What does Genesis chapter 38 mean?The events of Genesis 38 likely take place during Joseph's time as a slave in Egypt (Genesis 37:26–28) and some time before he is reunited with his brothers (Genesis 45:1–3). After this passage, the text will return to a focus on Joseph (Genesis 39:1).
Judah moves away from his father Jacob and the rest of the family living at Hebron. He establishes a home to the northwest near a town called Adullam. He has a friend there named Hirah, and soon takes a wife. Though people of God have been repeatedly discouraged from marrying into Canaanite culture (Genesis 28:1), Judah has done exactly that. He soon has three sons with her: Er, Onan, and Shelah (Genesis 38:1–5).
The oldest son's name is Er, which is coincidentally the reverse of the Hebrew word for "evil." When he is of marriageable age, Judah finds him a wife, likely another Canaanite woman. Her name is Tamar. Er soon dies, put to death by God for an unnamed wickedness. A strong custom of "levirate marriage," later codified into law (Deuteronomy 25:5–6), demands the childless widow be given in marriage to her late husband's brother. The purpose of this custom is to provide the otherwise-destitute woman with a secure future. Judah tells his second son to marry Tamar so that Er's family line might continue (Genesis 38:6–8).
According to this tradition, any children born from the new relationship are considered heirs of the departed brother. Any children Onan fathers and raises with Tamar will be considered those of his late brother. They will carry on Er's line, and Er's inheritance. Onan is not interested in supporting his brother's children. However, he has no objection to sex, so he takes advantage of the situation. Whenever he has intercourse with Tamar, he interrupts the act at the last moment to avoid conception. God sees Onan's practice—deliberately using Tamar for sex while avoiding responsibility for his brother's legacy—as a heinous sin. He puts Onan to death, as well (Genesis 38:9–10).
The same levirate custom demands Judah, as Tamar's father-in-law, give her in marriage to his third son, Shelah. But Judah apparently blames Tamar for the death of his two oldest sons. He may believe she is bad luck, or thinks she somehow contributed to their sins. For that reason, he is concerned Shelah will die if he marries Tamar. Fortunately, for Judah, when Onan dies Shelah is not yet old enough to marry. Judah tells Tamar to wait, but we later learn he never planned on following through on his agreement. Left undeterred, Judah would leave her waiting as a childless widow in her father's household forever (Genesis 38:11).
When Tamar realizes no marriage is coming, she knows her situation is hopeless. She will not be provided for by her father-in-law Judah, and she has no prospects for a future marriage. So, she hatches a scheme to force Judah to care for her. Tamar learns where Judah will be traveling. She changes her clothes and dresses herself with a veil, appearing as a prostitute, and positions herself along the road at the entrance to a town called Enaim. Not knowing who she is, Judah propositions her for sex (Genesis 38:12–16).
Scripture does not say exactly what Tamar's plan was, at first. At the very least, she intended to use this encounter as leverage to convince Judah to make good on his promise. It's an incredibly dangerous gamble: if she's found out, there's a good chance her life will be forfeit. As it happens, she winds up with a far more potent advantage than she may have anticipated. In negotiating her fee, Judah notes that he doesn't have money to pay for her services. Tamar asks Judah to leave his staff, signet, and cord as a guarantee. These items would have been unique and irreplaceable. Once he sends payment, she will return the items. Judah gives them to her and has his way. In what turns out to be an enormous advantage, for Tamar, she becomes pregnant as a result (Genesis 38:17–18).
After Judah leaves, Tamar returns to her father's household. While prostitution was not illegal in that era, it was probably not considered respectable. To avoid shame, Judah sends his friend, Hirah, to the place where he met the "prostitute," to pay her and retrieve his personal effects. Of course, since this was Tamar and not an actual prostitute, she is nowhere to be found. Judah decides to abandon his items rather than risk being laughed at if the story gets out (Genesis 38:19–23).
Three months later, Tamar is discovered to be pregnant. Judah, knowing she is technically engaged to his youngest son, Shelah, viciously condemns her to death. In a stunning revelation, Tamar sends proof of the person who impregnated her: Judah's own staff and signet. Judah sheepishly recognizes his hypocrisy. Tamar's deception and sin are immoral, but Judah's sin is even worse. He allows her to live and, so far as it seems, gives her all the care associated with a wife. Scripture does not say that Judah literally married Tamar, but specifies he never has intercourse with her again. In effect, Judah takes on the responsibility of levirate marriage which he had been denying to Tamar (Genesis 38:24–26).
Tamar gives birth to Judah's twin boys, Zerah and Perez (Genesis 38:27–30).