Genesis 38: Judah, Tamar, and the Mercy of God
Almost everything in this chapter appears to be wicked and sinful. But where sin abounds, grace does much more abound towards the elect of God.
Have you ever had to learn a lesson by painful experience?
In Genesis 38, God shows why it was vital that His people avoid the company of the ungodly, by recording the tragic events of Judah’s fall.
vv. 1–11 - Judah, amidst increasing spiritual decline, moves away from the covenant family in Hebron. He integrates his life with the Canaanites, has becomes a close friend to Hirah. He then marries a Canaanite and they have three sons. Time passes, and his first son marries Tamar. We don’t know what he was doing, but this son is so wicked, God judges him through premature death. In Old Testament law we learn of the practice of levirate marriages, but we learn that the custom was going on much earlier. It required a brother of the deceased husband to take the widow as a wife, and the first son would legally be considered the son of the deceased brother. This was intended to preserve inheritance and protect women who would have been left vulnerable. But Onan does not want to reduce his potential inheritance, and so he simply uses Tamar. As a result, God judges him also. Judah promises his youngest son to Tamar, but v. 11 reveals he was blaming Tamar for the death of his sons and had no intention of giving Shelah to her.
vv. 12–23 - Time passes, Judah’s wife dies. Judah, who had superstition towards Tamar, could have thought the same about himself given two of his sons and his wife were now dead. But he is too proud to think that. To occupy his sorrowing mind, Judah joins in the festivities and celebrations that occurred around the time of sheep shearing. Enough time has passed so that Tamar now knows that Judah has no plans to have Shelah marry her. She she concocts a successful plan to lure Judah. Why do this? Is it revenge? I don’t believe so. Although the Old Testament did not allow for it, some forms of ancient Levirate law may have extended to the father, especially now that his wife had died. So this could have been a known practice. But there may be more going on here. It may be that she had a deep longing to be part of the covenant people of God. Although her approach cannot be condoned, she had learned of God’s favor to the patriarchs and wished to be a part of God’s purpose with them. The fact she is mentioned in Ruth 4 and Matthew 1, seems to lend credibility to this thought. After successfully deceiving Judah to part with his personal items, Judah is unable to locate this mystery harlot to exchange these items for payment and tries to forget about the event.
vv. 24–30 - Three months pass, and Judah is informed of Tamar’s pregnancy. Knowing what she did was wrong, he gives his opinion of the case, which may have been carried out after Tamar gave birth. Because of Mosaic law which appointed burning as the form of death for the adulterous daughters of priests, some have thought Tamar’s father must have been a priest, but we do not know that. But when Judah learns the truth that he is the father, he sees her as being justified according to Levirate law and the fact that he had broken his word. The chapter then closes by recording the fact that Tamar bore twins.
Abandoning the company of the covenant community has consequences. The opening verse records that Judah went down from his brethren, i.e. he left the company of those who were part of that ancient visible church. Obviously we know there were spiritual problems in Jacob’s family, but this departure was an act of Esau-like rebellion, which resulted in an ungodly friend, an ungodly wife, and ungodly children. We should see the similarities between Judah and Esau at this point. Only the grace of God is going to turn things around for Judah. Christian, do not neglect the public worship of God. Don’t live your life at a distance from the people of God. Attend a biblical church with parents who have similar values, and invest in that community.
Vows and promises are heard by God, and breaches are serious sin. Onan is killed by God for breaking his word, and Judah brings heavy providences into his life because he failed to keep his word. It is one thing to come up short on what you have vowed to do, it is quite another to purposefully do the opposite of what you vowed to do. In the US, 50% percent of first-time marriages end in divorce, 67% of second marriages, and 74% of third marriages. Don’t people get better at choosing the right spouse and staying together until death? No. Why? Because if someone can undermine the vows made the first time, they are more likely to undermine them in the future. Divorce in order to find happiness in the arms of another is a fools errand that brings poverty and usually increased misery. You won’t lie before God without consequences.
Carnal living leads to careless living. Times of partying are often times of increased sin, especially in the company of ungodly people. Judah’s friendship with Hirah was likely a contributing factor in his moral decline and willingness to use a harlot. It’s often said that you can know a person by the company they keep. This is often one of the first public evidences of spiritual decline. Parents, when you see your children enjoying the company of the ungodly more than the covenant community, step in quickly. As said, it is usually an early indicator of a spiritual problem.
Men can be most severe upon others when guilty of the sins to be found in themselves. Judah does not hesitate to give a public judgment on Tamar’s sin, which was the very sin of which he was guilty. He who was with sin, was ready to cast the first stone. For those of you in authority, watch for this in yourselves. We can do this as parents, as employers, teachers, pastors, etc. It is plain hypocrisy and blindness to our own failings. Plead for humility to be more harsh on yourself than others.
Not returning to sin is an evidence of genuine repentance. The note in v. 26 that Judah “knew her again no more” may be a brief indicator of the beginnings of repentance in Judah’s life. The next time we read of Judah he appears to be leading by example within Jacob’s household. Dear Christian, do not be content with a mere expression of remorse for sin. Endeavor to set aside time to confess sin and ask God for deliverance from it. You can’t do it yourself, but God does encourage to pray to Him “deliver us from evil.” Trust the power of the Spirit to make you more holy.
Christ identifies with a fallen humanity. Our Savior, known as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, reveals in this chapter that he would not be deterred from His mission, even when people fall into the most grievous of sins. If your past is as dark as Judah’s, know that God will receive you and save you if you give your life to Christ.
“The grace of God has frequently chosen the lowest of the low, and the vilest of the vile. Recollect how, in the pedigree of our Lord, you find the name of the shameless Tamar, the harlot Rahab, and the unfaithful Bathsheba, as if to indicate that the Savior of sinners would enter into near relationship with the most degraded and fallen of our race. This is, in fact, one of the dearest titles of our Lord, though it was hissed at Him from the lips of contempt, “A friend of publicans and sinners.”” — Charles Spurgeon