Jewels amidst dung: The heights and depths of a flyover chapter, Genesis 38

The thirty-eighth chapter of Genesis is one of those which, if you’re on a “read the Bible in a year” plan, you’re probably tempted to skip, or at least read in fast-forward. It’s a chapter in which the word God is not found, and the name of God is mentioned only twice (both times in terms of stark judgment), and contains such vile behavior the reader might even question why it’s in the Bible and/or what kind of spiritual or practical benefit it might have.

Such treatment of any passage of Scripture, though, betrays a conviction the Bible is inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient for everything pertaining to life and godliness. It contradicts anyone who believes Paul was right and truthful when He said “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). The task of the pastor-teacher and the student of Scripture (which should be everyone) should be to mine the depths of any passage to find the precious jewels, trusting that the Lord would not have spoken it in His word in vain.

Just what are the jewels, then, from a chapter like Genesis 38? Well, they are found in the midst of much dung, much sin. But just as 1 Corinthians 10:6 teaches us that episodes of the Old Testament happened, in part, as examples for us, “so that we would not crave evil things as they [Israel] also craved,” we find in Genesis 38 some bad examples to avoid. 

Beware the sin of Er

Er was the firstborn son of Judah, who took a Canaanite woman, the daughter of a man named Shua, for a wife. That the wife is not named may indicate she did not share the faith of Judah; that is, although Judah was by no means perfect, she didn’t even have nominal fear of YHWH.

The time came for Er, probably in his late teens, to marry, so Judah took a wife for him, Tamar. But then, all of the sudden we are told in Genesis 38:7, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of YHWH, so YHWH took his life.” That it says he was evil and not simply that he did evil may indicate a lifelong pattern of depravity, for as long as the Lord allowed him to live. In any event, he was so evil God took him out, took his life.

Er was obviously a man who did not love God at all. He was an unbeliever, and apparently a vile unbeliever at that. We are told nothing of his specific sins but what we do have is communicated in such a way as to indicate outlandish rebellion against the God of his father, Judah. The lesson, then, is that rebellion against God will get you judgment from God.

The short report on Er’s life and death stands as a warning to all who read it: rebel against God, do evil in the sight of YHWH, at your own peril — because there will be peril.

Beware the sin of Onan

Er’s death left his wife, Tamar, a childless widow, and this became a problem because as the wife of Judah’s firstborn she had a right to be the mother of the heir. In the Law of Moses which would come later we see the remedy to this type of situation codified by levirate marriage, which comes into play in the book of Ruth, where Boaz acts as her kinsman redeemer.

Clearly, the culture Judah lived in also demanded some form of levirate marriage. We know there were other near eastern codes, such as Hammurabi, in existence. It’s also possible God had instructed the family of Jacob in this way, and it’s just not revealed in Scripture. Nevertheless, it wasn’t questioned why Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. He had a duty to raise up offspring for his brother, so levirate marriage was in place even before Moses.

Except Onan, when he went in to Tamar, “wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother” (Gen 38:9). Without going into analysis about the action itself, Onan was willing to get the sexual gratification out of such an arrangement, without fulfilling his familial responsibility, not unlike the plethora of deadbeat dads and women who seek abortions today.

Onan was willing to use what was essentially a religious exercise to gratify his fleshly desires, and many people do the same today. Under the guise of faith and faithfulness they use religious practices to please themselves (in many other ways than sexual). The end result, of course, is that this was “displeasing in the sight of YHWH; so He took his life also” (Gen 38:10); therefore, we are warned not to use religion, not use the church, to satisfy our own fleshly/worldly desires.

Beware the sin of Tamar

While Tamar is not criticized in Scripture, it’s clear she isn’t blameless in her behavior. To be clear, she is treated unfairly by Judah. After the death of Onan, Judah does not give her to his third son, Shelah. He says it’s because he is too young, which he may have been at the time, but the real reason is that he doesn’t want Shelah to die like his brothers (Gen 38:11). Thus, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for Shelah to grow up.

Except he grows up and…. nothing. So “after a considerable time,” when Tamar realizes Judah isn’t going to give her to Shelah, she hears Judah is going to Timnah, so she takes off her widow’s garments and adorns herself with a veil to pose as a temple prostitute, and well, Judah goes in to her, and Tamar conceives.

Tamar uses deception willingly and engages in sexual immorality with her father-in-law willingly. Yes, it is to fulfill her right to be mother of an heir within the covenant family, which she no doubt had learned about from Judah and/or Er. Nevertheless, while Scripture doesn’t condemn her and this is clearly a case of God using evil for His good purposes, her behavior isn’t to be celebrated nor emulated. Those in Christ today should not sin or excuse sin in order to bring about what might be thought of as a good result, but we should obey Jesus in all respects and leave what happens up to the sovereign hand of God.

Beware the sin of Judah

Judah is really guilty of multiple sins in chapter 38, but they are summed up in the opening verse where we are told he “departed from his brothers.” Considering his brothers were no wonderful men this may not seem like a big thing, but the reality is he was departing from the household of his father, as if in the aftermath of selling his brother into slavery he went through a spiritual crisis which led to many other sins.

First, Judah takes a Canaanite wife who apparently has no use for his God and apparently had more spiritual influence over his sons than he did.

Second, as just noted, it’s obvious he didn’t lead his sons to become men who feared and worshiped YHWH.

Third, his abandonment of Tamar led her to a point of desperation at which point she resorted to sin.

Fourth, he went in to Tamar thinking she was a temple prostitute. No matter how it turned out, that sexual immorality cannot be excused.

Fifth and finally, his quickness to put her to death for her sexual immorality made him a hypocrite.

However, it can be said that when pregnant Tamar revealed the seal, the cord, and the staff to Judah, he was quick to recognize they were his seal, his cord, his staff, and his child. He did not take Tamar as a wife but clearly set out to care for her and the child to come. His statement, “She is more righteous than I” is his Nathan-to-David “You are the man” moment (Gen 38:26; c.f. 2 Sam 12:7), and like David about 800 or so years later, here Judah is humbled and repentant, and this really does seem to be a turning point in his life, as he assumes a mantle of leadership among his brothers after the previous failures of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. And of course, through Judah would come Jesus.

Pointing us to Christ

Speaking of Jesus, it can hardly be argued through New Testament eyes that one of the reasons the Holy Spirit ordained this sordid episode to be recorded in His word in the first place is that it has to do with the line through which the Messiah would come.

Tamar gave birth to twins, and one Perez would go to have Hezron, who had Ram, who had Amminidab, who had Nahshon, who had Salmon, who had… Boaz. So the end result of the Tamar’s failed levirate marriage God used for good to bring about the levirate marriage of Boaz and Ruth, whose son was Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David (Ruth 4:18–22).

Jesus, of course, was the Son of David, a descendant of the king, of the tribe of Judah. Genesis 38, then, is a chapter full of dung. But if we take the time to read it and dig our way through it, we find that even in a chapter like this there are precious jewels, both theological and practical, to mine — pointing us to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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