, that is ‘made a breach.’ From him were descended the Perezites (Numbers 26:20). He was the father of Hezron and Hamul (Genesis 46:12) who were numbered among ‘the seventy’ (Genesis 46:27) replacing Er and Onan.

“Zerah”, that is ‘coming forth (especially of the sun)’. From him were descended the Zerahites (Numbers 26:20) among whom was Achan who withheld the ‘devoted’ thing (Joshua 7:0).

So after his betrayal of Joseph, Judah is shown to have gone from sin to sin. Truly if we sow the wind we will reap the whirlwind.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 38". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-38.html. 2013.
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