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Genesis 38: The Skeleton in Judah’s closet

Genesis 38 seems and feels as if it unnecessarily interrupts the flow of the Joseph-story – which started in chapter 37. Yet it is not an interruption of the Joseph-story, because it shows us the sharp moral contrast between Joseph and his brothers and what the spiritual reason was that they ended up in Egypt instead of the Promised Land, namely their defection from the Lord and His covenant.

Exile and hardship in Egypt was God’s way of mercifully refining them so that the nation Israel could fulfill their Divine purpose, namely to bring forth the Messiah. But Judah’s behaviour shows that they were not spiritually ready for this. The roots of the nation Israel were rotten. There were skeletons in the cupboard. All the blessings and welfare that came forth out of IsraeI was due to God’s grace and His eternal choice and nothing upon which they could pride themselves. There was nothing IN THEM that made them love-able. In Deut 7 the Lord says that He did not love this nation based on anything that was good in them, but only based on the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It is true that Gen 38 should perhaps have an age-restriction, but yet – because the Holy Spirit is the real author – there is nothing in this history that would invite anyone to go out and commit the same sin. It is a very honest description, but also very sober and of interest for the time we are living in. The same powers and forces who were active in Judah’s time, are still active today to destroy man and encourage him to revolt against the Lord. The same God who in His Divine Providence ruled over people’s sins at that time so that His plans could be fulfilled, is still on the Throne today!

The loss of Joseph was only the start of Jacob’s grief. Joseph was hardly lost before Judah decides to go look for greener pastures – namely with the pagan Canaanites. He befriends Hirah, a man who had a bad influence on Judah. Wherever Hirah’s name is mentioned, there are problems for Judah.

It was while Judah was visiting with Hirah that he met a Canaanite woman. Only what he saw, only the way she looked, motivated him to want to take her as wife. A purely physical choice therefore – with no spiritual principles at all. He met her and lay with her. That is called adultery. Exactly the same as what Shechem had done with their sister Dinah in Genesis 34. Now Judah did the same while he was one of the brothers who were so outraged about what Shechem had done to Dinah, that he was prepared to go with them to murder all the men of Shechem.

Three sons are born out of Judah’s illicit union with this Canaanite woman, namely Er, Onan and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but Er was so wicked that the Lord killed him. Proof incidentally, that one can die before one’s time! Er could have lived a long time had he not been so wicked. So God himself put him to death. Because not only is God love. He is also holy and righteous.

Then Onan had to marry Tamar to produce offspring for his brother, because Er was the firstborn. Later we read in Deut 25 how Moses arranged these marriages. When the firstborn man died, his wife had to marry his brother and not someone outside the family. Then the first son that was born had to receive the name of the deceased firstborn, and so forth. In this way the family name could live on. It was common practice in the Middle East at that time, and the Lord allowed Moses to take it up into the law.

Thus Onan knew that his children with Tamar would actually carry his late brother’s name and not his own, and so he refused to have children with Tamar. To prevent Tamar from falling pregnant he spilled his seed on the ground – as verse 9 puts it. It was a great evil in God’s eyes and so the Lord put Onan to death also.

It is not that birth-control as such is evil in the Lord’s eyes, but it was Onan’s disobedience to what his father had ordered him to do in verse 8 in order to ensure that there would be descendants. Onan was sinning against Tamar, against his father, against the Lord’s will, but also against his late brother. His own personal interests came first.

We can therefore not use this incident as Scriptural proof that birth control as such is wrong. Onan was in a specific circumstance and in a particular culture, and it was therein where he transgressed as a result of his selfishness and mistrust in the Lord.

The question is therefore not whether we practice birth control, but what the motive of the heart is. Is it selfishness? Do we not want children because of wrong motives? Is it distrust in the Lord – distrust whether or not He would be able to provide? THAT is where the sin lies and not birth control as such.

After the deaths of Er and Onan, it was logical that Shelah had to marry Tamar, but Judah never gave him to Tamar. Perhaps he thought that Tamar was barren and that it was senseless for Shelah to marry her.

In the meantime Judah’s nameless Canaanite wife had died and added to the fact that society was established on everything sensual and sexually permissive, Judah was very vulnerable and drifted further and further away from the Lord’s covenant with his fathers.

On the other side, Tamar was without children and descendants and there was no way for her to get Er, her first husband’s name to perpetuate. She was forced to make a quick plan. When Tamar was told that Judah and Hirah had gone up to Timnah to shear their sheep, she got a mad idea. If she couldn’t get Shelah , then she would become pregnant by Judah himself! She knew very well what went on at the annual sheep-shearing. After a week of hard backbreaking work, it was all feasting with strong drink flowing freely. And she knew her father-in-law. Moral purity was not really one of his strong points. It is rather clear from the story that Judah was not behaving like a novice where prostitutes are concerned. He knew how things were to be arranged. He was knowledgeable about these things. He was a man with experience – that is clear.

Because Tamar knew these things about Judah, she decided to disguise herself as a prostitute. She was convinced that – if she could pass as a prostitute and cross Judah’s path – Judah would certainly take matters from there. And she was perfectly correct in her judgement.

When Judah saw the “prostitute “ he was immediately ready to negotiate. It was common practice to get a kind of pledge for payment from the client. Not that Tamar was interested in payment. All she wanted was to become pregnant by Judah. But the pledge was important so that she could later prove that Judah was the father.

Judah therefore handed over his signet ring – which in those days were used as a sort of signature or hallmark. Almost like today’s pin-codes. Every person had a unique signet ring that could place their mark on hot wax on a document to authenticate agreements. No two people had the same markings on their ring. He also left his staff with her.

Usually these kind of meetings with prostitutes were quickly over and forgotten. Judah did not care who or what the prostitute was. She was merely a consumer-article. Tamar also immediately returned to her father’s house to continue life as a widow. Certain things were going to take place that was going to change this quick act of immoral wicked sinfulness into a nightmare – something Judah would never be able to forget.

When Judah sent the prostitute’s fee to her to get his signet ring and staff back from her, she could not be found. What he thought to be a prostitute, had disappeared. And so too his signet ring and staff.

When Hirah made enquiries, he added a word that Judah did not use. He asked if the people knew where the SHRINE-prostitute is. You see, the religion of the Canaanites was so perverted and corrupt that prostitution was part of their worship of the fertility gods. And Judah was so far removed from the true religion he was raised in, that he was blinded spiritually and was not even conscious of what his friends the Canaanites were busy with. To him the visit with the prostitute was just a brief pleasure. To the Canaanites it was worship… of idols. Occultism. Immorality almost always leads to idolatry. But Judah was completely oblivious of this great danger that put his soul in peril.

Judah was so helpless and embarrassed and made to feel foolish when he heard that the prostitute did not exist. Someone had made a fool of him and now he did not dare to make the theft of his signet ring and staff public! The more he searched for this woman, the sooner his folly would become general knowledge.

So Judah decided to let the matter rest. And three months later he began to breathe a little easier. It seemed as if everything had blown over. Wow, he had a narrow escape.

And then Judah heared of Tamar’s pregnancy. This was serious, because Tamar was still committed to marry Shelah. Therefore she had committed adultery. This was a dire situation! Judah’s outrage and anger knew no bounds. Tamar had to die! Be burned to death or stoned. It sounds as if Judah wanted to still his own guilt with the death of someone else.

On the other hand it would be best if Tamar could die, because then Judah wouldn’t have to give Shelah to her as her husband and he then would not have to suffer any embarrassment should she fail to give him descendants!

One would think that Tamar would shout from the rooftops that Judah was the father of her unborn child, in order to pay him back for withholding Shelah from her for all the years. But her behaviour is very respectful and submissive. She sends the signet ring and staff which Judah gave as pledge, for him to see if he knew who they belonged to. No condemnation or accusation, nothing.

One can just imagine what a big shock it must have been for Judah. The death sentence that he passed over Tamar, was actually applicable to himself! Judah – the one out of whom the Messiah was to be born – had to admit with reference to Tamar: “She is more righteous than I” (v 26). Apparently these events brought a change in Judah, because he never touched her again, and when next we read about him, he is back with his father.

Tamar gave birth to twin boys: Perez and Zerah. And do you know what? The Lord Jesus was eventually born out of the Perez-line. According to Ruth 4:12 and Matt 1:3 Boaz was out of the line of Perez and Obed was Boaz’s son by Ruth and Obed was the grandfather of David and the Lord Jesus is born out of the line of David.

Is the way of the Lord not absolutely astounding?

Who would ever think – on reading Genesis 38 – that there was any chance that the promised line out of whom Christ would come would EVER run through Judah? Here is a man – so far removed from God, married a pagan Canaanite woman, unable to keep his promise to his daughter-in-law, fallen into immorality with a prostitute… he could just as well have been part of a pagan occult culture. And then out of an immoral act a son is born to him – the forefather of David and eventually of the Lord Jesus Christ! WHO except the living God alone could bring about such a thing? But He works through sovereign Providence to fulfil His eternal Divine plan. His nation sinned against His covenant, but He remained faithful to it! It is as if He just can not be restricted or thwarted by people’s sin and evil actions. What He says, He does – without being dependent on man’s co-operation.

This great truth about how God’s sovereign Providence works, presents us with comfort and with danger.

THE DANGER is that we can become careless and self-sufficient and think that sin and spiritual indifference do not matter, because the Lord will fulfill His will and purpose in any case. That is a misconception. The brothers’ selling of Joseph and Judah’s sin mattered a lot! The Lord was not glorified and they were guilty and God chastened them with the exile in Egypt.

THE COMFORT is that during difficult times we can rest in faith-trust that the Lord knows what he is doing and that His Throne reigns. As long as we are on this planet, tragedy and adversity and headaches and broken relationships and temptations and the power of sin will always be part of our daily menu. It is then that we can rest in the Lord’s sovereign almighty Providence. Although it is not visible to the naked eye. We must see it by way of the faith-confidence which is based on the Scriptures.

Translated by Marthie Wilson
Main source: Bob Deffinbaugh

Category Genesis Series

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