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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Genesis 38

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Tamar and the Sin of Judah

A. Tamar's widowhood and Judah's unfairness.

1. (Gen 38:1-5) Judah and his three sons.

It came to pass 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 married her and went in to her. So she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. He was at Chezib when she bore him.

a. Judah departed from his brothers … And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her: Through an ungodly and unwise marriage to a Canaanite woman Judah fathered three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.

i. It isn't hard to see the sons of Israel rapidly being corrupted by their Canaanite neighbors, and what the future will bring if they continued in that land. God had a plan to bring them out.

b. Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite: Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob through Leah (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were before him) had not yet distinguished himself as someone great among his brothers. He was the one who suggested they sell Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:26).

2. (Gen 38:6-7) Er's marriage to Tamar and his death.

Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him.

a. Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him: We are never told what Er's wickedness was, but obviously it was bad enough that God brought immediate judgment upon him. Growing up with a father from such a messed-up family and with a mother who was a Canaanite did not lead Er in a godly life.

3. (Gen 38:8-10) Onan's refusal to raise up offspring for Tamar.

And Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother." 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. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.

a. Go in to your brother's wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother: According to the custom of levirate marriage (later codified into law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10), if a man died before providing sons to his wife, it was the duty of his brothers to marry her and to give her sons. The child was considered the son of the brother who died (Onan knew that the heir would not be his) because the living brother was only acting in his place.

i. This was done so the dead brother's name would be carried on. But also it was so the widow would have children to support her. Apart from this, she would likely live the rest of her life as a destitute widow.

b. When he went in to his brother's wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother: Onan refused to take this responsibility seriously. He was more than happy to use Tamar for his sexual gratification, but he did not want to give Tamar a son he had to support but would be considered to be the son of Er.

i. Onan pursued sex as only a pleasurable experience. If he really didn't want to father a child by Tamar, he should never had sex with her at all. He refused to fulfill his obligation to his dead brother and Tamar.

ii. Many Christians have used this passage as a proof-text against masturbation. Indeed, masturbation has been called "onanism." However, this does not seem to be the case here. Whatever Onan did, he was not masturbating. This was not a sin of masturbation, but a sin of refusing to care for his brother's widow by giving her offspring, and of a selfish use of sex.

4. (Gen 38:11) Judah's unfair dealing with Tamar.

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.

a. Lest he also die like his brothers: One can understand Judah's hesitancy to give his last son as a husband to Tamar. God already judged two of her previous husbands. Judah essentially vowed he would not give Shelah as husband to Tamar as custom and righteousness commanded, but he would simply put her off on the issue.

b. Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house: This was no place for a young, childless widow to be, when there were additional brothers in her husband's family who could fulfill the obligation they owed to their late brother. None of this was the fault of Tamar. All the blame belonged to the sons of Judah.

B. Tamar bears a child by Judah.

1. (Gen 38:12-14) Judah's wife dies, and Tamar realizes Judah will never give his last son to fulfill the obligation to her.

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

a. She saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife: Tamar did not want to face what would be a very difficult existence in that culture or in any culture: life without any husband or children.

b. She was not given to him as a wife: Tamar didn't have the option of just finding another man to marry. She was under the headship of her father-in-law Judah, and he had to give her a husband. He determined whom and when she could marry.

2. (Gen 38:15-18) Tamar sets a trap for Judah, and he has sex with her.

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

a. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face: After negotiating the price, Tamar demanded a pledge of the future payment of the agreed-upon price (a young goat).

b. Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him: When Tamar conceived, it certainly was not intended by Judah, but it was definitely planned by both Tamar and God.

3. (Gen 38:19-23) Tamar disappears.

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

a. 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: Judah sends a friend to pay Tamar, and to retrieve the pledge he left with her. Because Tamar has disappeared, he gives up the pledge, leaving it in her hands.

4. (Gen 38:24-26) Tamar is vindicated and Judah is reproved.

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!" 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." 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.

a. Please determine whose these are: Tamar, acted shrewdly and vindicated herself against the charge of harlotry. She makes the logical appeal of noting that the one who hired her is just as guilty as she.

b. She has been more righteous than I: however, even Judah could see through to the real issue. He was at fault for not providing for Tamar a son through his last son Shelah.

5. (Gen 38:27-30) Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb. 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." 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. Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.

a. Therefore his name was called Perez … his name was called Zerah: Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33 each list Perez as an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. God took the son of this ungodly situation and put him in the family line of the Messiah, despite the fact that neither Judah or Tamar were examples of godliness.

i. This is a glorious example of grace. God chose them despite their works, not only to be in the line of the Messiah, but also to have a role in God's plan of redemption.

ii. It also reminds us these sons of Israel were by no means an "all-star team." They were a corrupt and problem-filled family.

© 2006 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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