April 14, 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.2: TAMAR COMMITS INCEST (Gen. 38:12-23)                                                          

 

 

Genesis 38:12-23 (KJV)

 

12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

 


Introduction

 

In the midst of the narrative describing Joseph’s career in Egypt, the writer of Genesis introduces the account of Judah’s shameful involvement among the Canaanites.  Judah was the leading member of Jacob’s family, one destined to be the channel of Jehovah’s rich promises to and through Abraham to later generations and the world.  Judah’s name was to be prominent in the Messianic line.  David would be one of his honored descendants.

 

Judah’s pagan wife, who had been the real source of his despair, died.  God, in His mercy to Judah, removed the woman and her poisonous influence from the scene.  Her death greatly affected Judah, who mourned her deeply.  He could not see that her death was really a blessing in disguise.

 

The passage bears witness to yet another custom of the times, namely the practice of cult prostitution.  Quite apart from ordinary secular prostitution (which, sadly, has flourished in all too many countries and epochs), there was in the ancient Near East a practice whereby respectable women might offer themselves to strangers as part of pagan rites and rituals, i.e. with no immoral intention.  The Hebrew word for shrine prostitute in verse 21 specifies this type of prostitution.

 

 

Commentary

 

12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

 

“And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died.”  Judah’s pagan wife, who had been the real source of his woes, died.  God, in His mercy to Judah’s Soul, removed the woman and her harmful influence from the scene.  Her death greatly affected Judah, who mourned her deeply.  He could not see that her death was really a blessing in disguise.

 

“And Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.”  It was at that point that his unsaved friend, the Adullamite, showed up again and instead of seeking comfort in the God of his father, Judah found comfort in his unsavory friend.  Hirah knew how to cheer him up.  “It’s sheep shearing time at Timnath,” he said.  “That’s always a barrel of fun, Judah.  Why don’t we go up and have a good time?  It’ll take your mind off things, my friend.” Sheep shearing usually took place in Palestine towards the end of March. Judah agreed to go.  Instead of asking God why the disasters had come into his home, he did what so many do; he sought to drown his troubles in the amusements of the world.

 

Apparently this deal that Judah had, which concerned seeing this Adullamite by the name of Hirah, was in connection with sheep.  They were raising sheep and must have had a tremendous flock together.

 

 

13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

 

The exact location of the town and the sheep shearing in this narrative is uncertain, though there are some who maintain that “Timnath” was located on the Philistine border of Judea; others have concluded that it was somewhere in the hill country of Judah (see Joshua 15:48, 57).  It is a fairly commonplace name on the allotment list and in the Samson epic (see Joshua 15:10, 56; Judges 14:1-2; 2 Chronicles 28:18).

 

 

14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

 

“And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with veil, and wrapped herself.”A widow, like a married woman, did not wear a veil.  She did wear a special garment which set her apart as a widow.  These clothes entitled her to the privileges provided for widows in the law, such as gleaning and a portion of the tithe.  A widow wore mourning garments all her life (2 Samuel 14:2).  According to Proverbs 7:10, a harlot was known by her attire.   All that time since the death of her husband, Judah’s youngest son, Shelah, had been growing up.  He was now old enough to be married to Tamar as custom decreed, but Judah had no intention whatsoever of fulfilling his promise to the window.  Not he!  Sure, he had made her a solemn promise, but what is a promise made to one not strong enough to enforce its redemption?  Judah, with perverted values, decided that Tamar who by now he sincerely disliked if not actually detested, could remain a widow.  Had Judah given Shelaw to Tamar, as he admitted he should have done according to ancient custom, the events recorded here would not have happened. What a picture Judah presents.  He was a man brought up in the home of one of God’s giants; he stood directly in the Messianic line, but he was as crooked and as perverted in his values and in his dealings as the pagans he took for his friends.

 

Tamar was tired of waiting for Shelah, so she decided to force Judah to act.  She knew her father-in-law was sexually vulnerable, having been widowed himself, so she posed as a prostitute and “sat in an open place.”  Prostitutes customarily stationed themselves by the roadside (Jeremiah 3:2).

 

She stationed herself by the roadway to lure Judah. She was much more concerned about the legal aspects of her situation than with morals.  The common law held that she had the right to have children by a brother, or at least a relative, of her dead husband.  In fact, she had an obligation to provide a son for him.  Since Judah seems to be deliberately keeping Shelaw from her, she decided to involve Judah himself.  She had no legal recourse to courts, so she depended on clever deception.

 

Making careful note of Judah’s movements, she saw that he was going alone to Enaim or Enam (Joshua 15:34), by way of Timnath to join his sheepshearers (v. 12). 

 

“An open place” is either a translation of the town’s name, Enaim, or the gate of Enaim, near Adullam.  Jeremiah 3:2 and Ezekiel 16:25 allude to the custom of the harlot sitting by the wayside.

 

 

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

 

Seeing that her father-in-law had no intention of fulfilling his promise, Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands.  It was not just a desire to remarry that moved her.  Her previous experiences with Judah’s sons would surely have cured her from wanting further involvement with that family.  But she seems to have understood and appreciated the spiritual significance of becoming a mother in the Judaic line.  Her motives were good even if the means she adopted were bad. At exactly the right moment she changed clothes and put on a veil, the garment of a common harlot [that is, a woman dedicated to impure heathen worship: see Deuteronomy 23:17; Hosea 4:14.  The surrender of their chastity as the greatest sacrifice women could make was common in heathen worship.  At Corinth in Saint Paul’s day it is known that this shocking practice formed part of the ritual at the temples dedicated to Aphrodite.], for she was planning to play the part of a temple prostitute

 

Men would visit the shrine and use the services of the cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons such as shearing or the period of lambing.  In this way they gave honor to the gods and reenacted the divine marriage in an attempt to insure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds.

 

 

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

 

She stationed herself by the roadway to lure Judah, who reacted just as she thought he would.  The Canaanite religion not only employed vile symbols, but it also ministered directly to the flesh, consummating worship in an act of immorality with a temple prostitute.  Tamar, therefore, set herself up by the highway as a priestess of the local temple.  She knew her father-in-law well enough to know that he would be a likely candidate for the services such a woman would offer.  Sure enough, before long Judah came that way.  Visiting a prostitute was not a moral issue for Judah.  His concern was how to pay for her services.  With the loose morals of the world to guide him, and with a total disregard for the calling of God, he stopped and propositioned Tamar, not knowing, of course, who she was. From there, everything went the way she hoped it would; she seduced her father-in-law, and he impregnates her. 

 

We get a picture of Judah, and it doesn’t look good, at all.  He had propositioned the Canaanites woman, Shuah’s daughter.  Now he does the same thing with Tamar.  This is a very black picture and an ugly story that we have here.  Judah thought she was a harlot.  She saw the opportunity of taking advantage of him and she did it.

 

 

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

 

Her price was a kid of the goats, something Judah obviously did nothave with him.  Knowing her man, Tamar demanded security in lieu of payment and ask for Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff (v. 18).  Judah was by now so hotly inflamed by lust that he willingly and eagerly parted with them.

 

 

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

 

Tamar was not as interested in pay—the “kid from the flock” (v. 17)—as she was in obtaining something from Judah that would positively identify him later.  She insisted on and got his “signet,” which was a seal used for impressing his signature into the clay tablets of the time; it represented his person; it was probably cylindrical in shape with a hole through the center lengthwise and a distinctive design carved on it (Sometimes it was a ring, worn on the finger).  The “bracelets,” or better, “strings,” or “cord” were passed through the seal to suspend it about the neck.  She also got a “staff” which the leader of the clan or tribe carried as a symbol of authority.  No one could mistake the ownership of these items.  The custom of using three pieces of identification is attested to in Ugaritic (Canaanite) literature.

 

The “signet” represented his person.  His “bracelets” were probably a valuable chain of gold; they represented his possessions.  His “staff” marked him out as a shepherd.  In ancient times many people carried a staff, often carved with some identifying symbol such as an animal, a flower, or a bird.  The staff represented his position.  Thus Judah could so very easily forfeit person, possessions, and position for the sake of a moment of lust.  He was well on his way to becoming a second Esau.  Indeed, were it not for the fact that later he took his stand for Benjamin, it might well have been that he would have been as roundly cursed by the dying Jacob as were Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (Genesis 49).   Judah indulged himself and went on his way minus his ring, bracelets, and staff, minus what was left of his good name, and minus what tattered shreds of his testimony he had left. 

 

 

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

 

After the affair was completed, Tamar returned home immediately and “put on the garments of her widowhood,” and Judah returned to his flocks. 

 

              

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.

 

Judah was upset about personally taking the kid to the supposed harlot, perhaps due to an underlying sense of guilt. But his friend the Adullamite showed up, and upon hearing about the harlot, Hiram offered to act as Judah’s go-between; to take the kid to the woman and redeem the security Judah had left behind.  Perhaps he wanted to meet the delectable young woman himself.

 

 

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

 

The temple call girl was nowhere to be found.  The people from the neighborhood denied all knowledge of such a woman as Hiram described; the reason being that the Adullamite friend did not inquire about the location of a common prostitute, but for a Canaanite temple prostitute, who had a higher status in Canaanite social circles.  Everyone professed ignorance of such a person in the vicinity.

 

Sacred prostitution was widely practiced in Canaanite communities.  The prostitute was dedicated to Ishtar or some other deity.  Doing bbusiness with her was believed to ensure through sympathetic magic, the fertility of the land, the flocks and herds, and the family.

 

 

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

 

So the Adullamite reported back to Judah, who immediately realized that he could be shamed” (blackmailed) by the person who possessed the article’s which identified him. Judah, of course, was upset, but not because he had transgressed against God, not because he had committed an act of immorality, but because he was afraid his reputation as a man of his word might be ruined. 

 

 

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

 

He fussed for a while and then forgot the whole thing.  Men do sin in this manner, almost unconsciously.  But he had ignited a fuse on a time bomb, and it was already beginning to burn down. 

 

 

 

One More Thing

 

The story of the patriarchs in Genesis reminds us of the grace of God and His sovereignty in human life.  The men and women who played a part in this important drama weren’t perfect, and some of them were deliberately disobedient; and yet the Lord used them to accomplish His purposes.  This doesn’t mean that God approved of their sins, because their sins were ultimately revealed and judged.  But it does mean that God can take the weak things of this world and accomplish His purposes.

 

26 Notice among yourselves, dear brothers, that few of you who follow Christ have big names or power or wealth. 27 Instead, God has deliberately chosen to use ideas the world considers foolish and of little worth in order to shame those people considered by the world as wise and great. 28 He has chosen a plan despised by the world, counted as nothing at all, and used it to bring down to nothing those the world considers great, 29 so that no one anywhere can ever brag in the presence of God.

30 For it is from God alone that you have your life through Christ Jesus. He showed us God’s plan of salvation; he was the one who made us acceptable to God; he made us pure and holy{1] and gave himself to purchase our salvation.31 As it says in the Scriptures, “If anyone is going to boast, let him boast only of what the Lord has done.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

 

{1] He made us pure and holy, or “he brought us near to God,” to purchase our salvation, or “to free us from slavery to sin.”

 

 


 

 

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