Having talked his brothers into selling their younger brother Joseph to Midianite merchants and then lied to their father about it—allowing him to believe that his favorite son had been devoured by wild animals as evidenced by the bloody robe they brought him, a robe that in actuality was bloodied not by a ferocious animal but by a slaughtered goat whose blood they had put upon it—Judah left home. Chapter 38 is one of but a few remaining chapters in Genesis that momentarily turns its focus away from Joseph as it lays out what Judah did during the twenty or so years that he was away.[1]

As stated in the opening verses, “1 At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.” There are a few things worth noting in these few verses:

First, Kezib, a word meaning “deceptive,” was a Canaanite town near Adullam, located about twelve miles southwest of Jerusalem.[2] As one commentator notes, the name “underscores the theme of deception in the story of Jacob and his family.”[3] As Jacob, Judah’s father, had once been a deceptive man, we see that the undesirable trait of deceit had been passed down to Judah. For as he led in deceiving his father concerning what had happened to Joseph, so will he deceive Tamar, his daughter-in-law;

Second, close relationships with the Canaanites were later prohibited to Israel given the likelihood of their being pulled away from following the LORD as a result of such association.[4] We saw this early on when Rebekah, mother of Esau and Jacob, lamented that Esau had taken women of Canaan as his wives.[5] Yet both Jacob’s friend Hirah and Jacob’s unnamed wife were likely Canaanites—Adullam was a royal Canaanite city and Shua, Judah’s father-in-law, is identified as a Canaanite;

Third, events that take but a few seconds to relate in these opening verses actually transpired over a number of years for it would’ve taken quite a bit of time for Judah:

to leave his family;

stay with his friend Hirah;

meet and marry Shua’s daughter;

and then have three children with her.

Well, after providing this broad overview of what Judah did upon leaving his brothers, we soon learn that the sons he and his wife had—Er, Onan, and Shelah—didn’t turn out to be men of good character, at least not the first two.

Now as was customary at this time, verse six notes that “Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.” As Abraham had found a wife for his son Isaac,[6] and Hagar had found a wife for her son Ishmael,[7] so now Judah found a wife for his firstborn son Er. However, as noted in verse 7, Er “was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” We aren’t told what the nature of his wickedness was but it’s possible that it was related to Canaanite practices later declared detestable by the LORD, including child sacrifice, divination, and sorcery.[8] Whatever the evil, it must have been great in order for God’s judgment to have fallen so decidedly upon Er, leaving Tamar a widow.

It was also customary at this time for a widow to be provided for by marrying the next-in-line brother of her deceased husband in order that he might provide her an heir, a practice that came to be known as a levirate marriage. Any offspring that were born as a result of such a union would belong not to the living brother but to the one that had passed away.[9] This is why we see in verse 8 that Judah told Onan, his second-born, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” However, Onan didn’t want to fulfil his obligation to his deceased brother for, as stated in verse 9, he “knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.” By spilling his semen, Onan was making sure that Tamar didn’t conceive, thus allowing him to maintain his leadership position within the family. The evil Onan did was that of not fulfilling his responsibility to his brother’s widow. Again, as stated, his spilling the semen on the ground was in order “to keep from providing offspring for his brother.” This is why verse 10 goes on to declare, “What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.” The levirate marriage was a means of providing for a widow but Onan had spurned his familial obligation—and therefore was in turn spurned by the LORD.

With the death of Onan, the responsibility of providing an heir for Tamar fell to the third-born son, Shelah. However, apparently Shelah was too young to marry at this time. Therefore we read in verse 11, “Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.’ For he thought, ‘He may die too, just like his brothers.’” Having experienced the loss of his first two sons, Judah was hesitant to give Tamar his last remaining son. Yet rather than acknowledge that the evil done by his first two sons was the reason for their dying, he seemed to have assumed that all of this was somehow Tamar’s fault. Therefore, he had no intent of allowing Shelah to marry her for he didn’t want him to die as his brothers had—again, he wrongly considered Tamar to be the problem despite the fact that he had been the one who had chosen Tamar to be his son’s wife in the first place. Judah blinded himself to the evil his sons did. For her part, Tamar accepted what Judah said and “went to live in her father’s household.” She returned home until the time that Shelah would be old enough to fulfill his familial obligation towards her and his deceased eldest brother.

Well, as noted in verse 12, “After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.” After grieving the death of his wife, Judah once again met up with his friend Hirah. They went to the city of Timnah and, as stated in verse 13, his daughter-in-law Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,.…” Again, a long time had now passed since Tamar and Judah had last seen one another—enough time for her to have figured out that Judah had no intention of sending her Shelah, his youngest and now grown-up son, in order to provide her an heir. Therefore Tamar came up with a plan, albeit one that no doubt strikes us as odd. As stated in verse 14, “she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.” In this plot, as one commentator observes, “Once again clothing plays a part in deception.”[10] With but a change of clothes, Tamar metamorphosed from grieving widow to woman for hire. As stated in verse 15, “When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.” Not just her covering her face—something betrothed women also did—but, as one scholar notes, “her lone presence by the roadside possibly contributed to his assumption [that she was a prostitute].”[11] Therefore, verse 16, “Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, [Judah] went over to her by the roadside and said, ‘Come now, let me sleep with you.’” Judah assumed what Tamar wanted him to assume—that she was a prostitute. Therefore, he propositioned her.

As a prostitute might, Tamar inquired concerning pay for her services, “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” Judah responded, “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock.” But, just to make sure, Tamar pressed him further by asking, “Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” As one commentator notes, “From experience, she knows that he is not a man to be trusted.”[12] Indeed. After all of these years, Judah had neglected to follow through with his promise of giving Tamar his last son, Shelah. Therefore, she now sought some kind of guarantee from Judah that he would do as he said. When asked what kind of pledge, she answered, verse 18, “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand.” Judah consented and slept with her upon giving her his seal, cord,[13] and staff. Once they had slept together, “she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.” With a second change of clothes, Tamar once again became a grieving widow. But, as it turned out, “she became pregnant by [Judah].”

For his part, afterward Judah was true to his promise. As stated in verse 20, he “sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her.” Hirah then asked the men of Enaim, verse 21, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” Now though, as one scholar notes, “cultic prostitution was integral to the Canaanite fertility religions,”[14] the men told Hirah that there hadn’t been any shrine prostitute there. What is more, the word for “prostitute” in verse 15 differs from the one used here for a cult prostitute. Given that a cult prostitute’s association with a shrine would have given her a higher status than an ordinary prostitute,[15] some have speculated that Hirah may have sought to provide Judah some cover for what he had done. Whatever the case, when Hirah reported back, Judah thought it best to leave matters as they were. As stated in verse 23, he replied to his friend, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”

Well, three months later, Judah was brought some disturbing news. As recorded in verse 24 he was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” It’s unclear why she would have been found guilty of prostitution as opposed to fornication but, given this verdict Judah replied, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”—interestingly, burning later became the punishment meted out to the daughter of a priest who turned to prostitution.[16] However in verse 25 we’re told that Tamar, clever woman that she was, “As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these…. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’”

Though at this point Judah could have denied recognizing the seal, cord, and staff he had given her as pledge for payment three months earlier—and thereby turned this into a “he-said, she-said” type of situation which Tamar would inevitably lose—Judah acknowledged that the items were his. As stated in verse 26, he responded, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” Though Tamar may have used a sinful means to confront Judah with his failed obligation, she was considered righteous by him for having stood up for her right to have an heir. Judah understood exactly what had transpired. He understood exactly why Tamar had done what she had done. What is more, “he did not sleep with her again.” Hereon in he treated her as righteous, not as a prostitute.

The chapter closes with the birth of Judah and Tamar’s twin sons. Starting with verse 28, we’re told, “28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, ‘This one came out first.’ 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, ‘So this is how you have broken out!’ And he was named Perez.’”—Perez means “breaking out” or “breach”—“30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.”— Zerah can mean “scarlet” or “brightness.”

Now it’s worth noting in all of this that Perez, a baby born as a result of the sinful union between his grandfather Judah and mother Tamar who conceived him and his brother by disguising herself as a prostitute, ends up being in the lineage of Messiah. You heard that right. Perez—along with Judah and Tamar—ends up being part of the lineage of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord. Also worth considering concerning Perez’ father Judah is the fact that, as one scholar observes, “Although this chapter shows Judah at his worst, it also accounts for a remarkable transformation in his life, which comes through in the remaining episodes of the Joseph story.”[17] Judah’s remorse and repentance over what he had done were genuine, as evidenced in his subsequent changed life.

And what could be more appropriate to reflect upon on a communion Sunday than the need fallen humans have to experience remorse from their wrongful action, repent of it, and then turn to their Maker and LORD for help in living the lives he intended us to live? For the act of partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a poignant reminder of the fact that though human sin is the cause of eternal death, nonetheless human sin is no hindrance to our powerful and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit giving us eternal life. This is evident even in the lineage provided in Matthew’s Gospel whose opening verses tell us, “1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah”—and again, “Messiah” is the Hebrew form of the Greek “Christ”—the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,….”

Now because I’m no expert in genealogies, this week more than most, I’ve had to rely upon other authorities in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the significance of Matthew’s genealogy. And before you determine that there’s nothing to be gained from something as seemingly mundane as a genealogy, I’d encourage you to wait and see for Matthew’s genealogy is a humbling testament to the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and Lord!

For starters, it’s important to note as one commentator states, “Jews kept extensive genealogies to establish a person’s heritage, inheritance, legitimacy, and rights…. Matthew likely draws on the genealogies of the OT [sic]…. He demonstrates Jesus’ legal claim to the throne of David, emphasizing Jesus’ legal descent from David to Abraham….”[18] Given that most of us likely can’t trace back our own genealogies very far, it would be easy for us to overlook how significant they were for ancient societies. In other words, neither Matthew—nor Luke in his genealogy of Jesus[19]—are making this stuff up. What they record could have been checked out and contradicted by others, therefore they worked hard to make sure they got it right especially because so much was at stake. For they were presenting the genealogy of none other than their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ!

Second, the inclusion of Tamar in this genealogy is unusual for, as another scholar notes, “Women are not usually named in Near Eastern genealogies, but they are intrinsic to God’s purpose in sending Christ. The five women named in Jesus’ genealogy all remind us that God often does the unexpected and chooses the unlikely.”[20] Another scholar similarly adds, “By including these women (contrary to custom) in his genealogy, Matthew may be indicating at the very outset of his Gospel that God’s activity is not limited to men or to the people of Israel.”[21] How like God to highlight the role that the otherwise oft overlooked women in the ancient world played in his plan of redemption!

And third, another scholar further notes, “The lineage is comprised of men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles—and Jesus will be Savior of all.”[22] Jesus’ lineage is comprised of all of those whom he came to save. And this is the point of it all, isn’t it?

That ordinary men are in the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and LORD;

That ordinary women are in the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and LORD;

That adulterers are in the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and LORD;

That heroes are in the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and LORD;

That Gentiles—those who were not originally a part of Israel, God’s chosen people—nonetheless are in the unexpected lineage of our gracious Savior and LORD;

But this is the Good News of the Gospel, isn’t it? That God in Christ came to earth in human form in order that his creation might know what God is like—and how he intended his image-bearers to live—and to show us how we who all have turned away from God might be reconciled to him through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection from death of his eternal Son, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, Jesus our Savior and LORD.

For Jesus of the unexpected lineage of sinners and saints promised to take away the sins of any and all who believe and receive him in order that we might be united to him now and forevermore![23] Jesus beseeches us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”[24] As John also testified, “11 God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[25]

Dear sisters and brothers, do you know what this means? It means that we who are ordinary and sinful and broken even as Judah and Tamar were, now have the opportunity to be grafted into that ordinary, magnificent lineage simply by confessing and leaving behind our sin and turning to Jesus who came to be Savior of all who believe and receive him. And all who do so can be certain of becoming part of that not-always-illustrious heritage that resulted in the coming of our gracious and patient and long-suffering Savior and Lord!

So this communion Sunday—and always,

let us thank him for giving his body and blood for us;

let us praise him for his costly sacrifice on our behalf;

and let us love him and each other—knowing that in Christ we have become blood relations for the blood of Christ unites all who believe in him to him and each other now and for all eternity. All praise and glory be to his name!

Let us pray.

[1] The Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:1–30 suggests, “Since Judah was with his brothers when they sold Joseph to the slave traders and was with them again when they went down to Egypt to buy food, the author seems to locate the events of this chapter within a period of approximately 21 years…. Or we may suppose that Judah returned to Canaan from time to time to look after his affairs there.”

[2] See 2 Chronicles 11:5, 7: Rehoboam lived in Jerusalem and built up towns for defense in Judah: Bethlehem, Etam, Tekoa, Beth Zur, Soko, Adullam,…

[3] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:5.

[4] See, e.g., Exodus 34:10–14: 10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. 14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.; Deuteronomy 7:1–6: 7 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.;

[5] See Genesis 26:34–35: 34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. 35 They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.; Genesis 27:42–46: 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”

[6] See Genesis 24.

[7] Hagar was Abraham’s second wife. This incident is recorded in Genesis 21:20–21: 20 God was with the boy [i.e., Ishmael] as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

[8] As the LORD warned the Israelite people of these as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan in Deuteronomy 18:9–13: When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.;See also Leviticus 18:1–3: 1 The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.

[9] As per Deuteronomy 25:5–6: If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

[10] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:14.

[11] As the Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:15.

[12] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:16-18.

[13] Per the Reformation Study Bible note on Genesis 38:18, “A cylinder seal, worn on a cord around the neck, was the insignia of a prominent man. He signed contracts by rolling the seal over the clay on which the contract was etched.”

[14] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:21.

[15] Per the Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:21.

[16] Leviticus 21:9: If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.

[17] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 38:1–30. This note also adds, “Further, Judah provides a stark contrast to the chaste Joseph in Genesis 39.”

[18] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:1–17. Emphasis added.

[19] See Luke 3:23–38 which traces genealogy beyond Abraham, as Matthew does, all the way back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

[20] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:3–16. This note goes on to state: “Tamar (v. 3) reminds us of Judah’s failures (Gen. 38:6–30); Rahab (v. 5) was a harlot (Josh. 2); Ruth was a Moabite (Ruth 1:4) and thus subject to a special curse (Deut. 23:3–5); Uriah’s wife Bathsheba (v. 6) was David’s downfall (2 Sam. 11) Mary fulfills Is. 7:14 (v. 28), and the even more important promise of Gen. 3:15 (Gal. 4:4).”

[21] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 1:3.

[22] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 1:3.

[23] As the John the Baptist testified, John 1:29b: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

[24] John 5:24. See also John 6:47: Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life.

[25] 1 John 5:11–12.