A Strange, Sad Story

This is an odd story. It is incredibly sad story.  And it is difficult to get your mind around.  At this point the author has already introduced the Joseph’s narrative portion of Genesis.  And following chapter 38 everything centers around Joseph’s story. He is the central character.  All the action, even if it does not actually happen in Egypt, where Joseph is, eventually connects back to him.

 David mentioned two weeks ago that Genesis is broken up by genealogies. That the phrase, “these are the generations of…” becomes the mile markers, or transition points, as the author lays out the story of Genesis.  “These are the generations of…” the heavens and the earth, noah, Noah’s sons, Shem, Terah, who fathered Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau And 37 starts, “these are the generations of Jacob”, and literally the next word is, “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers.”  So, the author is already making his transition to Joseph

And then immediately, and somewhat unnaturally, the author moves to Judah. 37 ends with Joseph in Potiphar’s house, and 39 begins with Joseph in Potiphar’s house. And 38 is sandwiched between them.  It feels like when you are reading a novel and the author follows a character that you would not expect; when the person that seems to be secondary in the plot line gets an entire chapter devoted to him.

Two Questions

What I want to do is begin by answering two questions. I think that answering these two questions will help us get at what is going on in the passage itself.  The questions are, “why does the writer include this story in Genesis?”, and “why is this story here, instead of somewhere else?” But we are going to flip those two questions.

Why is this story here in Genesis?

The first is because it acts as like a book-end to Jacob’s narrative. Up to this point we have seen the work of God to move his promises, blessings, and purposes through Abraham’s family, and then Isaac’s family.  And now Jacob’s role as the central character in the story comes to an end.  Various details in the text draw us back to the birth of Jacob. We will not get to highlight them all, but elements in this chapter tells us that Jacob’s wrestling’s with God, the ones that Joe spoke about weeks ago get passed on to his children. And so Jacob’s narrative ends like it begins.  

The second is because it reminds us of Judah before Joseph becomes the main character. We are supposed to see what happens to Judah before our eyes lock on the hero Joseph.  The author knows something that we do not up to this point in the story.

Which brings us to “why does the writer include this story?”  

Why Interrupt the heroism of Joseph for these wretched events? Because Judah is set in contrast to Joseph. Joseph is everything that Judah is not.  the actions of Judah in this passage provide a stark contrast to Joseph’s heroism. There is another, bigger, reason.  

There is another, more important reason. But I want to wait until the end of the story to tell you.

What we need to know about the story

It is not difficult to image that the events in Genesis 38 span somewhere around 30 years. They include a family move, a marriage, the birth of three children, the growth of these children into adulthood, and the birth of two more children.  A lot happens in 30 verses.

This presents some difficulty in reading through Genesis. As we read 38, much of what happens to Joseph is likely occurring in some manner simultaneously. And this is not Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings, or Oceans 11.  We are not able to track multiple stories simultaneously.  So much of Genesis 38 may be a bit out of place Chronologically. 

A brief introduction to the main characters

The first character is Judah, who is the fourth son of Jacob.  The first four of Jacob’s twelve sons from Leah. You will remember Leah and Rachel. Rachel was the beautiful one whom Jacob loved, and Leah was the other girl, who was not chosen or wanted but only came to Jacob as a result of trickery. Judah’s name alone tells us that there is something unique about him.  The names of Leah’s first three children are all tied to Leah’s relationship with Judah. Reuben is essentially, “The Lord has looked upon me, and now my husband will love me.” Simeon is, “The Lord has heard that I am hated (by my husband), so he has given me this son.” Levi is, “This time my husband will be attached to me, because I have given him three sons.” But Judah is simply, “this time I will praise the Lord”.  Nothing about need, and nothing about Jacob’s love, or lack of it.  Judah’s birth seems to mark the point where Leah finds her satisfaction on God, even while she is wrongfully neglected by her husband.

The second character is Hirah.  He is a Cannanite man that Judah befriends and begins to do business with.

The third character is Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law.


6 Acts

As we read through the text we see 6 acts. We will walk through each one together.

Act 1 - The opening (vs. 1-5)

After Judah and his brothers sell Joseph into slavery, Judah leaves to live and work amongst Canaanites.  He then starts a business relationship with a man named Hirah, who proves to be a negative influence.  In time he lusts after a Canaanite woman, and then makes her as his wife.  And they have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. 

And zero descriptions are given for Judah’s wife or child: Typically, if someone as important as Judah marries and has children, you at least know the woman’s name.  And often a child’s name gets tagged; “He named him Er because…”. All of which tells us that they are not looked on favorably (which reflects on Judah), and that their part in the story will be short-lived. A bit of foreshadowing is happening here.


Act 2 - The Conflict (vs. 6-11)

Every good story needs some sort of central conflict. This is it in Genesis 38: Judah’s failure to produce an heir (vs. 6-11).  Or to say it as a question, “how is Judah going to produce an heir?”  In many of these stories the conflict has been, “who is he going to marry” (like it is the bachelor in Canaan).  But instead we are asking, “who is going to produce an heir for Judah?  And what if this does not happen?”

Judah fails to have an heir, but not for a lack of trying.  Though he has three sons, Judah has no grandchildren. So, he gives a Canaanite woman named Tamar to his firstborn.  And the text says that Er was wicked, so God put him to death.

Then Judah tells Onan, the second child, to go and “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, which is to marry and produce a child through Tamar.  But Onan, realizing that the child would be his brother’s and not his, intentionally “spills his seed” (Bible’s words, not mine). And he does this because with his brother out of the picture, the blessing the firstborn falls to him.  But if he gives a child to Tamar the blessing will fall to Judah’s grandchild.  

Onan, like his father, chooses his own immediate benefit instead of sacrificing for the greater purposes of God.  Instead of looking out for the line of Judah, he only looks out for himself. And so God puts him to death.At this point Judah is looking like a minor league call-up and is 0 for 2 whiffs. So he sends Tamar back to her father’s house until his last son is old enough to marry Tamar.  Instead of taking her into his house the protect and provide for her, like any good mob boss would, gets her out of the picture.  

 Judah’s Descent

Let’s pause and simply observe Judah’s descent into rebellion:

He, along with his brothers, sells Joseph into slavery, takes the lead on lying to his father about what happened to Joseph, and then moves “down” into a Canaanite community…

This move is both geographical and spiritual. It is definitely geographical, because he is walking down a mountain. Whenever a character travels “down” out of the promised land he is either with God, or without God.  

  • God goes down from the heavenly mountain to see babel (Gen. 11).

  • During a famine Abraham goes down out of the land, and God is with him (Gen. 12).

  • God goes down to see Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18).

  • There is another famine in the land, but God tells Isaac not to go down to Egypt, but instead says that he will be “with” him in the land (Gen. 26).

  • Then here in Genesis 38 Judah travels down away from his father, mother, and brothers, but God is not with him.

  • Until finally in Genesis 46 God appears to Jacob, who is not particularly inclined to move his entire family out of the land and “down” to Egypt, and says, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.  I myself will go with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again...” (46:3-4)

After moving down away from his family he makes a business partner with Hirah, a Canaanite, marries a Canaanite woman, and then produces and raises wicked children.

To summarize what we are seeing, Judah is neglecting the commands of God and his jeopardizing the purposes of God.  To say it another way, Judah is failing to protect and promote God’s purposes by doing exactly what God has commanded him not to do. 

Act 3 - The Trick (12-19)

Tamar dupes Judah into giving her a child.  Let me give you the “how” and the “why” of Tamar’s actions.  .

Here is how it happens. Judah’s wife dies.  And when the time of his morning is finished, which was likely a week, he goes back with his friend Hirah to work among the sheepshearers. Tamar hears that his father-in-law is back in town.  And at this point she realizes that Judah is not going to give his last son, Shelah, to her. So Tamar concocts a plan: she takes off her widows garments and dresses herself in a certain way, so that Judah mistakes her for a prostitute.  Not knowing it is his daughter-in-law, Judah says, “let me come in to you”.  She agrees for payment, and then gets Judah to commit a pledge to her.  She says, “give me your signet, your cord, and your staff”. Which is, essentially, everything that is central to Judah’s identity, family, and livelihood.  The signet was a seal worn on a cord around the neck.  And the staff would have been carved specifically for Judah. These things act driver’s license and social security card, but carry infinitely more personal and family value.  And Judah agrees: This indicates how driven Judah is by his own sinful desires, and that he is looking out only for himself.

As far as the why,  we can punt on that one more time, so keep reading


Scene 4 - The build (vs. 20-23)

Soon after this event Judah, knowing he needs to retrieve his signet, cord, and staff sends his friend Hirah back to the village, unsuccessfully.  At this point Tamar put the garments that mark a widow back on and returned to her father’s home.  Judah then gives up on the search and tells Hirah to give up on the search so that no one hears that he was duped into giving up his most personal items.


Scene 5 - The apex of the drama (24-26)

Three months after Judah goes in to Tamar, without knowing he has done this, he is told, presumably by Hirah, that not only has Tamar been immoral during her widowhood, but she is pregnant as a result.  

Immediately Judah has her brought out with the intension of having her burned, which would have been the common practice with a widow who has been immoral. But Judah does not do this simply because it is practice.  He does it because he is in utter opposition to Tamar.

Let us stop and observe the irony here.  Judah, who goes in to a person he assumes to be a cult prostitute just a week after his wife dies, immediately pulls the trigger on killing not only his daughter-in-law, but also her unborn child.  You cannot get more two-faced and despicable than this.  And in addition to this, he isn’t even there for Tamar’s execution.  It is his orders, but the text tells us that he did not even show up.

Judah then has Tamar brought out.  This is when the entire text turns on its head, the point in every good novel, play, or movie where you are like, “what is going to happen?”  As Tamar is brought out, she presents Judah’s signet, cord, and staff, indicating that the she is in fact pregnant with the child of accuser.  

Judah is at a crossroads. He can figure out how to frame her for stealing his personal items and add this to her sentencing.  But he does not do this.  

Judah’s response becomes the resolution to the text: Judah’s belongings come to him; he identifies them as his own and he says this, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” In saying this Judah acknowledges that Tamar has succeeded in the area that he has failed. It is Tamar, not Judah, that intercedes on behalf of God’s purposes.  It is Tamar, not Judah’s boys, who look after the family line.  And it is Tamar, not Judah’s closest companion Hirah, that ensures that Judah is used by God to forward the commission to bless all the nations.

I have to note that God is not condoning prostitution, or incest.  Tamar is not “righteous” in her actions because she tricked and slept with her father-in-law.  She is righteous because she, like Rebekah, was watchful over God’s purposes.  The fact that these are the lengths to which Tamar must go to indicates how wicked Judah is. Like Rebekah before her and Ruth after her, Tamar sees and acts rightly when the patriarch of the family fails in his duties.

Judah, like Isaac 10 chapters earlier, repents of his failure to protect God’s blessing and immediately responds rightly by not going in to Tamar again.

Scene 6 – The why of the whole text, and the answer to why Tamar does what she does.

I punted several times in getting why the writer includes this story in Genesis. But the answer to that question, and the answer to the question of why Tamar does what she does, is the same.  

It is to preserve the kingly line of Judah: the reveals in Genesis 49 that the line of kings comes from Judah.  Tamar preserves this line giving birth to twins, one of which ends up being a major player in this kingly line.  


For us, on the ground and in the air

Application on the ground (directly from the text)

Tamar the Canaanite presents great hope for all peoples, and especially for everyone who is outside of God’s kingdom. A question you ask when you read Genesis is, “What’s the big deal with Abraham’s family?” and, “When will God start to care about the surrounding nations?”  Tamar teaches us that God’s heart has always been for the nations. And that he has determined to make a way for us to enter.  It reminds of this Ephesians 2 reality, that those who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

So that is the first thing: There is great hope for everyone who has yet to know and trust the promises of God, no matter what your background or what you have done.  

I will introduce the second point this way. The more time I spent in this text the more I grew to hate Judah.  I sat at a coffee table in front of my laptop yesterday afternoon trying not to cry because of all the evil that Judah commits, and because of how he treats Tamar.  And the Lord dropped a hammer on my heart and made me realize that I am Judah.  My rebellion is not as obvious as his, but there was a time when I actively worked against the purposes of God.  And even now there are times when I neglect God, his desires, and his plans. And I needed the Lord’s mercy to bring about repentance in me and make me useful for his purposes.

So that is the second thing: You and I are in great need of mercy of from a great God.

Which leads us to our application in the air.

2,000 years later the king, the lion of Judah, flips the script of Genesis 38 and instead of requiring a sacrifice from another, sacrifices himself for his bride. He stands before accusers publicly, and instead of giving the judgment that we deserve he receives all of our humiliation.

So that this happens (Revelation 19): “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of might peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah’!  For the Lord God Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’ – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.  And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’”

Which brings us to the table, which is a shadow of the marriage supper. And all who are presently trusting in the work of Christ are invited.  This is where we taste and experience what was meant for us, but was taken by the perfect groom who gives himself up for his bride.

Dan Nichols