38 At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2 There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; 3 she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4 She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
8 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.” 9 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. 10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
11 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.
12 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.
13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 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.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 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.
17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.
18 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.19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.
20 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.21 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.
22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”
23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
24 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!”
25 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.”
26 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.
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 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. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.
(Genesis 38:1-30 NIV)
As we began Chapter 27, Moses begins verse 2a by telling us that these writings are the generations (family) of Jacob. We see a snapshot of the family dynamics in Chapter 37, particularly of Jacob’s sons. In Chapter 39, we’ll see Joseph’s story pick up where we left off at the end of Chapter 27.
In Chapter 38, we see another family member in the spotlight – Jacob’s son Judah. If you’re keeping track of all the family members, Judah is Jacob’s son by Leah, fourth in the birth order after his brothers Reuben, Simeon, and Levi.
Verse 1 of Chapter 38 begins with “At that time…”, referring to the incident of selling their brother Joseph off to the Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. Remember it was Reuben, the oldest brother that spared Joseph’s life, but it was Judah who came up with the idea of selling Joseph to the passing caravan.
As Chapter 38 opens, we see Judah leaving his brothers to spend time with his friend Hirah. There he meets and marries a Canaanite woman and has three sons by her. We don’t know the details about the first son, only that Judah arranged a marriage for him to a woman named Tamar. Judah’s son was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life, leaving Tamar a widow.
Judah instructed his second son to perform the ritual of levirate marriage, where the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry the deceased man’s widow in order to have children that will carry on the deceased brother’s name and family lineage.
The second son, for whatever reason, decides to not honor his brother and does not give Tamar any children, so the Lord took his life as well.
Judah then promises Tamar that she can have his third son, but to go live with her family of origin until the third son is of age to marry. Judah is hoping that the whole thing will blow over and everyone will forget about his promise. Judah is scared that he will lose his third son as well.
But as the years roll on, Tamar sees Judah’s third son grown but not given to her as her promised husband. So she decides to trick Judah into what she has been promised, pretending to be a prostitute along the road.
Judah, after losing his wife, falls for the trap and has sex with the “prostitute”, not knowing it was his daughter-in-law. After Tamar turns up pregnant, she confronts Judah and lets him know he is the father.
Verse 26 is a turning point for Judah, from self-righteous indignation about Tamar being pregnant to admitting that he did not honor his promise to her, and she was, in fact, more righteous in God’s sight than he was.
The chapter ends with Tamar having twin boys, and the whole birth-order struggle happening between the two brothers in the womb, reminiscent of Jacob and Esau.
While this story might seem somewhat anecdotal here, this is another building block for God’s developing story over the years and generations. If we fast-forward to Matthew Chapter 1, we see God redeeming all this sin, the messed-up lineage, broken promises, and trickery of Judah and Tamar as part of the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-3).
So when we’re defeated and feel like we’ve blown it and that there are no more opportunities, know that we are not that powerful. If God can redeem the mess in today’s story (and so many other stories in the Bible), then He can redeem us and our messy stories and lives as well.