The Shame of Judah
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 38. The last couple of weeks we have been launching into a study of the final section of the book of Genesis, chapters 37 through 50, and the story of the life of Joseph. And as we have said several times, it's important to note a couple of things about this section of the book. First, the story of Joseph tells us how Israel wound up in Egypt. That's so important to the fulfillment of God's promises and he had already told Abraham in Genesis 15, verses 13 and 14 that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land and they would be oppressed for a number of years. And the story of Joseph tells us how the children of Israel got to Egypt. Secondly, the story of Joseph tells us how the promises of God in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2 would be fulfilled. God had promised Abram that he would become a great nation. And the story of Joseph in great measure is the story of how the children of Jacob went from being a great family, a great number of tribes into becoming in fact a great nation.
But the way that God does that, we've already seen in our study in Genesis 37, the way that He does that is surprising. His providence is surprising. And as much as Joseph will be the central theme of most of the next number of chapters from Genesis 37 all the way to Genesis 50, God's providence is the central point of the story, as Joseph himself will admit when we finally get to Genesis 50. God providentially overrules all things to fulfill His purposes and His promises to His people.
Now having said that, the passage we are going to study tonight at first hearing might appear to be a sorted digression, totally unrelated to the story of Joseph and God's plan for the people of Israel. However, that first impression is wrong. And however uncomfortable it may be to hear the words that we are about to read, they remind us of God's utter realism about sin and of the amazingness of His grace. I have only heard this passage preached one other time. And one elder was heard to say upon exiting the sanctuary of St. Columbus Free Church after this message on Genesis 38, “That passage is not fit to be read in public.” So my pardon to your sensibilities as we turn now to God's word in Genesis 38, verses 1 through 30 and hear this ignoble tale of Judah's shame. This is God's word.
Our Father, we do bow before You and we ask that by Your spirit you would teach us, that you would warn us, that you would instruct us, that you would cause us to sit under the judgment, under the wisdom and righteousness of Your word. That we would learn from its warnings and that we would take heed to its exhortations and examples. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.
This entire passage, all the way from verse 1 to verse 30 is very important in settling the seniority of the succession of the line of Judah. The passage of course tells us that the line of Judah eventually is going to pass through the seniority of Perez instead of Zerah. And that in and of itself, hold that in the back of your mind, is going to be important for God's redemptive plan in the long run. But this passage also serves three other purposes. From a literary point of view, this passage heightens the tensions of the reader of the story of Joseph. It's sort of like a “meanwhile back at the ranch” kind of thing. You know, the heroine is on the train tracks and the train is approaching and suddenly the camera clicks back to the ranch where the cowboy is feeding the cows or something. You are wondering, what's going to happen to the heroine? We've left Joseph in the hands of slavers who have now sold him into captivity in Egypt. And suddenly we cut away to the life of Judah for a moment. And it heightens the tension in the story in the life of Joseph.
Secondly, however, this story gives a backdrop to us against which we can measure the character of Joseph. We have already begun to perceive that there is something unique about Joseph. In the very next chapter we are going to see Joseph react to some very difficult situations with impeccable morality. And this passage gives us a greater appreciation for that than we would ever have had, had it been excluded. Thirdly, this passage does something else. It reveals to us the character of the man who became the leader of the ten brothers, the leader of the ten sons of Jacob. Derek Kidner puts it this way: “As a rude interruption of the story of Joseph, this passage serves other purposes as well. It creates suspense for the reader with Joseph's future in the balance. It puts his faith and chastity, soon to be described, in context which sets off their rarity, and it fills out the portrait of the effective leader among the ten brothers. And so for all these reasons and more, it is apparent that this is not a wandering or a random digression. Moses has an agenda for inserting this story here. The Bible never includes salacious material gratuitously. There is always a wholesome purpose for recording the acts of depravity that it reports. God always has His purposes for recording these kinds of events. And notice that Moses does this just about as delicately as you could do it. You could have said this much less delicately than Moses said. It's horrible as you read it. But it could have been said with much less sensitivity than Moses manages to say it. Now, with those words of introduction behind us.
Let's look at two or three things in this passage. The passage outlines into three parts. If you look at verses 1 through 11 there you’ll see the crises that has eventuated in the line of Judah. Then if you look at verses 12 through 26 you’ll see the plan that Tamar concocts in order to get her rights as the matriarch of the primary line of Judah. She was the wife of the first born and she had certain rights in that culture. And this was her way of securing those rights. And then finally in verses 27 through 30 we see the conclusion of the tale. The sons of Tamar are born, and we see the senior line developed in the line of Judah.
These are the three sections of the passage. In verses 1 through 11 as we look at this crisis in the line of Judah, I think this lesson from God stands out very clearly. The family of Jacob is a mess. If you were expecting God to work through Ozzie and Harriett in the book of Genesis, you don't get it here. The family of Jacob is a mess. It's much in need of God's grace and yet, it's very clear to us if we look and pay attention that God's providence is active, even in this.
I. The family of Jacob is a mess, much in need of God's grace, yet His providence is active.
The story begins with the description of Judah's search for a wife in verses 1 and 2. And as you look at those verses friends, you will immediately recognize the similarity to Judas’ search for a wife and Esau's search for a wife. Back in Genesis, chapter 26, verses 34 and 35 we know that Esau went out and he found daughters of the land. In fact they’re actually called that by his mother in Genesis, chapter 27, verse 46, where she says I can't stand these daughters of Heth, these daughters of the land that have been chosen by Esau. And we know that trouble is in store the minute that Judah goes out to find daughters of the land. Canaanite, a Canaanite wife. By the was, it's also similar to a later marriage that will occur. In Judges, chapter 14, verses 1 through 3 Sampson does the same thing. Sampson goes out and he seeks out a Canaanite wife. She's a beautiful woman. He goes back to his parents and he says get her for me as a wife. And they say, son, don't you want to marry a nice Jewish girl? And his response is she's beautiful, I want her for my wife, get her for my wife. And that passage also mirrors what is going on here. The woman's name in this passage is never mentioned. She is always simply called Shua's daughter. Now you’ll recognize the name Adullam, this friend Hirah the Adullamite apparently comes from that area nearby the cave of Adullam. It's south or southwest of Jerusalem. It's an area of territory where David will one day hide in a cave. And it's an area interestingly enough that Judah will be given when the land of Canaan is parceled out.
At any rate this daughter of Shua bears Judah three sons. Er, in verse 3, Onan in verse 4, and Shelah in verse 5. And then in verse 6 Judah arranges a marriage for Er with Tamar. And we are immediately told that Er was wicked. He was sinful. He was evil in the sight of God and God takes his life. Derek Kidner says this: “Onan's sin emphasizes the steep moral decline in the chosen family, which only the outstanding piety of Joseph would arrest for a while.” Now we haven't gotten to Onan yet, but we've already seen this pattern of judgment to begin in the passage. God finds Er to be evil, and then Onan does a specific action which is specified, and that is called evil in the sight of the Lord. And so what we see in the judgment of God is a reflection of the moral decline in the line of Judah. So Er is evil and God takes his life because of it. And the death of Er precipitates a crisis in the line of Judah and Onan, the second son is called upon to perform the duties of what is called a levirate marriage. Now levirate simply comes from a Latin word levir which means husband's brother. And you see three times in the Bible levirate marriage spoken of. In this passage, Genesis 38, also in Deuteronomy, chapter 25, verses 5 through 10, where Moses actually gives a law concerning what is to happen when a brother dies with regard to his brother's responsibility to his wife, if there has been no son born. And then of course in the book of Ruth, especially in Ruth, chapter 4, the issue of levirate marriage comes to play again. So a crisis is precipitated by Er's death. And Onan the brother is approached by Judah, and he is called upon the perform the responsibility of levirate marriage.
Levirate marriage is an interesting thing. Up until this point in Genesis it's never been mentioned. We know from the cultures around Israel that it was practiced. The Hittites, for instance, had laws regarding levirate marriage. The idea was this. That if a man died with his wife specifically not yet having born him a son who would be his heir, then his brother had a responsibility to enable her to bear a male child who would be the heir to his line, so that his line would go on. Now naturally that posed a little bit of a conflict of interest. Because if she did not have a male child, the brother stood to gain in terms of the family inheritance. And so not surprisingly in every instance that levirate marriage is mentioned in the Bible, it's only mentioned three times, in every instance there is indication of conflict and family tension connected with it. Here in Genesis 38 Onan doesn't want to do this. He doesn't want to do it because he stands to gain if his brother's wife does not have an heir. Then there is resistance to it even in the story of Ruth, which is a much more wholesome expression of this particular practice. And then if you look at Genesis 25, verses 5 through 10, in the section where the responsibility of levirate marriage is mentioned, Moses has to go on to deal with the situation. What happens if the brother refuses to do the duty of levirate marriage. And he has this whole procedure that has to be followed by the widowed wife in that circumstance. So we have a crisis in the line, and Onan selfishly does not want to fulfill his duties we are told in verses 8 and 9 and so God takes his life. Again, listen to Kidner. “Onan's sin emphasizes the steep morale decline in the chosen family which only the outstanding piety of Joseph were to rest for a while. This tendency to an immediate plunge from grace whenever faith is no longer an active force, is evident more than once in Genesis.”
And subsequently and consequently Judah having lost two sons now in connection with Tamar is a little superstitious about this. This woman is hexed, and he doesn't want Shelah anywhere near her. So he asks her to go back and live in her father's home. But women in those days, especially a widowed woman, was in a vulnerable situation socially, and she needed to be in the home where she was protected. And so he says why don't you go back and live with your father for a while? And when Shelah comes of age, then we’ll make arrangements for marriage. And so he puts her off.
Now in the backdrop of this tale which is already sorted as it is, Joseph's character and Joseph's priorities stand out strikingly against this description of Judah and his sons. In this passage, not unlike the story of Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau, everybody is working the angle on their agenda. Judah is, Tamar will, Onan does. Everybody is working their own angle. And Joseph's priority stands out against this backdrop. We see here the need of grace in the family that God has chosen to work in. You know you may think that if God is at work, then everything is fine and dandy. But God is at work in this family, and it is an absolute mess. Don't think that just because the Holy Spirit is working powerfully that everything is fine. You know we may long in the life of the church for everything to be fine here at First Presbyterian Church. But just because the Holy Spirit is working in a powerful way does not mean that everything is fine.
If there has ever been a case — a locus classicus for that truth it's this one. God's at work in this family. He's at work in the family of Jacob, but they are an absolute mess. And in that we see their need of grace. But we also see what grace has made of Joseph. You know, you look at this family and you wonder where exactly did Joseph come from. I mean he's like nobody in his family. These people are totally different from this man. Where does he come from? He comes from grace. Grace makes Joseph. But we also see God's hand of providence. Now you may not see it yet, but I think you will by the end of this chapter.
II. The practice of intermingling with the world will prove a bane to Israel to the days of exile.
Let's look at verses 12 through 26. Here's Tamar's plan. Her father-in-law has set her aside. Her father-in-law really wants to forget about her. He wants her to be out of the way. And so this family that's a mess, that is much in need of God's grace is going to see the hand of God's providence intervene again. But we also learn another important message in this section. Moses has already been warning the people of Israel in the book of Genesis about the danger of intermingling with the world. And especially about intermingling marriages of faith and unbelief.
And in this passage once again Moses shows us that the practice of intermingling with the world proves obeying to the people of God. Especially when it involves marriage. And that will be the case all the way to the days of the exile. The whole plot of this section, verses 12 through 26, revolves around Tamar's rights to be the mother of Judah's heir. She was the wife of his first born, and she had the right to be the mother of the heir to Judah. And so Tamar and what she does is wholly concerned with that right to be the matriarch of Judas’ eldest line. She is attempting to establish herself as the matriarch of the eldest line of Judah. Now Tamar knew that Judah was trying to brush her aside and so she devised a strategy. The text itself makes no comment. Moses is often does this in the stories of the book of Genesis. He makes no direct comment on the morality of what Tamar does. But in light of the fact that in the very next chapter Moses records Joseph rebuffing the overtures of the wife of Potiphar.
What do you think Moses is telling you? Moses is giving you his clear judgment on the morality of this passage by what he says about Joseph in Genesis 39. And so there is no moral ambiguity here. There are no gray areas for Moses. In fact the very reason he's describing this tale in Genesis 38 is so that you can see the contrast laid over against the morality of Joseph. At any rate, Judah is on his way up to Timnah; it's sheep shearing time. Now in that culture, that was the spiritual Mardi Gras of the day. You remember these are Canaanites, and Canaanites follow a fertility cult. They have temple prostitutes. The temple prostitute is mentioned here twice. They thought that Tamar was the temple prostitute in the area. In those days, as part of invoking the gods to cause your flocks to be fruitful and your lands to be fruitful, people engaged in ritual fornication with temple prostitutes. And so the time of sheep shearing was a time in which this was overly indulged in. And so it was a time where you were liable to face sexual temptation. And Tamar takes advantage of that. And so as Judah makes his way up to Timnah, he encounters his own daughter-in-law and they have relations. Kidner says, “Such was the world into which Judah had married. The prophets report its corrupting power over Israel for generations to come.” And so Judah does a wicked thing in Israel. In the midst of his own bereavement and the loss of his own wife, he engages in an adulterous contact with this woman who he does not know. And I think Moses is making a comment here on the danger of becoming yoked with the world. Judah has been sucked into the Canaanite culture, the Canaanite value system, the practices of the Canaanites and he's been sucked in precisely because of the fact that he's married into it. This is Judah's own choice.
And I want to say that that's a tremendous warning to us. Any time the Christian lives in a culture where we are accepted, and where we are relatively at peace we are in danger of being sucked into its prevailing system of values, especially when we intermarry with it. And I want to say right now for the young folks who have not yet chosen a mate that there is nothing more important that you choose a mate who shares your faith. I don't mean one who acquiesces to your faith. I don't mean a mate who doesn't mind that you love the Lord Jesus Christ. I mean a mate whose heart beats for Christ like yours does. And if you don't, you’re going to find yourself, I doubt not, in as grave a situation as Judah, temporally speaking, physically speaking. But you know what? You’ll be right where he is spiritually speaking if you do. It doesn't matter how it works itself out. If you intermingle with those who do not share your faith, you are putting yourself right where Judah put himself. And you see what the story holds for those who do this.
And again, we see the impurity of Judah here and the schemes of Tamar and they provide for us what? A backdrop against which we can measure the grace of God in Joseph's life. And once again we see the need of grace in this family. God has chosen a very appropriate recipient of his grace in the family of Jacob. They really need His grace. And again we see God's grace in Joseph as God has caused this man to be of upstanding moral quality in comparison to his own family, and again we see God's strange hand of providence. And you’re still wondering, I'm sure yet about this providence thing. I don't see God's hand of providence in this yet. But we do when we get to verses 27 through 30.
III. God's providence rules and overrules in His purposes of judgment and grace.
There the sons of Tamar in the line of Judah is mentioned. And we see God's providence ruling and overruling in his purposes of judgment in grace. The chapter ends with a prenatal struggle between Perez and Zerah, somewhat similar to the struggle that we have described in Genesis 25, verses 22 through 26 between Jacob and Esau. And it issues forth, it ends, it culminates in the birth of Perez which launches the tribe of Judah on its career, and he is recognized as the first born in the genealogy, despite the judgment of the midwife, despite the red string. Perez is judged as the first born. And God's hand of providence is clearly seen in this, friends, because this becomes significant in the genealogy of Jesus. In Matthew, chapter 1, verse 3, Tamar and Perez appear in the genealogy of your Lord and Savior. In Luke, chapter 3, verse 33, Perez appears in the genealogy of your Savior. Tamar becomes one of the only women listed in the genealogy of the Messiah. Perez becomes a grandfather of Christ, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world, has Canaanite blood flowing in His veins because God loves to turn that which is evil to His own purposes and bring blessing from curse and redeem that which deserves destruction and bring it into the realm of His blessing and grace.
Now in this story you see God's grace and providence. Even in the actions of Judah and Tamar. Let me give you one example of this. If you turn with me to Judges chapter 14. We mentioned this in the story of Sampson. In Judges 14, verses 1 through 3 and what is one of the constant themes of the book of Judges that when Israel intermingles with the Canaanites trouble happens. And so the author of Judges tells us this about Samson. “Then Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines. And so he came back and told his father and mother I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines. Now, therefore, get her for me as a wife. And then his father and mother said to him is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives or among all our people that you will go and take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines. But Samson said to his father, get her for me for she looks good to me.”
Now it's very clear from this point that the author of judges is greatly distressed by the choice that Samson has made. But then he must pause and make this observation. An observation which does not excuse Samson's wantonness. But which indicates God's providence. Look what it says. “However, (verse 4) his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord for he was seeking an occasion against the Philistines.” And so just the same in Genesis 38, as Joseph himself will declare in Genesis 50, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. God is sovereign. He is working His purposes out until His righteousness covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Our Lord and our God, we ask that You would teach us solemn messages from this warning passage of Your word, for we ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.