Gen. 38:1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.
Gen. 38:2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
Gen. 38:3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
Gen. 38:4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
Gen. 38:5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
This chapter tells the story of Judah, his marriage, his children and his daughter-in-law. At one point, Judah left his family and went to stay with a friend, Hirah, an Adullamite. While there, he met the daughter of a Canaanite man; we aren’t even told her name, just that she is the daughter of Shuah. Although it doesn’t say so, I assume he took her for his wife. Their marriage produced three sons—Er, Onan and Shelah.
Gen. 38:6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
Gen. 38:7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the LORD slew him.
Gen. 38:8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
Gen. 38:9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
Gen. 38:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Gen. 38:11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
There is no record of the years in between; we just immediately jump to the time when Judah takes a wife for Er, his firstborn; her name was Tamar. Er was very wicked in God’s sight, so the Lord put him to death. (I can’t help but have questions regarding people that the Lord allows to live who seem to embody evil—i.e., Hitler, Manson, etc. I again believe that foreknowledge is the key—hand in hand with accomplishing His plan.)
According to their custom, Judah gave Tamar to Onan to produce an heir for his brother. Onan knew that the child would not be his, so he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he lay with Tamar. The fact that Onan refused to provide an heir for his brother displeased the LORD, so He killed Onan too.
This custom became part of the law revealed by Moses to the people of Israel
Deuteronomy 25:5–6 “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.”
MacDonald regarding Onan’s sin: “His sin was not so much sexual as it was selfish. It was not a single act; but, as the Hebrew reveals, a persistent refusal.”
It’s obvious that these ancient peoples had been given some guidelines as to what was pleasing to God somewhere along the way and that they knew what was right and wrong—what was pleasing to God and what wasn’t. If God had really provided us a much more inclusive book of history, I can’t imagine how big the Bible would be!
Judah sent Tamar back home to live with her father, as a widow, to wait on Shelah to be old enough for marriage. However, in his mind he was thinking, “He may die too, like his brothers.” I don’t think he ever intended to give her to Shelah to provide an heir for Er.
Gen. 38:12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
Gen. 38:13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
Gen. 38:14 And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.
Next we are told that Judah’s wife died. After recovering from his grief, Judah headed to Timnah with his friend Hirah to see the men who were shearing his sheep. Tamar heard where her father-in-law was headed. She took off her widow’s clothes; and putting on a veil for disguise, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which was on the road Judah was traveling. She knew that Shelah had grown up and that she had not been given to him as a wife.
Gen. 38:15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
Gen. 38:16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?
Gen. 38:17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?
Gen. 38:18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.
Gen. 38:19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah saw Tamar, he thought that she was a prostitute (just as she had intended); he didn’t recognize her because her face was covered. Judah approached her and asked to sleep with her. She asked him what he would pay. He said he would send her a young goat. She asked for something as a pledge until he sent the goat. Judah said, OK—what do you want? So she asked for his seal and its cord and his staff. He agreed. After their sinful indulgence, she changed back into her widow’s clothes and left. It turns out that she became pregnant.
Gen. 38:20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.
Gen. 38:21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.
Gen. 38:22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.
Gen. 38:23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
Meanwhile, Judah asked his friend Hirah to take a goat and redeem his pledge; but the woman was nowhere to be found. In fact, the men who lived in the area claimed that there had never been a shrine prostitute there. So he went back and reported to Judah. Judah decided not to pursue the matter for fear that people would think him crazy.
Gen. 38:24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.
Gen. 38:25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.
Gen. 38:26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.
Three months later Judah got word that Tamar had prostituted herself and was pregnant. Judah demanded that she be brought out and burned to death. Tamar sent a message to Judah and said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these (his pledge); do you recognize them?” Judah knew they were his and knew it was his fault for not giving her to his son Shelah. Judah said that she was “more righteous than I” because of what she had done. I’m not sure what that meant, but I guess it was tied in to the guidelines that had been established for carrying on family lines. Point is also made that Judah never slept with her again.
Gen. 38:27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
Gen. 38:28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.
Gen. 38:29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.
Gen. 38:30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
When it came time for Tamar to deliver, she had twins. The first thing to emerge was a hand and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around it to indicate the firstborn. But he drew back his hand and his brother came out first. She named the firstborn Perez (breaking out) and the second one Zerah (scarlet or brightness).
Note: Tamar is part of the lineage of Jesus.
Matthew 1:1–3 “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar….”
Clarke: “The insertion of this chapter is a farther proof of the impartiality of the sacred writer. The facts detailed, considered in themselves, can reflect no credit on the patriarchal history; but Judah, Tamar, Zarah, and Pharez, were progenitors of the Messiah, and therefore their birth must be recorded; and as the birth, so also the circumstances of that birth, which, even had they not a higher end in view, would be valuable as casting light upon some very ancient customs, which it is interesting to understand.”