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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 38

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Genesis 38:0


Judah and TamarJudah and TamarJudah and TamarJudah and TamarThe Story of Judah and Tamar
Genesis 38:1-5Genesis 38:1-11Genesis 38:1-11Genesis 38:1-5Genesis 38:1-5
Genesis 38:6-11 Genesis 38:6-11Genesis 38:6-11
Genesis 38:12-19Genesis 38:12-23Genesis 38:12-19Genesis 38:12-14Genesis 38:12-14
Genesis 38:15-16aGenesis 38:15-19
Genesis 38:16b
Genesis 38:17a
Genesis 38:17b
Genesis 38:18a
Genesis 38:18-19
Genesis 38:20-23 Genesis 38:20-23Genesis 38:20-21aGenesis 38:20-23
Genesis 38:21b
Genesis 38:22
Genesis 38:23
Genesis 38:24-26Genesis 38:24-26Genesis 38:24-26Genesis 38:24aGenesis 38:24-26
Genesis 38:24b
Genesis 38:25
Genesis 38:26
Genesis 38:27-30Genesis 38:27-30Genesis 38:27-30Genesis 38:27-30Genesis 38:27-30

READING CYCLE THREE (see Guide to Good Bible Reading)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. Chapter 38 is an obvious break in the context of the story of Joseph. Some have asserted that it is included because it delineates the linage of the tribe of Judah, which is the line of the Messiah quoted in Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33. It is obvious that this chapter flies in the face of Jewish exclusivism and racial pride. The inclusion of a Canaanite woman, like Tamar, is another example of the mixed genealogy of the Messiah (cf. Rahab and Ruth).

B. Some have asserted that the reason for the inclusion of chapter 38 is to show the contrast between the moral degeneration of the brothers of Joseph and his exemplary actions, which are recorded in Genesis 39:0.

C. Genesis is a recurrent account of human designs running one way, but God's designs running another. This reversal of situations from disgrace to honor is characteristic of Genesis and the OT. Theologically it asserts YHWH's sovereignty and universal redemptive plan (i.e., Genesis 3:15; Genesis 12:3c; Exodus 19:5c). YHWH has been working for the restoration of fellowship with His wayward creation since Genesis 3:0 (esp. Genesis 38:15, which is a promise to all humans made in God's image, cf. Genesis 1:26-27). Things are not just happening!

Verses 1-5

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:1-5 1And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her and went in to her. 3So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. 4Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. 5She bore still another son and named him Shelah; and it was at Chezib that she bore him.

Genesis 38:1 "And it came about at that time" The Hebrew phrase here is very ambiguous and the exact temporal connection between chapters 37 and 38 is uncertain. It could be either immediately after chapter 37 or after a period of some time. Notice the different temporal connections.

1. now Jacob lived in the land, Genesis 37:1

2. and it came about at that time, Genesis 38:1

3. now after a considerable time, Genesis 38:12

4. now it was about three months later, Genesis 38:24

5. and it came about at that time, Genesis 38:27

6. then it came about after these things, Genesis 40:1

7. now it happened at the end of two full years, Genesis 41:1

It is obvious that the author is conscious of time, but this is not necessarily western sequential history.

"that Judah departed from his brothers" There has been much speculation about why Judah departed. Some say it was because of the moral degeneration of his brothers or possibly their treatment of Joseph.

"and visited" This VERB is literally "turned aside," BDB 639, KB 692, Qal IMPERFECT). It implies a lengthy departure from his brothers. This same general geographical region will later be included in the tribal allocation of Judah (cf. Joshua 15:35). The cave of Abdullah will later be connected with the exploits of David in connection with Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 22:1). Apparently it was in the hill country of Judah, close to the coastal plain.

Genesis 38:2 "Shua" This name (like Hirah, Genesis 38:1, BDB 301) is found only here in the OT. The same root consonants (BDB 447) mean "independent" or "noble." It has the same three internal consonants as "salvation" (BDB 447), but there seems to be no theological connection.

"Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite" The girl's name is never mentioned (she is named "Bath-shua" in 1 Chronicles 2:3, but this is not a name but a characterization-"daughter of Shua"), but it is obvious that Judah must have fallen in love with her at first sight. This particular marriage to a Canaanite is not condemned specifically in the immediate context. Judah was apparently a faithful husband to this one wife (cf. Genesis 38:12).

"Chezib" The rabbis use this place name (BDB 469) in a derogatory sense (it is similar to the root "lie," "falsehood," "deceptive thing," BDB 469) to refer to the children who were born of this woman. However, the rabbinical bias against the surrounding nations is obvious in all of their literature. It is just a place name. It probably is the same as Achzib (BDB 469) in Joshua 15:44.

Verses 6-11

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:6-11 6Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah's firstborn, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. 8Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." 9Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. 10But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also. 11Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Remain a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up"; for he thought, "I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers." So Tamar went and lived in her father's house.

Genesis 38:6 "Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn" Judah did not allow his father to choose his bride, but in the cultural tradition he choose the wife for his son. It is obvious that because of his background of faith in YHWH that he would have chosen an upstanding woman. Her name is Tamar, which means "palm tree" (BDB 1071 II). There are several other women in the Bible who have the same name.

Genesis 38:7 "Er. . .was evil in the sight of the LORD" This negative evaluation occurs often in the OT (cf. Genesis 32:13; Deuteronomy 4:25; Deuteronomy 31:29; Judges 2:11; Judges 3:7, Judges 3:12; Judges 4:1; Judges 6:1; Judges 10:6; Judges 13:1; 1 Samuel 15:19; 1 Kings 11:6; 1 Kings 14:22; 1 Kings 15:26, 1 Kings 15:34; 1 Kings 16:19, 1 Kings 16:25, 1 Kings 16:30; 1 Kings 21:20, 1 Kings 21:25; 1 Kings 22:52; 2 Kings 3:2; 2 Kings 8:18, 2 Kings 8:27; 2 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 13:11; 2 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 15:9, 2 Kings 15:18, 2 Kings 15:24, 2 Kings 15:28; 2 Kings 17:2, 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 21:2, 2 Kings 21:6, 2 Kings 21:15, 2 Kings 21:16, 2 Kings 21:20; 2 Kings 23:32, 2 Kings 23:37; 2 Kings 24:9, 2 Kings 24:19). The results of the fall are pervasive and destructive. Because of the seeming parallels between the actions of Er and Onan which are mentioned in Genesis 38:8-10, the rabbis assert that they were both guilty of the same sin (i.e., "wasted his seed on the ground"), but this is not clear from the context. They assert that Er did not want his wife to have children because it would have made her appear old before her time.

It is obvious that they acted in an inappropriate way, violating known guidelines. It is also obvious that the Lord uses temporal judgment (cf. Job 22:15-16; Proverbs 10:27).

Genesis 38:8 "Then Judah said to Onan, 'Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her'" This is the later cultural concept of Levirate marriage (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5ff.). We have only two examples of this in the Scriptures, here and in the book of Ruth. Inheritance rights were a significant issue.

Judah gives his second born son three commands.

1. go in to your brother's wife, BDB 97, KB 112, Qal IMPERATIVE

2. perform your duty as a brother-in-law, BDB 386, KB 383, Piel IMPERATIVE

3. raise up offspring for your brother, BDB 877, KB 1086, Hiphil IMPERATIVE

For a good brief discussion of "Levirate (from the Latin for "brother") Marriage" see NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 902-905 and ABD, vol. 4, pp. 296-297.

Genesis 38:9 "Onan knew that the offspring would not be his" Apparently Onan was more concerned about a larger inheritance for himself than he was with his brother's family. This is the only birth control mentioned in the OT. Because his brother was the firstborn the larger part of the inheritance would go to his heir. This chapter clearly reveals the wickedness in these first two sons of Judah.

"so when he went in to his brother's wife" The Hebrew VERB TENSE implies that he went in to her only once (two PERFECT TENSE VERBS).

Genesis 38:11 "Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law. . .until my son Shelah grows up" Judah had only three sons and two of them had apparently died by contact with Tamar. Judah was afraid that his last son would die and he would have no posterity. This account may be recorded to show how all of the Patriarchs tried to manipulate the promises of God in connection with the promised Messiah who would come through their seed. Or, it may simply be a fear connected with a possible curse on Tamar. The sin relates to the fact that he lied to his daughter-in-law when he had no intention of giving his last son to her, which was the legal requirement. The fact that Tamar returned to her father's house (i.e., Judah's command, BDB 442, Qal IMPERATIVE) seems to be a cultural norm (cf. Leviticus 22:13 and Ruth 1:8).

Verses 12-19

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:12-19 12Now after a considerable time Shua's daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13It was told to Tamar, "Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep." 14So she removed her widow's garments and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife. 15When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. 16So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, "Here now, let me come in to you"; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?" 17He said, therefore, "I will send you a young goat from the flock." She said, moreover, "Will you give a pledge until you send it?" 18He said, "What pledge shall I give you?" And she said, "Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow's garments.

Genesis 38:12 "the wife of Judah, died" We are still not given her name. Judah had been monogamous and cared very much for this Canaanite lady.

"and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah" Shearing time was a time of festivity (cf. 1 Samuel 25:4, 1 Samuel 25:36). It was in the later tribal allocation of Judah (cf. Joshua 15:57). This geographical location is famous because of its connection with Samson.

Genesis 38:13 "It was told to Tamar" It is my opinion that Tamar acted out of more godly reasons than is obvious in the text (cf. Genesis 38:26). Like Rebekah and Jacob (cf. Genesis 25:23), one could doubt their methods of action, but behind their actions is an element of faith and trust. As Abraham and all of the Patriarchs tried to help God to fulfill His promises, I believe that Tamar felt a unique responsibility as the wife of the eldest son of Judah to raise up an offspring. She was willing to humiliate herself and face the possibility of death in order to have the chance to bear a son to Judah.

Genesis 38:14 "she removed her widow's garments" Exactly what this involved is not certain, but she still felt connected to the family of Judah. She was still waiting for Judah to fulfill his word (cf. Genesis 38:11). It must have been a protracted period of time and she began to question Judah's promise (cf. Genesis 38:14).

"and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim" There are two veils or "shawls" (BDB 858, KB 1041) mentioned in the OT. They were not common before the Islamic period. Rebekah wore one when she met Isaac (cf. Genesis 24:65) and here Tamar wears a veil. Moses also wore a veil to cover his face when he came down from Mt. Sinai ("veil," BDB 691, cf. Exodus 34:33, Exodus 34:34, Exodus 34:35).

We learn from the Syrian documents that a veil was a sign of a cultic prostitute who was married. We also learned that it became an emblem for the veiled goddess, Ishtar. Apparently this was a particular way to identify a cult prostitute. Although the word used by Judah in Genesis 38:15 is simply the common Hebrew term ("one who commits fornication," BDB 275, KB 275, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE), the term used by his friend Hirah, the Adullamite in Genesis 38:21-22, is the term for a temple prostitute (BDB 873 I, cf. Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Hosea 4:14).

Genesis 38:16 "So he turned aside to her by the road, and said" There are several elements here which bother the modern reader: (1) there seems to be an obvious double standard between the appropriateness of Judah's action and the inappropriateness of Tamar's action; (2) it also has concerned commentators that Judah knew the exact questions to ask and the procedures involved in paying the price of a harlot. We must be careful not to judge the ancient world by our motives, but also be careful to recognize the moral degeneration even within the tribe of Judah.

Genesis 38:17 "I will send you a kid from the flock" From Samson's exploits recorded in Judges 15:1, this may have been the common price for a sexual encounter. However, there is some ancient evidence that a goat was a symbol of the love goddess and this may be the background for this custom.

Genesis 38:18 "What pledge shall I give you? And she said, 'Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand'" Tamar had thought out her plan in great detail. The seal and the staff were characteristic items of a wealthy person in the ANE and were unique to each individual. The seal could refer to a signet ring (BDB 368, KB 364, cf. Genesis 41:42), or to a cylindrical seal which was worn around the neck. Everyone who was anyone in ancient Babylon had one of these cylinder seals, which was used in place of their signature (cf. Strabo XVI, 1, 20).

The "cord" (BDB 836, KB 990) is translated in the Targums as "cloak," but apparently it refers to the implement used to hang either the ring or the seal around one's neck.

The staff (BDB 641, KB 573) was more like a walking stick with a uniquely-carved headpiece. One would have felt unclothed without this walking staff in Judah's day. He was ready to part with these very personal, very significant items to purchase the price of this harlot! Tamar wanted them as conclusive proof that Judah was the father of her offspring!

Genesis 38:19 Tamar immediately went home which shows that prostitution was not her purpose or lifestyle!

Verses 20-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:20-23 20When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman's hand, he did not find her. 21He asked the men of her place, saying, "Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?" But they said, "There has been no temple prostitute here." 22So he returned to Judah, and said, "I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, 'There has been no temple prostitute here.'" 23Then Judah said, "Let her keep them, otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this young goat, but you did not find her."

Genesis 38:20 "When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite" Hirah asked a few questions (cf. Genesis 38:21), but not many! This seems to imply that, even in this day, association with a prostitute was not looked upon favorably.

Genesis 38:23 Judah is worried about his reputation, not any inappropriate act on his part. There seems to be no sense of prostitution being a moral or spiritual (even a cult prostitute, Genesis 38:21, Genesis 38:22) problem for this period and this culture.

Verses 24-26

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:24-26 24Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry." Then Judah said, "Bring her out and let her be burned!" 25It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, "I am with child by the man to whom these things belong." And she said, "Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?" 26Judah recognized them, and said, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not have relations with her again.

Genesis 38:24 "Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry" The PLURAL form is used here, which seems to imply that Tamar must have engaged in repeated sexual activities. What are the chances of one isolated encounter resulting in pregnancy? Her character was impugned by the very nature of her offense.

"Then Judah said, 'Bring her out and let her be burned'" Judah, as the head of the clan, was still legally responsible for his daughter-in-law's punishment. The idea of burning her seems to be a common punishment for an unfaithful wife (cf. the Code of Hammurabi, but in a slightly different sense). In the Mosaic legislation it was only the daughters of priests who were burned; other offenders were stoned (cf. Deuteronomy 22:20-24; Leviticus 21:9).

Judah gives a strong command.

1. bring her out, BDB 422, KB 425, Hiphil IMPERATIVE (i.e., out of her home into a public forum)

2. let her be burned, BDB 976, KB 1358, Niphal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense (this was a community act)

Genesis 38:25 "It was while she was being brought out" Some say that she waited until the last possible minute hoping that Judah would reconsider his judgment. Others assert that she waited until the most dramatic, public moment to embarrass Judah. As is the case in all the OT, and, for that matter, the NT, one's psychological motives cannot be ascertained.

"Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these" Tamar asked Judah "to examine" the items (BDB 647, KB 699, Hiphil IMPERATIVE, Genesis 38:25) and he does in Genesis 38:26 (BDB 647, KB 699, Hiphil IMPERFECT). The same VERB is used here that is used in Genesis 37:32, Genesis 38:3 and 42:7,8 (twice).

Judah immediately recognizes his own possessions and realizes the appropriate, though somewhat questionable, acts of Tamar in the legal, religious setting of his own day. The term "righteousness" (BDB 842, see Special Topic at Genesis 15:6) here does not refer to the fact that she is without guilt in the manner in which she acted, but she acted in ways more acceptable than Judah. This is a non-theological use of "righteousness" (cf. Genesis 30:33). She risked a lot in order to bear this family heir(s)! Apparently she and Judah had no more sexual contact. It was not an act of lust, but, in my opinion, an act of religious faith (see note at Genesis 38:13). In my opinion Tamar is the real heroine of this entire account (as Rebekah was earlier).

Verses 27-30

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 38:27-30 27It came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. 28Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, "This one came out first." 29But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out. Then she said, "What a breach you have made for yourself!" So he was named Perez. 30Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.

Genesis 38:27 "there were twins in her womb" It amazes me how often the women of these Patriarchs in Genesis are barren and then how often they have twins. God is acting in recurrent ways! The genealogies belong to Him!

Genesis 38:28 "a scarlet thread on his hand" The exact reason for this thread is uncertain. It may have been something very common such as the only convenient thing on hand or it may have been a cultural practice of that day. Many have asserted that it was a sign or symbol of redemption which will be followed throughout the entire OT (i.e., Joshua 2:18, Joshua 2:21). I am personally nervous about these allegorical types of interpretations. It is surely an eyewitness detail.

Genesis 38:29 "Perez" This name (BDB 829 II) means "breach" or "bursting forth" (BDB 829 I).

Genesis 38:30 "Zerah" This name (BDB 280 II) means "to rise" or "come forth" (BDB 280) from the VERB form. The AB footnote, p. 297, says the meaning comes from "shining" (BDB 280, found only in Isaiah 60:3) and is the same consonantal root and denotes a brightly-colored thread (also note, Jewish Study Bible, p. 78).

The identification of the firstborn was significant because of the inheritance rights. However, in the special line (i.e., Messianic line) of patriarchal lineage, God's choice, not man's, is evident! God has a universal, redemptive plan that is being worked out in the family of Abraham (cf. Genesis 3:15; Genesis 12:3c; Exodus 19:5c; Isaiah, Micah, Jonah).

In a literary sense this chapter functions like the book of Ruth, giving genealogical material for the line of Judah, later family of Jesse, father of David. There were Gentiles, even Canaanites in the line of King David (cf. Ruth)!


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

l. Why is it significant that Judah left his brothers and moved to the Canaanite area to the south?

2. Is Judah's marriage to this Canaanite woman condemned in the Scriptures?

3. Why was Judah afraid to give Tamar his third son?

4. How can we understand Tamar's acts? What could be their possible purpose?

5. Is there any significance to the scarlet thread mentioned in verse Genesis 38:28?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Genesis 38". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/genesis-38.html. 2021.
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