Genesis 38 – This chapter chronicles the history of the seed of the Messiah through Judah. The story of the other brothers is noticeably absent, and the silence is due in large measure to their treatment of Joseph. With the loss of Joseph Jacob must have conferred the right of the first born to Judah. This information is important for the genealogical history that will lead to the coming Messiah.
Genesis 38:1-5 – Judah decided to leave his brothers, perhaps because their treatment of Joseph and also because of his father’s prolonged grief over his loss of Joseph. He still remained very much a part of the family, as we see him going with his brothers down to Egypt to buy food during the famine that Joseph had interpreted in Pharaoh’s dream.
Judah moves to Adullam which was about eight miles from where Jacob dwelt. It was a Canaanite royal city and it was here that he probably came seeking a wife. He had become friendly with Hirah who was from this city and decided to live near him. It was here that he fell in love and married the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua. It seems that she did not forsake her Canaanite ways but remained an idolater; this seems to be the reason that none of her sons are blessed by the Lord. The first born was Er, then Onan, and the third Shelah.
Genesis 38:6-10 – At the age of marriage Judah took a wife for his first born. He probably recognized the problem of marrying the wrong girl from his marriage and decided to be more proactive with his sons. He found Tamar to be a suitable wife for his son. She no doubt evidenced good character and had a godly manner about her. Since she is in fact in the line of our Messiah we can assume that the Spirit of God bore witness of the quality of her character.
For whatever reason, we are not told; Er was found to be wicked in the eyes of the Lord. His offspring would bear the Messiah, so God removed him from the genealogical line because of his character. Dutifully Judah performed the rite of Levirate marriage by joining Onan to her to raise children on behalf of Er. Levirate marriage (the marriage of a widow to the brother of her deceased husband) was widely practiced and later incorporated into the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Onan’s refusal to perform this duty stemmed from his desire to have the inheritance of the firstborn for himself (normally it would have gone to Tamar’s child, even though fathered by Onan). This law was used in the scenario of Mathew 22:23-33, where the Sadducees presented a hypothetical case in their attempt to refute the claims of Jesus. Onan did not desire to raise children for his brother, which would have jeopardizing his inheritance and so spilled his seed on the ground rather than impregnate her. This was evil in the eyes of the Lord and he too was eliminated by the Lord.
A noble example is found in Ruth in the actions of Boaz, who was a “Close relative”. This word translates a technical word (goel in Heb.)and refers to a kinsman who came to the aid of a family member. Also called “deliverer” or “redeemer,” the goel was responsible for recovering or retaining the family property of his dead relative when the property was offered for public sale (Leviticus 25:25-34;27:9-33), or even for purchasing his kinsman’s freedom from voluntary servitude resulting from poverty (Leviticus 25:47-55).
The “redeemer,” then, functioned in behalf of another person and his property within the family circle. God was a picture of the “goel” as “Redeemer,” especially as He delivered them again and again from their bondage of servitude (Exodus 6:6;Isaiah 63:8-16; Acts 13:16-19). God’s future redemption of His people is through His Son, Jesus the Messiah (Isaiah 59:20), who is in every respect qualified to be man’s Kinsman‑Redeemer:
Genesis 38:11-12 – With the death of his first and second born son’s while they were married to Tamar, it is little wonder that Judah sent her home to her parents. He put her off for awhile by promising that he would call her when her youngest son was old enough to perform his duty as a brother according to the levirate tradition. But Judah had no real intention of letting his youngest son anywhere near this woman who he felt was responsible for the death of his first two sons.
He no doubt hoped that Tamar would marry someone else while she waited for Shelah to mature. Sometime after Tamar left, there was still another tragedy that came upon Judah, his wife died. Judah must have been around 40 when this happened, and it appears that his relationship with her was such that there was not a heavy period of mourning for her.
Genesis 38:13-19 – It had been awhile since Tamar had left and now all thoughts of her seem to be out of his mind. We find him after his period of mourning participating in sheep-shearing time. There was always a party atmosphere associated with sheep shearing. Judah was with his good friend Hirah to cash in some of the prophets of his flock.
Tamar however had not forgotten the promise he made concerning his third son, and she had been faithful to the memory of her deceased husband. She likely had come to faith in the God of Israel and wanted the opportunity to raise children in the covenant. Judah meanwhile does not appear to be living up to his promise to her. Tamar resorts to subterfuge to become a mother with an Israelite father.
When she learned that Judah was going to Timnah for sheep shearing, she removed her widow’s garments and dressed like a temple prostitute, which included a veil preventing her from being recognized. She placed herself where Judah would pass and see her hoping that he would employ her services as a prostitute. Her hope was that this brief encounter would cause her to become pregnant.
Her actions, under normal circumstances would be punishable by death, both in the later Law, and by the local customs as well. Since she lawfully betrothed to Shelah she was committing adultery. However it was Judah who was preventing her from marrying Shelah. Her motivation was not lust or money, but rather giving birth to a child of the covenant. The Bible does not condemn her and neither does Judah when he realizes his own responsibility for her behavior (Genesis 38:26).
Judah later admits his wrong. Judah strikes a bargain with Tamar thinking her to be a harlot and promised to send her a kid for her services. As a pledge that he will pay her later he leaves his staff, which no doubt had some identifying marks on it, as well as his seal which he wore around his neck. A seal was a signet containing a distinctive mark which stood for the individual who owned it.
The earliest seals found so far date to before 3000 B.C. Seals varied in shapes and sizes. Some were round and often were worn around the neck. Others were rings worn on the finger. The mark was made by stamping the seal into soft clay. After the incident Tamar returned home assuming her role as a widow once again. She had no desire for the goat, she just wanted proof that she was pregnant by Judah and not be accused as a mere harlot.
Genesis 38:20-23 – When Judah returned he sent the kid from his flock with Hirah the Adullamite, and asked him to retrieve his pledges from her. He was probably too ashamed to go himself, but the Canaanite had no problem with such an action. She wasn’t there, and after some inquiries he learned that there was never a temple prostitute at that location. He returned to Judah, and with the news Judah decided to let the matter drop.
Genesis 38:24-26 – Several months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. Judah becomes righteously indignant with the woman who in his mind was responsible for the death of his two sons, and now sullying their memory and his good name with the disgrace of playing the harlot. Even though she was living with her father she still came under his authority, since she was betrothed to his son Shelah. The punishment for women caught in such an act was death.
Judah judged her as guilty and ordered that she be executed by being burned in the fire. This would restore his reputation and remove the problem of what to do with his youngest son Shelah. Upon further examination, it was discovered that he was the adulterer; her proof was the cord and staff that she kept as security.
Evidently Tamar had enough confidence in Judah that he would treat her fairly once the truth was revealed. Judah realized the reason for her actions, and not only lost his anger but became repentant and compassionate. He then took care of Tamar and the child as his own, not actually marrying her.
Genesis 38:27-30 – Tamar gave birth not to one son but to twins. The situation was similar in many ways to Esau and Jacob; there also was conflict in the womb before they were born, and an apparent contest between the two over who would be born first. The midwife tied a scarlet thread around the one she assumed would be born first when his hand emerged. Surprisingly his hand was withdrawn and the other twin emerged first.
He was named Perez which means breaking through and it is he who is in the genealogical line of the Messiah. Zerah, whose name means rising, an allusion to his hand rising in the air was born next. Like Jacob and Esau the one born first actually served the younger, and while a hand coming out doesn’t constitute birth it is interesting that Perez went on to be the first born.
Tamar is one of the few women listed in the genealogical line of the Messiah, along with Ruth, Bathsheba and Rahab. All four of these women were not Jewish, but of their own free will choose to follow the God and people of Israel. All four demonstrate great faith and tenacity to cling to the God of Israel. Rahab is even listed in the hall of fame of faith in Heb. 11:31.