The big question that arises in Genesis 38 is why is this event recorded here? Why does this story “interrupt” the flow of the Joseph narrative? You will notice in chapter 39 the narration returns to Joseph and continues with him until the end of Genesis. Some scholars reject this text by calling it an addition because it seems to break the flow of the Joseph story. But we know that God puts these stories in the scriptures for a reason. The scriptures do not contain random stories, but actual events purposefully placed in the scriptures to teach readers about God. So rather than be troubled by this chapter and its inclusion, we should ask what God is teaching us at this point. Genesis 37:2 records, “These are the generations of Jacob.” So it is not out of line for the scriptures to consider another son of Jacob, Judah, who is the subject of Genesis 38. Further, Judah is the one who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery. So the lens turns to him and we are to examine his life. While Joseph is in Egypt this is what Judah is doing in Canaan.
Judah, The Terrible
What we learn about Judah tells us there is nothing righteous about this son of Jacob. First, we told that Judah leaves his brothers and goes to Adullam and marries one of the women of Canaan. These events are a direct violation of God’s plan and promise for Abraham. Abraham specified that Isaac not marry a woman from Canaan (Genesis 24:3) and Isaac told Jacob not to marry a Canaanite woman either (Genesis 28:1). So Judah is going against God’s promise to Abraham. Judah leaves his family, lives in Adullam, marries a Canaanite woman, and has three children with her. Judah does not act like Abraham and Isaac, making sure that his children find wives from the family as God wanted. Rather, the oldest son, Er, marries a woman of the land, Tamar.
Verse 7 tells us a very matter of fact statement. Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death. Er is the first individual recorded in the scriptures to be killed by God. We are not told what he did. All that we can gather is that the amount of wickedness he was committing must have been extreme for God to kill him. God does not kill people regularly and is patient and longsuffering. So it is another picture of the wickedness of Judah and his family. Judah’s second son, Onan, is supposed to go to Tamar so that she can have children who will provide for her. Rather than providing her a child, he repeatedly uses her for his pleasure and so God kills him too (38:10). This leaves Judah’s final son, Shelah. But Judah does not give Shelah to Tamar because he fears that Shelah will also be killed by God (38:11). So Judah tells Tamar to wait until Shelah is older. So Tamar lives in her father’s house. It seems that she is out of sight and out of mind for Judah. He neglects her and forgets about her. Not only has Judah disregarded God’s covenant with Abraham, he is also a liar. Tamar is in a terrible condition with no children to provide for her or offer financial help to her.
If these sins were not enough, we learn that Judah also propositions women to sleep with him. Tamar uses this as an opportunity since she knows this is what he does. She dresses herself in a way to not be recognizable to Judah which causes Judah to think she is a prostitute. He tells her that he will pay her a young goat from his flock as payment for this act. Tamar asks for collateral until she is paid the goat. So he leaves her his signet, cord, and staff. In our language today, it would be similar to leaving our driver’s license. So Judah goes into her and goes away. Judah sends a person to pay her the goat, but she is not there anymore. Tamar, of course, has gone home and is wearing widow’s clothing again. So Judah considers it a loss. It is not that you are going to search the country asking about a prostitute.
Three months go by and Tamar is found to be pregnant. This news is brought to Judah. Judah declares that Tamar should be brought out and burned for her sexual immorality. A nice double standard for Judah since he has been sexually immoral himself, but calls for the immediate burning of his daughter-in-law. But listen to what Tamar says in verse 25.
As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “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.” (Genesis 38:25 ESV)
She turns the tables on Judah and proves that Judah is the one who has done this. Notice the similar language of Judah’s words to Jacob concerning Joseph going missing. “Please identify.” Just as Judah and the brothers said to Jacob to look at the coat to see if it was Joseph’s so Tamar says to Judah to identify these three items, which clearly belong to Judah. There is no doubt what Judah has done, as if his driver’s license was produced. Judah recognizes that he has been sinful toward Tamar by not giving her Shelah as he ought. When Tamar gives birth, she gives birth to twins. The situation is very similar to the situation of the twins, Jacob and Esau. The younger will rise to prominence over the older, just as Jacob rose over his older brother Esau. This ends the narration concerning Judah. We return to the original question: why is this in the scriptures and what are we supposed to learn?
God Can Overcome Your Sins
In Genesis 37 we learned that God is able to overcome when people sin against you. You may be suffering and afflicted because of the actions of others. But can overcome those sinful actions and uses the actions of the wicked to bring about his purposes. We saw these points in the life of Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery. Now we learn another point, a similar point, but just as important: God can overcome your sins. There is nothing righteous happening in Genesis 38. What is good in this story? What is the moral truth in this chapter? There is nothing morally good happening here. Judah is rejecting everything he has been taught. He is rejecting the promise given to Abraham. He leaves his family, he marries a foreign woman, lies to his daughter-in-law, and sleeps with prostitutes. This is a total mess. But God can overcome when we sin.
There is such power when we allow our sins to confront us and change us. This seems to be a defining moment in the life of Judah. Later in the account we are going to see a very different person in Judah than we see right now. We will see Judah back with his family and willing to give his life for one of his brothers, rather than desiring to take his brother’s life. We need to let our sins confront our hearts, humble us, and change us. Why did God make consequences for sins in this life? It does not have to be this way. We could just have all the fun we want now and pay the consequences for our sins in the end. But the wisdom books tell us that we will reap what we sow and we will deal with consequences for our behaviors and choices now. What is the purpose? The purpose is to turn our lives back to the Lord. Dealing with the consequences for our sins and dealing with life difficulties is to drive us back to God. Consider these sad words in the book of Revelation:
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:8–11 ESV)
The people were supposed to deal with these consequences and turn their lives back to God. There is power in allowing our sins to confront us, humble us, and change us. God is able to use the wicked actions of others to accomplish his plans. God is able to take your sinful actions and transform you for his glory and purpose. Do not deny your sins. Confront and confess your sins. Don’t pretend you do not have a bitterness problem. Confront it and be changed by the power of God. Don’t pretend you do not have a sexual immorality problem. Confront it and confess it to God. Change cannot occur if we continue to deny our sins and sinfulness. Then take steps to be changed by the power of God. Get your heart with God in his word and with his people.
God Can Take Your Messy Life and Build a Beautiful Life
It is never too late for you to turn your life back to the Lord. God does not give up on you. It is not too late for a radical life change to occur. There is nothing good about Genesis 38. But you will not believe the power of God to accomplish has plans through sinful people. Do you know what God does with this sinful guy, Judah? Judah is the son through whom all the people of the earth will be blessed. God’s kings over Israel would be descendants of Judah. Jesus is a descendant of Judah. God did not take perfect, righteous people to bring about the salvation of the world. God did not bring Jesus through a faithful man like Joseph. He takes a miserably sinful person like Judah to bring the salvation of the world.
How about Tamar? Tamar plays the role of a prostitute, tricks her father-in-law, and sleeps with him to have a child. What a scandalous actions! You would think that her name should be buried in the backyard for what she has done. But listen to the scriptures, hundreds of years later.
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the LORD will give you by this young woman.” (Ruth 4:11–12 ESV)
The memory of Tamar is now a blessing for the house of Perez, the son of Tamar, has become prominent in Israel. God used this mess to bring about a blessing. The greatest blessing is found in Matthew 1:3. When the genealogy of Jesus is given, there are only four women listed in the record. The first woman’s name in the record is Tamar. Her name could have been left out. But her name is recorded for God took the wreckage of sin and brought his glorious purposes. I have seen countless times people’s lives demolished by sins be brought out of the ashes by the power of God. These are people with horrible childhoods and damaged lives only to have within their lifetimes God blessing them with peace and comfort in Christ. But you must fully give your life to Jesus. You cannot keep on your own path and keep doing what you have been doing so far in your life. Radically give your life to the Lord and God can radically change your life.