Anyone who thinks the Bible doesn’t have any drama has never read Genesis 38. In this chapter, we have lies, deceit, incest, prostitution, idolatry, and hope. A likely group of bedfellows except for hope, I suppose. Yet, for all of the events in this chapter, there’s a lot we can learn from it about God’s grace and mercy.

Genesis 38 is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob by his wife Leah. Out of all of the tribes of Israel, I’d say the tribe of Judah is the most well known. King David came from this tribe, as did our Lord and Savior Jesus. 

In this chapter, we see Judah leave the home of his father Jacob to marry a Canaanite woman. Although his father and grandfather both sought wives from within their family, Judah chose to marry in a way that we could consider contrary to their wishes. Judah has three sons by his Canaanite wife; Er, Onan, and Shelah. 

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

Genesis 38:6-7 (NIV)

We don’t know what Er did to be wicked in the Lord’s sight. We only know that he was subsequently put to death because of it.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.”

Genesis 38:8 (NIV)

Judah tells his second son to do something that would seem mighty strange to most of us. What we’re seeing here, however, is the Levirate Law of Marriage in action. What is the Levirate Law of Marriage? 

Levirate marriage is the obligation of a surviving brother to marry the widow of his brother if he died without having sired children (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

Although the law had not yet been given, we can see here from Genesis 38 that the principle of Levirate Marriage was in place before the law was given.  

But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Genesis 38:9-10 (NIV)

There’s been some controversy over these two verses. Some people think that Onan was put to death by the Lord for spilling his seed on the ground and claim this verse is support against masturbation. However, that’s not what it means. Onan chose to disobey his father Judah and purposely failed to fulfill his duty as a brother. This is what was wicked in the Lord’s sight and why Onan was put to death. 

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.

Genesis 38:11 (NIV)

Judah only had one son left, and he was afraid that he too would die if he married Tamar. This tells me that Judah blamed Tamar for his other son’s deaths. At the very least, he may have thought she was cursed. Otherwise, there’d be no other reason for Judah to think his son Shelah would also die. This verse also tells me Judah had no intention of marrying his son Shelah to Tamar but lied to her instead. 

After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.

Genesis 38:12-14 (NIV)

We see here that Tamar has figured out that her father-in-law has lied to her, so she decides to take matters into her own hands. Although I think it would be out of character for a woman in this time to challenge her father-in-law. That is, to confront him about his lie, it seems even more strange for Tamar to take this course of action to solve the issue.

We are only told that Judah’s son Shelah had grown up and wasn’t given to Tamar in marriage. We could surmise that Shelah might have already married someone else since we learn about his sons later in the Bible (cf. 1 Chronicles 4:21). I’d like to point out that Shelah’s first son was named Er, which makes me think that Shelah made an effort to at least continue his first brother’s name. If only in name.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

Genesis 38:15-16 (NIV)

Judah doesn’t have anything to pay his daughter-in-law, so he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. In the meantime, Tamar asks to hold onto Judah’s staff and seal as security. 

He said, “What pledge should I give you?” “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.

Genesis 38:18-19 (NIV)

Judah’s seal, staff, and cord were unique to him. This proof is all Tamar needs to later show who it was who impregnated her. If Judah happened to have had a young goat with him when he visited Tamar, then her plan wouldn’t have worked out. 

Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” “There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

Genesis 38:20-21 (NIV)

I don’t know if there were other sorts of prostitutes in those days. I expect there might have. However, when Judah saw Tamar and thought she was a prostitute, he thought she was a shrine prostitute. Shrine prostitutes could be male or female. When someone had sex with one of these prostitutes, it was a means of communing with whatever god or goddess the person represented. In this case, it was probably Asherah. This is idolatry. This makes Judah an idolater.

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

Genesis 38:24 (NIV)

Although Judah was a liar, a fornicator, and an idolater, he still was quick to want to punish Tamar for her sins. 

As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.

Genesis 38:25-26 (NIV)

Tamar was on her way to being burned to death. However, she still showed Judah respect and grace by privately telling him what had happened. I don’t know how everyone else responded when Tamar wasn’t burned to death. After all, it looks like Judah made a big deal about Tamar’s sin. She gives birth, and we don’t hear about it again.

But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.

Genesis 38:29 (NIV)

Here we have Perez. A child born out of incest, deceit, idolatry, lust, and prostitution. The same child who would, later on, have children of his own until one day King David was born, and even later, the Messiah would come from this family line. The hope of all humanity. 

If God can take a situation like this with Judah and Tamar and bring about the salvation of the world. He can take your situation and bring about a victorious end. 

Do you know God? God knows you, and He loves you. He sees you as significant because you are. No one is insignificant to Him. He’s with you today, right now, and He wants you to know Him. Jesus died for your sins and mine so we could be free of guilt, be freed from death, and live eternally with Him. Eternal salvation is just a prayer away. 

Pray this prayer with me to accept the gift of salvation today:

Lord Jesus, forgive me for all my sins. I repent from my ways. Wash me in your blood and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. I believe that you died on the cross, were buried, and on the third day, God the Father raised you from the dead. Right now, Lord Jesus, I open the door to my heart, and I receive you into my heart as my Lord and personal Savior. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer, then congratulations! You are on the first step of a brand new life. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to my family, the family of God. There are abundant resources available online for new Christians. You can visit here for more information on what to do next. You can also leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to help you on the next step of this incredible journey.