Genesis 38


A few weeks ago, when we were studying chapter 34, and the story of what Shechem the son of Hamor did to Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and what Jacob’s sons did to the city of Shechem afterwards, I said it was the kind of chapter which makes you wonder why it’s in the Bible. Why do we have to read this story of sex and violence and what can we possibly learn from it? Well, this chapter is perhaps even worse. In this chapter we read of the shameful thing Onan did and the shameful thing Judah did. This is definitely not the kind of thing you expect to read on a Sunday evening when you come to church.

Well, a few weeks ago, Yvonne warned me of what was coming up and she wanted to know what was I going to do? Was I going to skip this chapter and move from chapter 37 to chapter 39 and pretend that chapter 38 does not exist? Well, I wasn’t sure what to do. I went online to see what other ministers have done and discovered that some of my colleagues — who are smarter than me — have divided the book of Genesis into several series of sermons. You know, they would do a series on the life of Abraham; and on the life of Isaac; and on the life of Jacob; and on the life of Joseph. That way, they could leave out chapter 38 because it’s not directly relevant to the life of Joseph. Had I thought of that in the beginning, before starting this series, I could have done something similar. But here I am, preaching a series of sermons on the book of Genesis; on all of it. So I can’t avoid it.

But, of course, we need to remember once again Paul’s words to Timothy, a young minister.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

So, Paul said to Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed. In other words, it was written under his inspiration. So, by the Holy Spirit, he inspired Moses to write this chapter so that it could be included in his word and read to his people. All Scripture is God-breathed.

And then, Paul said to Timothy that all Scripture is useful. God has given us this chapter because it’s of use to us. It will benefit us in some way.

So, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful, said Paul. Well, if we believe that, then we must believe that this story of Onan’s shame and Judah’s shame is breathed out by God and is useful for us.

And, what did Paul go on to say to Timothy? He said:

Preach the word.

The word was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And God gave it to his people because it’s useful for us. Therefore, Paul said: Preach it! Preach all of it. Preach the whole counsel of God.

And, of course, while we may be tempted to leave a chapter like this out, we must never think that we’re wiser than God. We’re tempted to do this all the time. It started in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve decided that they knew better than God, and that it would be a good for them to eat the forbidden fruit. But they were wrong, weren’t they? And we can think that we’re wiser than God about what to include and what to leave out of his word. We can think that a chapter like this will not be good for us to hear. But God is far, far, far wiser than us. He always knows what is best. And he has thought it best to include this chapter in our Bibles. And so, we ought to bow before him and submit to his will for us and listen to his word and pray that we will receive it with faith and humility and obedience.

Judah and Joseph

So, let’s turn to it now. And the first thing to notice is how this chapter relates to the story of Joseph which we began to study last week. And perhaps it strikes us as odd. Why did Moses begin to tell us about Joseph, but then break off that story almost immediately and start telling us about Judah? My youngest likes to watch the X Factor. And it seems that the programme has only just started and there’s break for the ads. And it seems that’s what’s happening here. The story of Joseph has just started, and now there’s a break. What’s going on?

Well, Moses has done this deliberately, hasn’t he? He wants us to compare and contrast Joseph and Judah. For instance, in verse 1 of chapter 38 we read how Judah, of his own free will, left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. This man was a Canaanite. In other words, he was a pagan. And it seems he became Judah’s friend. So, Judah went down there of his own free will. Compare that with verse 1 of chapter 39, where we read how Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. He too was taken among the pagans. But he was taken by force. He was taken as a slave. So, both of them have left their father’s home. One did it willingly, freely; the other was taken by force.

And then, of course, chapter 38 tells of Judah’s shame and of what he did when he met this woman he believed to be a prostitute. By contrast, in chapter 39 we read of how Potiphar’s wife wanted to sleep with Joseph, but he refused. He said to her:

How could I do this wicked thing and sin against God? And he fled from her.

So, one was upright; the other was not.

And then, of course, who did Judah marry? Verse 2 of chapter 38: He married the daughter of a Canaanite man. So, not only was his friend a pagan, but so was his wife. But that wasn’t right, was it? Remember how Abraham sent his servant far away to find a wife for Isaac, because he didn’t want his son marrying a pagan? And remember how Isaac and Rebekah were so upset because Esau married pagan women? And they too sent Jacob away to find a suitable wife. That’s what Abraham and Isaac thought of the women of Canaan. But look now: Judah has done what his grandparents dreaded. He’s married a Canaanite; a pagan; someone who was not a member of God’s covenant people.

Well now, Joseph also married a pagan. But, in a sense, he had no choice, because his brothers had sent him to Egypt. However, whenever his wife bore him sons, Joseph gave his sons names which were designed to remind him of God’s faithfulness. He named one Manassah which means ‘forget’, because the Lord had made him forget all his troubles. And he named the other one Ephraim which means ‘twice fruitful’, because the Lord had made him fruitful in the land of Egypt.

So do you see? Judah left his father’s home and married a pagan and he seemed to get drawn into that kind of life. But Joseph, who was forced to leave his father’s home, nevertheless seems to have kept his faith. He kept trusting in the Lord to help him.

Well, when you go into a jewellers, the jeweller will have dark cloths on the counter. And the reason the jeweller has dark cloths on the counter is to show off the diamonds. The diamonds will seem to sparkle all the more brightly when set against the dark background. And in these chapters, we see the perfect purity of Joseph all the more clearly because it’s set against the darkness of his brother’s life. And Joseph’s righteousness seems to shine all the more brightly when it’s set against the shame and the sin and the unrighteousness of his brother’s life.

So, we’re meant to compare and contrast Joseph and Judah. And that’s one reason why chapter 38 is here and why it’s important: Judah’s shame helps us to appreciate all the more Joseph’s righteousness.

Verses 1 to 11

Let me run through the verses quickly. And then, at the end, I’ll make two points. So, first of all, in verses 1 to 11, we read how Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with this Canaanite man. He then married a Canaanite woman and had three sons with her.

Years passed and Judah got a wife, called Tamar, for his firstborn son, Er. But Er was wicked in the Lord’s sight. We don’t know what he did, but whatever it was, it provoked the Lord’s anger and the Lord put him to death.

Judah then instructed his second son, Onan, to take Tamar as his wife. And look at verse 8: he explained that Onan was to fulfil his duty to Tamar as a brother-in-law. What was his duty to Tamar as a brother-in-law? Well, he was to enable Tamar to have a child. This apparently was the custom in those days. And, in fact, the practice was included in the law of Moses. You can read about it in Deuteronomy 25. The purpose of this law, according to Moses, was to keep the dead brother’s name from being blotted out in Israel. So, te surviving brother would have a son on behalf of his dead brother so that the dead man’s name would continue down through the generations. Moreover, since in those days you didn’t have social security, this law meant that a widow wouldn’t be left without anyone to help her in her old age. No, her husband’s brother would enable her to have children of her own; and they would be able to support her in her old age. It all seems a strange custom to us, but it was common in those days.

But, of course, on this occasion, Onan may have been thinking that he didn’t want Tamar to have a son. If Tamar had a son, then that son would have a share in Judah’s inheritance. And Onan presumably did want to share his father’s inheritance with Tamar’s son. And so, he did what he could to prevent Tamar from conceiving.

Well, he may have been able to hide what he was doing from his father, but he couldn’t hide what he was doing from the Lord. And what he was doing was wicked in the sight of the Lord. It was wicked because he was deliberately failing to do his duty to Tamar. He was prepared to let her remain a lonely widow with no children to support her in her old age. And so, because of this wicked thing, the Lord put Onan to death.

Well now, this is pretty frightening, isn’t it? That’s two sons who have been put to death by the Lord for their wickedness. However, Judah seems to think that the problem was not so much the wickedness of his sons, but that there was something wrong with Tamar. Look at verse 11: He doesn’t want his third son to marry Tamar in case he dies too. You know, she’s bad luck. And so, Judah sent her away. Do you see that at the end of verse 11? Instead of looking after Tamar himself, in his own home — which is what he should have done — he sent her back to her father’s house. And though he said that Tamar could marry his third son whenever his third son was old enough, he didn’t really mean it. He sent her away so she wouldn’t be able to do anything to cause his third son from dying prematurely.

Verses 12 to 30

In verse 12 we read that after a long time, Judah’s wife died. That means Tamar has been a widow for a long time. And it’s clear to her now that Judah has no intention of letting his third son marry her. So, she’s a widow. And she’s childless. Who will look after her and support her in her old age? And so, she decided to do something about it.

However, there’s perhaps something else going on here. Some of the commentators regard Tamar as a believer. They suggest that she believed all of God’s promises to Jacob. So she believed that God would make Jacob and his descendants into a great nation. She believed that God would give Jacob and his descendants the land of Canaan as their own. And she believed that kings would come from Jacob and his descendants. And so, because she believed those promises, she wanted to make sure that she too would have a son who would be part of God’s people. And who knows? Who knows? Perhaps kings would come from her offspring too. So, because she believed God’s promises, she wanted to ensure that she would have a son to inherit God’s promises.

Well, her first husband was dead. Her second husband was dead. It was clear that Shelah would never be her husband. So, the only solution was to have a child by Judah, her father-in-law. And she hatched this plan.

And Judah fell for it. He assumed the woman he met on the side of the road was a prostitute. They agreed a price; and they slept together. And Jacob left his seal, and his belt and his staff as a guarantee that full payment would be made in due course.

But she didn’t wait around to be paid, because she didn’t want money; what she wanted was a son. And when it became clear that she was pregnant, and whenever her angry relatives gathered round to punish her for being immoral, she revealed who the father was. And look at verse 26: Judah was convicted of his own sin and shame. He said:

She is more righteous than I am.

And in due course, she gave birth, not to one son, but to twin sons. And their birth reminds us of the birth of Jacob and Esau. Remember how Jacob and Esau smashed together in their mother’s womb? And when Esau was born, we’re told he was red; he was covered in red hair. Well, in this chapter, chapter 38, the two boys seem to be fighting in their mother’s womb to see who would be born first. One stuck out his hand, and the nurse tied something around it? What did she tie around it? She tied a red thread around it. But the other son came out first. So Zerah, with the red thread, would have been first; but his brother, Perez, beat him to it, just as Esau, with his red hair, should have been first; but his brother, Jacob, took over as the pre-eminent son in the family.

Spirit and flesh

Well now, having run through the passage, let me make two points to try to show what the significance of this chapter is for us.

First of all, this chapter highlights for us one of the perennial problems every believer faces. It’s the problem, or the temptation, of living according to the flesh; instead of living according to the Spirit.

We’ve been thinking about this on Wednesday evenings as we’ve studied the book of Romans. Since God will forgive us, shall we go on sinning, someone asked? And Paul said ‘No!’ We died with Christ to our old way of life; and we were raised with Christ to live a new kind of life. We’ve died to sin, said Paul, and we can no longer live in it; and we were raised with Christ, said Paul, in order that we might live lives of righteousness.

And Paul went on to say that we were once ‘in the flesh’. And when he says we were ‘in the flesh’ he means we once lived in the realm of the human only, and the earthly, which, since Adam’s fall, is characterised by sin and death. But believers are no longer in the flesh. Now we’re in the Spirit. And the realm of the Spirit, is characterised by righteousness and life.

Now, think again about Judah. He’s a member of God’s covenant people. He’s a member of the Old Testament church. But look how he’s living! Verse 1 again: he left his brothers and went to stay with this Canaanite man. And this man seems to have become his best friend, because he’s mentioned again in verse 20 where he goes and does a favour for Judah. Then in verse 2 we read how Judah married this Canaanite woman. So, his best friend is a pagan and his wife is a pagan. These are people who do not know the Lord and they do not worship him or seek to walk in his ways. And Judah has made them his closest companions.

Then in verse 11 he deceived Tamar about the possibility of marrying his third son. And instead of supporting Tamar himself, as he should have done as her father-in-law, he sent her back to her father’s house. So, instead of loving her, and caring for her, he abandoned her.

And then we have verse 15 when he met Tamar on the road. She’d disguised herself so he did not recognise her. But he thought she was a prostitute; and he was ready to sleep with her. It was a shameful thing for one of God’s people to do.

And, of course, in those days, prostitution was often deeply connected to pagan worship. And so, it’s possible, it’s possible that Judah’s Canaanite companions have drawn him into their own pagan worship.

Judah acts shamefully in this chapter. He was living according to the flesh — following his sinful thoughts and desires — when he should have been living according to the Spirit — following the ways of the Holy Spirit which wants us to do only what’s right.

And that’s what we’re to do, because all of us who believe in the Lord Jesus have received his Spirit who lives in us. And instead of living according to the flesh, as Judah did, and as we once did before we believed, we’re to live according to the Spirit, doing his will, and living lives of righteousness and obedience and godliness while we wait for the glory to come.

Or, we can think of what the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4 about how we must no longer walk as the Gentiles do; and he means we must no longer walk as unbelievers do. We must no longer walk as they do in the futility of their minds. Well, that’s what Judah was doing. He was walking and living as his pagan wife and pagan friend and his pagan neighbours were doing. Don’t walk like that, Paul says to us. Put off your old sinful self; and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

That’s the way we’re to be as those who belong to Jesus Christ and who have been filled with his Sprit. But again and again and again, we find ourselves giving in to the temptations of the Devil; and we find ourselves giving in to the enticements of the world around us; and we find ourselves living according to the flesh; when we should always, always, always live according to the Spirit of God who lives in us.

Well, many years before the events in chapter 38, God promised to give Abraham and his descendants the Promised Land. And we’ve seen before that God’s promise to Abraham of a place to live in was fulfilled in an earthly and temporary way in the land of Israel. However, we’ve also seen that the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham was looking for, and longing for, a better country than the land of Israel. He was longing for the Promised Land of Eternal Life; the new heavens and the new earth where all of God’s people will live for ever and ever.

And so, Abraham knew that his citizenship was not down here, on the earth, with all its sin and shame; this is not really where he belonged. No, he knew that his citizenship was in heaven, with God his Saviour, where there is righteousness and peace.

Well, here’s Judah now. He’s an heir of all the promises God made to Abraham. But look, he’s forgotten that he’s a citizen of heaven. He’s forgotten that better country which God has prepared for him and for all who believe. He’s no longer longing for the heavenly kingdom; instead he’s satisfied with living on the earth with his pagan wife and his pagan friend and his pagan neighbours. Instead of thinking about the glory to come, all he’s thinking about are the pleasures he can find on the side of the road with a strange woman. In other words, instead of lifting his eyes to heaven, and living according to the Spirit, Judah was thinking only of this world, and he was living according to the flesh.

And so, when we read this chapter, it says to us:

Come on. Come on. God has something far, far, far better in store for you than this kind of life. Stop thinking about this world; and remember heaven and the glory to come. And stop thinking about the sinful desires of the flesh; and remember the Spirit of God in you. So, come on now. Don’t walk according to the flesh as Judah did. Walk according to the Spirit who lives in you, because those who walk according to the flesh will die if they keep walking that way and do not repent. But those who walk according to the Spirit will live for ever and ever in the glory to be revealed.

Good from evil

Well, the final thing to say today is this — and I’ll be brief — one of the lessons from the story of Joseph is that God is able to bring great good out of evil. Joseph’s brothers intended to do evil to him. They sold him into slavery, because they hated him. But God was working in the background, guiding and directing all that happened to Joseph, in order to ensure that Joseph was in the right place at the right time to save his people from the famine in the land. So, great good came out of evil.

And we see the same thing in this chapter, because even though Judah did a shameful thing, nevertheless the Lord God brought something good out of his sin and shame. You see, Tamar gave birth to Zerah and Perez. And if you look up the list of names in Matthew 1 which form the Lord Jesus’s family tree, you’ll see Perez’s name is there, and Tamar’s name is there, and Judah’s name is there.

Judah did a shameful thing, but the Saviour of the world came from him. And so, we should all bow down and worship him, for his great wisdom and power, because he is the one, the only one who is able to work all things together — even our sins and our shame — he’s able to work all things together for good.