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Genesis 38-Judah and Tamar

Genesis 38-Judah and Tamar


After the Genesis 37 account of Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, we the students are led to believe the narrative of Joseph will continue, but we may be surprised to see this wild story about Judah inserted between the stories of Joseph. There are two possibilities according to theologians: 1. It is an editorial insertion to Moses’ writings put in later by another author, or 2. It was intentionally put there by Moses for a purpose. I believe Moses wrote it, and intended it to be here, so why is it here? Perhaps it is here to present a contrast with the remarkable chastity and virtue of Joseph in Egypt. Although Judah occupied a privileged position in the family, Joseph is going to emerge as God’s tool to preserve Israel. In Genesis 38, Judah reneges on his contract with Tamar, visits a pagan cultic prostitute, and then with outrageous hypocrisy called for Tamar’s death. Meanwhile in Genesis 39, Joseph will resist the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, even if it means his imprisonment. Therefore we get a stark contrast between Judah and Joseph’s character, as well as God’s dealing with each of them. Genesis 38 shows Judah at his worst, and we may wonder how such a scumbag could be redeemed by God and used to be the head of what would become the most important tribe in Israel. Judah would also be the head of the kingly tribe of David and eventually the Messiah. What we will discover in Genesis 38 are the events that led to Judah’s repentance and remarkable transformation. At the end of the story, Judah is humbled by God, convicted of his sins, and desires to repent. The same Judah that had the idea of selling Joseph into slavery in ch.37, would be willing to sacrifice his own life to save his brother by ch. 44.Therefore, I think the author wanted to give us parallel accounts of the fathers of the most important tribes of Judah and Joseph, and how God developed the character of each.


I see at least two important happenings in Genesis 38. First, we have the unlikely Gentile woman Tamar single handedly preserving the line of Judah. Secondly, we see that God’s sovereign providential plan and purpose is bound up in the most unlikely sinners like Judah (and us). Somehow through Judah’s own sin, God brings about the circumstances that convict him of his sin and need to repent. All through these stories of the children of Israel, we see God somehow fulfilling His plan of redemption in the most unlikely people. In this way we become educated in the awesome grace and mercy of God.


Judah’s Mistakes


The first mistake that Judah made in Genesis 38:1-2 was to separate himself from God’s people and hook up with the evil idolatrous Canaanites. Both Abraham and Isaac had made their sons swear that they would not marry a Canaanite (Genesis 24:3 and 28:1), so clearly they all knew it would cause major problems and corrupt them. This account of Judah being assimilated into Canaanite culture and religion helps us understand why God settled Jacob’s family in Egypt until He was ready to judge the Canaanites by dispossessing them of the land. The second mistake for Judah in Genesis 38:2, was provoked by “lust at first sight”. As soon as he saw the Canaanite woman who was the daughter of Shua, he had to have her. It appears that Judah also settled in with the Canaanites at that time. This marriage union based on sex and not principle produced three sons in quick succession. When the oldest son came of age, Judah arranged a marriage of his choice with Tamar to his son Er. Because of the events that follow, we know that this was an arranged contractual marriage. In that culture, marital law provided that if the oldest son died, the next son would have to marry the widow to produce an heir for the dead son and protect the widow’s rights to his property. The oldest son of Judah was so evil that God “took his life”. The second son married Tamar, but he also was so evil that God took his life. Looking back we know the plans that God had for the line of Judah, so we may understand why God would not allow such men to be in the line of Judah that would produce the Messiah.


By this time Judah must have thought Tamar was an incredible jinx, so he made excuses for not marrying his third son to Tamar. The only place an unmarried widow could go was back to her parents so Judah sent her there with the promise that when the third son got old enough he could marry her, but Judah was deceiving her. Two events occurred that would move Tamar to take matters into her own hands. First, Judah’s wife died so he was now unmarried and eligible to fulfill the contract to Tamar himself; and second, Judah’s son was now old enough to marry her, but it was clear it wasn’t going to happen. At this point, we as students are wondering whether the tribe of Judah will be ended before it gets started. The three sons of Judah by Shua’s daughter are too evil for God to allow them to live, so who will be the heir to Judah, now a widower? The family’s future seems to be in jeopardy.


Tamar’s Desperate Plan


In Genesis 38:13, Tamar got some valuable information that would prove fruitful (both figuratively and literally). She knew that she was being wronged by Judah, so she took extreme measures. She got a report that Judah was going to the big sheep  shearing celebration at Timnah. There was a cultic pagan temple there with Canaanite “priestesses”. Men would worship the fertility gods by having sex with these priestesses, then they believed the fertility magic would cause their fields and flocks to grow. We know from archeology that temple prostitutes were respected, and in some places the women were expected to serve on occasion as priestesses as an actual religious offering. Tamar knew Judah well enough to know that he often visited these places and “worshipped” with these Canaanite priestesses. Tamar saw a window of opportunity, so she dressed up as a priestess/prostitute, put a veil on to disguise herself, and staked out the area that Judah might frequent. Maybe she was looking for either Judah or his son Shelah. This might seem like an immoral plan to us, but apparently in God’s providence, He would use the situation to produce a proper heir for Judah. Sure enough, Judah came by and propositioned her thinking she was a prostitute. It was common to give a “donation” to the priestess/prostitute, so Judah offered her a goat. The deal was made, but Judah did not have the goat with him, so as a pledge of payment he left three items of identity with her—his signet, his cord, and his staff. By God’s providence this one sexual encounter resulted in her being pregnant. Then Tamar went back home and resumed her role as a widow. She conceived, as Judah was deceived. Later, Judah sent his friend to give her the goat and retrieve his stuff, but she was not to be found. The people in the area told him that none of the regular cult prostitutes had been there, so he returned empty handed. 


The Old Switcheroo


It is interesting that we now had three generations of deception by the old switcheroo trick. Each deception involved a goat and mistaken identity. First, in Genesis 27, Jacob deceived Isaac by wearing a goatskin on his arms so he would feel like the hairy Esau to his father who was blind. Next Judah deceived Jacob by dipping Joseph’s coat in the goat’s blood in Genesis 37. Now Tamar deceived Judah for a goat. The irony for Judah was that he refused to allow Tamar to conceive his grandson, so now she would conceive his own son. Tamar would become a matriarch in Israel and part of the line of King David, as well as the Messiah.


Maximum Hypocrisy


Three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy began to show, and the report went out to her father-in-law Judah. He was still unaware that he had been deceived, so he assumed this was by immorality. Legally, she was still contractually his responsibility. In one of the great displays of hypocrisy he called for her execution. Judah had indulged himself with a pagan cultic prostitute (he thought). He had participated in the worst form of idolatry and reneged on his deal with Tamar to produce an heir, yet he had no problem condemning her. He may have wanted her out of the way so his youngest son would not have to marry her. When they came to bring her out for punishment, she sent Judah his three items of identity saying “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” Judah was forced to deal with the fact that the items were his, and he was the father. Now we see a complete reversal of guilt. From verse 25 to 26, Judah moved from a self-righteous hypocrite to being convicted of his sin. This resulted in vindication for her and guilt for him.


The Transformation of Judah


Before we as sinners can grow spiritually and be transformed by God, it is necessary to be convicted of our sin and come humbly before God. In Genesis 38:26, Judah was convicted of his sin when he realized that all of his actions in lying to Tamar, breaking the marriage contract, and visiting a pagan cult prostitute were wrong. He then admitted that Tamar’s deception was nothing compared to his sin as he said, “She is more righteous than I”. I think this is his way of saying “I was wrong and she was right”. Therefore it seems that Judah would accept her children as his own. The good news is that Judah proceeded to change and grow spiritually. He publicly admitted his moral failure, which infers his repentance, and that Tamar’s oldest son would take his place as Judah’s heir. By Genesis 44, we see Judah’s change as he acted as a righteous man before Joseph. Judah would plea for Benjamin, and he offered his life as a pledge to save his brother.




Before Jacob died in Genesis 49, Jacob confirmed that Judah would be the royal tribe, and the tribe of the Messiah. By God’s grace, Judah was declared a righteous man. Tamar had twin boys named Perez and Zerah. It is amazing that in Jesus Christ’s genealogy given in Matthew 1, Perez is there, and there are five women named—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Mary’s four predecessors were Gentiles and sinners, therefore these four women declare the good news that by God’s grace there is hope for us all. Each of the four women had a highly irregular, even scandalous marital union, but by God’s grace they were included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. In spite of their past, each one became a strong believer in the one true God, and by His grace, He not only made them children of God but put them in the line of Christ. God’s grace brings new life to us all.



Picture of About the Author: Charlie Taylor
About the Author: Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor grew up in Dallas, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Business School and went into the commercial real estate business for about twenty years before enrolling in and graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary with honors.

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