March 29, 2016

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

 

PART IV: JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN (Gen. 37:1-50:26)

 

 

Topic #B: THE FAMILY OF JUDAH. (Gen. 38:1-30).                                                            

 

 

Lesson IV.B.1: His First Two Sons and Their Fate.  (Gen. 38:1-11).                                                                       

 

 

GENESIS 38:1-11 (KJV)

 

1And it came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

 

 


INTRODUCTION

At the beginning of Genesis 38 is recorded a scandalous story from the life of Judah, Joseph’s brother.  The events of the story cover a period of time parallel to Joseph’s trials and triumphs in Egypt, and offer a partial explanation for the final move to Egypt.  If the integrity of the covenant people was to be preserved, they must, for a time, be removed from the corruption of Canaan’s religious and social life.     Verses 1-11 tell us that Judah leaves home and moves to Canaan.  This means he is living among people that his family considered unclean.  There, he marries and raises children to adulthood.  When Judah’s oldest son Er dies, Er’s wife, Tamar, becomes a childless widow.  Since carrying on the bloodline is of the highest value in this culture, the custom of the day is for Er’s brother to marry Tamar and supply Er with an heir.  This custom, called levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.  The word levirate comes from a Latin word meaning “husband’s brother.” The downside of this marriage agreement for the second brother is that the son born is considered the heir to the deceased.  His birth does not increase the wealth of the younger brother at all.  This is why Onan does not cooperate in providing Er with an heir. After Onan dies, Tamar expects that the third son of Judah will provide her an heir when he is old enough, but that is never Judah’s intent.

 

Genesis 38 is one of those chapters of the Bible rarely read in public—perhaps, because it contains the record of dark shameful deeds. The Bible does not turn away from telling the whole, sad truth about human nature.  Human nature, as a result of the Fall, is raw.  This is another chapter that seems to be about as necessary as a fifth leg on a cow.  After you have read the story you may wish that it had been left out of the Bible.  Many people have asked why this chapter is in the Word of God.  I agree that it is one of the worst chapters in the Bible, but it gives us some background on the tribe of Judah, out of which the Lord Jesus Christ came.  This fact makes it important that it be included in the Biblical record.  In this chapter you will read names like Judah and Tamar and Pharez and Zerah.  If you think they sound familiar, it is because you had read them in the first chapter of Matthew.  They are in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Dear reader that is an amazing thing!  Our Lord came into a sinful line.  He was made in all points like as we are, yet He Himself was without sin.  He came into that human line where all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God.

 

Another reason for including the Judah/Tamar story in our narrative at this time is that it provides time for the Joseph story to develop.  According to the time markers in the text, 22 years pass from the time Joseph was sold into slavery until his brothers in their time of need finely appear before him.  Hence there is plenty of time for Judah’s family to grow up, to marry, and to raise children.

 

There is, I believe, a further reason for including this chapter in the Word of God at this juncture.  Beginning with the next chapter, we go down to the land of Egypt with Joseph.  God is sending Joseph ahead, as we very clearly detected from the fortuitous occurrence of circumstances in his life, to prepare the way for the coming down of the children of Israel into Egypt.  It would preserve their lives during the famine in Canaan, but more than that, it would get them out of the land of Canaan, and away from the abominable Canaanites into the seclusion of the land of Goshen in Egypt; had they stayed, they would have dropped down to the level of the Canaanites.  The chapter before us reveals the necessity of getting the family of Jacob away from the degrading influence of the Canaanites.

 

 

COMMENTARY

1And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

 

Joseph had been sold into slavery.  Judah had pocketed his share of the loot, a paltry two pieces of silver, and had fallen heir to a nagging conscience.  Day by day he looked upon his aging father’s inconsolable grief, and night after night he would awaken with Joseph’s despairing cry ringing in his ears.  It made him so restless that he did what many people do when they can no longer stand the results of their misdeeds.  He moved out. 

 

We are told first of Judah’s wayward behavior.  “Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” Once again deceit plays a key role in this story of Judah and Tamar.  Judah is living separately from the brothers which parallels the way Reuben was not always with them in the previous chapter and will relate to the demands of shepherding the flocks and sometimes needing to separate in order to find pasture for them. Judah must have found good pasture in the vicinity of Adullam and Timnah; two towns that are Southwest of Jerusalem and thus quite some distance from where the brothers have been based at Shechem. 

 

The companionship of the unsaved seems to change for the better considering the behavior of the brethren.  Hirah, however, soon became Judah’s evil genius.  He turns up three times in the chapter.  First he was Judah’s acquaintance, then he became Judah’s associate, and he ended up by becoming Judah’s accomplice.  It was while staying with his unsaved friend that Judah met the woman he married. It is not surprising that he married a local girl, though Genesis has emphasized the way Isaac and Jacob did not do that.  One thing leads to another.

 

 

2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

 

In his dealings with his Canaanite neighbors, Judah one day saw a Canaanite girl, “a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah,” to whom he was attracted.  She was a raw pagan and a pagan of the very worst kind, a Canaanite pagan, a member of a sin-cursed race that practiced a religion of utter vileness.  To make things worse, that unsaved wife of Judah’s seems to have had no interest whatsoever in spiritual things and, worse still, his sons took after their mother.  He married Shuah and in due time she gave birth to three sons, Er (v. 3), Onan (v. 4), and Shelah (v. 5).  They all grew up heavily influenced by the lax moral standards of their Canaanite mother and her relatives.

 

Judah got himself into trouble when he separated himself from his brothers and started to make friends with the Canaanites in the land.  Like Samson, he saw a woman he liked and took her to be his wife (Judges 14).  Both Abraham and Isaac had been careful to see to it that their sons didn’t marry women of the land for fear that the “chosen seed” of Israel would be polluted with idolatry and immorality{2] (Genesis 24:3-4; 28: 1-4)

 

 

3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

 

The first son was Er (“the watcher”).  His bright little eyes watched father and mother alike and took in everything—his mother’s indifference to his father’s mysterious, unseen God, and his father’s neglect of spiritual things.  Those bright eyes watched with interest and growing approval of the depravity and self-indulgence of his mother’s religion.

 

 

4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

 

The second son was Onan (“strength”).  He was named by his mother.  That together with the name chosen suggests the growing influence and family dominance of the pagan woman Judah had chosen for a wife.  Onan himself grew up to be strong in wickedness.

 

 

5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib{4], when she bare him.

 

Then there was Shelah (“he that breaks”).  The mother named that boy too; a further indication that Judah had surrendered the headship of his home and was leaving the training of his sons to his wife.

 

 

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

 

When Er was old enough to be married, normally in the mid-teens, Judah obtained a Canaanite girl called Tamar as a wife for him.  Her name means “Palm Tree,” suggestive of beauty, slenderness, grace, and usefulness.  This is the first appearance of Tamar.  She gets into the genealogy of Christ this way!  Now, look at this family.  It is just loaded with sin.  From the rest of the story and from the position God gave that woman in the Messianic line, we conclude she must have been a woman of high character and noble aspirations despite her pagan birth and background. She seems to have entered into the Messianic hope of which, no doubt, Judah had spoken to her when negotiating the matter of her marriage to his oldest son.

 

7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

 

Er was a wicked fellow, and he was not the least bit interested in his father’s religious notions and he had no intention of cooperating in the matter of marriage.  The mother’s influence came through strong and sure in his life, a life that was very bad and very brief.  It is summed up in a single sentence: “Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.”  He met an early death before a child was born to the couple.  The text indicates that the boy’s death was an act of divine judgment. We don’t know how Judah’s first son “displeased” God and died, though Genesis may simply mean that he died young and that God must have allowed this.

 

 

8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

 

Judah told his second son to marry Tamar and raise up seed for his brother.  “Levirate” (meaning, “husband’s brother”) is the name given to this sort of marriage.  The custom of levirate marriage was widely practiced among people of the ancient Near East because great importance was placed on preserving the name of the Eldest son by means of a son.  If the eldest son died prematurely without a son it was the responsibility of the next oldest son to take the widow as his own wife.  However, the children born to this union would legally belong to the dead brother rather than to the actual father.  In this instance the next oldest son was “Onan.” Later “Levirate” marriage became part of the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Ruth 4:1-12). 

 

The point to be made here is where the story leads.  Judah adopts the tradition mentioned in the paragraph above (levirate marriage) that has been common in many cultures and will be accepted in Israel; that when a man dies without children, something needs to be done to keep the man’s memory alive, keep his family going, provide a destiny for his inheritance, and produce offspring to look after his widow as she grows older.

 

 

9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

 

So Onan is expected to marry or at least sleep with his brother’s widow, in the hope that she can have a child who will count as her husband’s.  Onan, like his brother, seems to have resented the marriage.  Like Er he had no interest in matters pertaining to the Messiah, and he had no intention of cooperating with his father’s wishes.  Onan refused to carry through with his responsibility.  Apparently, he was just as bad as his older brother.  He showed disdain for Er and contempt for Tamar in a shameful manner. Onan doesn’t mind sleeping with his sister-in-law, but he doesn’t want to father her child.  It is in his best interest for her not to have a son; his brother’s inheritance will then fall to Onan.  (His action has sometimes been assumed to refer to masturbation or coitus interruptus{1] as a regular method of birth control, but this misses the point.) He ends up also dying young.  Judah is then afraid that there is a kind of curse on his family.

 

 

10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

 

Onan’s actions were disgusting to the Lord; his punishment, ordained by the Lord, was death.

 

 

11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

 

Judah had a third son whose name was “Shelah,” but he was a child and not old enough for marriage, so Judah told Tamar to wait in her “father’s house” until Shelah was old enough to marry. Tamar can go back to live with her parents, but most people don’t regard that as an exciting long-term prospect. 

 

Judah, in the back of his mind, could not resist the thought that she may have been at fault for his other sons’ deaths.  Having buried his two sons, Judah tried to place the blame for their deaths on the innocent Tamar. “Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown,”he said, “lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did.” Tamar seems to have had the makings of a spiritual woman, and a Messianic{3] concept appears to have made an impression upon her.  For Judah to insinuate that she was to blame for the death of his sons was not only unjust, it was a complete failure to recognize that he himself was really to blame.  Had he not married a pagan woman, had he not left the training of his sons to her, had he been a more inspiring example of godliness, had he been more thorough in teaching the truth about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to his wife and sons, things might well have been different.  To blame Tamar simply revealed how perverted his sense of values had become.

 

Tamar returns to her father’s house, neither a virgin, nor a wife, nor a mother.  She is on the fringes of the Israelite social structure, for nowhere does she properly belong.

 

 

 

 

 

SPECIAL NOTES

 

{1] Coitus interruptus, also known as the rejected sexual intercourse, withdrawal or pull-out method, is a method of control in which a man, during sexual intercourse, withdraws his penis from a woman's vagina prior to orgasm (and ejaculation), and then directs his ejaculate (semen) away from the vagina in an effort to avoid insemination.

This method of contraception, widely used for at least two millennia, is still in use today. This method was used by an estimated 38 million couples worldwide in 1991. Coitus interruptus does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs/STDs).

{2] God put a wall between the Jews and Gentiles, not because the Jews were better than other nations, but because they were different, set apart for His divine purposes.  Once the Savior had come and died for the sins of the world, God made it clear that there is “no difference” (Acts 10; Romans 3:22-23; 10:12).

{3] Three other women besides Mary are named in Matthews’s genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1: Tamar (v. 3) and Rahab and Ruth (v. 5).  It was unusual to name women in a Jewish genealogy and especially women such as these three.  Tamar was a Canaanite who posed as a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2); and Ruth was a Moabitess who converted to Judaism (Ruth 2).  All three were Gentiles and two of them (Tamar and Rahab) had unsavory reputations.  David, “a man after God’s own heart,” was descended from Pharez, the son of Judah by Tamar (Ruth 4:18; Matthew 1:3).What a demonstration of the grace of God! 

{4] Chezib is probably 3 miles southwest of Adullam.

 

 

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