Read Genesis 38:1-11
It is puzzling perhaps to have this chapter placed in the Bible where it is. Genesis 37 ends with Joseph being sold to Potiphar, and Genesis 39:1 resumes the story account of Joseph. Yet the very fact that Genesis 39:1 is written as it is strongly suggests that the Biblical writer here “knows what he is doing.” God the Holy Spirit wants the story of Judah, Tamar, and the birth of their two sons to say something about Jacob’s family (cf. Gen. 37:2) and tie that in with Joseph’s going down to Egypt. Any ideas come to your mind as to why this chapter is placed here by the Holy Spirit?
Judah chooses Canaanite friends and family (38:1–2)
Judah had played an important role in what had happened to Joseph in Genesis 37. It was Judah who suggested that Joseph not be killed but rather sold (Gen. 37:26,27). Now the story returns to focus its lens on what happens in the life of Judah. What we read in the opening verses of Genesis 38 is ominous: some time soon after Joseph was sold to traveling merchants, Judah moves away from his family. We are not told why. There does not seem to be any family discord. After all, later on he will join his other brothers in going to Egypt to get food during the famine.
In any case, the thoughtful reader of this text detects some not so subtle changes taking place. Earlier in Genesis, it was clear that Isaac and Jacob had to have wives who were not Canaanite. Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah all came from the broader family circle back in Haran. Esau’s Hittite wives, on the other hand, had been a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.
But concern for whom Judah marries does not appear in this story. Judah moves into a Canaanite area and acquires a Canaanite friend, Hirah of Adullam. Furthermore, he marries a Canaanite woman, a daughter of Shua (or, Bathshua). Incidentally, the places and persons in this story anticipate elements later on with King David: Adullam is a village within tribal Judah’s territory; Bathshua is similar sounding to Bathsheba; David has a daughter named Tamar… but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Judah has a Canaanite wife and a circle of Canaanite friends. It is not a great stretch of imagination to believe that Canaanite values, a pagan worldview, were also surrounding and influencing Judah. He does not seem distressed by his new environment as righteous Lot was disturbed when he lived in wicked Sodom (see 2 Peter 2:7,8). Of course, wickedness is not merely around us: it is also within us. Judah also was involved in the plunder of Shechem and the selling of Joseph. Still, Judah’s move into Canaan is more than simply a physical move. It suggests something spiritually more dangerous.
My three sons (38:3–10)
Judah and his Canaanite wife have three sons (Er, Onan, and Shelah), apparently in rather quick succession. As they grow up in Judah’s home, Joseph meanwhile has to deal with sexual temptation and imprisonment, with only the LORD as his aid. The Bible tells us that Judah obtained a wife for his firstborn son Er. This wife is apparently a Canaanite by the name of Tamar. Judah arranges this marriage, something that is not unknown in other Biblical stories and in the culture of that time. As we watch this story unfold, Judah will come across as a “take charge” kind of guy, a father figure who actively arranges things in his family.
The text does not waste words in ending Er’s life. He is so wicked that the LORD ends his life. “Er erred,” writes Gordon Wenham (Genesis 16-50, p. 366). Interestingly, in the Hebrew language, if you reverse the letters of the name Er, it creates the word that means wicked. But what was his evil? We are not told. We could pause for a moment and reflect on the quality of Judah’s spiritual direction to his family, but the text does not make that a concern for us. Judah’s reaction to his son’s death is not recorded either. Jacob was grieved by the loss of Joseph. Judah’s loss of Er is met with textual silence.
Judah tells the second son, Onan, to take the widow Tamar and “fulfill your duty to her as a brother-inlaw” to produce an heir. This was an ancient practice designed to maintain the family line of the dead brother. The practice has become known as “levirate marriage” (levir is Latin for “brother-in-law”). Perhaps Onan calculates the possibilities: if the dead Er has no son, then only Onan and the other brother, Shelah, can divide the inheritance between them. But if Er has a son (through Onan and Tamar), then the firstborn would receive a substantial portion of the inheritance, thus diminishing what Onan would get. So to prevent Tamar from becoming pregnant, Onan interrupts the sexual act and spills his semen on the ground. The net effect, therefore, is to use Tamar for his sexual pleasure, but he refuses the obligation to produce a son. This now becomes a case of incest, which would be clearly forbidden in the law of Moses (see Lev. 18:16). Onan thus is guilty of greed and deception as well as adultery by refusing to produce a son for his dead brother Er. The LORD, who searches all hearts and minds, executes Judah’s second son. What must Judah think now? What thoughts pass through Tamar’s heart as she observes these events around her? She has watched as two wicked sons of Judah die, and she is still without children.
Keeping the name alive (Deut. 25:5–10)
One issue that runs throughout Genesis 38 is that of childlessness and the highly irregular way in which that issue is resolved. Earlier we referred to “levirate marriage,” a practice that the law of Moses would regulate. Read Deuteronomy 25:5-10. As we noted above, a man could not marry his sister-in-law. The exception for this came in the case of the brother who died without a son. The dead man’s brother could take the widow as his wife. The purpose for this is explicit in Deuteronomy 25:6, “The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name shall not be blotted out in Israel.”
The living brother might refuse this duty, and presumably another brother could step forward to accept this responsibility. If the brother declined this duty, the widow could appeal to the larger community (city elders). If their attempts at persuasion fall on deaf ears, then came the sandal ceremony (a sandal is taken off), coupled with the dishonoring event of being spit in the face. At least the poor chap was not executed! But his own family would gain a bad reputation that could last for years, acquiring the name, “Family of the Unsandaled.”
This practice comes back before us (with some variations) in Ruth 4:1–12.
The story is well-known. Boaz, a worthy Judean, is challenged by Ruth in Ruth 3 to marry her (on behalf of Naomi). Boaz is a near relative, a kinsman-redeemer. God designed the role of kinsman-redeemer to be that in which a relative would protect the poor, secure the land, and execute justice. Boaz knows that there is a relative who is closer to Elimelech, Naomi’s dead husband. This unnamed relative is challenged to buy Naomi’s land, and he is willing to do so. But when told that Ruth the Moabite widow is part of the bargain, he backs out, claiming that he fears endangering his own inheritance. Apparently the unnamed redeemer in Ruth 4 was afraid that if he had only one son, that son would receive not only all of Elimelech’s possessions, but also his own property as well. In any case, Boaz is willing to take a risk and marry Ruth for the sake of Elimelech and Naomi’s future in terms of family name and land preserved.
Thus we see that Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is not an odd law of God at all. Rather, it had a very deliberate “redemptive” purpose. Keeping a name alive through children provided a way for God’s people to occupy and hold property in the Promised Land. Seed (children) and land were the “pillar promises” that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had repeatedly heard as gospel promises. Nothing must frustrate that!
When we come back to the story in Genesis 38, we note that Onan would prefer to see his dead brother Er remain childless, quite likely so that he might gain a greater inheritance. Later on in Israel, refusing your duty as a brother-in-law such behavior meant sandal-removing, spit in the face, and a bad family nickname. But for Onan, it meant death.
Jesus Christ, God’s eternal and natural Son, was made like us in every way, but without sin (Hebr. 2:14; 4:15). By becoming our Brother, Jesus became responsible to carry out the role of Kinsman-Redeemer. He protects His poor family (the elect brothers and sisters), He secures their inheritance, and He rights all wrongs by executing justice. When Adam, God’s first human son, defaulted and failed, God sent His own Son, who never fails us. The church is not left a forlorn widow, but she is redeemed in divine love by Christ, who paid the ultimate price to secure the church as His own Bride.
Judah sends Tamar away (38:11)
Judah had arranged Tamar to be Er’s wife initially. But now Judah does something quite unusual: he dismisses her from his family circle. Tamar is called “his daughter-inlaw” in verse 11, please note. Of course, Judah holds out hope for the future. Once Shelah, the third son, is old enough for marriage, he can rise to the occasion and produce a son for Er. But what is more than unusual, even inappropriate, was for Judah to send Tamar away to her father’s house. By marrying Er, Tamar had entered Judah’s family. She was no longer under the authority of her own father, but she was now very much a part of Judah’s household.
Judah in fact is deceiving Tamar. He thinks to himself, “Shelah may die as well.” Therefore, why would he ever give Tamar to Shelah? Judah appears to blame Tamar somehow for the death of Er and Onan. Is she “bad luck?” Is she some kind of jinx to his sons? Judah appears to be the kind of father who is blind to his own sons’ wickedness, but he is willing to blame the Canaanite woman. Therefore, by telling Tamar to wait in her father’s house for Shelah to grow older, Judah is not being wholly honest. Judah treats Tamar like a pawn. By telling her to wait for Shelah, Tamar is not free to marry anyone else. She is consigned to a “no man’s land.” The problem is that Judah is shirking his duties, and even more importantly, Judah’s line is in danger.
By entitling this lesson, “Judah begins to live in Canaan,” we indicate much more than that he moved away from his brothers geographically. Judah and his sons are sinking deeper into Canaanite culture and pagan depravity. Of course, Judah showed something of this even earlier. But if Judah stays in Canaan, then humanly speaking, the future is dark and grim. To think that David and, later, Jesus Christ come from this household! Some radical and powerful grace from God must intervene.
Lesson 3: Points to ponder and discuss
1. The LORD strikes Er and Onan dead for their wickedness. What do we learn about the consequences of sin? In this regard think of the Flood and the end of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why is God’s justice so immediate in the case of Judah’s sons?
2. Judah seems to be almost blind to the reason for his sons’ deaths. He appears to blame Tamar. How is it possible for parents to be blind or maybe oblivious to sinfulness in their children? Do some parents have the attitude of “my child would never do that?” Have they perhaps forgotten what they were like when they were younger? What does the psalmist mean when he prays, “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Ps. 25:7)?
3. How aware does Judah seem to be to his own calling before God? Does he see himself as distinctive in this world in terms of his identity and his covenantal responsibility? Or, does he just want to have a “nice life?”
4. The Sadducees refer back to this practice of brothers marrying a widow of a dead brother. See Luke 20:27ff. How do Sadducees understand this practice? Are they mocking it in the case they tell Jesus? What does our Lord teach about marriage in the age to come?
5. The practice of levirate marriage was intended to preserve a name alive and thus the claim to the land. Where do Christians today get their name, i.e., their identity? Where is our land, i.e., our inheritance in the Promised Land? Who holds that name and land for believers today and preserves them safe for believers? (Hint: think of Rev. 3:12, of baptism and the coming new creation)
6. How difficult was it for Lot and his family when they moved into Sodom? How difficult does it appear to be spiritually for Judah and his family when he moves into Canaan? How difficult is it today for Christians as we live in this world (although we are not of this world)? What role do the Christian church, Christian education, and other Christian organizations have to play in equipping God’s people for life in this world?