Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 30 2019 - Genesis 38 – Judah and Tamar

What an extraordinary chapter of Scripture this is. Again we might ask what this chapter with all its unseemly details is doing in our Bibles, and particularly why it is located here, interrupting the flow of the story of Joseph. I suspect that most sermon series focussing on the history of Joseph would skip over it. Have you ever heard anyone preach from this passage?

Judah was the fourth of Jacob's sons, coming after Reuben, Simeon and Levi, all of whom were born to Leah. He had been the ringleader in persuading his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery; he appeared to have little compassion for his brother. This chapter recounts the humbling of Judah. Its graphic picture of immorality provides a dark background against which the honesty and integrity of Joseph, described in the chapters which follow, shines out more brightly.

The chapter begins by telling us that Judah left home and went to stay with a man of called Hirah. Might Judah have found the grief of father Jacob and the secret of Joseph's sale to the Midianites just too much to bear? We don't know, but for some reason he chose to leave the rest of his brothers and to live among the Canaanites. There he was attracted by a Canaanite woman called Shua. He married her and in due course she bore him three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.

Many years pass by with Joseph all but forgotten. When Er reaches marriageable age, Judah finds him a Canaanite wife called Tamar. We are then told, "Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death" (38:7). We do not know what he did to merit such swift judgment but it may have been that he adopted some of the pagan practices of the Canaanites, practices that were an abomination to the Lord.

Judah then gave his second son, Onan, to Tamar. This chapter provides us with the first mention of "Levirite marriage" which was later to incorporated into the Mosaic law. According to this custom, if a married man died without his wife bearing him an heir, his younger brother should then marry the woman. The first son she bore would be considered as the heir of her first husband (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Onan was not happy with this arrangement and so refused to get Tamar pregnant. He also was struck dead by the Lord.

Judah promised his remaining son, Shelah, to Tamar when he was old enough for marriage. But he failed to keep his promise and so Tamar tricked Judah into having sex with her and, when Judah threatened to have his pregnant daughter-in-law put to death she declared, with proofs, that Judah himself was the father of her twin children.

The chapter is full of hatred, strife, jealousy, immorality and revenge. God hates all of this, but he uses these very events to bring his own Son into the world. In Matthew's genealogy, or family tree, of the Lord Jesus only four women, other than Mary, get a mention. The four are Tamar who tricked Judah into fathering her child, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite whom David seduced before having her husband killed. These are the people through whom God was at work to bring Jesus into the world.

Once again we see that human sin and folly cannot derail the purposes of God that will be unfolded through the story of Joseph and the rest of the Bible. Rather it is precisely such human acts of wilfulness, immorality and evil which move the living God to act for our redemption. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus secures forgiveness and cleansing for such a world as this.

Father God, thank you that your grace in the Lord Jesus Christ is more than able to cover all our sins. We cannot excuse our sins, nor can we hide them from you; we readily confess them and plead your forgiveness. Humble us, Lord, that we may always remember that our hope rests not in our own schemes but in your grace and goodness that have been made known to us in Christ.

Peter Misselbrook