Sunday, January 30, 2011

Genesis 38 - Judah and Tamar

LINK: Genesis 38


Many people wonder why this chapter is stuck in the middle of the story of Joseph. In a nutshell, it has to do with the scarlet thread of redemption! Tamar's first-born, Perez (means "breach"), was in the lineage of King David and Jesus. If you go to Matthew 1, you will see in verse three that "Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez was the father of . . . until we get to verse sixteen of the genealogy and "Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah." Don't be confused that Zerah had a scarlet thread tied around him. That is not the scarlet thread I have been talking about!

In 38:8, Judah asked Onan to go into Tamar since she was his brother's widow. This was a custom known as "Levirite marriage" (levir means "husband's brother" in Latin). It is more thoroughly explained in the Mosaic Law (the law God gave to Moses) in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. If one brother died without a male heir, one of his brothers was to marry the dead brother's widow. The first son of that union would take the name and privileges of the deceased brother. Even though the Mosaic Law came later, it appeared to be a part of the patriarchal customs. We see this law fleshed out in the book of Ruth.

Basically, what Onan did by wasting his seed on the ground was not pleasing to the Lord, and the Lord took him. This form of birth control is now called "onanism" after Onan.

In Tamar's mind, if she did not do anything, the future of her family would be in jeopardy. So, she took matters in her own hands by posing as a prostitute. It is not justified, but this is what happened.

The Canaanites practiced cult prostitution as a way to promote fertility for the land and the animals. The goddess, Ishtar, was represented by young women who would dress in a veil to symbolize being the bride of Baal or El (both Canaanite gods). In God's economy, this is sinful behavior, but in Canaanite culture, it was seen to be a more "acceptable" practice because it was a reenactment of divine marriage and was believed to help the crops and livestock. Ritual prostitution had a higher social "status" than just ordinary prostitution because of this. 

Judah, because of his Canaanite wives, was obviously caught up in Canaanite culture too. "When in Canaan, do as the Canaanites do." No wonder God had a plan to get them all to Egypt and away from this influence!


I always struggle with this story because it involves evil, deception, and sexual sin outside of marriage. Judah had sex with a woman he thought was a prostitute. There was no condemnation for Tamar acting as a prostitute, but God killed Onan for not fulfilling his obligation to continue his brother's family line. After Judah discovered Tamar's motive in posing as a prostitute, Judah proclaimed her more righteous! It is a most perplexing chapter, but I have to keep the larger picture in mind: that God had a plan, and that plan was ultimately to have Jesus be born through the line of Judah. It is also a story that illustrates the habits of Canaanite culture, and how God had a plan to pluck them out of the midst of this to preserve His chosen people. Stay tuned.

Laura, a member of the Bible Book Club in the first cycle, and I talked about this (that is why I love reading the Bible in community so we can discuss what we are learning).  Judah certainly did not DESERVE to be the ancestor of David, who would eventually lead to Jesus, because he had not shown himself very worthy of that honor by suggesting they sell Joseph to traders (although some commentators argue that, by doing this, he was protecting Joseph from being killed), marrying Canaanite wives, denying his daughter-in-law his other son, and sleeping with her as a prostitute; but I have to say that I do not deserve God's favor either! Yet He gives it to me through His Son who died for all my sin. That is why it is called undeserved grace.

I do like this chapter for one reason: it contrasts the immoral character of Judah with the moral character of his brother, Joseph, who handled sexual temptation quite differently than his brother. Stay tuned!


I am continuing to write what I learn about God from this chapter and journaling about it. What is your "I will" statement in response to this chapter?


Lord, I can only sing praise to You right now. None of us deserve the grace that You have shown us in Jesus Christ. Help us to remember this. In His name we pray, AMEN.
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