Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38-39

I just finished reviewing the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. When I started going through this chapter I thought it was a strange interruption in the story of Joseph. We had heard about the youth being sold into Egypt in chapter 37, and in chapter 39 we were going to continue to with his service in Potiphar’s house, so why does the narrative divert to a seemingly random and unpleasant story about Judah?

As I came to the end of chapter 38, though, I realized that its placement in the Bible is actually very clever. This chapter is meant to be a companion piece to chapter 39, read together and then compared and contrasted to each other. In each chapter a son of Jacob is being tugged at by depravity and they respond to that temptation in very different ways.

In Judah’s story he elects to leave his father’s house to live among a more carnal people. He adopts their ways, marries one of their women, and arranges for his son to do so as well. He full-heartedly steps into the lewd and filthy world, and as a result endures an icky family drama that is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in the entire Bible. At the end he is further tempted by lust, gives in, and finds himself caught in a trap entirely of his own making. Fortunately, in the final verses we see the first sign of remorse from Judah, something that will develop further when he meets Joseph again in Egypt.

As for Joseph, he also leaves his father’s house to live among a more carnal people, though in his case it is entirely against his will. Unlike Judah, he will not adopt their baser customs. He might be immersed in a society that does not follow the commandments of God, but he himself still will. He will similarly be tempted by lust and he will reject it. This will result in him being cast down in society, but will be a great victory for his soul.

Chapters 38 and 39 are together an examination on different ways that we can deal with all that is base and depraved in the world. We can seek it out and become part of its dirtying cycle, or we can keep ourselves holy, even as all around us is not. We are all invited to partake of the carnal but we can also reject it, and our lives will shift according to our choice.

Fortunately, for those of us who identify more with the story of Judah than of Joseph, the narrative does still provide a ray of hope. Judah stumbles, and he slogged through the gutter for a time, but he also came to see the error of his ways and seems to have turned over a new leaf. We will see his chance for restitution in a few chapters, and there still remains a chance for us as well.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:27-30

27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb. 

28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.

29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.

30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.

Tamar was not only successfully impregnated via her seduction of Judah, she ended up bearing twins! Now I’m far from an expert, but I do know that a baby trying to emerge hand-first is not the preferred method! Evidently this was a difficult and dangerous delivery, the culmination of a sordid and tumultuous family affair.

And, in fact, it led to another breach of the natural order. The child who first extended his hand then drew back inside and was surpassed by his brother. This story is very reminiscent of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who similarly competed with each other even during the moment of birth. We do not receive any further details about the lives of these two twins, Zarah and Pharez, so we do not know whether they continued to compete.

We do have one interesting detail about the breaching-brother Pharez, though. His descendant of nine generations would be none other than David, son of Jesse, the future king of Israel. And a future descendant of David, of course, was Jesus Christ.

It is notable to me that Jesus was therefore born of a branch that began in such an unorthodox manner. A union of a dishonest man seduced by his pagan daughter-in-law hardly sounds like the beginning of a great line. In fact, this is not the only abnormality that will appear in Jesus’s family line. He will also be the descendant of the Israelite-outsider Ruth. Jesus was a child born under less-than-ideal circumstances to a less-than-ideal heritage, but that only made him all the more relatable to us with our own family baggage.

Judah’s story is a strange and messy one. He chose a harder path and reaped difficult consequences and he didn’t have to. But through it all, he was never outside the reach of God’s plans. God was able to take an awkward situation and still weave into his tapestry of life.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:24-26

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

The hypocrisy in Judah is incredible. Three months prior he crept into the tent of a prostitute, but when he hears that his daughter-in-law has herself been a prostitute, he demands that she be burned! Not only is Judah hypocritical in this matter, but also in how he has done nothing but shirk his responsibilities to his daughter-in-law for years, yet once he believes her to be in infraction of her contract also, he immediately seeks justice against her!

Then, at last, the moment of revelation comes. Tamar has shrewdly held onto the signet, bracelets, and staff that she was given by Judah. They are clear markers of his identity and there is no question that she was the prostitute he met along the road, and he is the man who is the father of her child.

I do not know whether levirate law permitted for a widow to be given to his father, but it is worth noting that rather than go to some stranger Tamar had kept the whole affair within the family, and she only did what she did after Judah was a widower, with no other lawful wife. It may still be a shocking course of action, but Tamar deliberately chose to operate within the very limited restrictions that she had, rather than totally abandon her commitments.

All these matters turn Judah’s anger in an instant. He has been found out in front of others, and at last he admits his own unrighteousness. He has lived an unholy and lustful life, which has borne him a most awkward fruit, and at last he owns that shame. “She hath been more righteous than I.”

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:19-23

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. 

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.

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

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

Judah attempted to make good on his deal with the unknown prostitute, but he sent a friend to bring her the promised kid instead of going himself. I can’t help but suspect he was anxious to not associate with the woman any longer than what it took to get what he wanted from her. In verse 23 he admits that he does admit that he has some shame in this area.

Judah’s desire to pay off the woman and get back his things is reminiscent of his attempts to offload Tamar on her father. In each case he was trying to wash his hands of a problem, trying to clear himself of responsibility, but without actually resolving it.

Which, of course, is something that we can all relate to as well. We do something selfish or lustful or conniving, and we quickly try to flee the scene, concerned only that we not be caught in association. It is a desire to live without consequence, to reap the benefits as if we had chosen rightly, but dodge the punishments for having actually chosen wrong.

Which, ironically enough, is the very same freedom that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers us! We can have the burden of our sins placed on another and live freely, as if we had never done the wrong. But the first step towards receiving that freedom is not to run from our mistakes, it is to wholeheartedly own them. Only when we make space to hold our failings do we have the option to then hand them over to a willing Savior. We run from God so we won’t have to face consequences, but He has been trying to take them from us all along!

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:15-18

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

The family soap opera takes a shocking turn as Tamar seduces her own father-in-law under the pretense of being a prostitute. As mentioned before, Judah had tried to pawn her off on her family, not leaving her many honorable recourses if she wanted to bear children, but this is still a highly unpleasant solution to her problem.

Fortunately for Tamar she thinks ahead, and tricks Judah into giving her all the personal signifiers that he is carrying. In other words, she takes his identity from him. And so it is with us whenever we give into temptation also. We do not only perform the act, we sell a part of ourselves to it. By her guile Tamar gained a position of power over Judah by obtaining direct evidence of his own shame. So, too, when we give a part of ourselves to sin, it gains power to drive us where we would not.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:11-14

11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.

12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

Judah had now lost two of his three sons, each while they were married to Tamar. He spoke kindly to her, promising that his third son would be her husband once he was old enough, but in the meantime she needed to return to her father’s house.

Evidently that was a lie, though, as in verse fourteen we learn that the third son, Shelah, was now old enough to marry, but still not given to Tamar for a husband. Judah was perfectly content to have her live out the rest of her days as a widow, with little prospect of finding any other husband to care for her, and thus no children to care for her either. Thus he was really pawning her off, not wanting to deal with her problem.

But if Judah thought his troubles were past him he was soon disappointed by the death of his wife. He had elected to go and join himself with a pagan people, and had intermingled his family with their lineage and their ways, and all around him his household was dying prematurely.

Much humbling had been inflicted upon Judah, but still his moment of repentance was not at hand. There was yet another uncomfortable trial to pass through before he would be willing to admit his own unworthiness, and it would come at the hand of Tamar, waiting on the road in a veil.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:6-10

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. 

7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also

Things didn’t turn out very well for Judah’s first two sons. Each of them died prematurely, as a result of one wickedness or another. We do not know what Er’s crime was, but Onan’s had to do with not fulfilling his obligations under levirate law. This law stated that if a man was married, but died without children, then his brother would take his wife and have children with her. This was meant both as a respect to the prematurely deceased brother, as well as a boon to the widow, who would depend upon the care of her children in her elder years.

The details of this ritual will later be spelled out in the law given by Moses, but evidently it was already a custom many years prior. Certainly it seems a strange tradition today, one that is based on social constructs that we have long since distanced ourselves from. As such, I think it would be difficult for any of us today to fully appreciate all the feelings that would have been going through Tamar, Judah, and Onan at this time. It does that this was an intensely awkward situation for them, though, and surely it is an awkward passage for us to read through as well.

Which brings up an interesting point. The religious are often stereotyped as being stuffy and prudish, but the book that is the very bedrock of Christian and Jewish belief is an unapologetic and explicit record. The sexuality, violence, and depravity that affected these people was very real, and the book does not shy from recounting these details. Among all the other things that the Bible is, it is a very intimate look into both the best and worst of humanity.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 38:1-6

1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 

2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

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

In Genesis 39 we will return to the story of Joseph, but first the Bible takes a detour to develop the story of Judah. Judah was the fourth-born of Leah, the last of the first set of sons born to Jacob. After him two sons were born to Bilhah, then two to Zilpah, then two again to Leah, and finally two to Rachel.

This there were three sons elder than Judah, and we have previously discussed how Reuben had sullied himself by adultery with his father’s wife Bilhah, and also Simeon and Levi by slaying the men of Shechem. Thus far all Judah has been guilty of is despising his brother and suggesting that they sell him to Egypt, though that might have been an attempt to save Joseph’s life. Now, however, we will take a view on Judah’s adult life, and it is a distasteful scene, fit for a modern soap opera.

It begins with Judah leaving his father to spend time with the people of the land. Then, like his uncle Esau, that leads to him taking a Canaanite woman to be his wife, someone who is outside of the covenant. There can be no doubt that he knew this was offensive to his father and God, but it does not seem like he was concerning himself with matters of virtue heretofore anyway. Together, Judah and this Canaanite woman have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Now the stage is set and next we will begin to see how their unpleasant inter-relationships worked out.