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The Skeleton in Judah’s Closet (Genesis 38:1-30)

Introduction

Interruptions are often perturbing, but they are sometimes vital. Some years ago a couple that my wife and I had come to know told us of one such occasion. The wife knew how upset it made her husband to be interrupted in the middle of a project. Consequently, she walked up to him and stood quietly as he worked happily on a project in the garage. In due time he finished what he was doing and looked up, signaling his wife that it was now permissible to engage him in conversation. Her words took him totally by surprise. Calmly she reported, “The house is on fire.” And it really was!

Genesis 38 is an interruption also, but a very significant one. In chapter 37 our attention was focused upon Joseph, who was cruelly sold into slavery, a somewhat more appealing alternative than murder. In chapter 39 the principal character again is Joseph, this time in the house of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer. Chapter 38, therefore, seems to abruptly interrupt the flow of thought. Because of this some scholars of the more liberal persuasion have done a great injustice to this chapter. It is as though the book which Moses has been writing becomes unbearably dull, and this chapter is a kind of literary “centerfold,” spicing up the immaterial with the immoral.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This chapter is absolutely essential to the development of the argument of the book. It occurs by design, fitting beautifully into the context. While chapter 37 has explained how Joseph (and so the entire nation of Israel) wound up in Egypt rather than Canaan, chapter 38 tells us why this Egyptian sojourn was necessary. Chapter 38 provides a backdrop against which the purity of Joseph in chapter 39 stands out the more plainly. Chapters 39 and following describe the price which Joseph had to pay for the sins of his brothers. Chapter 38 suggests some of the consequences of the sin of Joseph’s sale which Judah suffered.

It is true that the chapter might be rated “PG” due to the immorality that is depicted.34 And yet, when you read the story carefully, there is much that is not said that could have added “spice” to the account. Hollywood would have much embellishing to perform before a saleable movie could be made from this record. And while some immoral acts are related, there is nothing here which would in any way entice us to experience these sins personally.

I am especially impressed with the message of this chapter because of its applicability to God’s people today. The very forces which were active in Judah’s day are at work today. The dangers described in chapter 38 which threatened the very ongoing of God’s purposes for Israel are those which threaten to hinder the program of God through His church in our own day. And the same God who providentially overruled the sins of men to bring about the fulfillment of His purposes then is alive and well and unchanging this very hour.

Judah’s Family
(38:1-11)

And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her and went in to her. So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. And she bore still another son and named him Shelah; and it was at Chezib that she bore him. Now Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house (Genesis 38:1-11).

The sale of Joseph was only the “beginning of woes” for his father Israel. Directly on the heels of this sin flow the events of chapter 38. Unity among the sons of Israel was never a significant force. The selling of Joseph was only one indication of this, and even here, the brothers were not of one mind about it. But now Judah has chosen to leave his brothers and his father for “greener grass,” namely fellowship and union with the Canaanites.

Judah’s troubles began with an association with Hirah, an Adullamite. The events of the chapter as a whole inform us that Hirah was a close friend and a very poor influence on Judah. Wherever Hirah is mentioned there is trouble in store for Judah. While with Hirah at Adullam, Judah saw a certain Canaanite woman whose name is never given. She is only referred to as “Shua’s daughter” (verse 12, cf. verse 2). I take it from the fact that stress is laid on Judah’s seeing this woman (“and Judah saw there,” verse 2) that her outward appearance may have been his only consideration in taking her as a wife. Since this seems to have been influential in Jacob’s selection of a wife, we need not be surprised at this. It was, then, a purely physical choice. Certainly no spiritual considerations were taken into account.

I could not help but look back to chapter 34 where we are told of Shechem taking Dinah. It is said of him that he “saw her, he took her and lay with her” (34:2). There is very little difference between those words and the description we have in verse 2 of chapter 38. Judah “saw” this woman and “took her” and “went in to her.” Only the last expression differs, but both describe a physical union. The act which angered Israel’s sons to the point of murder is very much the same as Judah’s taking of a wife.

Three sons were born from this union of Judah and the Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the first son, Tamar was acquired for a wife. Er, however, was so evil that God took his life. His sins are not detailed, for they are irrelevant to the point of the passage. Onan was then instructed by Judah to marry Tamar and raise up seed to his brother. Since the headship of the family (the birthright) normally went to the firstborn, this was a necessary act.

We may be somewhat taken back by this early reference to what is later known as “levirate marriage.” Centuries later Moses commanded it as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy:

When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, “I do not desire to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, “Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” And in Israel his name shall be called, “The house of him whose sandal is removed” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

Such marriage did not originate with the Law of God given through Moses. It had been a common practice in the Near East for centuries. It served a very practical purpose, that of ensuring the ongoing of the family name. As such, it was commanded in the Law of Moses. More and more, I am becoming conscious of the fact that the Law of Moses did not necessarily initiate entirely new principles and precepts, but simply ratified many of those already existent (cf. also 35:2; 14:20, 28:22).

Onan knew that the offspring from his union with Tamar would only further the cause of his deceased brother rather than his own. Consequently he was not willing to have any children by her. To prevent Tamar from conceiving, Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” (verse 9). Such an act was regularly practiced, and God took the life of this man for his wickedness also.

Many are those who have tried to make this passage the prooftext for banning any method of birth control. Because of the strong emotional and moral implications involved here, we must take careful note of what it is that is called evil. I believe that Onan was condemned for three reasons. First, Onan’s sexual conduct was “contrary to nature.” While Paul was speaking of homosexuality and perhaps other perversions in Romans 1:26-27, what was practiced by Onan was also contrary to nature. It would be difficult, in my estimation, to defend Onan’s actions as “natural.”

Second, Onan was disobedient in his actions. His society at least commended the raising of seed to a brother’s name, and his father had directly commanded it (verse 8). We are led to infer from the story that Judah never knew why children had not been conceived, for only Tamar would have known the cause. From Judah’s biased perspective it was Tamar who must be the jinx, and this prompted him to withhold his last son.

Third, Onan sinned because his motivation was evil. Not only did Onan sin against his father and Tamar, but he sinned primarily against his dead brother. Onan put his own personal interests above his brother’s inability to continue the family line. In essence, Onan’s act was the product of self-seeking at the expense of others. Just as Joseph’s brothers had no “brotherly love,” neither did this son of Judah.35 In this sense he was surely a “son of his father.”

Personally, I think that we do the text an injustice if we conclude that any and every form of birth control is sin on the basis of this passage alone. Birth control in any form would have been evil for Onan, but that is not the same as saying it is wrong in any form for us, for we have not been commanded to raise up seed as he was. Birth control (or any act, for that matter) is evil if it is motivated by self-seeking and if it is clearly an act of disobedience. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) must be one standard by which we measure our every action. Many, I fear, do prevent the conception of children for purely selfish reasons. Some practice birth control out of a lack of faith, doubting that God will provide materially or emotionally. Since “children are a gift of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3), I believe that one should carefully consider his real reasons for birth control, but I cannot step beyond this to say that it is always wrong. There may be reasons of health, for example, which would dictate that measures should be taken to prevent conception. Abortion, of course, is an entirely separate issue.

Once Onan was dead, Judah became very reluctant to give his youngest (and last) son to Tamar. It never seemed to occur to him that it was his sons who were the problem, not Tamar. Probably Shelah was too young at first to assume the role of husband and father, but more than enough time elapsed to solve this problem. Finally Tamar was convinced that Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to her. If she were to bear children to carry on the name of her first husband, she must force the issue, she concluded.

Judah’s Fornication
(38:12-19)

Now after a considerable time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended, Judah went up to his sheep-shearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And it was told to Tamar, “Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” So she removed her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the gateway of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she had not been given to him as a wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road, and said, “Here now, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He said, therefore, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” She said, moreover, “Will you give a pledge until you send it?” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said, “Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow’s garments (Genesis 38:12-19).

After a considerable period of time two events occurred which set the scene for Judah to depart even further from the faith of his fathers. Already Judah had left his brothers and formed an alliance with Hirah. He had married a Canaanite and produced three children, two so wicked that God had to remove them. In time, Judah’s Canaanite wife, whose name is never mentioned, passed away. In a sensually-oriented and sexually-perverted society36 this placed Judah in a vulnerable position. Also, sufficient time had passed for Shelah to grow up and take Tamar as a wife to raise up children to Er, the eldest brother. But while Tamar was officially regarded as the wife of Shelah, the marriage was never consummated, for Judah had never given Shelah to Tamar.

Judah, along with his unsavory companion Hirah, went up to Timnah to shear the sheep. News of this reached Tamar and signaled her to set into action a plan to provide a son to carry on the name of her first husband. In her society not only were the younger brothers able to raise up seed to her husband, but also her father-in-law, Judah.37 Since Judah was unwilling to risk the loss of his last and only living son, Tamar determined to force the matter, becoming pregnant by Judah. Judah was wrong in withholding Shelah, but so was Tamar by taking these matters into her own hands.

In my estimation Tamar was not taking a “long shot” in what she attempted in the gateway of Enaim.38 The moral atmosphere of the annual sheep-shearing might best be understood when compared to a contemporary television commercial. Visualize a group of hard-working shepherds finishing an exhausting, hot, and thirsty week among the sheep, leaving the fields after having completed this annual task. Suddenly one calls out to the others, “It’s Miller time!” With a girl in one arm and a bottle of booze in the other, the celebration begins. Tamar knew well that this was the kind of thing that took place at sheep-shearing season.39

Not only did she know men in general, but she knew Judah very well. Moral purity does not seem to be one of his virtues. There is little doubt that this wasn’t Judah’s first encounter with a prostitute. He does not evidence any of the naivety of one who is new at this sort of thing. He handled the arrangements like an experienced man of the world. Tamar was convinced that if she could only look like a prostitute, Judah would take things from there and that her purposes would be realized.

With all the savoir-faire of one who was worldly wise, Judah negotiated terms acceptable to both parties. It was probably common practice to ask for some kind of pledge since little could be done to force the “client” to pay after the fact. Judah was therefore not taken back by Tamar’s insistence that some guarantee be given. Not that Tamar had any interest in payment. She wanted only to become pregnant by Judah. But the pledge that was given would serve to prove at a later time that Judah was the father of the child that was conceived from this union.

The seal, cord, and staff were not items purchased from mass-produced stock. Each had distinctive characteristics which were peculiar to the owner. The seal was the ancient cylinder seal used in the making of contracts. It was the counterpart of our Master Charge card today. The seal was a cylinder with the unique design of its owner carved in it. When a contract was made, hot wax was put on the document and the seal was rolled over it, leaving the impression of the owner of the seal. Judah’s seal was one of a kind, as were those of others.40 He would therefore immediately recognize it as his own. The same was true of the staff. Possession of these gave Tamar proof of the identity of the father of her child when he was born.

Judah’s Folly
(38:20-26)

When this encounter ended Judah and Tamar went their separate ways. Judah never knew the identity of this “prostitute,” and Tamar went back to her normal routine, living as a widow in her father’s house. Normally such an affair would have been quickly forgotten, but several events occurred which made this immoral interlude a nightmare that Judah would never be able to put out of his mind.

When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullomite, to receive the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. And he asked the men of her place, saying, “Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?” But they said, “There has been no temple prostitute here.” So he returned to Judah, and said, “I did not find her; and furthermore, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no temple prostitute here.’” Then Judah said, “Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this kid, but you did not find her.” Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry.” Then Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” And she said, “Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?” And Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not have relations with her again (Genesis 38:20-26).

Hirah was sent to pay the prostitute and retrieve the pledge which Judah had given her. A subtle but significant change of words occurs here, which is indicative of a serious flaw in Judah’s character. Judah thought that the woman in the gateway of Enaim was a mere prostitute (verse 15, a harlot). But when Hirah searched for her he asked for the whereabouts of the “temple prostitute” (verses 21, 22).41 The religion of the Canaanites was so corrupt that prostitution was a part of their worship of the god of fertility. Judah, in his spiritual and moral dullness, was ignorant of such distinctions. To him it was merely an affair, but to the Canaanites it was an act of worship. Immorality would almost invariably lead to idolatry. Yet Judah was virtually aloof to these dangers.

Not finding the “temple prostitute” and, worse yet, being told that there was no such person to be found, placed Judah in a very awkward and potentially embarrassing position. It would seem that someone had gotten the best of him, but he was powerless to do anything about it. Who would ever report a theft to the authorities under such delicate circumstances. The more he sought to find this woman, the more his folly would become public knowledge. These were the kind of stories that were swapped in jest. Judah had no desire to become the laughingstock of the town. He had tried to find the woman and pay her, better to take his losses and hope this was the end of the matter.

As one month, then two, and nearly three passed by without incident, Judah may have begun to breathe a little easier. It seemed as though he had gotten off easy. The woman had not appeared again, nor was there any sign of his personal pledge. It never entered his mind that the matter would end up as it did.

One day Judah was informed that Tamar was pregnant. This was not mere fornication, but it was adultery, for Tamar was pledged to marry Judah’s third son, Shelah.42 Judah’s righteous indignation must have been awesome. She must be burned! This was an unusually severe punishment, even more than the Law required. The usual punishment prescribed by the Law of Moses was stoning (Deuteronomy 22:20-24). In cases of unusual wickedness, there was punishment by burning (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9). Why, then, was Judah demanding such treatment for his daughter-in-law? It may have been a sub-conscious overcompensation for his own immorality. Often we attempt to cover up our own sinfulness by a severity in our response to the sins of others.

On the other hand, it may have been even more devious. It is possible, in his low spiritual state, that Judah saw this as the solution to a problem over which he had long agonized. Sooner or later he would have to face the fact that Shelah, his only living son, was pledged to Tamar. There was no doubt but that he was old enough to assume the role of husband and father, but Judah feared losing this son also (38:11). If Tamar were put to death, his problem would be solved. No Tamar, no threat. It was almost too good to be true.43 While we can only conjecture on this point, it is not difficult to believe that this could be true at this time in his life. Judah’s sentence set in motion a sequence of events he would not have believed.

Tamar’s response to the situation was incredibly subdued and submissive. Frankly, I would have shouted that Judah was the father of this child from the housetops. I would have sought to maximize his embarrassment. What an opportunity to capitalize on the situation and find satisfaction for the years of delay and deceit in keeping Shelah from her. But she, it would seem, privately presented the evidence to Judah and politely urged him to carefully consider it. She made no condemning accusations but only submitted the seal, the cord, and the staff to Judah.

What a shock this must have been to Judah. It never occurred to him that he was the guilty party who should suffer the penalty he had pronounced with his own lips. Judah, the forefather of the Messiah and the great grandson of Abraham, had to say of this woman, “She is more righteous than I” (verse 26). It is worthy of note that he does not say she is more righteous than he in the matter of the immorality committed, but in that she acted so as to procure a son that was rightfully hers, while Judah refused to give her Shelah as he had promised. As to his act of immorality, Judah had no comment. What a contrast to his response to the report of Tamar’s “harlotry.”

Judah may have had some kind of turnabout here, for he did not again have any physical relations with Tamar. Also, the next time we read of him he is again back with his brothers and father. Some kind of spiritual renewal must have taken place.

Jesus’ Family
(38:27-30)

And it came about at the time she was giving birth, that behold, there were twins in her womb. Moreover, it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold his brother came out. Then she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. And afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah (Genesis 38:27-30).

The closing paragraph of the chapter describes the birth of the twins that resulted from the union of Judah and Tamar. Since the twin that was first to emerge from the womb traditionally possessed the rights of the firstborn, some kind of identifying mark was placed on the first to issue from the womb. When one of the boys thrust out a hand, a scarlet thread was tied about it, assuming that he would shortly come forth. The hand was withdrawn, however, and the firstborn was the other boy. This firstborn was named Perez, while the next son, the one with the scarlet thread, was named Zerah. As later genealogies will prove, this firstborn son, Perez, was to be the son of Judah who would carry on the messianic line until the time of David, and ultimately, of Jesus (cf. Ruth 4:12; Matthew 1:3).

Conclusion

Historically, this chapter had much to teach the ancient Israelites. To begin with, this event underscores the necessity of a sojourn in Egypt. Spiritual purity was essential for the purposes of God to be realized. Judah, the son through whom the Messiah would be born (Genesis 49:8-12), was so carnal that he was willing to marry a Canaanite woman, to have a heathen for his closest companion, and to enter into an illicit relationship with a cult prostitute. Something drastic had to be done, and the exile in Egypt was God’s remedy. There, living among a people who detested Hebrew shepherds (43:32; 46:34), even if the Hebrews were willing to inter-mingle and intermarry with these people, the Egyptians would not even consider such a thing. Racial bigotry, if not religious piety, would keep the people of God a separate people. While the sojourn in Egypt was in many respects a bitter experience, it was a gracious act on the part of God. Those Israelites who had gone through the exodus experience could begin to sense this as they read this account.

No Israelite could take this record seriously without a deep sense of humility. Israel’s “roots,” if you will pardon me for saying so, were rotten. They could not look back upon their ancestry with any feelings of smugness and pride. There were too many skeletons in the closet for that. Instead, they must acknowledge that whatever good had come to Israel was the result of grace alone.

The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a might hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

This was a lesson too quickly forgotten, for the Israelites of Jesus’ day took great pride in their ancestry and relied upon their “roots” for righteousness:

And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father;” for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:9).

They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” (John 8:33)

Righteousness comes only from God through faith. Our first ancestor, Adam, failed to live by God’s standards and thus sinned. All of his offspring, like Adam, are sinners (Romans 5:12) and thus in need of a righteousness not their own. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has come to this world to take our sin upon Himself, to bear the penalty for our sins, so that we can have His righteousness and spend eternity with God.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21).

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29).

The principal theme of this chapter is divine providence, which draws the entire section together; God is at work bringing about His purposes through men who are actively pursuing sin. In chapters 37 and 39 and following, God is providentially at work to fulfill His promise to make the descendants of Jacob a great and mighty nation (cf. 35:11), and at a time when these brothers were only intent upon diminishing their numbers. In chapter 38 God is at work, providentially assuring the fulfillment of His promise to provide a Messiah through the descendants of Judah (49:8-12).

Ideally, God’s sovereign power and all-wise and loving purposes are accomplished through obedient servants. But when His children go their own way, God’s infinite power is channeled through unwilling, disobedient men and women, who, in spite of themselves, achieve God’s plans. This they do unknowingly and unpleasantly.

Who would ever have thought that there was any chance of the messianic line continuing through Judah from the initial events of this chapter? Here was Judah, the ancestor of Messiah, taking a Canaanite wife, failing to keep his promise to his daughter-in-law, and propositioning a prostitute, who would just have well been a part of a pagan religious cult? In spite of all of Judah’s sins and in spite of Tamar’s impatience, Perez, the forefather of David and of the Savior, was born. Who but God could have brought such a thing to pass?

Many Christians are being taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What can they possibly say about this chapter in that regard? And who of us would want to believe that God’s purposes were contingent upon our commitment and consistency? Nothing could be further from the truth than thinking that God is somehow limited by man’s sinfulness.

The doctrine of the providence of God is one of the most comforting truths in all of the Bible, for it assures me that what God says, He will do, even if I am found to be actively resisting it. If the promise of eternal salvation were not dependent upon God’s character and His power, Who can bring about His will in spite of man, what kind of promise would it be? I might just as well quit now and avoid the rush. But if God’s promises are sure (as they are, Philippians 1:6) then I can diligently work for these goals, realizing that I cannot lose, even when I am faint of heart or go my own way through disobedience or rebellion.

At this point many are frightened by the implications of the sovereignty of God. They fear that Christians will conclude, “Why bother to obey God, to struggle against the desires of the flesh, or to fight the spiritual warfare? After all, if God’s will is going to be done whether I obey or not, why obey?”

There is the danger of God’s sovereignty and my security tempting me to complacency. That is why this problem is addressed in Scripture (Romans 5:19-6:23). But the danger does not disprove the doctrine. Many Christian heresies are the illogical misapplications of biblical truth. In the book of Romans, for example, the expression “God forbid” is an indication that this is the case. The principle is valid, but the application is not. Thus, when Paul teaches that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20), we recognize this doctrine to be true and one that is illustrated in Genesis 38. But to conclude from this that one should therefore sin in order that grace might abound even more (Romans 6:1) is an improper extension of a biblical principle. Some have been inclined to reject the doctrine of God’s sovereignty because of what some have done with it practically. It is the practice which should be condemned, not the doctrine.

Since much of what God does in this world is through His providential guidance, it is vital that we understand its implications for Christians today. The first is that godly living is necessary for the glory of God. Had we not been given the divinely inspired account of the sale of Joseph into slavery, we would not have imagined that it was part of God’s eternal plan. At best, unbelievers would have considered the outcome of the incident good luck or mere coincidence. You see, when God works providentially through disobedient men and women, not only are the instruments unaware of the hand of God, but so are the onlookers.

In chapter 39 we are told, “Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand” (verse 3). Why could this be said of Joseph’s master but not of his brothers nor of the Midianite traders nor of Hirah nor Tamar? It was because God was working through men in spite of themselves. Joseph gave a clear testimony to his faith in God; his good work and divine blessing verified his faith in the God of Israel. Judah did not witness to Tamar as he was bargaining over the price of her services. Hirah probably never learned that Judah was to play a part in the purposes of God.

The point is this: while God can accomplish His purposes without man’s cooperation by His providential working in this world, He can best be exalted and proclaimed to unbelievers through those who trust in Him and obey His will. Lest we be tempted to be lax in our spiritual lives, convinced that God’s will will ultimately be done anyway, let us remember that God desires to be glorified in His saints (cf. Genesis 49:3; II Thessalonians 1:10,12).

The second implication stemming from the doctrine of God’s providential rule is that we Christians must view every circumstance through the eyes of faith. Judah did not realize at the time that God’s promises were being fulfilled through his act of immorality. Joseph did not fully know that his sale into slavery was going to bring about the deliverance of his brothers and father. There will be many times in the life of the Christian when it will appear that everything is falling apart at the seams. Tragedy, disputes, divisions, and heartache will afflict us so long as we are in these mortal bodies. We, too, must trust that in these times of adversity there is a God Who does work providentially in our lives. This is the assurance that we have from Romans 8:28:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Only the eye of faith will see the hand of God in the hard times of life.

While the doctrine of the providence of God is the major theme of this chapter, there are a number of implications that can be drawn from the text as well. Let me suggest some of these for further consideration.

(1) Spirituality is not evidenced by the standards which we hold for others, no matter how vigorously. God judges men on the basis of those standards by which they live their own lives. Judah was willing to stone Tamar and then burn her body for the very sin which he committed. In the New Testament we find this same concept:

Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes Judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the some things (Romans 2:1).

(2) In Jacob’s day, as in our own, one of Satan’s highest priorities is the attack on the home of the people of God. The purposes of God were to be realized in the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was the breakdown of the family which seriously threatened (from a human vantage point) the purposes of God. Today the same challenge faces the Christian family.

(3) In Jacob’s day, as in our own, the same basic issues are at stake. The family was under attack, as the church is today, on two major fronts. The first is in the area of purity and separation. Judah eagerly committed the sin for which he (or at least his brothers) put an entire city to the sword. He married a Canaanite and would have had sexual relations with a cult prostitute. Today our children are facing incredible pressure to conform to the world around them, to date and marry unbelievers, and to forsake the faith they have learned from their family.

Separation from the world is especially important in the matter of the friends that we choose. As Judah slipped away from his family, he entered into an alliance with Hirah, a man who was always present when Judah got into trouble. It is the apostle James who wrote so long ago,

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? (James 4:4)

The second front in Satan’s attack on the family and the church is the matter of unity and brotherly love. Joseph’s brothers had no brotherly love and no essential unity. Judah’s son Onan had no sense of obligation to his deceased brother and was motivated only by self-interest and selfish ambition. So far as he was concerned, it did not matter if Tamar ever had a child, but God had determined that she would be the one through whom the Messiah would come.

The New Testament abounds with passages which exhort us to practice brotherly love (cf. Romans 12:10; I Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; II Peter 1:7). The reason why we lack this kind of love and the unity which it fosters is that we, like Onan, are concerned more with our own interests than with those of others. Listen to the solution which Paul has outlined:

If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).

(4) There are times when we must deal with things which are dirty. I am aware of the text which instructs us,

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them (Ephesians 5:11-12).

It was necessary to deal with the sins of Onan and Judah because the Messiah was to come from the seed of Judah. Sexual sins in Judah’s family had very serious ramifications. The sins of Er were not necessary to instruct us, so they are not even named. While the sins of Onan and Judah are mentioned, there are no unnecessary details given. Our curiosity is not stimulated, nor are we in any way stimulated or encouraged to repeat these sins. Indeed, we are shown the painful price that was paid because of them. Sometimes sin must be exposed. In such cases, let us deal with it as Moses did.


34 Even a great commentator like Leupold suggests that this chapter is “entirely unsuited to homiletical use, much as the devout Bible student may glean from the chapter.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 990.

35 “The enormity of Onan’s sin is in its studied outrage against the family, against his brother’s widow and against his own body. The standard English versions fail to make clear that this was his persistent practice.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 188.

36 “. . . for evidence of the demoralized conduct of the Canaanites has been found on every hand, in the remains of city after city of the Canaanites.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 256. Here, Stigers refers the reader to M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pp. 168-177.

37 “Marriage customs in this area provided for marriage within the husband’s house. Tamar could be reserved for other sons and even for her father-in-law, but she could not contract marriage for herself.” Harold G. Stigers, Genesis, p. 279. Stigers here refers the reader to C. H. Gordon, Introduction to Old Testament Times (Ventnor, N. J.: Ventnor Publishing Co., 1953), p. 123.

38 This is the view of Leupold, who writes, “She makes calculations that seem to have but one chance in a hundred of being realized, but just that one chance is sufficient.” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 982.

39 “Sheep-shearing was a festive time (cf. I S. 25:4, 11, 36), when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic.” Kidner, Genesis, P. 188.

40 “The ‘seal’ (chotham) may have been a ring or even a cylinder seal, such as the Babylonians commonly used. This was always carried around upon his person by the well-to-do man, suspended by the ‘cord’ (pethil); cf. Song 8:6. The ‘staff’ may have been like those which, according to Herodotus, the Babylonians carried, having at its head a specially carved figure of an apple, or a rose, or a lily, or an eagle, or any such thing, for no man may carry a staff without a device,’ (Herodotus 1:195, cited by Delitasch).” Leupold, Genesis, II, pp. 984-985.

41 “When Hirah sought out Tamar, he used a different word to describe her (qedesah) connoting a religious prostitute, available to the Canaanites who come to worship at shrines of the fertility goddess. Harlotry was not the stigma to the Canaanites that it was to Israel. A qedesah was distinguished from a zoneh . . . . Offerings to a qedesah were kids, as was Judah’s.* He considered qedesah and zoneh to be the same.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 280.

* S. Talmon, “Desert Motifs,” in Biblical Motifs, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), ii:3.

42 “Tamar was regarded as the affianced bride of Shelah, and was to be punished as a bride convicted of a breach of chastity.” C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 342.

43 Stigers suggests this when he writes,

“Yet one may ask, was he willing to let her be done away with in this manner to eliminate having to give her to Shelah? Does the apparent harshness of the sentence support this view?” Stigers, Genesis, p. 281. It should be noted that Stigers considers this a possibility, but is not strongly inclined to believe it to be the case.