Genesis 38

Sunday Morning Bible Study

September 2, 2007


We’ve been following the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  We’ve moved to now following the next generation and will primarily be following Joseph, but we take a brief break from Joseph to follow a story about Jacob’s fourth son with his wife Leah, Judah.

It is kind of a strange side track.  Joseph’s story seems to be the more important story.  In the eyes of the author, Moses, who is editing these stories, the tribe of Judah is not of any particular importance, and won’t be until four hundred years after Moses.

Genesis 38

:1-11 Judah and his sons marry

:1 It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.

Judah moves away from the family and gets out on his own.

Adullamite – an inhabitant of “Adullam”. (“justice for the people”). David hid for awhile in the cave of “Adullam” (1Sam. 22:1).  A city about 15 miles northwest of Hebron where Jacob is living.

HirahChiyrah – “a noble family”

:2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her.

ShuaShuwa‘– “wealth”; We aren’t told the name of Judah’s wife.

:3 So she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.

Er‘Er – “awake” – did they name him that after he kept them up night after night?

:4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan.

Onan‘Ownan – “strong”.  Judah named the first, the wife names the second two sons.

:5 And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. He was at Chezib when she bore him.

ShelahShelah – “a petition”

Chezib[email protected] – “false”; a town in Judah, close to Adullam.

:6 Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.

TamarTamar – “palm-tree”

I see a lot of “self-will” in the life of Judah.  The custom of the day was for the dad to choose a wife for his son. But he chose his own wife.  He also chooses the wife for his son.  He’s the “self-made” man.

Some time is passing here – All this seems to take place between the time that Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt until his brothers see him again, a period of 22 years.

:7 But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him.

We aren’t told why this happened, just that it did.

:8 And Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother."

The Levirate law

The name of this law comes from the Latin word “levir”, which means “brother-in-law”.  In the days of Judah, this was a custom, but by the time of Moses, it became part of God’s Law (Deut. 25:5-10).

(Deu 25:5-10 NKJV)  "If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband's brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. {6} "And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. {7} "But if the man does not want to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, 'My husband's brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother.' {8} "Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, 'I do not want to take her,' {9} "then his brother's wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, 'So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house.' {10} "And his name shall be called in Israel, 'The house of him who had his sandal removed.'

The way it worked among the Jews was like this: 
There was also a period of three months that followed the death of the husband, during which everyone waited to see if the widow was pregnant from her deceased husband. If she was already pregnant, then this law wasn’t put into effect.  But if she wasn’t pregnant, then the law came into play.
It was the eldest brother who had the duty to marry the widow.
The firstborn son of this union would receive his inheritance from the dead brother’s estate.
The purpose behind the law was to keep the family line of the brother going and to keep the property within the family.
It was about name and property.
For the Jews entering into the Promised Land, this would be important because God wanted them to keep the land.  God didn’t want other people coming in and taking over this Promised Land.  God’s intent was for Israel to keep its land.
It’s this law that was the basis for one of the Sadducee challenges to Jesus.  They made up a story of a man who marries a wife, and when he dies, his brother takes over, dies, and the next brother steps in, until finally the woman has been married to seven different brothers.  They thought they were quite clever and felt they had stumped Jesus when they asked Him whose wife she would be in heaven (Mat. 22:23-33).  But Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures and He set them straight that in heaven there is no marriage.
(Mat 22:29-33 NKJV)  Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. {30} "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. {31} "But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, {32} 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." {33} And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.

This “levirate” law is not something that affects heaven, it’s a law that affects life on earth.  It’s not a law that is supposed to affect the resurrection, but it’s supposed to help families that are still alive.

Since most of us are not Jews, and since none of us are currently living in or have an inheritance in the land of Israel, I think we could safely say that this law itself doesn’t apply directly to us.

For those of you whose brother is married to a not-so-nice gal, you can breathe a little sigh of relief.

But I do think there’s a principle behind this law that does apply to us today.


Family priorities

Your family ought to be a priority.
Paul teaches this principle in:

(1 Tim 5:8 NKJV)  But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

We live in a world that seems intent on tearing up the family.
The Wisdom of Solomon
Two women came before wise King Solomon, dragging between them a young man in a three-piece suit. “This young CPA agreed to marry my daughter,” said one. “No! He agreed to marry MY daughter,” said the other. And so they haggled before the King, until he called for silence. “Bring me my biggest sword,” said Solomon,” and I shall hew the young accountant in half. Each of you shall receive a half.” “Sounds good to me,” said the first lady. But the other woman said, “Oh Sire, do not spill innocent blood. Let the other woman’s daughter marry him.” The wise king did not hesitate a moment. “The accountant must marry the first lady’s daughter,” he proclaimed. “But she was willing to hew him in two!” exclaimed the king’s court. “Indeed,” said wise King Solomon. “That shows she is the TRUE mother-in-law.”

We laugh at that joke, yet it’s a great example of our mind-set.  We think of the “mother-in-law” as the enemy.  I’m not sure we see the family the way God wants us to.

The media around us pumps a message of sexual fantasy into our heads and makes us think that it’s okay to cheat on your spouse. Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Many kids are not raised in a family where both their biological parents are present at the same time. 

I think that one of the byproducts of all this is that we end up buying into the world’s line that the family doesn’t matter.

I’m not here to condemn you who have been through divorce and remarriage.  I’m not here to make you feel guilty that your kids grow up in a blended family.
I’m here to remind you that your family is important, no matter what it looks like right now.

The Levirate law was all about taking care of the interests of your dead brother.  It was about providing for the widow of your dead brother.  It was about taking care of family.

The principle of this passage and of the Levirate law is that family takes care of family.

:9 But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother's wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.

It’s possible that Onan is thinking that he doesn’t want to father a child that wouldn’t be considered his own. 

It could be that he wants the right of the first born to be his – if there is no heir to Er, then Onan becomes the firstborn and instead of this son receiving the double portion of the inheritance, he would.

:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.

Some have looked at this as an indictment against birth-control.  I’m not sure God was displeased with Onan’s attempt at birth-control as much as he was displeased that Onan didn’t want to raise up an heir for his brother.  In addition, it seems that Onan was willing to go along with the Levirate thing as long as it meant sex, but not if it meant being a dad.

:11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Remain a widow in your father's house till my son Shelah is grown." For he said, "Lest he also die like his brothers." And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

Judah seems concerned that maybe something was wrong with Tamar.  Maybe something in her cooking is killing his sons.  He’s not too eager to let Shelah marry her.

:12-26  Judah and the prostitute

:12 Now in the process of time the daughter of Shua, Judah's wife, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

TimnahTimnah – “portion”; about 10 miles northwest of Adullam.  This is the same city that Samson will go to (Judge. 14) when he’s looking for a wife from the Philistines.

The time for shearing sheep was also a party time.

:13 And it was told Tamar, saying, "Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep."

:14 So she took off her widow's garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.

:15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face.

You will see that in different cultures, prostitutes are recognized in different ways.

In the movies, it’s the gal with fishnet stockings and a leopard skin coat.

In Judah’s day, a prostitute wore a veil over her face.

In the time of Paul and in the city of Corinth, it was just the opposite of Judah’s day.  A prostitute in Corinth didn’t have her face or head covered, even having their head shaved.  This is why Paul writes,

(1 Cor 11:5-6 NKJV)  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. {6} For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.
Some have taken these verses to mean that even today women must wear a veil or hat when they go to church. 
I think it would be better to say that Paul is telling the women of the church to not dress in a way as to be mistaken for a prostitute.

:16 Then he turned to her by the way, and said, "Please let me come in to you"; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. So she said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?"

I don’t know if you would consider Judah as one of the great men of faith.  He’s certainly not listed in the “who’s who” of faith in Hebrews 11.  But he is the son of Jacob.  He is the father of the tribe of Judah, and he’s in the direct line of Jesus Christ.

And he’s out to pick up a prostitute.

Note:  What a contrast between Judah and Joseph.  Next week we’ll read about Joseph fleeing temptation.  Here Judah seems to be looking for it.

:17 And he said, "I will send a young goat from the flock." So she said, "Will you give me a pledge till you send it?"

He doesn’t have cash so he asks for credit.  He promises to pay her with a young goat and will give her something valuable to hold on to as a pledge to pay.

:18 Then he said, "What pledge shall I give you?" So she said, "Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand." Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.

signet – this was something, often a ring, that when pressed into warm wax, would leave an impression, a mark that represented the person.  In more recent times, people used to seal envelopes with wax and then press their ring into the wax to show the recipient that the letter came from them.

It is thought that this is where the idea came from of a wedding and engagement ring.  They are a promise, a pledge that you will keep your vow to your spouse (not a promise to send a goat).

cord – perhaps the ring was on a cord around his neck.  KJV translates this “bracelets”, perhaps the kind with the letters “WWJD” on it??

staff – like a walking stick, also used by shepherd, also a symbol of authority.

Today, we might warn Judah to be careful about identity theft.

:19 So she arose and went away, and laid aside her veil and put on the garments of her widowhood.

After her meeting with Judah, Tamar goes back home and goes back to being a widow.

:20 And Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand, but he did not find her.

:21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, "Where is the harlot who was openly by the roadside?" And they said, "There was no harlot in this place."

Judah asked his friend to pay his bill for him.

harlot[email protected] – the word used here is a little different than the word used in verse 15, which simply seems to be the general word for prostitute.  Here the word is that of a female temple prostitute.  Apparently in the Canaanite culture it was very common, some say every girl had to spend a season of time serving as a temple prostitute, earning money for their gods.  Judah’s friend assumed she had been one of these temple prostitutes.

:22 So he returned to Judah and said, "I cannot find her. Also, the men of the place said there was no harlot in this place."

:23 Then Judah said, "Let her take them for herself, lest we be shamed; for I sent this young goat and you have not found her."

:24 And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, "Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry." So Judah said, "Bring her out and let her be burned!"

Judah has a lot of nerve to be upset at Tamar.


My sins looks bad on you

When Paul writes to the Romans, he gets to a point where he gives a long list of sins that the world is involved in, and then he says,
(Rom 2:1 NLT)  You may be saying, "What terrible people you have been talking about!" But you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things.
From time to time we will hear of a pastor who has been known for preaching against sexual sins, and then we find out that the fellow has been living a double life, one deeply involved in the same sins he was preaching against.
I don’t think we need to assume that every preacher who warns his flock about something is doing it behind their backs.
We should think about examining our own selves.
Jesus said,
(Mat 7:1-5 NKJV)  "Judge not, that you be not judged. {2} "For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. {3} "And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? {4} "Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? {5} "Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

People who say that Jesus teaches we shouldn’t judge people have not read the entire passage.  Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t “judge”, but He’s giving guidance in how we should do it.

Is the thing that I notice in another person’s life something that I’m struggling with myself?

If it is, then I need to realize that I need to first be working on my life.  I need to have God help me get things right in my own life, and then I can help that person I find myself judging.

The goal is not condemning people, the goal is removing the problem from their life. Paul wrote,

(Gal 6:1 NKJV)  Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.

:25 When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, "By the man to whom these belong, I am with child." And she said, "Please determine whose these are; the signet and cord, and staff."

:26 So Judah acknowledged them and said, "She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son." And he never knew her again.

Judah was wrong in not allowing Shelah to marry Tamar, but also because he had sinned against her thinking she was a prostitute.

:27-30 Twins born

:27 Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb.

:28 And so it was, when she was giving birth, that the one put out his hand; and the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand, saying, "This one came out first."

It is important to know which child was born first.  The “firstborn” would receive twice as much inheritance as the second child.

The midwife puts a scarlet thread on the one that starts to come out first.

:29 Then it happened, as he drew back his hand, that his brother came out unexpectedly; and she said, "How did you break through? This breach be upon you!" Therefore his name was called Perez.

PerezPerets – “breach”.  The other son was trying to get out first, but this one was ornery enough to cut in front of the line and be born first.

When Isaac’s twins were born, the first one out was Esau, yet the promise and rite of firstborn would go to Jacob.  Even when Isaac wanted to bless Esau, the blessing ended up going to Jacob.

When Joseph had a dream about ruling over his brothers, they decided to put a stop to that and sold him as a slave to Egypt – but we know that God will still have His way and Joseph will indeed rule.

Now in Judah’s own family, they think one baby will be born first, but instead the second baby makes it out first.

Things don’t always go the way you want them to.  They go the way God wants them to.

:30 Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.

ZerahZerach – “rising”

The book of Ruth contains the story of a family from Judah who went through difficult times.  The entire family emigrated to Moab in order to survive a famine.  In the process, the father and the two sons died, leaving a grieving mother and two young widows.  One of the young widows came back to the land of Judah with her mother in law.  As you follow the story of this young gal named Ruth, you see again this “levirate law” come into play as another relative steps up to raise up a family.  Boaz marries Ruth, and when he does, the people pronounce this blessing on them:

(Ruth 4:12 NKJV)  "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman."

This blessing would come to pass.  The marriage of Boaz and Ruth would be a wonderful one with some wonderful children.
Jesus came from the line of David, which came from the marriage of Boaz and Ruth.  And Boaz himself came from the very weird, very flawed relationship of Judah and Tamar.


God uses flawed people

I hope you don’t come away from this passage thinking that it’s okay to hire a prostitute.  I hope you don’t come away from this passage thinking that it’s okay to deceive people.
I hope you see that this passage is all about how God is going to use the lives of very flawed people.
One of the many reasons why I believe the Bible to be the Word of God and a document about real events is the fact that it doesn’t hide the flaws of the people we read about.
Years ago, if I were to have written a book about God kind of things, I’d probably make sure all the characters in my stories were perfect people.  I’d want my readers to know that when a person follows God, they only do good, perfect, nice things.

But I guess in my old age I’ve come to find that this simply isn’t true.

God uses flawed people.

I’m not giving you an excuse to screw up your life.  I believe that a person who is following God will be a person who is growing, maturing, and learning to be more like Jesus, the only perfect person who ever lived.

What I’m telling you is that there’s hope for you.  God wants to use you.  God can use you.  Will you let Him?