Genesis 38


We may be forgiven for wondering why Moses goes on to speak about Judah and his descendants, when he’s in the middle of telling us the story of Joseph. Coffin suggests the following concerning this chapter. ‘It is clear enough that the episode of this chapter is a vital link in the Toledoth (descendants) of Jacob’.

Willis says, ‘Although Joseph is the chief character in these chapters, Genesis 37-50, these chapters deal with the family of Jacob.

Keil also says, ‘This chapter is no interpolation, but an integral part of the history of Israel.’

This chapter deals with matters that cannot be the subject of social conversation, but they are honestly and plainly set forth.

Dummelow says, ‘The honesty and truthfulness of the historian are shown in his not concealing the dark spots in the history of Judah, whose descendants attained such greatness.’

Judah Marries A Canaanite Woman

‘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. Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so, the LORD put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan 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. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so, the LORD put him to death also. 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.’ So, Tamar went to live in her father’s household.’ Genesis 38:1-11

Here we find the record of Judah going out to the Canaanites, where he married a Canaanite woman. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and through whom the Saviour of the world would come, Genesis 49:8-12 / Matthew 1:2-3.

Judah made a big mistake of taking Shua’s daughter without even asking Shua himself, he even went on to marry her, Genesis 38:12.

Notice that Judah his son named Er, but it was his wife who named the other sons. The name ‘Er’ means watcher, the name ‘Onan’ means strong, but we don’t know what the name ‘Shelah’ means. Coffman says that ‘none of these first three sons of Judah was destined to receive the birthright, in all probability, because of the pagan persuasion of their mother. There might have been a strong aversion on the part of the mother to Judah’s choice of Tamar, evidently a believer in God, as the bride for her sons. Certainly, there was some reason why neither Er nor Onan consented to have a child by Tamar’.

Remember, Judah went ahead and got married to this Canaanite woman, without asking for her parent’s permission, but he himself then chooses a wife for his son Er, maybe he’s learning from his own mistake. Sadly, because of Er’s wicked behaviour, we’re not told what specific sins Er was committing, the Lord put him to death, Acts 5:1-11 / Acts 12:23 / Revelation 2:22.

Judah tells Onan to ‘sleep with his brother’s wife’, this was practiced to keep the family name going and to uphold the legacy of a brother who died before he had sons. If an older brother died, it was the duty of the next living brother to make love with the widow, the dead brother’s wife, and have children by her for the sake of continuing the future generations of the dead brother.

The children of the dead brother’s wife would then have all legal rights to the deceased’s property and be able to carry on the family lineage of the dead brother, Leviticus 21:9 / Deuteronomy 25:5 / Ruth 1:11-13 / Ruth 4:5-11. What we see happening in our text is Onan refusing to carry out his responsibility, and as a result, he God put him to death.


Now let’s discuss the ‘M’ word for a moment, we have male masturbation, female masturbation, adolescent masturbation and chronic masturbation. Is it a sin to masturbate?

Most churches apparently are because they avoid the masturbation topic as well as Osama bin Laden tried to evade captivity. This is a little ironic, to say the least, when survey after survey reveals a majority of single Christians of all different ages, males and females, have masturbated.

Personally, I can’t stand it when Christian teachers are so dogmatic on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of masturbatory activities because it’s such a complex issue, with many different topics connected to the practice.

The Bible is silent on the issue of masturbation even though the vast majority of humankind is preoccupied with it. The Roman Catholic Church, some Protestant denominations and even Webster’s Dictionary have attempted to equate ‘the sin of Onan’, Genesis 38:6-10, with masturbation, but a simple exegesis of these passages rule out this possibility.

‘If two brothers live on the same property and one of them dies, leaving no son, then his widow is not to be married to someone outside the family; it is the duty of the dead man’s brother to marry her.’ Deuteronomy 25:5.

When Onan refused out of selfishness, the Lord killed him. God didn’t whack Onan for masturbating, but rather for ‘spilling his seed’ by ejaculating outside of his dead brother’s wife during sexual intercourse.

When we think about Tamar, we can’t help but sympathise with her, she’s already been deceived by two husbands and now she’s going to be deceived by her father-in-law, Judah, because he had no intentions of marrying her to Shelah.

‘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. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,’ 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. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, ‘Come now, let me sleep with you.’ ‘And what will you give me to sleep with you?’ she asked. ‘I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,’ he said. ‘Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?’ she asked. He said, ‘What pledge should I give you?’ ‘Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,’ she answered. So, he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. Meanwhile Judah 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. He asked the men who lived there, ‘Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?’ ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,’ they said. So, he went back to Judah and said, ‘I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ Then Judah said, ‘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.’ Genesis 38:12-23

Judah’s wife dies and Tamar obviously wanted Shelah to be her husband in order to keep the family heritage of Er going, but this wasn’t going to happen. And although she herself has been deceived time and time again, she will go on to do some deceiving herself, she comes up with a plan to lure Judah into having children for Er’s sake.

Tamara goes to great lengths to disguise herself and Judah thinks she’s a prostitute, the word ‘prostitute’ used in verse 15 means someone who gives themselves in sex to honour a pagan god, but the word prostitute used in verses 21-22 means someone who stands in the street, offering sexual favours as a profession.

It’s well documented that prostitutes of any kind charge for their services, and it seems that Judah is more than willing to pay. We don’t really know the significance of the seal, the cord and the staff, it’s possible that the seal and the cord had the name of its owner written on them. They may have been expensive but remember Tamar isn’t doing this for the money, she wants them to use against Judah later when she becomes pregnant, so that she can continue in Er’s family heritage.

It appears that Judah is beginning to realise that sleeping with a prostitute was a mistake, he even sent a friend, with an offering to retrieve his pledge, but he could find her because Tamar had removed her veil and put her widow clothes back on. It’s clear that Judah has become very confused when he realises there are no prostitute shrines anywhere near where he lives.

‘About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.’ Judah said, ‘Bring her out and have her burned to death!’ As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these,’ she said. And she added, ‘See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’ Judah recognized them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not sleep with her again.’ Genesis 38:24-26

It took three months for word to get back to Judah that Tamar was pregnant because of prostitution and despite her being Judah’s daughter-in-law he has no hesitation is passing the death sentence, Leviticus 20:10.

Judah soon discovers that Tamar, despite pretending to be a prostitute wasn’t the real problem, it was Judah himself. After being presented with the seal, cord and staff, Judah made the remarkable declaration that ‘she is more righteous that I’.

Although Tamar isn’t innocent in all of this, Judah had neglected his legal responsibility in providing Shelah as a husband for Tamar in order for them to have children and carry forward Er’s heritage.

‘When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 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.’ 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. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.’ Genesis 38:27-30

Tamar gave birth to twin boys, the name Perez means breaking out and the name Zerah means scarlet. This again reminds us of why these events were written in-between the story of Joseph, they remind us that through Perez would come Boaz, then David, and eventually the Christ, 1 Chronicles 2:3-15 / Matthew 1:3-16 / Luke 3:23-33.

Why did God allow this event to happen?

Despite Tamar being deceived and deceiving others, she shows us that God loves all people and He can use anyone to bring about His will. He used this Canaanite woman because she turned away from paganism and turned to the One true God.

Go To Genesis 39



"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."

Psalm 37:4