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Genesis 38 Study Notes

38:1-5 Judah’s departure while Jacob grieved may have been motivated by a combination of intense guilt feelings and anger at his brothers. Continuing the dark picture of Jacob’s sons begun in chap. 34, Judah rejected the covenant family’s marriage tradition (24:3; 28:1) and took the daughter of a Canaanite as a wife. The couple conceived three sons, Er (“Watchful”), Onan (“Strength/Vigorous”), and Shelah (“Drawn Out [from the Womb]”).

38:6-11 In keeping with ancient Near Eastern tradition, Judah got a wife for his son Er (24:2-4; Ex 2:21; Jdg 4:1-3). The absence of any ethnic identification for Er’s wife Tamar (“Palm Tree”) may mean she was not a Canaanite. Because Er was evil in the Lord’s sight, the Lord put him to death. God’s judgment on sinners is not always immediate but there are cases in both the OT and the NT, and presumably throughout history, when God brings justice swiftly (6:5-7; 19:13; Ac 5:4; 1Co 11:29-31). Er died before fathering any children, and ancient Near Eastern custom required the childless widow’s brother-in-law to marry her and produce offspring who would be counted as the deceased male’s heir (Dt 25:5-6).

Onan, however, realized that the offspring would not be his, so he took a course of action known as onanism (named after Onan’s actions here) to prevent conception—probably coitus interruptus rather than masturbation. Onan’s motive was evil in the Lord’s sight, and so God killed him also. With two sons having died while married to Tamar, Judah feared that Shelah might die too if he fulfilled the responsibility to his sister-in-law. Consequently Judah sent her away to live in her father’s house, with the deceptive excuse that Shelah was not old enough.

38:12-19 Even after Shelah had grown up and was eligible for marriage, Tamar remained a widow. In the meantime, Judah’s wife had died. Having been deceived by Judah earlier, Tamar cunningly set about to deceive her father-in-law (cp. 27:15,27). In order to get Judah to fulfill his family’s obligation to produce an heir for Er and remove the stigma of her childlessness, Tamar apparently took advantage of her father-in-law’s immoral character. She took off her widow’s clothes (signs of mourning), veiled her face, positioned herself alone by Enaim (“Two Springs”) where she knew Judah would pass, and played the role of a roadside cult prostitute.

Though sexual relations with a daughter-in-law were prohibited in the Israelite law that was written centuries later (Lv 18:15), Judah did not recognize her and so propositioned her. As proof of his willingness to pay once he had money in hand, Judah had to give Tamar his “cylinder seal” (signet ring), among other items. Having achieved her objective by getting pregnant, Tamar returned home and put her widow’s clothes back on for the time being.

38:20-23 Keeping his promise, Judah sent Hirah (v. 1) to the supposed prostitute with a young goat to get back his possessions. When Hirah returned to Judah without recovering Judah’s possessions, Judah recognized he had been outwitted by her since his credentials represented his honor and were thus more valuable than a young goat. He attempted to minimize the humiliation by giving up on the search and thus telling no one else what had happened.

38:24-26 Three months after the fateful encounter Judah was informed that his daughter-in-law was pregnant. Since she had an obligation to remain chaste and available for marriage to Shelah, Shelah’s father ordered that she be burned to death—a penalty that in later times was reserved in the law of Moses for depraved sexual sins (Lv 20:14; 21:9). Before she could be executed, however, Tamar informed her would-be executioners that she was pregnant by the man whose “cylinder seal” (signet ring) she possessed. Confronted by indisputable evidence of his responsibility for Tamar’s pregnancy, Judah admitted that she was more . . . right than he; he had wronged her by denying her the right to marry his son Shelah.

38:27-30 Six months later it was discovered that Tamar was carrying twins in her womb; the language mirrors that of Jacob and Esau’s birth (25:24). The birth was a complicated one, as one of the babies stuck his hand—not his head, as is normal—out the birth canal. The child pulled his hand back inside the mother.

As it turned out, his brother actually came out first, earning himself not only the rights of the firstborn but also the name Perez (“Bursting Forth/Breach”). His brother, born belatedly with the scarlet thread still tied to his hand, received the name Zerah (“Dawning/Shining”). Perez would later be mentioned as an ancestor of both David (Ru 4:12,18) and Jesus (Mt 1:3).

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