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“Judah's Rocky Road”

Genesis 38:1-30
Bob DeGray
September 14, 2008

Key Sentence

All through history God has had to use even human sinfulness to orchestrate his redemption plan.


I. Too close to Canaan (Genesis 38:1-5)
II. Too scared to obey (Genesis 38:6-11)
III. Too sinful to see straight (Genesis 38:12-23)
IV. Yet brought to a recognition of his sin (Genesis 38:24-26)
V. And included in the line of David and of Christ (Genesis 38:27-30)


All through history God has had to use human sinfulness to orchestrate his redemption plan. He hasn’t had much choice, because sinful humans have been the only kind he’s had to work with. There have been no righteous people, no perfectly obedient people except Christ, and he was the goal of the redemption plan.

So we find in Scripture some particularly sordid and uncomfortable stories, and sometimes it’s the participants in these stories who are closest to the genealogy of Christ, used by God to move his plan forward. Scripture is not shy about sharing these stories, doesn’t gloss over their sinful realities, and I’m convinced God includes them precisely so we’ll never assume that God’s plans are achieved by man’s righteous participation. Rather, God’s plans are achieved despite man’s sordid sinfulness.

This week we take up the case of Judah; one of the most explicit and appalling stories in all Scripture. Yet as we look beyond this chapter we find that God uses Judah and his descendants powerfully for righteousness, leading to Jesus. God uses even sinful humans to orchestrate redemption, and in the process he often radically changes the sinful humans he uses. That’s the good news in the life of Judah, son of Jacob.

I. Too close to Canaan (Genesis 38:1-5)

Genesis 38:1-5 At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; 3she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.

In chapter 37 Judah and his brothers were in Dothan, in what would become Galilee. Jacob, on the other hand, was at Hebron in what would become Judea. Now Judah goes down to associate with a Canaanite friend in the town of Adullam, which was probably a fairly significant Canaanite town, near Bethlehem.

Don’t miss this: the trouble doesn’t start when a girl catches his eye, but when he decides to make friends with the people of the land. Jacob’s daughter Dinah had already had this problem at Shechem and it caused a major crisis. In fact this was the same problem Lot had when he decided to move close to and then into Sodom. God did not intend the people he had chosen to become intermixed with the sinful people who lived in Canaan. He intended his people to remain separate.

We’ve talked about what that looks like for us. Jesus prayed that we would be in the world but not of the world. We’re not to withdraw to monasteries, communes or isolated communities. We are to interact with and make an impact on the world around us.

But the world is not supposed to have an impact on us, and a key indicator of that is when our closest friendships, the ones that really matter, start to be with unbelievers and skeptics rather than sold out believers. When we begin to justify giving in to peer pressure it ought to set off all kinds of bells and whistles.

It apparently didn’t for Judah: he went further down this path. An unnamed Canaanite girl, the daughter of a man named Shua, caught his eye and he married her. This doesn’t sound bad until you remember the great lengths that Abraham had gone to to keep Isaac from marrying a Canaanite; until you remember that Esau, Jacob’s brother lost his parents’ favor because he married a Canaanite. A guiding principal for the first generations of God’s people was: don’t marry outside the chosen group. Judah does; he likely moved away from his family to avoid their recriminations.

Again, this applies to us. First we begin to be influenced by the culture around us, rather than being an influence, and then we marry into it. I’m not talking just figuratively, I’m talking about real people, young people from our homes who get too close to peers who have bought into the culture of ‘dating equals sex’ and ‘living together is the norm’, and they find themselves enmeshed with someone who has no idea of what the life of a believer is supposed to be like. It’s sad, but not at all uncommon.

So Judah gets married and they have children: Er, Onan and Shelah. While those children are growing up, Joseph is in Egypt, in slavery and in prison for many years, as we will see. The next incident occurs when Judah’s son Er is old enough to marry, though in this case probably at a pretty young age, certainly less than twenty.

II. Too scared to obey (Genesis 38:6-11)

Genesis 38:6-11 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death. 8Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." 9But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his seed on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight; so he put him to death also. 11Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." For he thought, "He may die too, just like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.

Tamar is a Canaanite name possibly meaning ‘palm tree’. She is first married to Er, Judah’s oldest, but the text tells us that he was sinful and “wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death.” Considering what the Lord put up with from others in these chapters, his sins must have been especially notable.

It was customary in those days, and became part of God’s law for his people, that if a brother died without children, another brother should marry the widow in order to carry on his brother’s name and clan.

By the way, it seems to me the reason these pagan cultures practiced much of what would end up in God’s law was that they remembered God’s pre-flood revelations. The law given to Moses was a formal presentation of things God had already told people like Adam and Seth and Noah.

But in this case Onan, for whatever reason, was unwilling to raise up children for his dead brother. Perhaps, like the kinsman redeemer in Ruth, he did not want to divide his estate. In any event he used a primitive method of birth control to prevent those children from being conceived. And God was not happy with this lack of honor toward his brother, the widow, and the family: he put the young man to death.

What should have happened next was that Tamar would marry Shelah, Judah’s third son. But Shelah was apparently young, and Judah terrified, so it didn’t happen. This is actually a first hint that Judah’s heart might be changing. He’d sold Jacob’s beloved young son into slavery without remorse. But now that two of his own sons have died, and he feels his youngest is threatened, he begins to show some concern.

Unfortunately his fear for Shelah leads him to the unrighteous step of denying Tamar her rightful marriage. He says “Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." But he’s thinking “My son Shelah may die too, just like his brothers." He hadn’t figured out it was the evil of Er and Onan that led to their deaths. He seems to think Tamar was responsible. So he sent her away to her father's house, though by the customs of the day he still retained authority over her. He defies God’s desires, giving in to his unrighteous fears.

The contemporary version of that would be us defying God’s desires in order to hang on to safety or security, comfort or happiness. I’ve been praying a lot for my daughter Bethany in the Philippines this month with Servant Partners. The only e-mail we’ve gotten mentions sleeping on the floor with cock-roaches and rats. Not nice.

And there was a very real temptation a few months ago when she was signing up for this to say “why don’t you get a job in Houston and settle down and reap the benefits of all that education?”. But I’ve always told my children that my deepest desire for them is that they walk with God. Am I supposed to stand in the way when they do so, making choices that clearly conform to his heart? I don’t think so.

III. Too sinful to see straight (Genesis 38:12-23)

Jacob gave in to his fears, and denied Tamar her righteous marriage.And then it got worse: Genesis 38:12-23 After a time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. 13When Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep," 14she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.

15When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16Not realizing she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, "Come now, let me sleep with you." "And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked. 17"I'll send you a young goat from my flock," he said. "Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?" she asked. 18He said, "What pledge should I give you?" "Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand," she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.

19After she left, she took off her veil and put on widow's clothes again. 20Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21He asked the men who lived there, "Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?" "There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here," they said. 22So he went back to Judah and said, "I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here.'" 23Then Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn't find her."

The story tells itself. Judah not only associated with Canaanites, married a Canaanite, and refused to treat his daughter-in-law honorably, but he also, at least this once, consorted with prostitutes. And not just any prostitutes, for his friend Hirah identifies her as a shrine prostitute, one associated with the pagan rites of extreme idolatry. Judah was not only being sexually immoral, he was being spiritually immoral, associating himself with pagan gods, rather than the God of his fathers.

Notice that Moses, in writing up this account, does not particularly place blame on Tamar. He sees her as wronged, as striving by whatever means to right the wrong, to get the attention of the one who was wronging her. It’s not clear from the narrative whether she anticipated taking Jacob’s seal and staff before the event, but clearly she took advantage of the opportunity to have something she could use against him.

Notice also the Moses is careful to avoid any implication of intentional incest on the part of Judah. Verse 16 tells us that Judah did not realize she was his daughter-in-law. In fact, since he had no payment with him, but had to make a pledge, it seems clear he didn’t set out with the intention of hiring a prostitute; he acted on impulse; he succumbed to the temptation before him and ended up fathering his fourth and fifth children because of it. As one commentator says, this is “another example of the common Biblical motif of God using human frailty for his own purposes.”

Afterwards, because he had pledged payment to Tamar, Judah tried to send the goat by the hand of his Canaanite friend. But Tamar could not be found. She had put back on her widow’s clothing and presumably returned to her father’s house. She was still in mourning, far longer than Judah had mourned for the loss of his wife. Probably she intended to remain in mourning until Judah gave her the husband she deserved.

So Judah’s Canaanite friend couldn’t find Tamar; he was told there never had been a shrine prostitute at that location. So Judah decides to try to forget all about it, else “we will become a laughingstock.”. Bruce Waltke says “Judah is like a reputable gentleman who unwittingly “loses” his credit card in a brothel.” He’ll look like a fool for entrusting her with these things and he wants to preserve his reputation.”

Clearly Judah is being driven by sinful desires. He is sexually immoral, and spiritually immoral, hoping to gain some benefit from a local god by the use of a shrine priestess. The contemporary application is simply that all of us tend to be driven by sinful desires, evil desires that drive us into moral sin, or desires that drive us away from God into spiritual sin and the worship of created things rather than the creator.

Notice the slippery slope: it began with a friendship; it was amplified by a marriage; it was driven by fear; and it led to moral and spiritual vulnerability and failure. This is the kind of decline all of us must be cautious about when dealing with the culture around us. Remember Jesus’s principle: in the world but not of it; we are to care for the world but not buy into its value systems, moral systems, or spiritual ethos.

IV. Yet brought to a recognition of his sin (Genesis 38:24-26)

But remember God always uses these things to work his plans and purposes, including the moral and spiritual redemption of this sinful man Judah. Verses 24-26 About three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant." Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!" 25As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are." 26Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.

Don’t you hate self righteous hypocrites? I do too, but I’m embarrassed to say that at times the self-righteous hypocrite I need to hate is myself. Judah is hypocritical here: he consorts with prostitutes, but when he finds that Tamar appears guilty of prostitution he offers no sympathy at all. In fact one suspects he jumps at the chance to get rid of her, since he still sees her as a potential danger to his surviving son.

But Tamar has an ace in the hole, the staff and seal Judah had given her in pledge. Before the death sentence can be carried out, she gets word to Judah that her pregnancy had been caused by the man who gave her them to her. And Judah can’t deny it.

But the great thing is Judah’s response - the first solid light of hope in his sin clouded life: "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again. Judah recognizes that Tamar did what she did because of his sin; he recognizes that for him to take her as his wife now would be sinful; for him to give her to his sown would be sinful; but that he does have responsibility for her and for the situation and needs now to do what is right.

Now how do I know all that from one line? Because the author of Genesis characterizes Judah both before and after this event in such a way as to make it clear. Before the event Judah was the one who sold Joseph into slavery. His first words in Scripture are “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood.” Before the event Judah was the one who was callous toward the suffering such an act would bring on his father. Before the event Judah walked away from the faith of his father and ran down the rocky road of association with the Canaanites, intermarraige with the Canaanites and conformity to Canaanite morality and religion.

But after the event; after the event there is a marvelous transformation in Judah. He’s not mentioned directly in Genesis 42:21, but is obviously in agreement with the brothers when they say “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us.” They had no idea they were dealing with Joseph in Egypt, but they knew they were guilty of Joseph’s life.

Then, in chapter 43, Judah offers himself as pledge if his father will send Benjamin with them back down to Egypt; he knows that otherwise they will lose their lives in the famine. When they go back to Egypt, Judah becomes the spokesman; the author of Genesis begins to refer to ‘Judah and his brothers’. And as he speaks to Joseph he puts his father’s life ahead of his own: “If you keep Benjamin, my father is going to die from grief.” The one who sold Joseph into slavery says “Let me remain instead of the boy as your slave and let the boy go back with his brothers.”

It’s a remarkable transformation. Later Judah is the one who goes ahead of Jacob’s clan to set up their living place in Goshen, and still later Judah is the one who is blessed by Jacob as the heir of promise. Rueben disqualified himself by sexual immorality; Simeon and Levi by violence at Shechem, but Jacob says of Judah “your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons will bow down to you. 9You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse him? 10The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” It’s a prophecy that Jesus will come through the line of Judah.

V. And included in the line of David and of Christ (Genesis 38:27-30)

So he’s brought to a recognition of his sin, he’s transformed, and now God begins to work out his long term redemption plan through this horrible circumstance. Verses 27-30 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, "This one came out first." 29But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, "So this is how you have broken out!" And he was named Perez. 30Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.

The twins were perhaps a gift from God to Tamar, to compensate for the lack of children from her two husbands, as well as a sign to Judah, who lost two sons due to their wickedness, that his sins are forgiven. And despite the fact that Tamar should have been given sons to carry on Er’s name, these children are uniformly regarded in Scripture as Jacob’s children.

Zerah whose name means dawn, or first light, tries to come first, and the midwife puts a scarlet thread on his hand. But Perez, whose name means ‘break out’ displaces Zerah and is born first. These become the two enduring clans of the line of Judah. And from Perez comes David the King and Jesus the Messiah, evidence of God’s remarkable mercy, his overarching grace toward sinners like Jacob and you and me.

Hundreds of years later a Moabitess named Ruth will become part of the line of David, and when she does the elders of Israel will look to Tamar as her example. Ruth 4:11-12 “Then the elders and all those at the gate said, "We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. 12Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah."

And a few verses later the author of Ruth gives the genealogy of David. Listen carefully to how it starts: This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, 19Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, 20Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 21Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, 22Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.”

But it doesn’t end there. In Matthew 1 we read the genealogy of Jesus. Listen to the parade of foreign women, sinful men and prostitutes God used in the line of Christ. “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife.”

There are no meaningless chapters in Scripture. There are no people in Scripture beyond hope and redemption. Genesis 38 is here to show us that God uses even sinful people and in the process often radically changes the person he plans to use. It was so for sinful Judah, from whom came the lion of the tribe of Judah. It was so over and over in the line of Christ. May it be so for us as well.