In last week’s message we turned our attention to Joseph and began our discussion of his incredible life. He was despised by his brothers, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and taken away to Egypt… and this was just the beginning of many adventures to come. Next week we will return to and continue reading Joseph’s compelling story.
However, this morning we will shift the spotlight (albeit briefly) to Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers. Based upon other Biblical evidence and a little common sense, the events described in this chapter most likely cover a span of around 25-30 years. Therefore, they were happening to Judah in Canaan at the same time that Joseph’s remarkable story was unfolding in distant Egypt. Keep this in mind as our study goes on. They are parallel accounts designed to contrast these 2 important siblings.
I. 2 BAD BROTHERS (v1-11)
Unlike Abraham, Issac, and Jacob who married among their own Hebrew relatives and started families late in life, all of Jacob’s sons married Gentile wives and started having children much earlier. Judah is no exception. While still a young man, Judah went to visit his friend Hirah in the nearby town of Adullam. While there he saw and fell in love with an unnamed Canaanite woman identified only as the “daughter of Shua”. They were married and began having children immediately. Within a short span, the couple had 3 sons - Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Several years passed and these boys grew into young men themselves. Judah chose a young maiden named Tamar to be the wife of his oldest son Er. However, before they could come together to produce a child, Er died. In keeping with their custom, Er’s younger brother Onan was responsible for maintaining his deceased brother’s family line. Therefore Onan went in and slept with Tamar. However, Onan knew that if she had a baby, the child would legally be considered Er’s heir - not his. So Onan took action to insure that Tamar did not become pregnant. Subsequently, he died also.
Judah’s only remaining son, Shelah, was not yet old enough to marry. Judah asked his daughter-in-law Tamar to remain a widow and live in her father’s house until Shelah came of age. Perhaps then they could produce children for Shelah’s older brothers and for themselves. Heartbroken and childless, Tamar agreed to do so. Meanwhile Judah was having second thoughts. He feared that somehow Tamar was bad luck, and worried that Shelah might also die prematurely should he ever be married to her.
The Bible plainly states that God took Er’s life because he was “evil” and took Onan’s life because his actions were “displeasing in the sight of the LORD”. Tamar had nothing to do with their untimely deaths. This passage has been cited throughout history to argue against all forms of contraceptives and/or birth control. Proponents assert that Onan sinned by using preventative measures to ensure that Tamar did not get pregnant during sex. They assert that any such efforts are morally wicked. Personally, I believe this position mischaracterizes the true nature of Onan’s sin, stretches the actual meaning of the text, and is inconsistent with the broader teaching of Scripture on the issue of sex. Perhaps we can dig more deeply into the matter of birth control in a future sermon.
II. 2 DESPERATE PEOPLE (v12-23)
Tamar quietly and dutifully waited through the next few years. During this time, Judah’s wife died and he became a widower. Eventually Shelah reached the necessary age for marriage, but Judah was hesitant to pair him with Tamar. One day she learned that Judah and his friend Hirah were going to Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep. Having witnessed Judah’s reluctance, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, covered her face with a veil, and waited along the roadside at the gate of Enaim for him to pass by.
When they met, Judah didn’t recognize his daughter-in-law. Thinking her to be a harlot and longing for the intimacy he’d lost, Judah offered to give her a young goat from his flock in exchange for her services. However, he did not have a goat with him at the time. Therefore, Tamar took Judah’s seal (signet ring), cord, and staff as a pledge until the animal could be delivered. Once the details of payment had been arranged, Judah went in and slept with Tamar. Afterwards he continued on his way, while she returned home having become pregnant by her own father-in-law.
When they arrived at Timnah, Judah took one of his goats, gave it to his friend Hirah, and sent him back to find and pay the prostitute. Hirah returned to Enaim, but couldn’t find her. He asked the local citizens if they’d seen her - and they hadn’t. Frustrated, Hirah returned again to Timnah and told Judah that she was gone. Judah decided to keep quiet about the incident because he reasoned that people would laugh at him if word got out.
This story provides an example of 2 people engaging in a sexual relationship for very different reasons. Judah hired what he thought was a prostitute for his own personal pleasure. For him this was a one-night stand - no strings, no consequences. On the other hand, Tamar (who was justifiably upset with Judah from withholding his son Shelah from her) was purposefully trying to get pregnant. She wanted a baby, even if it required taking extreme measures.
III. 2 NEW BABIES (v24-30)
About 3 months later, Judah learned that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant. He was absolutely furious and wanted her killed for not faithfully waiting on Shelah. But when she showed him the signet ring, cord, and staff, Judah immediately recognized what he’d done. He even took responsibility for it, reasoning that if he’d simply given Shelah to her in a timely manner the whole episode could have been avoided. He made no effort to punish Tamar for her deceit.
When the months of her pregnancy were over, Tamar gave birth to twin boys. During the delivery, one of the babies stuck their hand out. The midwife tied a scarlet thread around it to identify which child was born first. But then the baby withdrew its hand and the other son came out instead. So the firstborn child was named Perez, which means “to breach” or “to bust forth”. The second born son (who had the thread tied on his hand) was named Zerah, which means “dawning” or “shining”.
As we wrap our study this morning, it is worth mentioning that Tamar is 1 of only 4 women named in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. This quartet includes Tamar (the daughter-in-law of Judah), Ruth (the wife of Boaz), Bathsheeba (the wife of King David), and Mary (the wife of Joseph). Of these, only Mary was a Jew. Tamar and Bathsheba were both Canaanites and Ruth was a Moabite. Yet God divinely permitted these Gentile women (and perhaps others left unnamed) to become ancestors of Christ. By His birth Jesus was a Jew, but (like virtually all of us) His true ethnicity was mixed to some extent. He represented the Gentiles as well. He came to make salvation available to everyone!