I firmly believe there are people in this room today who believe a lie. Actually that’s probably true in a number of ways. Some of you may believe Batman is better than Superman. That’s a lie. You may believe cats are enjoyable as pets. Also a lie. My wife believes that pineapple is acceptable as a pizza topping. That’s just not okay.
But those aren’t the lies I’m talking about. I threw them in for the sake of levity because there isn’t much of that in our text today. But I believe Genesis 38 provides the truth that combats the lie that cripples a lot of people in this room and—truthfully—a lot of people who are sitting in churches all around us this morning.
Here’s the lie: That because of who I am or what I have done, God cannot use me. I believe that guilt is one of the primary ways Satan acts to cripple the people of God. And I’ve talked with a lot of people in this room who believe that either because of what you’ve done in your past, or because of what someone else has done to you, or because of your level or education or intelligence or your job or whatever the reason is that God can’t use you for His Kingdom’s work. And that is a lie from the lips of Satan himself.
We are about to read a story about a woman who disguises herself as a prostitute to have sex with her wicked father-in-law and God uses that sinful behavior as one of the means by which He ultimately brings about the salvation of not just Jacob’s family, but rescues for himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Here’s the truth I hope we all learn from Genesis 38 today: Our actions do not override God’s providence. Instead, God overcomes our failures through His holiness and grace.
God’s providence means God’s actions in creation to advance His purpose. This story is such a mess that one scholar called it an awkward editorial insertion into the story of Joseph.
But we need to remember that this isn’t just the story of Joseph. He’s the character in this real-life drama that has the most lines but his life isn’t the most important thing happening in these pages. Genesis 37:2 tells us from the beginning of this section of the narrative that we are looking at the family records of Jacob—Joseph’s father. But to fully understand what’s going on here we looked all the way back to the Garden of Eden to see that God’s redemptive purpose for all of humanity began with the first Gospel promise of Scripture in Genesis 3:15.
God revealed a little bit more about how that promise would take place in Genesis 12 when He told Abraham that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you. Now, that’s a pretty big promise and it means that through Abraham’s family, God would bring about the Messiah that He promised to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Therefore, this family—and this inheritance God has promised them—is extremely important. So the idea of being the firstborn, or the child of the blessing, will be very important for this family.
We looked at the family tree a couple of weeks ago but here it is again: Jacob had seven children with his first wife, Leah—Reuben (the oldest and original heir to the family blessing), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah. Jacob had another wife, Rachel. She couldn’t conceive initially, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob to bear children for her and it worked. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Later on Rachel gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin.
You’ll see there that Judah wasn’t the firstborn, and wasn’t originally the heir to the blessing. But we’ll see by the end Genesis that the inheritance of Jacob came—by God’s sovereign choice—through Judah. It could be because of the sin of his three older brothers—Reuben had sex with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, and Simeon and Levi committed a massacre against the Shechemites after one of them sexually assaulted his sister Dinah. I told you this was a messed up family. We’re not talking about the Waltons here, we’re not even talking about the Simpsons.
Judah had his faults as well. This chapter breaks down into three sections: Judah’s family criss, Tamar’s plan, and the fallout.
Judah’s Family Crisis
At that time Judah left his brothers and settled near an Adullamite named Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua; he took her as a wife and slept with her. 3 She conceived and gave birth to a son, and he named him Er. 4 She conceived again, gave birth to a son, and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to another son and named him Shelah. It was at Chezib that she gave birth to him.
6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the Lord’s sight, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife. Perform your duty as her brother-in-law and produce offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he released his semen on the ground so that he would not produce offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was evil in the Lord’s sight, so he put him to death also.
11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He might die too, like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
That Judah’s family is about to be in a troubling spot is evident from the very beginning. At the close of chapter 37 Joseph had been sold as a slave in Egypt after he was forced out of the family by his brothers. In contrast, chapter 38 opens with Judah willingly leaving his family and seeking a wife among the Canaanites, who were Pagans—they didn’t follow Judah’s God.
Judah’s wife bore him three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah married off Er to another Canaanite woman, Tamar, in verse 6. However, Er was evil and God decided to take his life.
The common practice in this days seems to have been what we now call levirate marriage. Levirate comes from a latin word that means brother-in-law. There’s no concept of this in the Bible up until this point but we know that it was practice by the peoples surrounding Jacob’s family at this time. It’s mentioned three times in the Bible—here, Deuteronomy 25, and in the book of Ruth.
Simply put, it meant that if a husband died without a male heir, his brother would be responsible to enable the widowed wife to bear a son who would become the deceased brother’s heir, so that the family line would go on.
Now, this poses a conflict of interest. Because if your brother dies with no heir, your chunk of the family inheritance grows. Unsurprisingly, every time levirate marriage shows up in Scripture there is conflict.
The conflict here is that if Onan fulfills his duty, then his share of the inheritance will shrink. So, selfishly, he refuses to give Tamar a child. Tamar would remain childless, which in the culture would mean both shame and a lack of financial provision. So Onan’s treatment of Tamar was judged as evil in the sight of the Lord and he takes Onan’s life as well.
Now, the family line of Judah is in crisis. He had three sons, three chances to carry on this family line. But now, two of his sons were dead. So he hatches a plan. He gets Tamar out of sight and out of mind. He tells her to return to her father’s house and when his youngest son came of age he would give her to him—even though it appears he had no plan to do so because we find out in the next section that Selah grows up and Judah never sends for her. Er, Onan, and now Judah have victimized Tamar so far. She’s about to take matters into her own hands. Let’s read on;
12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had finished mourning, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers. 13 Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” 14 So she took off her widow’s clothes, veiled her face, covered herself, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had grown up, she had not been given to him as a wife. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.
16 He went over to her and said, “Come, let me sleep with you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.
She said, “What will you give me for sleeping with me?”
17 “I will send you a young goat from my flock,” he replied.
But she said, “Only if you leave something with me until you send it.”
18 “What should I give you?” he asked.
She answered, “Your signet ring, your cord, and the staff in your hand.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 She got up and left, then removed her veil and put her widow’s clothes back on.
20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get back the items he had left with the woman, he could not find her. 21 He asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”
“There has been no cult prostitute here,” they answered.
22 So the Adullamite returned to Judah, saying, “I couldn’t find her, and besides, the men of the place said, ‘There has been no cult prostitute here.’”
23 Judah replied, “Let her keep the items for herself; otherwise we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send this young goat, but you couldn’t find her.”
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law, Tamar, has been acting like a prostitute, and now she is pregnant.”
“Bring her out,” Judah said, “and let her be burned to death!”
25 As she was being brought out, she sent her father-in-law this message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong.” And she added, “Examine them. Whose signet ring, cord, and staff are these?”
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her intimately again.
Tamar is a victim of three different men who were at least neglectful if not outright abusive in the first 11 verses of this chapter. In this middle section she decides to take matters into her own hands.
It speaks to Judah’s morality that Tamar thought up this particular plan and was able to accomplish it in what seems to be a simple and straightforward manner. Judah and is friend Hirah probably went through this same process on a yearly basis. When it was time for a major agricultural event like this, there would have been a celebration. Many of the pagan religions in Judah’s day would have had temple prostitutes who men would hire as a sort of good luck charm to win the favor of the fertility gods. Tamar disguised herself as a one of these prostitutes and sought out Judah. The way the original language spells it out, he essentially begs her to have sex with him. She turns it into a business negotiation. And two utterly ridiculous things happen. Judah asks to pay on credit and Tamar asks for his social security card and driver’s license.
Not literally, but but’s the equivalent of what takes place in verses 17-18. Judah offers to send a valuable young goat from his flock. Tamar says she needs something so that he will keep his word and he offers her his signet, cord, and staff. His signet would have probably been a long wooden cylinder on a cord worn around the neck that would be used to affix his seal to business and legal documents. His staff was likely unique to himself as well. These were some of the most personal items that Judah owned and he gave them up almost without a second thought.
After their infidelity, they go their separate ways. Judah tries to send the agreed upon payment—actually the noblest thing he’s done so far—by way of his friend Hirah. But when he goes to make the transaction he can’t find the prostitute he’s looking for. Now Judah has a dilemma. He could make a concerted effort to go looking for the girl—but then everyone would know that Judah is searching for a prostitute so that he can get his ID back. So he decides to let the matter go and he reassures himself that he did the right thing. Look at verse 23—‘After all, I did try send this young goat.’
Now, there have been some shocking things in this passage. But what happens next is the most shocking thing of all. Three months pass and it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. Now, she is not living in Judah’s house at this time and she’s not even married. But during the betrothal period, improper sexual activity was treated just as it would’ve been treated if you were married.
So Judah, perhaps thinking he can finally dispose of this problem for good, says in verse 24 “Bring her out,” Judah said, “and let her be burned to death!” How cold. How callous can you be?
Judah, though, quickly realizes what has happened. She send him back his identification. Verse 25 As she was being brought out, she sent her father-in-law this message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong.” And she added, “Examine them. Whose signet ring, cord, and staff are these?”
Judah, who participated in the deception of his father in the last chapter, had been deceived in a very similar way. Listen to the similarity in the last part of Genesis 37:32 “We found this. Examine it. Is it your son’s robe or not?”
Judah was deceived by Tamar just as he had deceived his father in the previous chapter. To his credit, Judah recognizes his failure here and seems to repent. In fact, this seems to be a pivotal moment in Judah’s life because later in Joseph’s story we will see him assume a leadership role within the 11 brothers.
So we’ve seen Judah’s sin and we’ve seen Tamar’s sin. The final section helps us see how—in this man-made mess—God’s attributes of holiness and his grace will work to see that his providential plan to redeem a people for his glory will continue, and it will continue through this branch of this family despite their actions.
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife took it and tied a scarlet thread around it, announcing, “This one came out first.” 29 But then he pulled his hand back, out came his brother, and she said, “What a breakout you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread tied to his hand, came out, and was named Zerah.
The struggle between these twins is reminiscent of the struggle between Judah’s father Jacob and his brother Esau. But there is an important theme at work here that helps us start to see some order worked from this chaos. God, contrary to cultural norms and what would have seemed like conventional wisdom, constantly chose the younger over the older in Genesis. That was part of what made Jospeh’s brothers hate him so much in the last chapter.
Tamar gives birth to twins Perez, who would technically have been considered the younger, and Zerah. Perez is going to become extremely important in the grand scheme of things. We’ll see that in a minute, but now that we’ve walked through the passage let’s take a step back and look at the canvas God has painted for us in Genesis 38.
Here’s the mess: We have Judah’s sin. He chose an unbelieving wife and that led to raising children who were evil in the sight of the Lord. He lied to Tamar, failed to protect this woman who would have—by cultural tradition and moral obligation—become a member of his family. His greed and desire to further his family name led him to lie to Tamar. Then he committed sexual immorality.
Since we’re here, and we haven’t really been on this topic specifically in my time here yet, let’s address sexual immorality for a minute. Adultery is sexual activity between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. Sexual immorality is any sexual contact that occurs outside of a relationship between a husband and a wife. Both of those things are sins. We’ll dive a little deeper next week, but we need to acknowledge that today because we live in a culture of blurred lines. There are no blurred lines in Scripture when it comes to sex. If you’re dating, engaged, divorced, single, any designation that isn’t a marriage between one woman and one man, then any sexual activity is sin. If you’re married and you engage in any sexual activity with anyone who is not your spouse, that is sin.
Judah and Tamar’s relations were sinful. So we have a laundry list of sins committed by Judah just in this chapter. Tamar was not only sexually immoral but also deceptive and manipulative here as she tricks Judah and earns status for herself as mother, which was a significant thing in her day.
We see all those human shortcomings on display in this text. Now, let’s see how two specific attributes of God work in this passage to secure his providence.
God’s holiness is the catalyst for this whole situation. Err and Onan act so sinfully in this passage that God kills them. We’re less comfortable with the holiness and justice of God than we are his grace, but we need to acknowledge that because He is holy, God always punishes sin.
This is also a reminder that our actions matter. Even though we fully believe in God’s sovereignty over every situation, and the Bible teaches that man is 100% responsible for the actions he commits. Err and Onan’s actions led to God striking them dead.
At the same time, His grace is evident in this chapter. Tamar, though not innocent, was victimized by at least two men in Judah’s family. Onan refused to give her an heir and Judah refused to care for her by providing his son to her has a husband. Therefore, she would have had no means to earn a living, no social status, and no family unit to which she would properly belong. Judah’s actions made Tamar socially, economically, and probably psychologically an isolated outcast.
Even though the actions of every human named in this passage were sinful, God acted in his grace to care for Tamar. At the end of the story, her place is secured as a member of Judah’s household, which is what should have happened in the beginning. She’s treated poorly, she makes mistakes, but ultimately God shows her incredible grace.
And finally, and this is the big picture idea here and the most important thing we can take from this chapter, God’s providence—His action in creation to advance His purpose—redeems this story as a part of his plan to redeem humanity.
Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, who was born out of this sinful union shows up a few other times in Scripture. He even makes it into the New Testament. If you look at Matthew 1 there’s this list of people you might be tempted to skip over. But you shouldn’t, because Matthew 1:3 tells us that
3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
Perez fathered Hezron,
and if you were to read all the way to verse 16 you’d see that
16 and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary,
who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Christ.
Perez, Tamar, and Judah show up in the lineage of Jesus Christ—the offspring that God promised in Genesis 3:15 and told Abraham would come through his family back in Genesis 12. The very means of salvation for all people came directly from the mess of Genesis 38.
We can learn a little bit more about God’s sovereignty in redeeming human mess in Matthew 1. There are four women listed before Mary in Jesus’ genealogy. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (identified as Uriah’s wife in 1:6). All these women were non-Israelite outsiders with pasts that would make us cringe. Victor Hamilton explained it this way:
Each of these four women had a highly irregular and potentially scandalous marital union. Nevertheless, these unions were, by God’s providence, links in the chain to the Messiah. Accordingly, each of them prepares the way for Mary, whose marital situation is also peculiar, given the fact that she is pregnant but has not yet had sexual relations with her betrothed husband Joseph. Thus the inclusion of the likes of Tamar in this family tree on one hand foreshadows the circumstances of the birth of Christ, and on the other hand blunts any attack on Mary. God had worked his will in the midst of whispers of scandal.
God was sovereign over this whole situation and, what man meant for evil, God turned for not just the good of Tamar, but the good of everyone who would one day call on the name of Jesus Christ.
Some of you believe the lie that because of who you are or what you have done, God cannot use you. This chapter teaches us that our actions do not override God’s providence. Instead, God overcomes our failures through His holiness and grace.
Based on the two chapters we’ve read, you’d think Joseph is the son of the promise. He’s not. The blessing passes from Jacob to Judah and eventually all the way down to Jesus.
That’s why Revelation 5:5 can say
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered . . .”
Your failures are not too big for God’s providence. I don’t care how big a mess you have created for yourself or how big a mess others have created in your life. God can work through it.
There’s a song popularized by Michael and Lisa Gungor a few years ago entitled Beautiful Things. Here are its opening lines:
All this pain
I wonder if I'll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
Yes, your life can really change. Yes, all that is lost can be found. And yes, God can spring up something beautiful from the ashes of your life. Let’s pray.