Weird Bible Stories, Part 5

This weird Bible story is found in Genesis 38. It’s the whole chapter, and it is one weird story. Hollywood couldn’t do this story justice! It concerns some disreputable characters, immorality, deception, and all around nasty behavior. As a matter of fact, it sounds like what most of us are watching on Netflix these days. But it’s not on TV, it’s in the Bible, of all places, and it’s a weird story.

The story begins in this unassuming way:

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. (Genesis 38:1 | TNIV)

An out-of-place chapter and people God uses

At first glance, Genesis 38 seems out of place. It literally interrupts the fascinating story of Joseph. Just when his story gets interesting, we’re confronted with chapter 38 and the sordid story of Judah, one of the brothers responsible for young Joseph ending up in an Egyptian prison.

That phrase, “at that time,” should prompt you to ask the question, “At what time?” The answer is back in chapter 37.

Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:36 | TNIV)

So the events of chapter 38 are taking place during the events of chapter 39 and onward; they are occurring during Joseph’s story. And that shows us the genius of the Bible. Here in chapter 38, we see just what kind of lowlife Judah was and in the very next chapter we see the amazing character of his brother, Joseph. We see Judah, the man who never got it right, compared and contrasted with Joseph, the man who always got it right. And it would be through Judah that the Messiah would come! The Lord’s choices are, many times, surprising. He frequently chooses to work through people you and I wouldn’t want anything to do with. Just a quick glance through a list of Bible characters reveals some very interesting facts about its “heroes of the faith.”

Noah. Here was man who was living during the most sinful period of earth’s history. With no Bible and no God-based religions, and no civil laws, human beings were living pretty much however they wanted. You can imagine how bad things were. But Noah is referred to as a “preacher of righteousness,” and he and his family were chosen to be the sole survivors of a world-wide judgement from God that effectively wiped out all human life. From them, the earth would be repopulated. Noah, however, was a drunkard.
Abraham. This man was already way past retirement age – and living at home with his father – when God called him to become “the father of many nations.” Abraham was a man with a backbone of jelly; he couldn’t make a decision to save his life. He was a liar and lived a life full of fear and apprehension.
Leah. Well, the Lord would use her to continue the family line, through which the Messiah would eventually come. She was so ugly, her father, Laban, had to trick Jacob into marrying her. Her name means, roughly, “wearied,” or “faint from sickness.”
Elijah. Here was one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Many miracles accompanied his ministry, yet he was suicidal.
Rahab. Sure she saved the entire nation of Israel, but she was literally a lying prostitute.
Peter. One of our Lord’s “inner circle” and the man who preached a sermon that resulted in thousands of converts. We forget sometimes that he denied Jesus three times.
Saul, who would later become Paul. He was a towering figure in the early church. He founded many churches and his letters helped shape Christian theology. He was also the man whose zealous attitude resulted in the martyrdom of uncounted followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, God chooses to use and work through the most unlikeliest of people. Judah was also an unlikely – some might say, reluctant – follower of God. Chapter 38 of Genesis is not his best moment, that’s for sure.

On the hunt

There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him. (Genesis 38:2 – 5 | TNIV)

Verse 2 adds to the stupid things Judah did during his life. While his brother, Joseph, is in Egypt, resisting the temptations of Potifer’s wife, going to prison for his trouble, yet remaining steadfast and true to God through it all, Judah takes for himself a Canaanite woman, which was completely against what God wanted. He had no business getting involved with any Canaanite, but especially a woman. Her name isn’t given, a further indication of God’s displeasure with the whole situation.

At any rate, Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the first son, a woman named Tamar was acquired to become his wife. Er, however, was so bad that God took his life. We aren’t told what he did that got him in God’s crosshairs; his sins are irrelevant to the point of the passage. But what is relevant is Onan and his responsibility. This responsibility would later become part of the Law of Moses:

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5, 6 | TNIV)

The significance of continuing “the family name” isn’t a big deal anymore to most of us, but it was a huge deal in the Israel of Judah’s time. It was Onan’s sacred responsibility to make sure that Er – his sinful brother – was not forgotten in Israel by giving his widow a son. But the nut didn’t fall far from the tree, and because this arrangement didn’t benefit Onan in any way, he practiced an early form of birth control to make sure Tamar didn’t get pregnant.

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. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9, 10 | TNIV)

The “wicked thing” that caused the Lord to take his life was not the birth control per se, it was shirking his family responsibility. It was Onan’s solemn duty to look after Tamar and to ensure that her family line continued. Without a son, Tamar would be less than nothing in that ancient culture.

We assume that Judah never knew why children had not been conceived, for only Tamar would have known the cause. As far as he was concerned, the problem must have been Tamar, and he refused to give her to his third son, the next in line.

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. (Genesis 38:11 | TNIV)

Well, the years rolled by and Tamar remained a widow, living with her father, a disgrace in her time.


Obviously Judah, like Onan, was shirking his responsibility as far as Tamar was concerned. When his wife passed away, after a period of mourning, Judah attended a sheep-sheering festival.

When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 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. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 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. “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. 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. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. (Genesis 38:13 – 19 | TNIV)

Clearly, Tamar knew Judah very well. She knew that moral purity was not one of his virtues. And just as clearly, this wasn’t Judah’s first encounter with a prostitute. He knew exactly what to do. He handled the arrangements with all the savoir-faire of a worldly wise expert. Tamar was convinced that if she could only look like a prostitute, Judah would take things from there. And he did. He gave her tokens of good faith: a cord, a seal, and his staff. Judah negotiated terms that were acceptable to both of them. Not that Tamar had any interest in payment for her services, she was only interested in getting pregnant.

Well, the deed was done but when Judah’s servant went to find the prostitute to make good the payment, surprise, surprise! He couldn’t find her. In this verse, we get a further glimpse into the sketchy character of Judah:

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.’ ” (Genesis 38:22 | TNIV)

So, everybody assumed that Tamar was a “shrine” or temple prostitute. Judah, the man whom God chose to be the direct ancestor of His Son, was willing to not just avail himself of the services of a prostitute, but those of a pagan temple prostitute! His story gets worse all the time.

The jig is up

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!” 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.”

Wow! What a dramatic example of Numbers 32:

But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23 | TNIV)

We also see the ancient double standard here. It was perfectly alright for Judah to have engaged the services of a temple prostitute but it was not alright for her to have become pregnant by one of her customers.

The jig was up. Tamar’s plan worked to perfection. And why wouldn’t it? She knew Judah’s weaknesses and she simply exploited them. His reaction, though, is priceless:

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. (Gensis 38:24 – 26 | TNIV)

Through deception Tamar obtained a part in the blessing of the firstborn, but she also obtained that which Judah should have rightfully given. Shelah , the son of Judah, was of age, and Tamar should have been given to him for a wife. Thus, in the end, the continuation of the line of Judah was not due to the righteous actions of the Judah but rather lay in the hands of the “righteous” Tamar.

What do we Christians in the 21st century learn from this sordid mess?

The over-arching theme of this entire section of Genesis is divine providence. From chapter 37 to the end of the book, we see that God is at work bringing about His purposes through men and women who are actively pursuing sin. In chapters 37 and 39 and following, God is providentially at work to fulfill His promise to make the descendants of Jacob (Israel) a great and mighty nation in spite of the fact that these brothers seemed intent upon diminishing their numbers. In chapter 38 God is at work, providentially fulfilling His promise to provide a Messiah through the descendants of Judah.

All things being equal, God’s sovereign power and all-wise and loving purposes are accomplished through obedient servants. But all things are rarely equal, and when His people go their own way, God’s infinite power is channeled through unwilling, disobedient men and women, who, in spite of themselves, achieve God’s plans. They do this unknowingly and often unpleasantly.

Unfortunately, this great doctrine of God’s sovereignty is misunderstood by many Christians, who have been taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What could they possibly say about this chapter? And do you really believe that God’s purposes are contingent upon our commitment and consistency? God is not limited by our sinfulness.

In truth, the doctrine of the providence of God is one of the most profound and comforting truths in all of the Bible, because it teaches that what God says, He will do, even if I am trying my hardest to thwart Him.  Thank God that my salvation doesn’t depend on what I do or on my good intentions.  If that were the case, I’d be just another lost soul.  And thank God He is the One with the plan and the infinite resources to carry it out.


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