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Judah and Tamar

Genesis 38

Edwin N. Cross


What follows is the product of some study undertaken to try to understand a difficult portion of the Word. This chapter is seldom read in public as it refers to deeds of the darkest nature. It presents human nature in the raw, in its sordid character astray from God. It occupies a peculiar place, sandwiched in the unfolding progress of Joseph's history. Historically, the events recorded happened before chapter thirty-seven, but as is often the case in the Bible a moral order is given to the subjects that come before the reader. The bright light of Joseph's high moral conduct brings into even sharper relief the depraved and unprincipled behaviour of his brother Judah. Joseph is as constant and honourable at home doing his father's business looking after the sheep, as he is in Egyptian captivity. Joseph was a conscript into the world like Daniel in later years. Alas many are determined to go into the place where Christ has been rejected. They do not lose their first love but leave it. Demas forsook Paul's fellowship and went into the world that lies in the wicked one, where Christ is still hated and refused. Joseph (and Daniel) refused the seduction of the world but here we see Judah drawn into the closest ties with idolaters.

We are accustomed to viewing Joseph as one of the most beautiful types of Christ in Scripture. Genesis 37 gives us typical details of Christ's rejection even to parallels relating to Christ's betrayal by a man with the same name: Judas. Genesis 38 suggests the present period of grace, during which Israel as such has no history, but Judah (Jewry) is prominent. The question therefore arises: How does Judah fare now he is rid of Joseph? Sadly, we see a manifestation of perverted values, personal vileness and the hypocrisy of pretended virtue. William Kelly says that this is, "the most humiliating tale that we find perhaps anywhere in the book of Genesis." Those of Judah are filling up the measure of their sins, making terms with the uncircumcised and defiling the holy seed. This passage gives us the first crisis of succession in Judah. We know that our Lord sprang from Juda(h) (Matt. 1: 3; Heb. 7: 14) and therefore perceive the intrusion of Satan into the circumstances. His design was ever to hinder the coming and work of the Messiah. We should note that not only is Tamar's security challenged but also her right to become the mother of Judah's heir. Something of the mercy and grace of the gospel is also seen. There is full departure from God's ways, with treachery and vile behaviour boldly exhibited. Any relationship with God is utterly despised and forsaken by Judah's reprehensible conduct. From the contrasts in the narrative we will learn both practical lessons and something of the unfolding history of Judah in Jewry. These themes are intertwined in the sacred text and will be of interest to the student of Scripture.


The chapter can be divided into six subjects by enumerating the six sins listed below. This is indicative of the Spirit's mind to record man's condition and hallmark it with the number of Man in his failure and distance from God.

Sin 1 v. 1 Judah joins the world

Sin 2 v. 7 Er's wickedness

Sin 3 v. 9 Onan's selfishness

Sin 4 v. 11 Judah's unrighteousness

Sin 5 v. 14 Tamar's whoredom

Sin 6 v. 24 Judah's hypocrisy


Sin 1. Judah Joins the World (verses 1-6)

Judah leaves his brothers to join the world of the Canaanite (the Merchant) in all its ruined character. The actual words of Scripture, "went down from," indicate the course of departure embarked upon and alert the reader to the fact that what follows will be characterised by sin. The consequences of Judah's wilful departure will be serious and he will have to learn that he cannot please himself without reaping a harvest of sorrow. He has to learn that what a man sows that shall he also reap (Gal. 6: 7). Dispensationally this is where the Jew is at the present time, motivated by self-interest and governed by what he sees without regard for God's counsel. Tamar's history shows the infinitude of Divine mercy. We see God's own wonderful way of connecting the Christ with Judah, and thus Tamar is listed in the genealogy recorded in Matthew's Gospel. She is the first of the four women mentioned there, each having their own special place by God's grace. It is sad to witness Judah's departure from the relative safety and enjoyment of his brothers' company. His heart was already at a distance from the joy of communion with his father and now he takes this further step and leaves his brethren. We have seen this often enough with those whose hearts have grown cold, when in due time their feet follow the inclination of their minds. The heart astray from God is a ready prey to the deceit and incitements of men. One not walking in communion with God will soon walk in fellowship with the unconverted men of the world. In verse 1 we see that Judah must have had common interests with Hirah. In verse 12 he is described as ". his friend Hirah the Adullamite." James tells us that friendship with the world is enmity against God (James. 4: 4), but such considerations were absent from a man bent on doing his own will.

In the second verse we see that the downward pathway brings Judah into the most intimate association with a daughter of a Canaanite. Here we have him repeating the sin of Esau, whose marriages were a grief to his parents (Gen. 26: 35). Judah had no regard for the ancient landmark set up by Abraham who said: "thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites" (Gen. 24: 3). Judah had no compunction in marrying a pagan, "the daughter of a strange god" (Mal. 2: 11). Today, for the Christian, the principle is clear. The instruction in 2 Corinthians 6: 14-15 is, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers." The criterion for selecting his wife is suggested by the phrase, "And Judah saw," much the same as Samson in later years: "And Samson went down... and saw a woman... of the daughters of the Philistines... and said, I have seen a woman" (Judges 14: 1, 2). There was no thought of making a selection according to the mind of God (cf. Gen. 2: 18, 24). Judah was motivated by base desires such as we read of in 1 John 2: 16, "the lust of the eyes... is of the world."

Sin 2. Er's Wickedness (verses 6-7)

Judah had chosen a wife called Tamar for his eldest son. Er was the firstborn of Judah's strength. He had been named by his father and the meaning of his name may be "watchful" (Potts). Er evidently became watchful for opportunities to do evil. He thought that no consequences would follow upon his sins but the biblical principle in Galatians 6: 7 holds good for all time: "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." His wickedness was seen by Jehovah and he reaped the due reward of his actions. Pay-day came swiftly for him: "and the LORD slew him." Er deceived himself but was he not merely following his father? To bring up children in an evil world is not easy. When parents introduce their offspring to the things of this present evil age, they will find them applying themselves most energetically to the world in all its ruin and departure from God.

Sin 3. Onan's Selfishness (verses 8-10)

According to Old Testament custom a widow had her security provided for by the system of levirate marriage. You will recall that the kinsman in Ruth 4: 6 was offered the opportunity of marrying Ruth and securing Elimelech's inheritance, but he said, "I cannot redeem it for myself." He seemed unwilling to affect his own inheritance by marrying a Moabitess and I suggest that in this he showed a selfish attitude. Onan exceeded this because he married Tamar but then refused to grant her the privilege of being the mother of Judah's heir. He was prepared to marry her and enjoy conjugal relations, but he wanted to refrain from giving of his strength. The sin that is so displeasing to God in Onan's case was not simply a matter of spilling his seed on the ground, but of selfishness. He wanted her to remain a childless and despised widow and his whole attitude was governed by this. It was not a single sin but a repeated one, for the word "when" in verse 9 should read "whenever." Augustine of Hippo once posed the question which, if my memory serves me correctly, was, "Whom have you ever seen content with a single sin?" So, as with his wicked brother, the solemn harvest was reaped and he too was slain by the Lord (v. 10).

Sin 4. Judah's Unrighteousness (verse 11)

Tamar had the right to be the mother of Judah's heir. He withheld this legitimate entitlement from her, effectively blaming her for the death of his sons. He did not blame his own sons for any wrong. Judah's prejudice in favour of his own family blinded him to the truth. He followed the same course as Eli and Samuel in later years. Many today allow the ties of nature to sway their judgment in matters of importance. Judah is characterised by perverted values. On a practical note, the suggestion that Shelah might be a husband before he was full grown is also contrary to the mind of God. In Genesis 2: 24 we read, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother." Maturity is supposed in every domain of life; physical, mental and emotional. Shelah was significantly younger than Tamar, and this was not a good recipe for a marriage.

Sin 5. The Whoredom of Tamar (verses 13-23)

This sordid occurrence took place at the time of sheep-shearing, the time when something was taken from the sheep. To take and leave naked is Satan's work. Sexual temptation was increased by the practices of the Canaanite cult. Ritual fornication was part of their fertility magic. It seems that Tamar posed as a temple/cult prostitute. Such was the world that Judah had married into! Can there be anything so dreadful as this kind of union? Alas, it is also found in the New Testament among the saints of God. Paul spares no words in telling the assembly at Corinth that, "fornicators" shall not "inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6: 9, 10). What had been done privately at home was made known to the conscience of the assembly and strongly condemned (1 Cor. 5: 1-13). With such they were not even to eat. The wicked person had to be put away from among them. We know that these sins are commonplace in the world. We need to be aware of our natural propensities and ought to be most cautious and reserved in our conduct with those of the opposite sex (1 Tim. 5: 2). Paul gives no licence for any dalliance with evil, but writes, "Flee fornication" (1 Cor. 6: 18). We are commanded by Scripture to put a great distance between ourselves and the temptation. Obedience to the Word of God is the only way of escape which has been provided. In the next chapter, Joseph, in captivity but still answering to God's will, "fled, and got him out" of Potiphar's house. Potiphar's wife was persistent but he was as resolute to please God. Such a consideration seems entirely absent from Tamar and Judah. They demonstrate their personal vileness.

Sin 6. Judah's Hypocrisy (verses 24-26)

What a hypocrite! Judah acts as if he is completely right and without blame, but it is he who has the greater guilt. It was he who caused Tamar to stumble and now he wants her punished. If I cause another to sin because of my own wickedness, how great then is my responsibility. Judah was the prime mover in these sins and now he places all the blame on Tamar. He would be horrified to have the responsibility and blame placed at his feet. Judah's pretended virtue is about to be exposed by the subsequent events. God's Spirit will say, as to his great heir, David, "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12: 7). He has a double standard, which is not acceptable to a holy God. Judah is ready to condemn Tamar to be burnt, but she had secured a pledge from him. This she now brought forward in evidence (v. 25) and Judah's complicity in the sin is manifested before all. This is the way God works. A frank confession will secure His mercy. Tamar is acknowledged as being more righteous than Judah (v. 26). In Psalm 92: 12 we read again of Tamar, "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree." (Tamar means Palm). The last verse of that Psalm is very appropriate to what follows in the narrative of our chapter: "the LORD is upright... there is no unrighteousness in Him." Having established righteousness He is now free to show mercy.

The closing verses (vv. 27-30) of this chapter show how mercy rejoices over judgment. Of this J. G. Bellett wrote, "The hope of Israel is in the womb, a blessing is in the cluster; but truly it is such a cluster of wild vine as might well be doomed to the sickle, if sovereign, abounding grace did not say, "Destroy it not" (Isa. 65: 8; Matt. 1: 3)." The midwife had seen nothing like this before and exclaims, "How hast thou broken forth?" (v. 29). But thus the line to Christ is carried forward. Pharez comes forth, the second Jacob, a supplanter. From this one there was to come the True Inheritor of every blessing. Christ is the righteous Supplanter of every usurper, and He will prevail and His kingdom will stand for ever. Out of Judah will come the chief ruler (1 Chr. 5: 2). We wonder how any good could come out of such a disastrous course of events, but what is impossible with men is not so with God. He brings glory to His Name out of darkest shame. This is fully shown in the cross, where Jew and Gentile joined together in the sin of rejecting and crucifying God's Son. It was from such sinners that a new body was formed, expressly to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 2: 18).

Here we have seen sin abounding, yet grace much more abounding. Here we have, "God, in His great grace, rising above the sin and folly of man, in order to bring about His own purposes of love and mercy... How evident that there is nothing of man in this!" (C. H. Mackintosh). Grace reigns in every saint now but will reign in Israel in the future when Christ their King is upon His throne.