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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-30


Genesis 38:1. Turned in.] (Heb.) “And he pitched,” i.e., his tent. He came to dwell in the near neighbourhood of a man belonging to the small kingdom of Adullam (Joshua 12:15; Joshua 15:25.)

Genesis 38:2. Whose name was Shuah.] This is not the name of Judah’s wife, but of her father.

Genesis 38:8. Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.] This was according to the custom of the Levirate marriage, which was afterwards legalised by Moses. So called from the Latin levir, a brother-in-law.

Genesis 38:12. Unto his sheep-shearers to Timnath.] A town in the mountain country of Judah, seven miles south of Hebron. The sheep-shearing was a holiday with the shepherds.

Genesis 38:18. Thy bracelets.] (Heb.) Strings. The signet-ring or seal was suspended from the neck with a silk string, and worn inside the garments. (Song of Solomon 8:6; Jeremiah 22:24; Haggai 2:23.)

Genesis 38:21. The harlot.] “The name by which Hirah calls her is literally a holy woman. In the horrid religious rites of the Goddess Ashtoreth, the priestesses or female devotees were harlots, who sat and solicited the passers-by. (Jeremiah 3:2; Ezekiel 16:25; Barach 6:43.”) (Alford.)

Genesis 38:23. Let her take it to her.] The meaning is, let her keep the pledge for herself.

Genesis 38:24. Let her be burnt.] “The punishment of burning for unchastity was afterwards by the law reserved for the daughters of priests. (Leviticus 21:9.) And Knobel thinks that this sentence was pronounced upon Tamar as being now by marriage one of the holy race. Had she merely been punished as the betrothed of Selah, she would have been stoned. (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:23; Ezekiel 16:40; John 8:5.”) (Alford.)

Genesis 38:29. Pharez.] A breach. “Perez, in the struggle before birth obtained the primogeniture, and in the tenth generation, David the King of Israel, descended from him. (Ruth 4:18-22.) Tamar, therefore, has a place as one of the female ancestors in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” (Jacobus.)



The story of Joseph is interrupted at this point, for the purpose of giving some particulars concerning the family history of Judah. This account is not to be considered merely as an episode, but rather as a parallel history, all belonging to the wider history of the sons of Israel. The chief points of Judah’s character are here illustrated.

I. Faithlessness towards God. This is seen,—

1. In his separation from his brethren. “Judah went down from his brethren.” (Genesis 38:1.) This was an act of wilful indiscretion, and dangerous to his spiritual interests. He leaves the family where God was known and honoured, and forms a close friendship with a Canaanite.

2. In his marriage with an idolator. (Genesis 38:2.) He had objected to his sister’s marriage with Shechem, and yet he marries this woman, and that without consulting his father. Such connections as these were forbidden to the covenant family, who were to be a separated people. These alliances were corrupting, and dangerous to the highest interests of the people of God. We have a sad illustration in the children born from this marriage. Judah was the first of Israel’s sons who took this false step. He was weary of the restraints of religion.

II. A strong sensual nature. We have a melancholy illustration of this in the account of his incestuous intercourse with Tamar. (Genesis 38:12-18.) Judah had already become heathenish by his unlawful connections, and was easily seduced.

III. An underlying sense of justice. He had not sunk into that lowest depth of degradation in which the conscience is seared, and there is no longer any sense of, or concern for, righteousness. He scrupled not to acknowledge his guilt, and the superior sense of justice shown by his daughter-in-law. (Genesis 38:26.) “He now acknowledges that in withholding his son from the widow and denying her right, he had brought about this shameful and sad result. It is evident from the narrative that she was driven to this stratagem, not from base lewdness, but to obtain through Judah himself the covenant posterity of which he was wrongfully depriving her.” (Jacobus.) Judah had also enough sense of religious obligation left to keep up the customs of the covenant family which were wisely ordained for its preservation. (Genesis 38:8.) This was an important provision in its bearing upon the supreme purpose for which the race of Israel was chosen. (Ruth 4:10-12; compare also with Genesis 38:18-22.) “Onan, however, proved false, and his crime of violating God’s ordinance by a shameful abomination was also punished with death. Thus the covenant household seems degraded and disgraced. But the salvation lies not with them, but with God.” (Jacobus.)

IV. Self-dependence. Judah’s was a strong character. He was a headlong, rushing man, with great power in him for evil or for good.


I. God’s cause has in it the seeds of triumph even when it seems to fail. At the close of the last chapter Joseph appears to be altogether lost. In like manner, here, Judah appears to be lost—the hope of his posterity clean gone for ever. Yet, as the history unfolds, we shall find signs of future greatness both in Joseph and Judah. The tribe appeared to be extinguished, but the purpose of God shall still be accomplished. So in the cross the cause of Christ seemed to fail; His life and teaching but, at best, a pleasing memory, or it may be, a curious chapter in the history of enthusiasm. But that, in the design of God and in actual result, was the hour of His sublime triumph. Thereby was He “the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24.)

II. God’s judgments on the sin of unchastity. Judah is disgraced both in himself and in his sons. There is a stain upon the family honour.

III. This history has an important bearing upon God’s purpose of salvation. This history derives its importance and justifies its place in the sacred record, from the fact that Christ sprang from the tribe of Judah. The minutest circumstances connected with the ancestors of the promised seed have a lasting interest. Considered in regard to God’s redeeming purpose, this history shows—

1. That God’s election is by grace. Otherwise Judah would not have been chosen as the ancestor of Christ. It shows—

2. The native glory of Christ. He derives all His glory from Himself, and not from His ancestry. It shows—

3. The amazing condescension of Christ. The greatest and most shameful sinners are found in His birth-register. He “despised the shame,” and “made Himself of no reputation.” The strong purpose of His love can triumph over the worst evils of human sin. Luther asks, “Why did God the Holy Ghost permit these shameful things to be written? Answer: That no one should be proud of his own righteousness and wisdom; and, again, that no one should despair on account of his sins. It may be, also, to remind us that by natural right, Gentiles, too, are the mother, brothers, sisters of our Lord.”

THE SIN OF ONAN.—Genesis 38:8-10

I. It was prompted by a low motive. It was as selfish as it was vile. Onan’s design was to preserve the whole inheritance for his own house.

II. It was an act of wilful disobedience to God’s ordinance. “Ill deservings of others can be no excuse for our injustice, for our uncharitableness. That which Tamar required, Moses afterward, as from God, commanded—the succession of brothers into the barren bed. Some laws God spake to His Church long ere He wrote them: while the author is certainly known, the voice and the finger of God are worthy of equal respect.”—(Bp. Hall.)

III. It was a dishonour done to his own body. “Unchastity in general is a homicidal waste of the generative powers, a demonic bestiality, an outrage to ancestors, to posterity, and to one’s own life. It is a crime against the image of God, and a degradation below the animal. Onan’s offence, moreover, as committed in marriage, was a most unnatural wickedness, a grievous wrong, and a desecration of the body as the temple of God. It was a proof of the most defective development of what may be called the consciousness of personality, and of personal dignity.”—(Lange.)

IV. It was aggravated by his position in the covenant family. The Messiah was to descend from the stock of Judah, and for aught he knew from himself. This very Tamar is counted in the genealogy of Christ. (Matthew 1:3.) Herein he did despite to the covenant promise. He rejected an honourable destiny.


Genesis 38:8. The Levirate law. An endeavour to preserve families, even in their separate lines, and to retain the thereby inherited property, pervades the laws of the Israelites—a feeling that doubtless came down from the patriarchs. The father still lived on in the son; the whole family descending from him was, in a certain sense, himself; and, through this, the place among the people was to be preserved. From the remotest antiquity so much depended upon the preservation of tradition, upon the inheritance of religion, education, and custom, that these things were never regarded as the business of individuals, but of families and nations. The first motive for the patriarchial custom, or for Judah’s idea, comes, doubtless, from a struggle of faith in the promise with death. As the promise is to the seed of Abraham, so death seems to mar the promise when he carries away some of Jacob’s sons, especially the first-born, before they have had offspring. Life thus enters into strife with death, whilst the remaining brothers fill up the blank. The second motive, however, is connected with the fact, that the life of the deceased is to be reflected in the future existence of their names in this world. Israel’s sons are a church of the undying. There is a third motive; it is to introduce the idea of spiritual descent. The son of the surviving brother answers for the legitimate son of the dead, and thus the way is prepared for the great extension of the adoptive relationship, according to which Jesus is called the Son of Joseph, and mention is made of the brothers of Jesus. The institution, however, being typical, it could not be carried through consistently in opposition to the right of personality. A particular coercive marriage would have been at war with the idea of the law itself. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Ruth 4:7.)—(Lange.)

Genesis 38:12-14. That Tamar desired Shelah to be given to her was not unreasonable; but her course in thus avenging herself is by no means approved, though some of the Christian fathers (Chrysostom, Ambrose, Theodoret), praise her on this very account, and ascribe her design to a peculiar desire to become the mother of the Messiah.—(Lange.)

Tamar seeks by subtilty that which she could not have by award of justice. The neglect of due retributions drives men to indirect courses; neither know I whether they sin more in righting themselves wrongfully, or the other in not righting them.—(Bp. Hall.)

Genesis 38:16. Three women only are mentioned in the genealogy of Christ. Rahab, the harlot; Bathsheba, the adulteress, and this incestuous Tamar (Matthew 1:0); to show His readiness to receive the most notorious offenders that come unto Him with bleeding and believing hearts. (1 Timothy 1:15.)—(Trapp.)

Genesis 38:23. Shame is the easiest wages of sin, and the surest, which ever begins first in ourselves. Nature is not more forward to commit sin, than willing to hide it.—(Bishop Hall.)

Genesis 38:26. God will find a time to bring His children upon their knees, and to wring from them penitent confessions; and rather than He will not have them soundly ashamed. He will make them the trumpets of their own reproach.—(Bishop Hall.)

And he knew her again no more. An assurance of the sincerity of his repentance.

Inasmuch as Hebrew customs afterwards sanctioned by the law, (Leviticus 18:15; Leviticus 20:12), condemned such an act as incest, he repeated it not.—(Alford.)

Most commentators regard the saying of the midwife as allusive to the division of the kingdom, by which a breach was made in the sovereignty of the house of David which came of the line of Pharez.—(Alford.)

The Jewish writers say, “In Pharez the strength of David’s house was portended; and therefore from him proceedeth the Kingdom of the house of David.”

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 38". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/genesis-38.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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