These are the generations of Jacob. And the generations of Jacob start with Jacob because he is the dad. But then there is Reuben, the first born. And Simeon the second born. And Levi the third born. And Judah the fourth born. And Dan the fifth born. And Naphtali the sixth born. And Gad the seventh born. And Asher the eighth born. And Issachar the ninth born. And Zebulun the tenth born. And Dinah the only daughter. Then Joseph the eleventh born. And Benjamin the twelfth born. These are the generations of Jacob.
But the word these does not refer to Jacob and his thirteen kids. No, instead the word these refers to the ending of Genesis, all fourteen chapters. These fourteen chapters are primarily about two of Jacob’s thirteen kids. Genesis 37 and Genesis 39 and Genesis 40 and 41 and 42 and 43 and 44 and 45 and 46 and 47 and 48 and 49 and 50 are about the son Jacob loved more: Joseph. This leaves one chapter for one other son – Genesis 38.
Genesis 38 is not about Jacob’s first born. He was a disappointment (35:22). Genesis 38 is not about Jacob’s second born. He was a disappointment (34:30). Genesis 38 is not about Jacob’s third born. He was a disappointment (34:30). Genesis 38 is about Jacob’s fourth born. He was a…
So, What Does Judah Have to do With Joseph?
Genesis 38:1-30 is about Judah. And I am wondering, what does one have to do with the other? These are the generations of Jacob – thirteen chapters dedicated to Joseph and one chapter dedicated to Judah. So, what does Judah have to do Joseph? Yes, the two are brothers, but this feels so out of place. Genesis 37 gives so much attention to Joseph. He dreamed two dreams. His brothers hated him. His brothers sought to kill him. His brothers grabbed him, tossed him around, ripping from him his multi-colored robe and threw him into a deep pit. Then each sat down to eat a sandwich. His brothers sold him into slavery. Finally, the brothers led their dad to believe that Joseph was dead. Genesis 39 will then give so much attention again to Joseph, as will the remaining the chapters that follow. There is just this chapter, Genesis 38, all about Judah. So, what does Judah have to do with Joseph?
The answer, I think, is profound: a lot. Judah and this chapter have a lot to do with Joseph. Genesis 38 may be divided in two parts. Part one is about Judah and Tamar (38:1-11). Part two is about Tamar and Judah (38:12-30). And here then is a brief connection to Joseph and Genesis 39: Tamar is another man’s wife. So, essentially the two parts of Genesis 38 are about Judah and another man’s wife. Genesis 39 is about Joseph and another man’s wife.
But there is more. Listen to Genesis 38:1. “It happened at that time.” Pause there and notice the word time. Time seems to have some importance to Genesis 38. There is Genesis 38:12. “In the course of time.” And Genesis 38:24. “About three months later.” And Genesis 38:27. “When the time of her labor came.” In other words, Genesis 38 seems to unfold over quite a bit of time, perhaps close to twenty years. But it begins with what happened at that time. Another way of saying this would be, “It happened at that moment.” What happened at that moment?
Listen to the rest of Genesis 38:1. “It happened at that moment that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” So, what happened at that moment? Notice the word turned aside. It means to stretch. Judah left his brothers, this is what happened, and stretched toward his buddy named Hirah. But here is the picture: Judah turned away from his brothers and turned toward his friend. This was what happened at that moment. And what was that moment? Joseph.
Joseph had been thrown into a pit and his brothers were content to leave him for dead, so content that they had lunch together right outside the pit. But one of the brothers had an idea to sell Joseph to some traders passing by. This brother saw a profit to be made, twenty shekels of silver. And the deed was then done. Joseph was sold into slavery, carted off to Egypt. And the brothers were left with heavier pockets and a tattered multi-colored robe. The robe was taken and dipped in goat’s blood and sent to their father. When he held it and looked at it and gripped it, he wept and mourned, refusing to be comforted by his sons. And who was one of those sons? Judah. Listen to the last thing recorded about Jacob. “Thus his father wept for him [Joseph]” (Genesis 37:35). The word wept means to wail, to weep loudly. At that moment, Judah turned away from his brothers and turned toward his friend. What does Judah have to do with Joseph? It was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery (cf. 37:26).
One Son, Two Sons, Three Sons
And when Judah met up with his buddy he met a woman. She was a Canaanite woman. Remember, Abraham did not want his son Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. Isaac and Rebekah did not want their sons to marry Canaanite women. But their grandson met a Canaanite woman. And note this; we do not know her name! The most we know is that Judah took her and made her his wife (38:2). Judah and his unnamed wife had three sons: Er the first born who Judah named; Onan and then Shelah both of whom the text says the mother named (38:3-4).
The day came that Er was ready to get married, so Judah took a wife for Er (38:6). And she had a name: Tamar. Now listen closely to verse seven. “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” What was so wicked that the Lord put this man to death? Then comes verse eight. Judah turns to his second born and tells him to perform the duty of a brother-in-law. In this culture, the duty of the next brother was to marry the widowed sister-in-law and have children for the deceased brother. It was all to perpetuate the name of the deceased brother. But there was a catch. This child would legally be considered the son of the deceased brother and more importantly the heir. This means it would cost the second brother something; it would cost him part of his inheritance.
So, Onan took Tamar to be his wife and “the Lord put him to death also” (38:10). Onan was more than willing to take Tamar to be his wife and he was more than willing to treat her as his wife and do the things that only a husband and a wife do. But he was not willing to give up his inheritance. To put it politely, he instituted his own form of birth control. And since he lived for his desires, which the Bible says was “wicked in the sight of the Lord,” the Lord put him to death also. Here we are told what the Lord found wicked about Onan. I want to suggest that Er’s wickedness had something to do with how he, too, treated his wife. If the letters of the name Er are switched (re) it becomes the Hebrew word for wicked or evil. Interesting. But the name Er comes from the Hebrew word ur which can have the meaning to be jealous, hate or revenge.
This leaves the third son Shelah who it just so happened was not ready to married. He had some growing up to do or so Judah told his daughter-in-law. Shelah was to take Tamar as his wife one day, but not today. But Judah had another motive. He did not want to ever give Shelah to Tamar because he thought Tamar was cursed. Every man she married died! And Shelah was his last son, the last to continue the family line. So, Judah sent Tamar away in widow clothing to her dad’s house (38:11).
As Time Goes By
As time goes by, Judah’s unnamed wife died! And what does Judah do next? He met up with his buddy Hirah (38:12). It was sheep-shearing time which was also festival time. It would be like our summer fairs. This was a big deal to shear your sheep. The whole town got together, the men, and looked forward to prosperity and harvest and would celebrate and drink together. So, it could be that as Genesis 38:12 picks up, Judah and his buddy began the festivities with some drinking.
Tamar hears of it, that it was sheep-shearing time and that Judah had gone out to the celebration. So, she goes into action and why? She has put it all together. Judah has deliberately forgotten about her. He sent her to her dad’s house to forget about her. She was promised to Shelah. She was promised a family and Judah had no intention of fulfilling his duty. Gee, I wonder where his son Onan learned this practice.
And Tamar dresses like a prostitute. This was no ordinary prostitute. She was covered head to toe. Her identity was unknown. She was an unnamed prostitute. Often the men who went off to this celebration would visit a prostitute, but not just any prostitute. No, these men would visit prostitutes who were covered from head to toe. They were called cult prostitutes or religious prostitutes. They served at the temple of the local false god or gods. And at sheep shearing time these prostitutes were used for good luck, to attain the favor of false gods for a good harvest and good fortune.
As Judah made his way to the festival he came across this certain prostitute and solicits her. Tamar had this all figured out. Judah promises a goat as payment, but will have to send it later. Tamar does not budge. She wants a pledge that she will get this goat. So, Judah gives her his signet (a seal with his signature) and its cord and his staff. These are all identity markers.
And the short of the story is that Judah and Tamar sleep together. Tamar leaves before her identity can be found out, but not without those identity markers. Oh, she is now pregnant (38:19).
She is More Righteous Than I
Judah was a man of his word. He sent the goat with his friend so as to retrieve his pledge. But the prostitute is nowhere to be found. The friend asks around the town and the townsmen claim that this town has had no such prostitute (38:21). Uh-oh.
The friend returns to Judah with the goat and the news. The two agree to keep the story between the two of them. Three months pass and it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant. But by whom? It was not by Shelah her promised husband! Perhaps, it is thought, she has been living as a prostitute. So, Judah declares, legally, that she be put to death…by fire. But Tamar planned for this. And she presents the identity markers so as to make known the father of her child. It was Judah (38:24-25)! Listen though to what Judah says and does. He stops the whole thing for “she is more righteous than I.” It is not that she is innocent, but of the two, she is less guilty than Judah. He bears the greater guilt. He did not fulfill his promise and if not for him seeking to gratify his own desires, she would never have been pregnant. And what Judah meant for evil, God turned for good.
These Two are the Generations of Jacob
Tamar gave birth to twins: Perez and Zerah. Tamar is one of five women who are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3). And from her son Perez will come a shepherd boy who would be king: David. And from David would come the good shepherd and King of kings: Jesus the Christ. Yes, this was sinful. Judah and Tamar did a sinful thing. Judah misled her and was therefore responsible for her. But out of their wickedness God brought victory in the person of Jesus. He paid the penalty for their sin.
But there is more. There is Judah. He changed in this moment. He confessed and turned from his sin – she is more righteous than I! He will be a different kind of man (cf. 44:18-34). And his son Shelah eventually had a family of his own and guess what he named his son? Er (cf. 1 Chronicles 4:21). I wonder who Shelah married?
1. Men can have a profound impact on the next generation. Did you notice that Er and Onan and Judah all treated Tamar in a similar fashion? Where did the first two boys pick this up?
2. Men can have a profound impact on this generation. How? Call it as it is. “She is more righteous than I.” There was a third son to hear this and see this. In this moment we see Judah confess, say the same thing God says about immorality, sin. May I suggest that what is most needed right now is revival; personal and immediate revival. “It is the constant experience of any simplest Christian who ‘walks in the light,’ but I saw that walking in the light means an altogether new sensitiveness to sin, a calling things by their proper name of sin, such as pride, hardness, doubt, fear, self-pity, which are often passed over as merely human reaction. It means a readiness to ‘break’ and confess at the feet of Him who was broken for us, for the Blood does not cleanse excuses, but always cleanses sin, confessed as sin; then revival is the daily experience of a soul full of Jesus and running over.”
 introduction to The Calvary Road, page 8, by Roy Hession