Judah and Tamar
The Transfer of the Pledge
Introduction: Chapter 38 of Genesis is somewhat like chapter 34. In Chapter 34, we saw the incident with Dinah being violated and then Jacob’s sons killing the whole town. That story was there for a reason, however, that reason was veiled in pictures of things that really happened, but which pointed to something else.
This chapter is the same. It is interesting, it has intrigue, sadness, and joy all mixed into it, just like chapter 34. But it’s more than a fun story. One of the things that it includes is the continuance of the line of Judah which is the tribe Jesus comes from. This is certain. But we could have learned about that in a sentence or two.
All of the extra detail could otherwise be considered fat to be removed unless it is telling us something deeper, something rich, and helpful to our understanding of the reason why things happen as they do. The ultimate meaning of what this chapter is pointing to is actually quite similar to that of Chapter 34.
If you remember how that turned out, then you may also be able to see the fulfillment of the pictures in this story too. If not, pay attention to the historical and cultural details today and then next week we will finish up the chapter with a wonderful explanation of what we are being told.
In all honesty, just like the story about Dinah, I had only an inkling of why this one was given. It turned out that thinking these pictures through has made for one of the most difficult sermons for me yet in the book of Genesis. I frustrated over it, mulled over it, pondered over it, and fretted over it for hours.
Then I went to bed thinking about it. At 3:04 in the morning, I suddenly realized what this story was talking about and by 3:19 I had almost the entire picture in my head. Yes, the night watches were filled with contemplating the Word of God. And because of this, I have a text verse for you today from the 119th Psalm –
Text Verse: My eyes are awake through the night watches,
That I may meditate on Your word. Psalm 119:148
God’s word is a beautiful treasure. But as is the case with most treasure, it isn’t revealed without being searched out. One can’t place the Bible under their pillow and expect the information to ooze in to their brain. Rather, it needs to be read, contemplated, and meditated on.
Even into the darkest hours of the night the psalmist meditated on God’s word, and so should we. Make every effort to spend your days wisely – reading, pondering, and loving God’s precious gift, the Holy Bible. It is living and active and ready to instruct us as we pay heed to it and so… May God speak to us through His word today and may His glorious name ever be praised.
I. Judah’ Unrighteousness
Chapter 38 of Genesis is interesting for what it contains. It seems like a side narrative unless you know why it’s included. It in fact, is a main narrative, just as the life of Joseph is. It is an insert story into the account of Joseph’s life and it is inserted at this point for a reason. Joseph’s life and ordeal is recorded to show how the Israelites ended up in Egypt and how they were cared for when they got there.
At the same time, everything about Joseph is also providing pictures of the coming Messiah. The story of Judah and his family here in chapter 38 is given to show us about the main line which leads to the Messiah. Jesus will come through Judah. Because of this, the story here bears directly on His ancestry.
1 It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.
This first verse starts with, “it came to pass at that time.” Just as the previous account was finishing up, the events of this story come about and continue to unfold. Judah, like his brothers, is a shepherd and so he would take his flocks and head out for green pastures. For whatever reason, he decided to go out on his own, leaving his brothers, and to visit someone he met named Hirah.
Hirah means “Nobility.” He’s noted as an Adullamite. Adullam is a town to the south and west of Jerusalem in the lowlands. Adullam means “righteousness” or “justice of the people.”
2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her.
While visiting Hirah in Adullam, Judah married a daughter of Shua, who is identified as a Canaanite. Shua means “Wealth.” This verse is one which should tell us about the importance of names that God records in the Bible. Why? Because the name of Judah’s friend is given, the people his friend belongs to is given, and the name of his father’s wife is given.
But the wife’s name isn’t. The one person you’d expect to be named isn’t named at all. This tells us to pay attention when names are given. There is a story within the story we should be looking for. The dating it is hard to pin down, but Genesis 46:12 says this concerning those of Judah’s family that go to Egypt in the future –
The sons of Judah were Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan). The sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul.
If the sons of Perez actually went to Egypt, then Judah got married at about 14 years old and it happened around the time that they lived in Shechem when Dinah was violated.
But another possibility is that the two sons of Perez were actually born in Egypt, even though they are listed as those who went down to Egypt. This type of speech is seen at other times in the Bible. A person who is still in the loins of the parent is spoken of in a future sense. So either is possible, but either way, Judah is a young man.
3 So she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.
Judah’s firstborn is named Er. Er means “Watching” or “Watcher.”
4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan.
With no other commentary about the times and life of Judah, the story jumps straight to the next son to be born, Onan, which means “Strong.” But instead of Judah naming him, it says she named him.
5 And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. He was at Chezib when she bore him.
And yet again, a third son is recorded by name. His name is Shelah which means “Prosperity.” Again the wife names the son and then it notes the he, Judah, was at Chezib when she bore him. Chezib means “false” or “falsehood.”
6 Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
Judah got married at a young age and now he finds a wife for his firstborn at a young age as well. The wife he chooses for her is named Tamar, meaning “Palm Tree.” In the Bible, the palm tree has several connotations. It is a symbol of prosperity, the element of an oasis, and it also is a picture of a faithful and righteous person.
The 92nd Psalm gives this symbolism –
The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,
He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
Shall flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They shall still bear fruit in old age;
They shall be fresh and flourishing,
15 To declare that the Lord is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him. (12-15)
Because of this symbolism, depictions of palm trees are said to lavishly ordained the walls of both Solomon’s and Ezekiel’s temples.
7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord killed him.
This is one of those verses where people really start to take offense against God and against the Bible. Or, there are those that have no problem with this verse, but then struggle with the death of someone that they think is a “good” person. But God is the Creator and this is His world.
If he wants to remove someone for whatever reason, because they are wicked or to save them from what might be a bigger catastrophe in their future, this is His right. In the case of Er, he was wicked in the sight of Jehovah and so Jehovah killed him. I have no problem with this at all.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Er’s death, God’s plans are worked out. And in each of our lives, we can only count on the breath in our nostrils. Our life will in fact end. The only questions are “when” and “how.”
In an interesting play on “Er” and “wickedness,” the same letters are used in the Hebrew for both words. Er is spelled ayin, resh and “wicked” which is ra is spelled resh, ayin. It is almost as if the Bible is describing him as completely wicked; it being his very nature. Er’s wickedness is great like the people before the Flood of Noah and the people of Sodom.
8 And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.”
Because Er is dead and he left no children, Judah tells his second son Onan, to take Tamar as his wife and raise up and heir for Er.
Onan, take your brother’s wife
Take Tamar and go into her
For I want you to raise up another life
Yes, I want you to raise an heir for Er
The word used for this marriage is a special word used just for this purpose. It is where a person acts as a husband for the widow of a brother who died without children.
This is something that will actually be mandated under the Law of Moses, but it was a custom which was obviously known at this time. It is also known to have been practiced in many cultures of the mid-east and Africa.
It is a way of honoring the name of the dead so that their name doesn’t die out. It will also ensure that the inheritance of the firstborn remains alive.
9 But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.
Well, never let anyone say that the Bible hides the faults of man, no matter how unusual they are. Because of the custom of the land and Judah’s direction to him, the first child of Onan wouldn’t be recorded as his. It would be listed under Er. And the inheritance for Er would go to this son rather than to his own.
This didn’t sit well with Onan and so instead of refusing to have Tamar at all, he committed a worse act. He took her as his wife, but he wouldn’t provide a child for her in the process. The Hebrew word literally says he “destroyed to the ground.”
So he treated her shamefully, disgraced the name of his brother, and violated the custom handed down to him by his father.
10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; therefore He killed him also.
Because of this sin against the Lord, the woman, the brother, and his father, the Lord killed Onan also. The questions one might ask are, “Why does the Lord kill Er when there are lots of wicked people on the earth, and yet he doesn’t kill all of them?” and “Why did the Lord kill Onan when there were certainly others who did the same thing as him, but he doesn’t kill them?”
The answer is found in the title of the One who killed them, “the Lord.” It is Jehovah specifically, not just the general title for “God.” When the title “Jehovah” is used, it is speaking of the One who monitors the covenant and the covenant people.
The title Lord, or Jehovah, is only mentioned three times in this chapter and only in the two verses about Er and Onan. What they have done is a violation of the covenant God gave to Abraham and which was passed down to Isaac, then Jacob, and then to the sons of Israel. As Judah is the son in the line of the Messiah, these sons have willfully disgraced the covenant.
What Onan has done here has been used a jillion times as a verse prescribing that one must not do what he did. From that, the concept is built on that one must intend to procreate every time they have relations with their wife.
And from there come mandates against birth control. One concept is built upon another inserting mandates which are beyond what Scripture is stating or even implying. The use of the term “Lord” or Jehovah shows us that this is not at all what is intended.
This is a covenant violation, not merely a human transgression. Otherwise, another term such as “God” would have been used. The Bible is silent on the issue of birth control, be it using the timing cycle or any other means, and this verse cannot be used as a text against it.
Reuben, Simeon, and Levi have all been excluded from the blessing of leading to the Messiah. And so Jehovah’s eyes and covenant keeping responsibilities are directed toward Judah and his descendants. Jehovah saw these two as unfit and they were killed.
It is His covenant to monitor and He decides how it will be enforced. Now, with the two wicked sons out of the way a new avenue to the Messiah will be sought out.
I would suggest right now that Tamar was probably aware of the covenant and the promise of Messiah through Judah. There is no reason to assume that Judah would have kept it from his wife, nor is there a reason to assume that Er wasn’t made aware of it. And so Tamar heard through him or through Judah himself.
11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.”
Tamar has seen two husbands die without bearing children. Judah knows that Shelah is too young to perform his duties by giving her a child in place of those two brothers. And so he says to her to remain a widow in her father’s house until Shelah is old enough to fill the role.
In saying this, it’s indicating that she must remain a widow and not marry outside of the family. As he has a responsibility to the name of his son, she has a responsibility to the dead husband.
11 (con’t) For he said, “Lest he also die like his brothers.”
We can infer that he said this to himself, not to Tamar. What Judah was actually worried about isn’t Tamar, but the life of his third son. In essence, “She must be the cause of the first two dying.” He didn’t want the third to die because of her as well.
11 (con’t) And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
What is obviously in view here is that Tamar is the one who has suffered the loss of two husbands. Judah may feel that she is to blame, but Tamar may think the opposite. “I’ve lost two husbands from this family already – one was wicked, the other was cruel. When will this pain end?”
And yet, in faithfulness to the family and to the custom, she went back to dwell in her father’s house. She acts in an upright manner, as her name “Palm Tree” implies.
II. A Pledge is Given
12 Now in the process of time the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died;
Here we have a phrase, v’yirbu ha’yamim, or “and the days were multiplied.” It means an indeterminate amount of time, but it usually means a pretty long period, even several years. Sometime after Judah made his promise to Tamar, his wife dies.
Birth, life, and death are all at the Lord’s discretion, and so it shows us that what is coming is being set up through the Lord’s hand.
12 (con’t) and Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
After a time of mourning for his wife, it says he went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, taking along his friend Hirah. Timnah means “a part assigned” or “territory”. The reason for taking his friend is that at the time that the sheep are sheared, it’s usually a time of fun and parties.
The owners would invite friends, and treat their working hands to entertainment, good food, and festivity. This occurs around the end of March after the winter is ending. Because of the festive time, he brings Hirah along as well.
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.”
In what is probably a matter-of-fact happening, someone mentions to Tamar that Judah, her father in law, is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep. Whether the comment was simply an innocuous statement of fact or not, Tamar is going to use it as an opportunity for personal justification.
14 So she took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself,
The clothes that she wore while living in her father’s house distinguished her as a widow. She had remained faithful to her trust not only by not marrying, but also by showing those around her that she was a widow and living as a widow. If nothing else, the righteousness of her actions are testified to in the Bible.
However, because of the length of time mentioned in the previous verse, she had figured out that Judah had no intention of giving his third son to her as a husband. This was her right and if she knew of the Messianic blessing, then even more so.
And so she devised a plan, maybe without knowing its outcome, to get him to see the error of his ways. She put on a veil and wrapped herself in a manner that would identify her as a prostitute. The word for “veil” is tsiaph. It is used only three times in the Bible.
The first was when Rebekah covered herself as she approached her husband-to-be, Isaac. The other two are both in this story. She is unknown to Judah because of the veil.
14 (con’t) and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah;
Then she sat in an open place on the way to where he was heading. In Hebrew, the term “open place” is bepheta enayim – “the gateway of eyes.” She is dressed as a prostitute and sitting in a location which would identify her as one as well. And the reason for her doing this is seen in the continuation of verse 14…
14 (con’t) for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.
It had been long enough for Shelah to grow up to the point that she should have been given to him as a wife, but it hadn’t happened. Now, in order to be justified as she should have been by Judah, she will turn the tables on him.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face.
Of course he did. She’s dressed as a harlot in a harloty kind of place, and her face is covered to disguise who she is. So Judah simply thinks it’s a prostitute and not his daughter in law.
The Hebrew word is zonah, a person who sells themselves for hire, but it is used figuratively throughout the Bible when speaking of religious prostitution. An example of this is found in Hosea 9:1 –
Do not rejoice, O Israel, with joy like other peoples,
For you have played the harlot against your God.
You have made love for hire on every threshing floor.
16 Then he turned to her by the way, and said, “Please let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.
Judah, seeing this woman by the wayside, being unmarried, and being completely unsuspecting of who she really is, makes an offer for a tryst. The Bible notes specifically that “he did not know that she was his daughter in law.” In other words, it implies that if he knew, he wouldn’t have done this.
And that should be obvious because he never propositioned her before. He unsuspectingly was led to do what he otherwise would have refrained from doing.
16 (con’t) So she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?”
A deal is a deal. He has offered and she asks what he is willing to pay for her services. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the Bible doesn’t hide these things.
They are the state of fallen people in a fallen world and the Bible shows what happened, not just to give us fun stories, stories about how stupid we can be, or merely irrelevant stories, but to show us moral lessons and greater pictures of God’s workings in this world.
17 And he said, “I will send a young goat from the flock.”
Judah’s offer for her services is a goat from the flock, in Hebrew gedi izzim, a kid goat. It’s something that he will send back to her later. But without the payment in hand, she plays the true role of a harlot, expecting something as collateral…
17 (con’t) So she said, “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?”
im titen eravon ad shawl-khekha (2.59) – “so, give me a pledge until you send it.” The word “pledge” here, eravon, signifies an earnest deposit. When the goat is received, then the earnest can be returned.
18 Then he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” So she said, “Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand.”
When he asks what she wants as a pledge, she asks for three things, his signet, cord, and staff.
khothemkha – your signet. It’s either a ring or a medallion which was used to make impressions in wax or clay. It was used like we use a signature. It is one’s identity. In the case of a king, it would be his symbol of authority. In Haggai 2:23, it is used when speaking of the authority of the Davidic line bestowed by God upon Zerubbabel.
uphtilekha – and your cord. The word comes from pathal – to twist. Some call this a bracelet, some a piece of clothing, but what is most likely is that it was a cord attached to the signet so he could keep it around his neck.
u-matekha – and your staff. This is a walking stick which would have been used as his ensign. In the 110th Psalm it’s used to indicate the scepter, the symbol of the strength and authority, of the Messiah –
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.
Rule in the midst of Your enemies! (1, 2)
18 (con’t) Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.
These three things are taken as a pledge for the kid goat. They show the ensign, the authority, and the identity of Judah. Until he receives them back, she has the title to them.
After obtaining possession of these articles, we are told that Judah received his payment and in turn Tamar receives his seed. She conceives a child through this one encounter. Another divinely directed event in the unfolding moments of man’s redemption, just like what happened with the two daughters of Lot.
19 So she arose and went away, and laid aside her veil and put on the garments of her widowhood.
In order to avoid receiving the kid goat immediately and thus having to return the pledge, she hurries away from the location. Once home again, she removes the veil and puts on her garments of widowhood. She possesses the pledge and she possesses the child. She is the bearer of the coming Messiah and the possessor of the authority of that Messianic line.
III. The Missing Harlot
20 And Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her.
For whatever reason, instead of going himself, he sent the goat with his friend the Adullamite. The payment is being offered, and the pledge is expected in return. However, she is gone and she is nowhere to be found.
The term Aduallamite has been used three times. In the first two, Hirah’s name is used in conjunction with it. This time, it leaves his name out and only calls him the Adullamite.
21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, “Where is the harlot who was openly by the roadside?” And they said, “There was no harlot in this place.”
Hirah asks around for the harlot, but this time a different word is used for “harlot.” It is the Hebrew qedeshah. This is a temple prostitute. One who has sex for religious purposes, not for specifically for money.
The word qedesh is spelled the same and closely related to qadesh. Both carry the connotation of what is holy. He is supposing that this was her type of prostitution. This type of prostitution was common in and around the middle east for many centuries. It was also practiced around the Greek and Roman empires.
But in this case, none of the people around have any knowledge of there being a temple prostitute and they even deny there being one. And so back he goes to Judah…
22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I cannot find her. Also, the men of the place said there was no harlot in this place.”
His search complete even to inquiring of the people of the place and yet he couldn’t find her. He’s done everything he can, but to no avail. Again, he uses the term qedeshah instead of zonah to describe the harlot.
23 Then Judah said, “Let her take them for herself, lest we be shamed; for I sent this young goat and you have not found her.”
Judah is more worried about being laughed at by man than his conduct before God. The tokens of his position, title, and identity also mean less to him than being laughed at. He is unwilling to bear the reproach of his actions even at such a high cost. And then he shrugs it off by saying that he did his part by sending the goat.
If the payment isn’t acceptable, that isn’t his fault, he feels he can do without the pledge. And he feels justified because he went through the motions of his obligation, even though it was for completely perverse purposes.
Well, this is, surprisingly, the point where we have to stop off today. The completion of the story and the chapter will come next week. Until we get there, I hope you’ll think on what you’ve heard and make an effort to place it in a New Testament context. In particular, think on the pledge that Tamar was given.
If you can place that, then the rest of the story will start to make sense. A pledge is something that is provided in anticipation of receiving something else. We, like Tamar, have been given a pledge if we have called on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
It is the sealing of the Holy Spirit; the guarantee of our promised redemption. As God doesn’t make mistakes, we have the absolute assurance of the fulfillment of this promise. Stand fast on that.
But if you have never called on Jesus, you have no guarantee except the surety that when you die, you will remain separated from God.But in His great mercy, God sent His Son to change that. Please give me a moment to explain to you how you can receive the gift of Jesus and thus, the promise of eternal life.
Closing Verse: Keep my soul, and deliver me;
Let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You.
21 Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
For I wait for You. Psalm 25:20, 21
Next Week: Genesis 38:24-30 (The One Who Breaks Through) (96th Genesis Semon) – Make sure to read and study those verses.
The Lord has you exactly where He wants you and He has a good plan and purpose for you. Call on Him and let Him do marvelous things for you and through you.
Judah and Tamar
The Transfer of the Pledge
It came to pass at that time
That Judah from his brothers departed
And visited a certain Adullamite
Whose name was Hirah, the name he was imparted
And Judah saw there a daughter
Of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua
And he married her and went in to her
Soon there would be more than just them two-a
So she conceived and bore a son
And he called his name Er – he was the first one
She conceived again and soon a son she bore
And she called his name Onan, a second son to adore
And she conceived yet again and bore a son
And called his name Shelah
He was at Chezib when she bore that one
And with the third, she cried “Zippity doo dah!”
Then Judah took a wife for his firstborn, Er
And Tamar was the name that was given to her
But Er, Judah’s firstborn
Was wicked in the sight of the Lord
And the Lord killed him because of his scorn
Such is noted in God’s precious word
And Judah said to the second son Onan
“Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her
And raise up an heir to your brother, young man
Fulfill your duty to your dead brother Er
But Onan knew that the heir would not be his
And it came to pass, in actions quite unsound
When he went in to his brother’s wife he did this
That he emitted instead on the ground
Lest he should give an heir to his brother
He thought only of himself, not another
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord
Therefore He killed him also, as says the word
Then to Tamar his daughter-in-law Judah said
“Remain a widow in your father’s house
Till my son Shelah is grown in the days ahead
And I will give to him you as his spouse
“Lest he also die like his brothers” is what Judah said
And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house
Because now her second husband was dead
Now in the process of time, as the days passed
The daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died
After a time of grief he went up to his sheepshearers
To Timnah, with Hirah the Adullamite at his side
And it was told to Tamar, saying
“Look, up to Timnah is going your father-in-law
To shear his sheep” for this you have been praying
“Get moving Tamar, don’t hem and haw
So she took off her widow’s garments
Covered herself, and with a veil wrapped her face
She went to a spot on the way to Timnah
There she sat in an open place
For she saw that Shelah was grown in life
And she was not given to him as a wife
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute
Because she had covered her face, she seemed of ill-repute
Then he turned to her by the way, and said
“Please let me come in to you”
For he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law, instead
As if this made it right to do what he did do
So she said, “What thing will it be
That you will give, so you may thus come in to me
And he said, “A young goat from the flock I will tender.”
So she said, “Until then will you to me a pledge render?”
Then he said, “What pledge shall I give you?”
So she said, “Your signet and cord also,
And your staff that is in your hand.” This you shall do
Then what you have promised I will receive, I know
Then he gave them to her, and into her he went
And she conceived by him, in this time that they spent
So she arose and went away
And laid aside her veil that she had wore
And put on the garments of her widowhood, that day
Living without a husband once more
And Judah sent the young goat as was planned
By the hand of the Adullamite, his friend
To receive his pledge from the woman’s hand
But he did not find her as he did intend
Then he asked the men of that place
Saying, “Where is the harlot who did disappear
Who was openly by the roadside and covered her face?”
And they said, “There was no harlot around here.”
So he returned to Judah and said
“I cannot find her, though I looked everywhere
Also, the men of the place, I do dread
Said there was no harlot working there
Then Judah said, “Let her take them for herself,
Lest this get out and we be shamed
For I sent this young goat
And you have not found her, we can’t be blamed
The details are given for us to continue to see
God’s unfolding plan being revealed in history
Every word gives us insights into His loving heart
Each story is to show us more of His Son Jesus
As we read the word, to us it does impart
Wisdom and beauty, given from God to us
And so be sure to cherish the word every day and every night
Let it be your comforting friend and let it be your guiding light
Hallelujah and Amen…