Genesis 38:1-49

It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. [1]

On first glance, it may seem strange for Moses to have begun the story of Joseph in chapter 37 only to insert this parenthetical story about Judah and sexual sins. We want to move ahead to get on with Joseph’s story to see how he’s fairing in Egypt than to take this detour. This chapter presents an ugly story that the great Lutheran Old Testament scholar H.C. Leupold deemed entirely unsuited for preaching.[2] But there are good reasons for the story of Judah and Tamar to be exactly where it is.

For one thing, the rest of Genesis is the toledoth of Jacob, not Joseph (37:2). As such, it involves all of the members of Israel, not just Joseph. Much of the action centers on Joseph since he is the one through whom the family actually moved to Egypt and by whom their lives and the lives of many others were spared. Still, this is Jacob’s story (including Judah), and Jacob will come in again later to bless Joseph’s sons and prophesy the future of the developing tribes of Israel.[3]

Also, the story shows how the infant nation of Israel was in danger of being swallowed up by the surrounding culture of Canaan. The Jews would be preserved as a separate people in Egypt since Egyptians disliked foreigners, particularly shepherds whom they considered to be abominations (Gen. 46:34). Finally, Judah’s story provides a stark contrast between his moral conduct and Joseph’s in the chapters to follow. Joseph will refuse to do as the Egyptians when in Egypt and sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Judah, by contrast, acts like a Canaanite when he strikes a transaction with a fertility cult prostitute. Yet, God will use both Judah’s sin and Joseph’s moral uprightness to his glorious ends.

The story of Judah and Tamar is about how Tamar single-handedly preserved the line of Judah. On a deeper level it is about how God’s sovereign plan is bound up in the development of individual people whom he shapes to fulfill his glorious plan of salvation and the consummation of all things. This story is such an unexpected interruption to the Joseph story that textual critics argued it is an awkward editorial insertion randomly placed here. But a close comparison with chapters 37 and 39 reveal many literary and thematic parallels – not all of which we have the time to note. Tamar’s story also reinforces one of the great themes of Genesis, God’s choice of the younger sibling over the older.


Jacob’s sons had long known both Abraham and Isaac warned against marrying the daughters of the Canaanites. Abraham had ordered his servant Eliezer, “you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.[4] But that was then. This is now. None in the Abrahamic line could return to Mesopotamia under the treaty Jacob made with Uncle Laban. Now, they must resort to “missionary dating” to find wives. The women around them must throw away their idols and come into the tiny nation of Israel with a trust into the Covenant Creator God. Of course, whether Israel’s sons were particularly good missionaries was debatable. There is some evidence that Tamar may have understood her role as a covenant mother. But Judah was certainly not a good rabbi in this part of his life.

Moses opens the incident with the line, “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” He is referring to when Joseph was sold to the Midianites. So, the events of the chapter must have taken place in the twenty-two-year period between the sale of Joseph and the departure of Jacob’s family for Egypt. There were thirteen years before Joseph’s promotion to prime minister, followed by seven years of good crops and two years of famine.[5] It seems that Judah cannot bear the actions of his brothers and the resulting grief of his father. He travels northwest from Hebron to another tribal territory called Adullam where he meets a man called Hira. Judah had flocks pasturing 4 miles north of Adullam at Timnah (38:12).

There in Adullam, Judah took a Canaanite wife, based more on chemistry than principle. “There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.” Whenever you see the verbs “saw” and “took” together in Genesis, you should hear a bell go off in your head. These are references to what the aging Apostle John preached to his tiny congregation in Ephesus (1 Jn. 2:15-17):

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.[6]

Eve saw and took. The Nephilim saw and took. Esau saw and took. Now Judah sees and takes a pagan wife (with no evidence of “missionary dating” involved). Moses does not even tell us the name of this pagan wife, only her father’s name (Shua). By the unnamed pagan, Judah breeds three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er came of age, Judah arranged a pagan marriage for him with Tamar. Judah’s sons were wicked (6, 10). Er was so wicked (living among a pagan people, no less) that YHWH put him to death before he and Tamar could produce a son.

In the ancient Near East, marital laws stipulated that if a husband died without an heir his brother was to produce a son with the widow in order to continue the family lineage. Since Er was the firstborn and Onan was the next in line for inheritance, any child Onan and Tamar produced would receive the majority of Judah’s estate. Onan’s portion of the estate would be significantly reduced if he did his familial duty. He wanted the rights of the firstborn for himself. So, he gave the outward appearance of fulfilling his duty while refusing to do so behind closed doors. The Lord put Onan to death as well (38:7-10). Poor Tamar was now twice widowed, and Judah has no clue why. So, he concludes Tamar is “bad luck.”

There’s no way Judah is going to give her his final son, Shelah. He lies to Tamar and promises that when Shelah comes of age, he will give him the job of producing a son and first-born heir with Tamar.

11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

Tamar took Judah at his word and went home to stay with her parents. But Moses tells us what was in Judah’s heart – superstition and fear. We’ll see very shortly just how superstitious Judah was. Judah effectively removed Tamar from his household. Being a destitute widow, she had no legal remedy. Moreover, she was effectively cut off from God’s covenant people. But she was not cut off from God. R. Kent Hughes writes:

…we know that Judah would become the principal tribe in Israel, the royal tribe through which Israel’s King would come. But at that time the line of Judah faced extinction. Er was dead. Likewise, Onan was no more. And Judah had manipulated Tamar away from Shelah. Of course, with the passing of time and Shelah’s maturity, Tamar came to understand the bitter truth— she had been permanently sidelined.[7]

TAMAR’S PLAN (12-19)

What could Tamar do? Judah has superstitiously concluded she is bad luck. He is as steeped in pagan myths as his surrounding Canaanite culture. But a window of opportunity opens up for her when Judah’s wife dies. Her father-in-law will be visiting his friend Hirah at sheep-shearing time. Sheepshearing time was not only a season of hard work, but also a time of pagan partying and cultic fertility practices. Cult prostitutes would be out selling their services as fertility magic to ensure bountiful crops and herds. Tamar knows her father-in-law, though a prince of Israel and heir to God’s covenant promises, will participate in the fertility magic just like all the other Canaanites. Moses writes:

13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.

Her quick disguise brings back memories of Rebekah’s hurried disguising of Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. It also recalls Leah’s veiling herself to deceive Jacob on what he thought was his wedding night with Rachel. Tamar, it turns out, knows how to play her role perfectly. She comes across as all business when Judah sees her and turns her way.

16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.”

Judah is hooked and reeled into this sad combination of lust and demonic fertility magic. Though Judah has been content to let Tamar languish in her childless widowhood for ages, he must have his cult prostitute right away. Rather than go fetch a payment for her services and return, he pledges the modern equivalent of his driver’s license and social security card – his most personal items that declared his personal and family identity. His signet was a cylinder seal worn as a necklace with a cord around the neck. His shepherd’s staff would also have been elaborately carved in a manner distinctive to Judah and his family. With the transaction concluded, three generations of falsehood have come about, each involving a personal item and a goat. Jacob deceived Isaac by wearing a goatskin. Judah deceived Jacob by dipping Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood. And now Tamar has deceived Judah, and the deceit involved disguise, items of identity, and a goat.

It’s ironic that Judah goes to a fertility cult prostitute to magically fertilize his pasturelands and flocks and winds up fertilizing his discarded disguised daughter-in-law instead. “So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood” (18b-19). God has used Judah’s sinful demon worship and lust to continue the line of his Promised Seed. The child she conceived on Er’s behalf was not a grandson of Judah, but a son. Tamar become the progenitrix of Judah’s line. This Canaanite woman became a principle matriarch in Israel.


Jacob/Israel had required Judah and the rest of his servants and family to ceremonially wash themselves and give up their demon idols before entering the Promised Land. Judah could not claim ignorance when he participated in pagan rituals. Ashamed, he asks his friend to return to the prostitute with her payment and retrieve his personal items from hock. But the cult prostitute was gone. Both Judah and Hirah agreed to forget the matter so Judah would not become a local laughingstock (20-23). His relative morality was at a low point. He was about to briefly get a boost in his public self-righteousness.

Infidelity during an engagement period was considered adultery, and adultery was a capital offense. Technically, Tamar was engaged to Shelah even though Judah had no intention of holding the marriage. Now, he believes he has a way to rid himself of this “husband-killing” woman once and for all and make himself appear righteous in the process. When Tamar came to the end of her first trimester, the suspense must have been unbearable. Soon she would no longer be able to hide her pregnancy. Then, “24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” Judah asked no questions. Now he could show himself as the morally-superior wounded party and avenging judge AND solve the Tamar problem. He passes sentence at once. Burn her! Such open, mindless brutality pours out of Judah.

As she is taken into custody and led to her execution, her months of planning bring her moment of triumph. She sends Judah his symbols of legal identity. “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff” (25b). Now Judah’s shame and humiliation he had worked so hard to hide months before are on full display for all his family and friends to see. He is forced to admit that each of the items were his. Recall 37:22 from last week when Jacob/Israel’s sons handed their father a bloody royal robe and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.[8] Now Judah is exposed by the same method he and his brothers had used to bring grief to his father and cover over their sin.

Every good literary novel involves characters that undergo personal changes through life circumstances. The main characters, at least, do not remain static. In other words, great works of fiction reflect real life. People change. Judah’s real-life story reached a dramatic turning point in this scene. He changed from a self-righteous, mostly-pagan man who traffics with the demonic culture around him into a humbler man forced to confront his own sins. He responded to Tamar’s triumph with a public admission, abandoning his relative morality. “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (26b).

Judah admitted that Tamar was justified in taking matters into her own hands. In doing so, he admitted that he had been unrighteous. Tamar was exalted. Judah was humbled. This is the first hint of change taking place in Judah as he publicly admits to moral failure. His admission suggests he has learned something. He will continue to learn and grow in the fear and knowledge of YHWH during the years preceding the events of chapter 44, where he acts as a righteous man before Joseph. There he will plead for the safety of Benjamin and offer his life as a pledge to save the life of his younger brother.

The hidden hand of God forced Judah to confront his sins. God used Tamar’s example of perseverance to remain in Israel’s family, and Joseph’s actions in dealing with his starving, desperate family, and many other life circumstances to conform Judah into a type (a rough picture) of his descendant, the Promised Seed – the Lord Jesus Christ.


As Jacob’s story began with twins wrestling in Rachel’s womb, so now toward the end of Jacob’s narrative there is another set of struggling twins (one chosen, and one passed over).

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

As with Jacob/Israel and Esau, the twins’ struggle created a reversal in the right of the firstborn. In both cases, the younger ascended over the older, showing yet again that God has free will to elect whom he wants. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy of ten generations from Perez to King David (4:18-22). Matthew quotes the same genealogy, adding to it the further generations leading to the Promised Seed. Jesus’ Judaic lineage begins with Tamar who scratched and clawed her way into Israel and secured for Judah the honor of fathering King David and King Jesus, savior of the world.

Tamar the Canaanite, who began her life outside the covenant people of God, dead in her sins and with no hope of salvation, became a savior of the line of Christ Jesus by God’s free-will choice. She stubbornly clung to the people of Israel even when her own father-in-law tried to cast her away. She proved an example of the Abrahamic Covenant – that all peoples of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. The story of Judah and Tamar teaches us that God arranges our circumstances to grow us for his purposes. He is always at work in the lives of people, particularly his people called by his name, shaping them to serve his design, as he did with Judah and Tamar.

All earthly life is God’s canvas. He is not simply active when we study the bible, or have quiet times, or pray, or do church. He is present and active in the City of Man and in the City of God. When you wake up tomorrow, you cannot wake up to a day without God. Tomorrow is God’s day. He made it. He decreed it in entirety past. You can wake up determined to have your own way or his way. In either case, his will is going to be done. Perhaps you carry the guilt of some great sin – whether everyone or any other person knows of it – and the devil is telling you that you are no longer of any use to God. When he does, take him back to this messy story of Judah and Tamar, so splattered with sin, and see how God’s work never stops and how he uses even our worst sins to his glory and our good.

People are not static. They change. God changes haters into lovers, hiders into seekers, the stubborn into the willing, the hopeless into the hopeful. There is always cause for great optimism that both things and people can change because, as Paul wrote to the tiny church at Philippi, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.[9] Believing that we change, we can trust the fact that surprising grace lies ahead.

One final note. Tamar is the first of five women listed in the genealogy of Christ as Matthew records it in chapter one of his gospel account. “There is Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), Bathsheba (identified as “the wife of Uriah,” v. 6), and Mary (v. 16). Notably absent are the great mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. Why only the four, and then Mary? First, all four of Mary’s predecessors were Gentiles. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabitess, and Bathsheba was a Hittite. Thus, Tamar and company declare that in Christ there is hope for the Gentile nations.”[10] There is hope for anyone, regardless of their birth status, their race, their language, or their past.

Each of these four women had an irregular and scandalous past. Nevertheless, their lives were links in the chain to Jesus. Each of them prepared the way for Mary, whose marital situation was also peculiar – pregnant but not yet married. The inclusion of Tamar in this family tree foreshadows the circumstances of Christ’s birth and tampers any attack on Mary. God works his perfect will in the midst of whispers and scandal. His hidden hand is at work in each and every human circumstance. He is the God history and the God of the future – always at work for the good of those trusting in the perfectly-lived life of the risen and ascended Christ imputed to us as our right standing with God, and into his sacrificial blood-shedding death as the payment for our condition of sin.

If you are trusting into the person and work of the Promised Seed, you can sing with Judah’s descendant, King David:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, 3who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. [11]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 38:1–11.

[2] H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 2, chaps. 20–50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942, rev. 1979), 990.

[3] Boice, 3:894.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 24:3–4.

[5] Boice, op. cit.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 2:15–17.

[7] Hughes, 453. Kindle Edition.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 37:32.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 2:13.

[10] Hughes, 456. Kindle Edition.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 103:2–5.