Genesis 38 ~ 20080511 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
5/11 Genesis 38 Judah's Transformation and the seed of Tamar
It's mother's day. We've seen a lot of mothers in Genesis; we started with Eve, who became the mother of all living. Then we had Sarah, who was barren, so she used her servant girl to have a child for her. God did keep his promises and Sarah had a child when she was in her ninety's. We saw Rebekah, who was brought back from Paddan-Aram to be the wife of Isaac. She was barren, so her husband prayed to God for her and she conceived twins – two nations. Then we saw Leah and Rachel and their struggle for position and prominence and children in the family. This morning we will meet a girl who desperately wants to be a mother. And we see her struggle to find her place in God's plan. The bible is a book that tells it like it is. When people do well, it's recorded; when people make mistakes, it's all there for us to learn from.
Last time we were introduced to the book of the descendants of Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons. Joseph was the favorite son, and he had dreams that indicated that his family would bow to him. His brothers hated him and planned to kill him, but in a providential turn of events, they instead sold him into slavery. The chapter closed with Jacob grieving inconsolably for his lost son, and Joseph being sold to the captain of the guard in Egypt. Now our story turns to Judah, fourth son of Jacob by Leah, the unloved wife. What we have in chapter 38 covers at least 20 years of history while Joseph is off the scene. At first glance, this seems like a bizarre interruption into the story of Joseph, but it serves several purposes in the narrative. First, it builds the suspense as we wonder what has become of Joseph in Egypt. Also, it is easy to forget that although primary attention is given to Joseph, the last 14 chapters of Genesis aren't exclusively about him. They are about God's work in the whole family, preparing them for the leadership that they would have in the nation of Israel.
Keep in mind that throughout Genesis, we have been tracing the conflict between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent as was prophesied in Genesis 3:15:
We are anticipating that promised one to be born of a woman, who would crush the head of the serpent.
So chapter 38 turns our attention to Judah and his developing family:
Right off the bat things are going downhill fast. Judah was the brother that had the idea of profiting off Joseph by selling him rather than killing him outright. So he became a slave trader. Then he went down from his brothers. That's down both geographically and morally. Judah is in a moral landslide. He disconnected from the covenant family and turned aside to an Adullamite guy named Hirah. Now his best friend is an unbeliever. In fact, Judah is probably an unbeliever at this point in the story. He shows no interest in the promises of God, no concern for his relationship with God, no fruit of faith in his life. He is at this point living like Esau, who had a total disregard for the things of God. And he sees an attractive Canaanite girl and takes her and has three kids with her. Remember Abraham's explicit instructions to his servant not to take a wife for Isaac from the Canaanites; and then when Esau married a Canaanite it broke the heart of his parents. Now Judah marries into this pagan culture that he is surrounded by. We never even find out the girl's name. She's simply the daughter of some Canaanite guy named Shua.
Now when Judah's boys are grown, he selects a Canaanite wife for his eldest. And it says that his son was wicked in the sight of the Lord. Judah did not do a good job raising this boy. It doesn't tell us what he did, but that he was evil and God put him to death. That seems awfully harsh. But that was the mean angry bad-tempered Old Testament God, and we have the nice cuddly hold the little children on his lap Jesus meek and mild of the New Testament, right? Well, if you look at Acts 5, you've got a couple in the New Testament church, Ananias and Sapphira, who lie about their offering, and God strikes them dead right in the church. And then in 1 Corinthians 11:30, God killed people in the church who didn't take communion seriously. Revelation 6 it talks about everyone trying to hide from the wrath of the Lamb. Then in Revelation 19:15 it says Jesus 'will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.' When God says 'the wages of sin is death', he meant it! Are there any sinners here this morning? The fact that you are alive is because of God's mercy – not getting what you deserve. And God's mercy is meant to lead you to repentance. If you don't repent and come to Jesus, you will experience the wrath of God. God is the creator and he has the right over his creation both to give life and to take it away.
Now this need some explaining. There was something called 'levirate marriage' that was customary in this time. It was an arrangement in that culture designed to provide for women who were widowed with no children. If a woman's husband died, the husband's brother was obligated to take her as his wife and provide for her and their firstborn son would be counted as the dead brother's son. In that way, the brother's line could be preserved. This arrangement is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25. This obligation could be refused by the brother, but it was an extreme disgrace to his family.
Onan was also put to death by the Lord. He apparently agreed to the levirate arrangement, but he refused to fulfill his obligation. What he did was particularly disgraceful, because he wanted the pleasure but not the responsibility. He dishonored his brother and he disgraced his brother's wife. He understood that if he had a son by her, the firstborn portion of the inheritance would go to that son, and it would reduce his own share in the inheritance. He was greedy and self centered, yet he didn't want to suffer public disgrace, so he hypocritically pretended to do the right thing but secretly did not fulfill his obligation.
Jesus told his disciples to beware of hypocrisy.
Onan thought no one would ever know what he did in the dark. And here we are reading about it thousands of years later.
Judah displays his superstition, fear and dishonesty. He tells Tamar to wait for his youngest son, but he has no intention of giving him to her. Like his father, he fears for the life of his youngest son. He seems to think that Tamar is bad luck. It doesn't cross his mind that God killed his sons because they were evil. Judah has failed to set a godly example for his children, and his children have turned out wicked, just like him.
Judah's Canaanite wife has died. He is again hanging out with his pagan friend Hirah. I'ts sheep shearing time – party time -and he heads up to where his sheep are being sheared. Tamar realizes that Judah had lied to her about giving his son Shelah to her. So she seizes the opportunity to deceive Judah into fulfilling the levirate marriage obligation to her himself. There have been some Hittite and Assyrian laws found that indicate that the father of the deceased husband could legitimately fulfill this role if he had no other sons. Tamar, to her credit, has faithfully waited for Shelah. She could have gone out and found a Canaanite man to marry, but she has remained faithful to the covenant family that she married into. Judah, on the other hand, has just gotten over grieving his wife, he still has no fellowship with his believing family, he's hanging out with his Adullamite drinking buddy, and now he's traveling at party time. He's set himself up for moral failure. He sees a prostitute and doesn't hesitate to proposition her. His friend seems very accommodating of his immoral behavior.
Judah is more careful to keep his word to a prostitute than he is to his own daughter-in-law. He promised to send Shelah, but he didn't. Now he has promised to send a goat, and he tries. The word Judah uses earlier is the word for a common whore. The word here is for a cult prostitute. This is an indication why God did not allow his people to intermarry with this culture. The Canaanite religion included employing men and women as temple prostitutes as part of the worship of their gods. Hirah can't locate the woman to fulfill the transaction, so he returns to Judah. Judah is more interested in keeping his reputation than he is in actually doing what is right. She's got his signet and cord and staff. That's the equivalent of his wallet with picture ID, his driver's license and social security card. Judah's biggest concern is what people will think of him. Judah is God's representative from the chosen family living in the middle of a pagan culture, and his best friend is asking around town trying to find the prostitute his Hebrew friend used so he can pay her. Judah wants to cover it up so nobody knows. He has no concern that God saw and God knows.
So Judah is now outraged that his daughter-in-law has been immoral – prostitution of all things! How disgusting! and he demands the death penalty. This is actually convenient for him, because it gets rid of her for good and he won't have to give his youngest son to her. We are often quick to point out the sins in the lives of others that we ourselves are guilty of; but we want absolute justice for others while expecting mercy to be extended to us. When the Pharisees brought the woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus, he said:
Tamar doesn't play her cards until the last minute. She waits for the death sentence to be given, then she lays out her evidence. She uses the same wording that Judah and his brothers used when they sent Joseph's special robe that was dipped in goat's blood to their father:
Tamar had used her clothing to deceive. There was a goat promised in exchange. Now she sends his personal items to be inspected and identified. Judah's private sin is now out in the open. He has condemned her to death for doing exactly what he himself was guilty of. When the prophet Nathan confronted king David over his sin with Bathsheeba, Nathan asked for a judgment on a man who stole another man's sheep. When David became angry and demanded that the man be put to death, Nathan said 'you are the man'. And here there is a great change in Judah. Judah acknowledges his sin. He doesn't try to shift the blame to Tamar; he doesn't try to play the victim and say that he was deceived and it wasn't his fault. He owns up to his own guilt and confesses his double standard. He admits that he was wrong in not giving his son Shelah to her. But he not only confesses his sin, but he also repents from his sin. He turns away from his sin and doesn't repeat it. It says 'he did not know her again'. I think this is a turning point in Judah's life. The very first step to getting right with God is to acknowledge that you are a sinner and deserve punishment. Judah publicly humbles himself and confesses and repents.
Now we have the unique birth of the twin sons of Judah and Tamar. Like Jacob and Esau before them, they struggled in the womb. Like Jacob and Esau, the younger would take the place of the older. Zerah, with the scarlet thread, put his hand out first, but Perez was actually born first.
We find a very intriguing reference to this event in the book of Ruth. Boaz volunteers to be the redeemer or perform the levirate marriage for Ruth, a Moabite woman who had married into the Jewish family of Naomi. There is a nearer kin who declines, so Boaz takes Ruth to be his wife. The people that witness the ceremony bless the new couple saying;
This seems like a strange blessing. To refer to such a disturbing piece of history in the Jewish nation in a blessing is strange. But the emphasis is on the seed – the offspring. Offspring that YHWH will give you. This becomes even more fascinating when we follow the family tree from Jacob:
Perez, one of the twins of the union between Judah and Tamar became the great great great great great grandpa of Boaz. Boaz became the great great grandpa of David the King. And it was through David's line that Jesus, the Messiah would come. We might be inclined to think that Judah must have been a really upright and outstanding guy to be picked to be the ancestor of Jesus the Christ. But Judah was a failure as a son – he deceived his father. Judah was a failure as a brother – he sold Joseph into slavery. Judah was a failure in his relationships – he left his family, picked a pagan for a best friend and a Canaanite for a wife. Judah was a failure as a father – God killed two of his sons because they were evil. Judah was a failure as a father-in-law - he didn't care for his widowed daughter-in-law as he should have. Judah was a moral failure – he went to bed with a prostitute that turned out to be his own daughter-in-law. Judah had turned his back on the promises that God had given to Abraham. Judah and Tamar are examples that God can use the worst sinners to accomplish his plans. He extends them mercy to lead them to repentance. God can bring great good out of their evil actions. And we find out in Revelation 21 that Judah's name is inscribed on one of the gates to the heavenly city. Judah is a trophy of God's grace toward sinners – sinners like you and sinners like me.