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A Curious Interruption

January 14, 2018 Speaker: David Gough Series: The Life of Joseph: Lessons in Sovereignty

Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 38:1–30


Genesis 38:1-30

1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.  2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her,  3 and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.  4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan.  5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezeb when she bore him.

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.  7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.  8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.”  9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.  10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.  11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah, the Adullamite.  13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,”  14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up and she had not been given to him in marriage.  15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.  16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me that you may come in to me?”  17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—”  18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him.  19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her.  21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’”  22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, “No cult prostitute has been here.”  23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”  25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”  26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb.  28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.”  29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez.  30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


It goes without saying that God is not condoning the behavior of the characters in Genesis 38.  What’s more, the details found here are not meant to be tantalizing or enticing.  Therefore, as we approach this story, we must remind ourselves that the providence of God is often painted with the hues of man’s sinful experience.  This text is not included in the biblical narrative to provide examples to follow, but to demonstrate the sovereign hand of Almighty God. 

In Romans 8:28 we read these familiar words: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”   The context in which that verse is found demands that we understand it in reference to those difficult and trying times of affliction that we all face...times when we find ourselves wondering, “Where is God when life doesn’t make sense?”

It is not only in times of suffering that these words find significance, but in times of sin as well.  Because God is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of His people, we are forced to concede that “all things” means just what it says...“all things,” including the sins of God’s people.

This, of course, is not in any way meant to suggest that there is “good” in sin, or that the believer is to sin in order that “grace may abound” (cf. Romans 6:1-2).  Far from it, God commands believers to “put (sin) to death” in their lives (cf. Colossians 3:5-9).  In a mysterious way, God’s sovereignty does not remove man’s accountability.  In His sovereign plan of redemption, God is able to work even the sinful deeds of man for the fulfillment of His eternal purposes.

In a sermon he preached from Romans 8, entitled “God is in Control,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that “This term, ‘all things,’ really must be taken in all its fullness, not even excepting sin.”  And to that Sinclair Ferguson reminds us that...

There is nothing that takes our God by surprise; there is nothing that takes place outside of His superintendence and watch-care; and there is nothing that can ever happen that can distort or destroy His eternal purposes for His people—nothing whatsoever!

No sooner do we begin our look into the life of Joseph that we encounter this strange and seemingly out-of-place chapter.  One highly respected conservative commentator, although a strong advocate of biblical inspiration and authority, declared Genesis 38 to be “highly unsuited to homiletical use.”  In other words, he thought it inappropriate to be shared from the pulpit.  At the risk of disagreeing with someone whose commentaries have helped me a great deal, I must insist that Genesis 38 is still “Scripture” and is, therefore, “breathed out by God and (is) profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

That being said, we are not to approach this or any other passage of God’s Word mindlessly, allowing our feelings and imaginations to run wild.  We commit no error in asking “why” this sudden interruption in the account of Joseph?  What purpose is served by such a dark passage?   I believe there are two main reasons for it being placed at this point in the Genesis narrative.  The first is literary and the second is theological.

In a literary sense, it is important to keep in mind that Moses—who we believe to have been the human author of this book—is not merely writing history...he is also writing a literary narrative.  In other words, he is relating a story...a factual one, but a story nonetheless.  As someone has made the distinction, a historian tells us what happened, whereas the writer of a literary narrative tells us what happened.  To put it another way, rather than merely presenting dry and impersonal data, Moses—writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—has built into the story both tension and suspense.

But it is the theological purpose of this passage that is of greater importance.  In many ways the story of Judah and Tamar is one of the last things that we might expect to find in Scripture.  By including it, however, God is giving us further insight into the family from which ultimately our Lord Jesus would descend.  In time, Jesus would come to be proclaimed as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (cf. Revelation 5:5).  This story shows us something about the mystery of God’s providential and sovereign ways.  How remarkable it is that our Lord would work through such inauspicious events as these.  The sad tale of Judah and Tamar confirms the fact that God delights in using unlikely people with less than ideal backgrounds in the fulfillment His eternal purposes.  That should encourage each of us.

In order to substantiate that claim, let’s proceed with caution, looking initially at verses 1 through 11, where we find...

The introduction of Judah’s family (Genesis 38:1-11).

The opening words of chapter 38 alert us to the fact that the event about to be described resumes the story left off at the end of the previous chapter.  Joseph has been sent off to Egypt, having been sold by his brothers as a slave to a caravan of Midianites who will in turn sell him to an officer of Pharaoh’s court.  The brothers have returned home from pasturing their flocks and are living out their deception regarding Joseph’s so-called “mysterious disappearance.”

Soon thereafter, we are informed that Judah “went down from his brothers” and entered into a friendship with an “Adullamite” by the name of Hirah.  Adullam was a city in Canaan, a territory widely known for idolatry.  By saying that he “went down,” there is a double entendre at play.  Judah not only“went down” geographically, but as we shall see, he was on “a spiritual decline” as well.

While living among the Canaanites, Judah took a bride whose name we are never told.  She bore him three sons.  They were named Er, Onan, and Shelah.  In time, “Judah took a wife for Er...her name was Tamar.”  Sadly, their marriage was short-lived because we learn from verse 7 that “Er was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.”  We are told neither the specific character of Er’s “wickedness,” nor the manner in which the Lord took his life.

Because Er had died childless, there was no heir to whom the birthright would be passed.  Therefore, according to cultural custom of that day—a custom that was later approved and codified in the Mosaic Law (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10)—Judah instructed his second son, Onan, to “Go in to (his) brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.”

While this practice seems strange to us today, Onan’s responsibility was to fulfill his role in what was known as “levirate marriage.”  The term comes from the Latin word for brother, “levir.”  The custom stated that if brothers lived together, and if one of them was married and died without children, one of the surviving brothers was to marry his widow and father a child with her.  The child born of this “levirate” union would then carry on the name of his deceased father and in time inherit the family estate.  The brother-in-law (or in some cases—such as we find in the Book of Ruth—the nearest living relative) could apparently decline this obligation, but not without facing public humiliation and disgrace.  

The “levir” in this case was Onan, the second son.  In a blatant act of defiance, Onan refused to fulfill his family responsibility.  He didn’t seem to mind having ongoing sexual relations with Tamar, but he flatly refused to have any part in producing an heir in his brother’s name.  The language is graphic as we read in verse 9, “Whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste his semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.”

This verse also explains Onan’s motive: “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his.”  In other words, he was fearful of losing his privileged position within the family.  His own inheritance and prestige would be minimized if the heir he produced were to be given his brother’s name.

So he withdrew from Tamar before his seed could be planted.  Verse 10 tells us that “What he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD,” so he too was slain by God.  For the second time in short order, Tamar had been widowed by a son of Judah.  She, therefore, remained childless.

Judah, now suddenly bereft of two sons, pledged to Tamar that if she would leave his home, going back to her father, he would give her his third son, Shelah, when he became of age.  A slow reading of verse 11, however, reveals that Judah had no such intention.  He seems to have feared that by becoming husband to Tamar, Shelah would suffer a similar fate.

So we arrive at the end of this first section being told that “Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.”  It was while she was there, pining the loss of two husbands and considering her future, that we see...

The enactment of Tamar’s plan (Genesis 38:12-19).

Verse 12 says, “In the course of time”—or literally, “after many days”—“the wife of Judah...(also) died.”  The man had now lost his two oldest sons as well as the wife who given them birth.  The lone surviving member of his household was Shelah, his youngest son.  As the boy grew into manhood and for whatever reason, Judah made not the slightest gesture to reach out in fulfilling his pledge to Tamar.

Putting his grief behind him, Judah made his way to Timnah.  It was the time of the year arrived for the shearing of the sheep, an occasion that for shepherds was similar to the farmer’s harvest.  Following the work of shearing there was always a time of festive celebration with much food and drink...and (unfortunately) much temptation to immorality.

Made aware that Judah would be traveling that way in order to oversee the shearing of his flock, we are told in verse 14 that Tamar “took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage.”  In other words, she was aware that she had been deceived and lied to and was determined to carry out a deception of her own.  There are some who see the mention of the “veil” as a subtle hint of the marriage that had been promised to her, but that may be a stretch.  It is more likely that she wore a “veil” to simply disguise her identity.

As Judah approached his destination, he “saw her.”  But because her veiled disguise had been so effective, he did not recognize her.  Believing her to have been “a prostitute,” he propositioned her, falling headlong into the very trap she had set for him.  Responding in a manner ideal for the role she was playing, she asked in verse 16, “How much are you willing to pay in order to sleep with me?”

The economy being different in those days, Judah responded, “I’ll send you a young goat from the flock (I am about to shear).”  Under the veil she wore, Tamar must have smiled from ear to ear.  Her plan was coming together nicely.

It was now time to add the well-rehearsed condition that would inevitably seal the deal: “If you give me a pledge until you send it, (then I’ll agree to sleep with you).”  When Judah asked what kind of “pledge” would satisfy her, “She (must have immediately) replied, (How about) ‘Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.”   Three “forms of identification” before Judah’s “credit” would be accepted.  The “signet” would have been a seal of some sort, likely bearing a family mark, and would have hung from a “cord” around his neck.  The “staff” would, of course, have been the major tool of his trade as a shepherd.  It was a rather large “security deposit” to put up for a “one night stand.”

But inordinate desire rarely counts the cost.  On this occasion, Judah’s lust overrode his common sense.  He agreed by handing over the items she requested and, without apparently giving it further thought, he “went in to her.”

In Genesis 37 we saw just how dysfunctional and deceptive was the family in which he was raised.  Now a chapter later, it appears that little has changed.  Judah had unsuspectingly fallen victim to the scheme of his former daughter-in-law.  While he was unaware who he was bargaining with, she appears to have known his character quite well.

Almost matter-of-factly, verse 18 adds, “and she conceived by him.”  The odds of conceiving after a single sexual encounter vary to some degree among fertility experts. Whatever they are, as this story plays out, we are forced to conclude that it is God who has been in complete control of these circumstances.  Of course, much water will have to pass under the bridge before the participants in this story recognize that.  Following their immoral encounter, both Judah and Tamar returned to “life as normal.”  He sheared his sheep and returned home, and she went back to her father’s house, having removed her prostitute’s dress and “put on the garments of her widowhood.”

Judah appears to have made haste in wanting to pay the agreed-upon price, as well as reclaiming the items he had left with the woman as a “pledge.”  But instead of finalizing the transaction and moving on from his depraved deed, we instead witness...

The exposure of Judah’s guilt (Genesis 38:20-26).

Perhaps already feeling a loss of self-respect and maybe fearing the public embarrassment of “paying off a hooker,” Judah imposed upon his friend Hirah to search out the woman and deliver the young goat he had promised.  But of course, the woman was not there!  Despite looking high and low and asking other men who may also have been among her “clients,” she was nowhere to be found.

It is perhaps noteworthy that the author tells us that the name of the otherwise unknown city in which Judah and Tamar’s sexual encountered took place.  It was “Enaim,” which is believed to mean “a pair of eyes” or “an opening of the eyes.”  While the immoral act may have been carried out “in secret,” it was not hidden from the all-seeing “eyes” of God!

Perplexed at her mysterious disappearance, Judah thought it expedient to “cut his losses” and hurry home.  In verse 23, he gives up the search and tells Hirah, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at.”  What do you mean “we,” Judah?  Isn’t it interesting how we attempt to implicate others in our acts of deception?  Maybe it is a way of sharing the guilt and soothing some of the loneliness that sin always creates.

One can only wonder how long Judah may have carried the memory of his elicit moment with the “prostitute” at “Enaim.”  Just when its vividness of the act began to fade, verses 24 through 26 bring it back to the surface again.

“Three months” have passed, and Judah somehow learns Tamar, his former daughter-in-law, has brought disgrace to the family name through an act of “immorality”—and to make matters worse, has become impregnated.  Judah was immediately incensed.  With all the self-righteousness that he could muster, he ordered to have her exposed and put to death by “burning.”  The word-play on “burning” permeates the scene: “from burning with lust,” “to “burning with anger,” to “burning with judgment.”  The word-choice is intentional.

Tamar has waited patiently for this moment.  Facing her own execution, she exhibits the “signet” and “cord” and the “staff” that Judah had left with her as security in “Enaim.”  “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant,” she declared, adding, “Please identify whose these are.”  It may have taken a minute or two for him to process what was going on.  

But when he did, he spoke words that we probably never thought we would hear him say: “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”  Judah was guilt on two counts: lying to Tamar and committing fornication with her.

There are several things to observe in this section:

  • In the first place, neither Judah nor Tamar can be called “righteous” theologically in light of what has transpired in this chapter.  Judah’s words might better be translated, “She is more in the right in this matter than I have been.”  Nevertheless his statement reflects an obvious change of heart.
  • In addition, Judah understood the true source of his guilt.  His immorality with Tamar had been merely symptomatic of his deceptive heart.  Now, perhaps for the first time, he looked into a mirror and saw the person he truly was.
  • And then third, the verse concludes by informing us that “He did not know her (in an intimate way) again.”  We sense that Tamar has now been received back into the family where she will give birth to a son—Judah, her father-in-law’s son—through whom the promise of God to bless “all the families of the earth” (cf. Genesis 12:3) astonishingly would be perpetuated.  What an odd—an yet providential—outcome to the story.

The providence of God takes place, more often that not, without the awareness of those who are playing their parts.  On occasion the Lord is pleased to “part the curtain” and give us a glimpse of what He is up to, but more often than not our understanding comes by looking back at what happened...sometimes many years later.

Verses 27 through 30 flash forward some six months.  Those who lived this story had no idea that God was at work through it, or how God’s sovereign plan would over time play out.  But given our perspective nearly four thousand years later, along with insight gleaned from the New Testament, we are able to understand what they did not.  Here in these closing verses, then, we are made privy to...

The establishment of Jesus’ ancestry (Genesis 38:27-30).

We read that “When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb.”  And just as the first was about to be born, the second came forth instead.  He is named “Perez,” which means “you have forged your way through.”  Once again we find the sovereign overruling of God’s providence...the Divine selection of the younger over the older.  We saw it earlier when Judah’s father, Jacob, supplanted the role that appeared to belong to his brother, Esau.  Even before their birth, the Lord had told Rebekah their mother, “the older shall serve the younger” (cf. Genesis 25:23).  Repeatedly, God overrules human reason.

Here Perez is mentioned only in passing, but were we to turn to the Book of Ruth (4:18-22), there we would find a list of his succeeding generations, concluding with David, the one who would become king of Israel and through whom the covenant promises would be given.  This chapter, therefore, serves the purpose of revealing the continuation of Judah’s family line, a line that in time will lead in a sovereign and most unexpected way to the Messiah.

Though the nation of Israel would fall away from God and suffer an ignominious fate for several centuries, from that line would eventually come Christ Himself (cf. Matthew 1:3).  Through this unlikely set of circumstances and series of events, God’s sovereign plan would ultimately find fulfillment.  In fact, we might go so far as to say that, humanly speaking, apart from them it would not have.


Although Genesis 38 abruptly interrupts the story of Joseph almost before it gets started, it is an essential component within that story, as well as within the grand narrative of Scripture.  In one sense it provides a moral contrast with the example of Joseph, which we will return to in chapter 39.  But in a greater sense, it shows how not even the sinfulness of man can interrupt the sovereign plan of God.  The birth of Perez—the ancestor of Christ—occurred in a most unexpected way.  We are left “scratching our heads” in bewilderment and asking, “What if?”

You and I live our lives in a similar manner, do we not?  The Lord has “granted to us his precious and very great promises” in Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).  Many of those are related to the future.  They are certain in the providence of God, but at times difficult for us to lay hold of or even conceptualize in “live” time.  Like the characters in the story we have looked at this morning, you and I cannot even imagine the extent to which God is causing “all things” to work together for our good and His glory.  If you have turned from sin and are following Christ, then these “precious and very great promises, are yours for the claiming.

Genesis 38 marks a “turning point” in the life of Judah.  We may have caught a slight glimpse of it when he proposed a plan to sell Joseph into slavery rather than letting his brothers kill him in chapter 37.  And we will see it more clearly in chapter 44 when he intercedes on behalf of his youngest brother, Benjamin.  By then, he had become a changed man...so much so, that his father declared that the lineage of the Messiah would proceed through him (cf. Genesis 49:8-12).

As for Tamar, you may or may not be aware that there are five women mentioned in the genealogical table of Christ recorded in Matthew 1.  In addition to Tamar, we find Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary being referred.  During the years of their lives, all five of these women were of dubious reputation.  Tamar posed as a prostitute, Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth was a pagan Moabitess, Bathsheba was an adultress, and Mary was wrongly regarded as immoral because few could believe her story about giving birth as a virgin.  None of them were what we would expect in the ancestral line of the King of kings.

It is more than a little surprising that other notable females such as Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are omitted from the list.  It is a clear example of condescension and humility by which the Father chose to bring His Son into the world.  And it is further a testimony to the fact that God uses ordinary sinful people to bring about His eternal purposes.  Each of the five women in the genealogy lived under the cloud of potential shame and dishonor.  Nevertheless, they were selected by God’s providence to be branches in the Messiah’s “family tree.”  As one writer put it, “God...worked his will in the midst of whispers of scandal.”

Were we to take a good long look at ourselves in the mirror, we would see that He still does.  There is, therefore, hope for each one of us...regardless of how the story of our lives has so far been written.

More in The Life of Joseph: Lessons in Sovereignty

April 8, 2018

Recognizing Divine Sovereignty

April 1, 2018

The Reading of the Will

March 25, 2018

Blessing Future Generations

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