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GENESIS 38:1-11 (Judah’s daughter in law is left a widow)
The Bible does not gloss over the failings of Jewish patriarchs. The massacre in Shechem (Genesis 34) was based on horrendous deceit. In this chapter Judah’s devious behavior is pictured in equally stark detail.
38:1 Judah moved 30 or 40 miles, 48 or 64 km south from his brothers in Shechem to live near his friend Hirah (38:12, 20). Adullam was a Canaanite city in the foothills of the mountains of Judah and north of the Negeb (Joshua 12:15). Many years later David hid himself in the cave of that area (1 Samuel 22:1, see 23:13; 2 Chronicles 11:7; Nehemiah 11:30).
38:2-5 There Judah married a Canaanite woman by whom he had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Instead of “in Chezib” as a place name, the NEB connects the term with the verb kaazab which can mean ceasing. This would indicate she ceased bearing after the birth of her third son.
38:6-7 We do not know what Judah’s older son, Er, did that resulted in the LORD’s intervention to have him killed.
38:8 If a man died before leaving any heirs there was a rule that his brother was required to have intercourse with his widow and any children born would count as belonging to his brother.
Note: Two hundred years later this custom was later included in the law of Moses. “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name shall not blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). This rule was quoted by the Sadducees to produce a trick question to show the impossibility of the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-28).
38:9-10 Based on this custom Judah told his second son, Onan, to do his duty by Er’s widow named Tamar. Onan had intercourse with Tamar, but carefully avoided impregnating her (Onanism became a term for spilling one’s seed or masturbation, but Onan’s sin in this case was not the private disposal of his seed, but the covetous motive that, if Tamar had conceived, the inheritance would go to her son rather than to his own family). This treacherous behavior was condemned by the LORD and, like his brother Er, he was also killed.
38:11 By the rule of a brother’s duty (38:8) Judah’s third son Shelah would normally have been required to give Tamar an heir for her dead husband Er’s inheritance. But, fearing that the LORD’s wrath would also kill him, Judah did not allow Shelah to perform this duty, and Tamar was left a widow in her father’s home. And it seems that Shelah never had children.
38:12-14 Seeing that she was not going to be given a son by Judah’s third son Shelah, Tamar dressed herself as a prostitute and lay in wait for Judah when he went for the shearing of his sheep in Timnah. This was later known as a Philistine city on the border of Judah (see Joshua 15:10, 19:43; Judges 14:1-2, 5).
38:15-19 Tamar had her face covered and Judah did not recognize his daughter in law. He promised to send her a lamb in payment. She insisted on taking the signet ring which was hung on a cord around his neck and his shepherd’s rod (as in Exodus 4:2, 4, 17; 7:15) as a pledge that he would indeed send the lamb. As a result of their intercourse she conceived, and she went back to wearing her widow’s garment in her father’s home (38:11).
38:20-23 When Judah sent his friend Adullam with a kid as arranged (38:17) he hoped to retrieve the three items he had given as a pledge for her prostitution. But there was no sign of Tamar, and Judah decided to let her keep the three items given in pledge for fear that he would be laughed at if he tried to trace her.
38:24-25 When it became known that his daughter in law was pregnant, Judah was about to have her burned for behaving like a prostitute. But Tamar sent the three items he had given her as a pledge to prove it was Judah who had impregnated her (see 46:12).
38:26 Judah had the honesty to admit that he was the owner of the three items, and that she was pregnant by him. He therefore had to accept Tamar’s sons (38:27) as his own.
38:27-30 Tamar brought forth twins. One of them put his hand out first from the womb, but then withdrew it, and his brother Perez (Hebrew paaretz from the verb paaratz meaning to break through or burst out) was born first. Perez and Zerah are both listed in the New Testament genealogy of the Messiah. “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah” (Matthew 1:3). The genealogy of King David is taken back to Perez’s son Hezron (Matthew 1:3-6, see Ruth 4:18-21; Luke 3:33). In the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:1, 16) four other women are mentioned as having a child by God’s strange providence.. Rahab was the prostitute from Jericho (Joshua 2:1; 6:23-25); Ruth was a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4; 4:13-17); David took Bathsheba and had her husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:3-5, 11-17). The fourth woman was Mary who gave birth to the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:31-35).
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