Genesis 38:1-5 “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 lay with 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” [and on to the end of the chapter, v.30].

We are all settling into the familiar life of Joseph, and then, pow! . . . this chapter hits us. This is an amazing chapter in a remarkable history, but at one level we could well do without it in order to follow the story of Joseph. The last verse of chapter 37 naturally flows into the first verse of chapter 39, but then there appears this hiatus, this break in the narrative of Joseph’s life, to tell the world a very sad tale of the life of Judah. Our Lord was actually descended from this man, born with the blood of this man in his veins. Jesus shared his DNA, and Judah’s name appears in the most important genealogical records in history in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. Why did God see fit to draw the whole world’s attention to this man’s ugly fall? If love covers a multitude of sins, and if God has covered the sins of so many of the people in the Bible and our own sins too, then what in the world is this record of Judah doing here?


The events of this chapter are recorded, I say, in order to underline the fact that the genealogical line that runs all the way from Abraham to Jesus Christ is going through Judah and through his son Perez. That sounds a bit of a plod and rather obvious but the basic fact is recorded for us in an extraordinary story (as we shall see) which we cannot forget because our emotions are drawn deep into it. But there are three other incidental purposes for the tale, as Dr. Ligon Duncan has pointed out.

i] From a literary point of view, this passage heightens the tensions of the reader of the story of Joseph. It is a “meanwhile back at the ranch” kind of device. You know, the heroine is tied to the train tracks, and the train is chugging nearer and nearer and at that precise moment the director of the film takes the audience somewhere completely different, maybe back to the ranch where her sweetheart cowboy is rounding up the cows. The filmgoers are left on tenterhooks wondering how the heroine can escape death on the track. We’ve left Joseph in the hands of slavers who have sold him into captivity to a man called Potiphar in Egypt, but then, suddenly we cut away to the life of Judah. Judah? And we leave Joseph stewing in slavery in north Africa. As a brilliant literary device it heightens the tension in the story of Joseph in Egypt. It helps create a growing expectation concerning his plight. “What is happening to Joseph?” All in good time my children.

ii] Also this story provides a dark backdrop against which we can measure the character of Joseph. We have already begun to perceive that there is something special about that young man, the son of Rachel. In the following chapter to our text we are going to meet Joseph reacting to some challenging situations and he does so with impeccable integrity. Our text gives us a greater appreciation of Joseph’s resistance to sin because it’s saying that how Joseph behaved was highly unusual. People generally behaved as Judah and his brothers; they were murderers, adulterers and hypocrites. The contrast between these two brothers, Joseph and Judah, couldn’t be greater. There is Judah in the land of promise being contrasted with Joseph in the land of darkness. Judah in the land of Canaan descends into a spiral of unbelief and immorality, whereas Joseph in the kingdom of paganism and idolatry maintains his purity and holiness. Also both these brothers are separated from the covenant family. Joseph is separated from the covenant family very much against his will and he is attacked for things he has not chosen himself. He did not choose to be favourite; he did not choose his dreams. What a contrast to his brother Judah. Judah was also separated from his brethren, not because of circumstances that forced him to do things against his will, but because of his own choices, his willful separation, and willful marriage to an unbeliever, and willful sin against God. It was at that time, Moses tells us in the opening verse, that Judah left his brothers and “went down” from them, and he continued to go down and down and down, into a prison of his own making.

Incidentally, how often does the sort of thing that happened to Joseph happen to us! Events that have impacted us and our families at different times are not those that we’d have chosen. Our lives get suddenly perforated by the providences that God himself has allowed and the circumstances he has ordained. Out of the blue we find ourselves in situations beyond our control, in uncharted territory, having to do things which we judge not to be the best service we’d have chosen to be offering to the Lord.

iii] This passage increases our longing for God to be with us. God is not with Judah. That man defied God in every choice he made, while Joseph in Potiphar’s house almost fell into a trap that had been set for him, but he resisted and though a slave and also a prisoner he was always God’s free man. The price he paid for his free conscience was a prison cell in Egypt. But Joseph would prefer a prison cell in Egypt if God were with him than to be walking down the street without God. Joseph knew that the Lord was with him. Again and again that fact is underlined. What a magnificent statement it is, running through the narrative, that, “God was with him.” Let us fear the life we read here in the story of Judah, a life in which Abraham’s great grandson went about obeying the dictates of his feelings. Let us say to one another that we cannot face the future without God being with us, not a single day or even an hour. “I need Thee every hour; stay Thou close by!”  So Moses and the Holy Spirit have a wise agenda for inserting this story here.


Obviously this chapter recounts a long period in the life of Judah, his marriage, the growth of his sons and their marriages and the prostitution of himself. There are themes that are present in this story that are common in the life of Jacob too, deception and falsehood. Jacob had been deceived by a bloodied cloak into believing that Joseph was dead, and now in this chapter a cloak covering a daughter-in-law is used to deceive Judah also. The story is so sad and messy; we don’t want to read it; we want to forget about this episode in Judah’s life. The story is so ugly that most children cannot understand it. This story is so nasty t
hat their parents may not even have told them about the kinds of sins that these people committed. I want to be careful not to tell you more than you need to know. The parents can explain these sins when they are old enough. But it is here in the Bible and children have every chapter in Scripture read to them around the table. They must be able to understand something about this story. So let me explain it now.

Step back a century or more when God had met with the great-grandfather of this man Judah, Abraham, in his home town of Ur, and there God had made him his son and heir. God had told him that through one of his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed. It was in fact our Lord Jesus the Son of God that God was telling Abraham about. We actually know a lot more about Abraham’s blessed Descendant coming and redeeming us in Wales than Abraham knew then. This One who was to come one day would also be the promised Seed of the woman announced in Eden by the Lord who would crush the head of Satan the serpent, and would rescue the world from him. His own heel would be bruised in the battle. That was the promise God made in the Garden, and everything that happened subsequently outside Eden took place because of what happened first inside the Garden. The sin that has come upon all of us and the Redeemer that has been sent to us has all occurred because of what occurred in Eden. In Adam’s fall we sinned all, but God promised another Adam would one day come. He would be the Redeemer. Everything that happens in history is a footnote to what happened in the Garden of Eden.

God was talking to the world about the death of Jesus on that green hill far away. That is what the promise to Abraham was all about. Christ died under the curse of God. Why? What was served by the malediction of Jesus? He was not like Judah; much more was Jesus like Joseph, holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. He deserved to receive the blessing; he ought to receive heaven’s favour and heaven’s smile constantly, but he did not, not at the climax of his life. He received darkness and dereliction. He ought to have received the benediction for a marvelous perfect life. Why does Jesus receive the abandonment and the curse? The answer is plain. It was in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the whole world; one individual would become a universal means of grace. From him on Golgotha the pure waters of its fountain would roll out and out, a cosmic tsunami wave of blessing from its epicentre at Calvary washing round the whole globe and cleaning us Gentiles from all our sins, through Jesus Christ dying in our place under the wrath of God for our defilement, so that we Gentiles too might become members of the covenant family. If you are trusting in the Lord, whatever your nation, you belong to this glorious company, the redeemed people of God. So the promise made to Abraham was repeated to his son Isaac, and was repeated again to his son Jacob at Bethel, and now the head of the covenant family is Judah.

So Judah must have children. Judah is the heir to the covenant of God. God promised that this would happen. And his children, in turn, are supposed to have children. And those children are supposed to have children, and that is supposed to keep happening until Jesus is born. If Judah doesn’t have children, Jesus will not be born. If Judah’s children do not have children, Jesus will not be born. But Judah doesn’t believe this promise. It is ‘religion’ and he is no longer religious. That is the dilemma that this chapter raises. Judah very easily has wandered away from God. How easily he has separated himself from his father and the people of God. The covenant family has descended into this immoral unbelief. Judah doesn’t think Jesus will be born. So he takes a wife from the Canaanites. He who ought to have known better – of all the people in the world. He takes a wife from people who didn’t believe Jesus would be born, and he has sons by his Canaanite wife (vv. 3-5). There again with Judah is no problem with infertility. It’s hard to rejoice in the arrival of these ungodly boys. Is God fulfilling his promise here that Judah will have a seed? How can God do that through a pagan Canaanite?

This story is getting all messed up because of Judah’s sin. Then he agrees to his son taking a Canaanite wife (v. 6). Sin is compounded upon sin. Judah is passing his faithlessness on to the next generation. How will the promised Seed be produced now that the ‘righteous’ and the wicked are co-mingling and, really, there is no one righteous anymore in the Promised Land except the aged Jacob? Are Judah’s sons going to turn things around? Though produced in this wicked manner, will they prove to be children of faith, embracing the promise? Tersely, the Lord tells us ‘No.’ “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death” (v.7). That was no more than this wicked line of Judah deserves. But if God pursues this policy of strict rectitude, how will Christ, the seed of Abraham, ever be born?

So Judah tells Onan, Er’s brother, to raise up heirs to his brother (v.8). This was an ancient custom that if your older brother died and left a childless widow, you were supposed to marry her and have children who would be considered your brother’s heirs. It is known as the Levirate marriage and this is the first reference to it in Scripture. God was pleased to preserve the custom in the Mosaic Law. However, brother Onan doesn’t think this is a great idea (v.9). Yes, he marries Tamar but he refuses to have any children by her. Onan is saying, “I don’t want any children. I don’t believe in the promise of God that Jesus will be born from this family, and I don’t care.” So Onan took the privilege of marital relations with Tamar, but deliberately prevents this act from producing children, and obviously that was evil in God’s eyes (v.10). Onan was despising the promise of God. He’s not even seeking a seed. So God took his life also.

At this point, Judah only had one son left, and he wasn’t old enough to marry. So Judah put off Tamar, the widow of two of his sons, saying, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” (v.11). But actually Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to her “Lest he also die just like his brothers” (v.11). Judah was scared and he looked at Tamar as though she was responsible for all this, as if she were hexed, a sort of lightning rod for the wrath of God. But his sons were wicked and they were born of a wicked union between Judah and a Canaanite. Rather than seeing his unbelief and his wrong marriage and his sinful sons as the problem, he blames Tamar. Rather than repenting, he simply gives up any attempt to have offspring. He has utterly abandoned the Abrahamic promise at this point. He has no interest in God fulfilling his plan for this son of Jacob. He won’t let his one son even TRY to have children because he is afraid God will kill his last son too. These are judgments of God in time and human history. God’s judgments occur throughout history, not just at the end of the world. That is the Last Judgment, the final judgment.

Then Judah’s wife died, so he could not produce another seed himself (v.12). Is this it? Is God’s plan of redemption to be thwarted by the si
nfulness of those he would redeem? If that is possible, then all is lost! We are sinners and cannot do the least thing to save ourselves. If God will not intervene and carry out his plan in spite of this wickedness, Christ will never be born and all men shall die in their sins! So nobody is having children, and how will Jesus be born now? This is the problem that this story is telling us about. Who will fix it? Well, Tamar decided that she would fix it. Then it was that Tamar herself acted. She was conscious that she was being brushed aside by Judah, living back with her mother and father, without children and without hope of marriage. So then Tamar, of all people, began to seek a seed (vv. 12-16). Tamar, the Canaanite! Tamar, the one outside the covenants of promise, she was the one who sought what Judah ought to have sought that the Lord would grant a son and heir that the line from Abraham to Jesus be kept alive. Though she did it in a deceitful and sinning manner, yet she was not half as bad as Judah, as Judah himself concluded, “She has been more righteous than me” (v.26).

Tamar tricked Judah her father-in-law into having a child with her. This was the dreadful stomach-churning sin of some of God’s people. Tamar did something very wicked to make this happen. She took off her widow’s garb and she put on the costume of a pagan temple prostitute with its veil covering her face. You looked at her and you saw a priestess in the local Canaanite fertility cult. And that is what Judah thought, on his way to the sheep shearing. He saw her and he bought half an hour with her for the promise of a young goat. Tamar wanted a pledge from him that she would get the kid. Did he have a credit card? He had the equivalent, his seal with its cord, and also the staff in his hand. The seal or signet and cord were his identification. The staff was the sign of his authority over his family and servants and tradesmen. It was all rather appropriate because Judah had given up his identity as a son of Israel who would bear the promised seed. He was voluntarily forfeiting all that for his minutes of pleasure. Judah had given up his authority over his family as well. He won’t give his son Shelah to Tamar. He won’t lead his family to faith in the promised seed. Through his own lack of faith he had condemned them. He had given them up and so could have this meaningless brief encounter that could not, as far as he knew, produce the promised seed.

Then in a short time he sent his friend with the kid to pay the prostitute, clear his conscience and pick up his personal possessions, but there was no sign of her. There was no cult prostitute there. His friend learned that there never had been a harlot there. No one had ever heard of a prostitute being there. The Mystery of the Missing Harlot. Judah, on hearing the news from the empty-handed friend, said, “Well, let her hang on to these things I gave her or everyone will mock us.” Once again a son of Abraham is involved in a deception involving a goat; Jacob before his partially sighted father Isaac; the sons of Jacob led by Judah killing a goat and bloodying Joseph’s coat of many colours and showing it to him, and now this. The sins of the father are visited upon the son. The sins of this son Judah who bloodied Joseph’s coat and lied to his father now come back to haunt him. What a predicament! If the sins of the fathers are to be visited on the sons, how will any of us be saved? If the sins even of the sons themselves come back to haunt and torment them then how will they escape the consequences of sin? Men and women, this is the situation of the children of Israel, but it is not just theirs. They are a picture to us of our situation in Adam. We need a better Head than Adam so that his sins would not be passed down to us, and we need that better Head to bear the consequences of our own sins.

Three months later, when Tamar was barely showing any change in bodily shape, she knew that she was pregnant. Do you see this and wonder? The Seed of the woman and the Seed of Abraham was conceived in that way in spite of all this wickedness, in spite of Judah’s evil, and in spirt of the wickedness of his sons, and in spite of the deception and immorality of his daughter-in-law. Sin abounded, but grace did much more abound. God did not deal with Judah or Tamar as their sins deserved, rather there was the gift of God, a baby in Tamar’s womb. The godly line was preserved, but now we can see that the so-called ‘godly line’ is not godly at all, but it will end in godliness, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Then the news got out that this widow was expecting a baby because she’d been prostituting herself. Judah, the evil old hypocrite said immediately, “Burn her to death! Burn her and the unborn child! ” This was his daughter-in-law twice over! What a wicked man! When it suited him then he could magnify the law. “Kill her, even though she has been a dutiful daughter-in-law. The law is the law.” The great distinguishing mark of the moralist is that he chooses the laws he believes are inviolable but he breaks those he wants to break that he can get away with. Tamar had played the harlot against the promises of God, but he had played the harlot since the day he had turned his back on God and taken a pagan wife, and now he has the gall to stand in judgment on Tamar! “Kill her!” Can you see that the Seed is under threat! The plan of redemption is hanging in the balances.

Then Tamar produced the credit card! “The man whose card this is, he is the father of my unborn child.” Judah is shamed at the sight of his seal and his staff. His sins came back to haunt him. Oh when will one be born who can take away the consequences of our sins. When will Christ the seed of Abraham come to show us not the evidence of our sins but the evidence that our sins have also been washed away by his rising from the dead? He recognizes that she is more righteous than he is – well that was not too difficult. He has no right to judge her, for he has been a greater sinner by keeping his son from marrying her and by going to a prostitute.

Then comes the bizarre moment some months later when Tamar has twins in her womb and she is in labour. It is no surprise that it was twins; their grandfather was one of twins; they ran in this family. The first is about to be born and puts his forearm out and the midwife ties a scarlet thread around it, and immediately the hand returns inside. It is his brother that comes out first. God determines who is esteemed in his sight. According to the midwife, Zerah was the firstborn, but God can choose whoever he wants, and it is Perez, and from Perez Christ will be descended. So, even through great wickedness, the line of Christ is preserved.

Then we are finally back with Joseph, chapter 39. What was all that about? Is there a more sordid story in Scripture? Yet out of these events God brought righteousness in Christ. Out of this mess of sin God brought the Holy One of Israel. God’s plan was not thwarted by lustful, cruel, murderous men. His purposes are sure. Even the sins of those he means to save cannot stop him from saving them. In spite of man’s free-est attempts to thwart God he produces his Son as Saviour. Our Lord sprang from this one written of in Genesis 38. This one who goes to a prostitute . . . this one who dismisses his daughter-in-law and her unborn child with the words, “burn her to death.” Both Judah and Ta
mar were ancestors of our Saviour Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The Lord Jesus was made in the likeness of sinful flesh. God has been displaying in this chapter the sinfulness of his covenant people so that if a cosmic Saviour appears then it is not because of the worthiness of the line of Abraham but all because of God’s grace. But there is more . . .


So we have seen how this unmarried woman, Tamar, became pregnant and had a baby through a sinful union, and that that child was the great, great (etc.) grandfather of Jesus. Everybody is sinning in this story. No one has a clean slate, and yet God was working this whole time. Did God like the sin? No. Was God still in control? Yes. Did God use even these revolting words and deeds to do what he wanted to be done? Yes. So, men and women, I hope that helps orient you all to understand these ugly events of Genesis 38 in the light of Christ. Just as throughout the whole Joseph story, so here too we see the sovereign providence of God working to produce a Saviour for his people. Even the sins of his people cannot frustrate his plans. He uses these distasteful events to produce the promised Seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, the Christ who will redeem these sinners and so us as well.

God is working out that purpose singularly. This chapter which describes to us Judah’s sin is to be understood as revealing the thread of God’s unfolding purpose. Notwithstanding his sin it is from Judah that the Seed of the woman is going to come, notwithstanding the deception and the descent into immorality the Messiah will come through him and crush the head of the serpent. Judah is the one from whom the Messiah is going to be descended. I heard Iain D. Campbell speak on this chapter recently and I have helped myself to loads of his insights. He told us of how he had read the autobiography of Eric Hobsbawn the Marxist historian now in his 90s. The communist historian spoke of his early schooling in Vienna and the religious instruction classes he attended and the interminable stories of the lives of the patriarchs that they had to read. “Who was the most important of the sons of Jacob?” they were often asked, and he said, “It was Judah.” Weren’t all the Jews today descended from him and got their name from him? He was deemed to be wrong because they believed it was evidently Joseph. Now Hobsbawn was right; Judah was the most important of Jacob’s sons, but not for the reason Hobsbawn gave.

Judah is the one who in the purpose of God is going to be the father of the Messiah. It is evident that our Lord is descended from Judah. It is what God intended all along. The Seed of the woman is to be the Son of Judah. He is to be descended from this cruel adulterer that future adulterers who believe in Jesus might have hope. He is yet the most important of all the sons of Jacob, and although the Joseph chapters take up more of the narrative of Genesis and this is the story we know and the one we love and the one we read to our children and grandchildren at bedtime, yet it isn’t the case that this chapter interrupts the story of Joseph. It is actually the other way around. The narrative of Joseph interrupts the story of Judah. The singular purpose of God is to keep Judah alive. That is why Joseph is where he is. That is why all these dastardly things happened to him by his brothers and by Potiphar’s wife and why he ended in an Egyptian jail. That is why God permitted it, as the psalmist puts it in his great rehearsal of this drama in Psalm 105, “God sent a man before them into Egypt whom they unnaturally sold as a slave and bound in fetters.” There was Joseph, tried and tested by the word of God.


It is what is running right through this narrative, the fact that God should sovereignly allow this to happen in order that the Messiah will come. The solemn fact was that God took away these sons of Judah in order that Tamar should have another son who would be a father of the Messiah though conceived by the sin of Judah. The fact is that God sovereignly opened her womb and he then chose that the twin who was second in a birth appearance should actually be the firstborn, so that Perez would appear in both the genealogies of Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Despite the judgment of the midwife and despite the scarlet thread, It is all so remarkable. It leaves me with my mouth open at the magnificence of the God who works in this way and by these means to achieve his own sovereign purpose so that at last Christ will have all the pre-eminence. His judgments are in the earth, but the reason they are not as severe as we deserve them to be is that there remains a remnant according to the election of grace. The reason that he has not completely obliterated us notwithstanding our sin is because he has other sheep that he has still to bring in, and his grace has not finished his work. There are still sheep to be found and sinners to be saved. The work of the kingdom is not finished yet. His sovereign grace is working through us and working above us, and working sometimes against us, working notwithstanding what we are like. Grace is still doing its work and it is marvelous in our eyes. We live in days when the behaviour of Judah and Tamar are very common, and that is no restriction on God doing what he intends to do.

So it is fitting that today we should confess the sinfulness of the church and the sinfulness of our own hearts. It is fitting that we should marvel in God’s marvelous purpose that the son of Judah should be the Saviour of sinners, and it is fitting that we should rejoice in the sovereign grace that uses and chooses sinners like us to bring that purpose to fruition in this world of ours. Judah lives though he deserves to die, and Judah says of Tamar that she was more righteous than he was. Through this Canaanite woman who is prepared to go to these lengths, the covenant family is preserved and the covenant purpose will be realized, and by grace the church does not un-make herself. If it were not for grace we would entirely implode and ruin everything. But grace saves wretches like us, and we have no less reason now to praise the grace that saves than we did the hour we first believed.

O what a blessing that Genesis does not end with chapter 38, that the story goes on as God sets the stage for the coming of pathetic Judah’s glorious Son our Saviour. God enable us to glorify the grace that provided the Lord Jesus Christ.

17th April 2011   GEOFF THOMAS