What does Genesis 38 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Genesis 38:1–5 explains the birth of Judah's three sons to a Canaanite woman, known only as the daughter of Shua. Two of these sons, Er and Onan, will die at the hands of God, due to their immoral actions. Tamar, a woman married in sequence to Er, then to Onan, will be abandoned by Judah. Left without support and unable to marry, she will scheme to take matters into her own hands.
Genesis 38:6–11 explains how Tamar came to be widowed twice. Judah's eldest, Er, marries Tamar but is killed by God for unspecified sins. By tradition, a widow would be given to the next surviving brother, with any resulting children considered successors of the deceased man. Er's brother, Onan, takes Tamar as a wife, including intercourse, but deliberately avoids providing her with children. For taking sexual advantage of Tamar, Onan is also killed by God. Judah apparently blames Tamar for his sons' deaths and tells her to wait before being married to the next brother, Shelah. When it becomes clear that Judah won't care for her, Tamar makes plans of her own.
Genesis 38:12–19 describes a plan devised by the childless widow, Tamar, to provide for her future after being abandoned by her father-in-law, Judah. He has violated tradition by delaying—refusing, it turns out—to give her to his next-oldest son, Shelah. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and engages in sex with Judah, keeping his signet ring and staff until he can pay her. This results in pregnancy, setting up a scandalous revelation.
Genesis 38:20–26 reveals the end of Tamar's scheme to obtain her rightful due as a widow. Her father-in-law, Judah, had refused to follow tradition by granting her marriage to his next son. So, she disguised herself as a prostitute and slept with Judah, keeping his signet and staff as payment. When Judah learns Tamar is pregnant, though widowed, he hypocritically demands she be killed for immorality. Tamar produces the staff and signet as proof that Judah is the father. He sheepishly admits his error.
Genesis 38:27–30 records the birth of Judah's twin sons, scandalously conceived through his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. Just as with Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:22–23), there is rivalry between twins.
Chapter Summary:
Jacob's son Judah marries a Canaanite woman and has three sons. His first son marries a woman called Tamar but is put to death by God for an unnamed sin. Judah follows tradition and marries Er's widow to the next oldest brother. Onan takes advantage of the situation for sex, but deliberately refuses to give her children. God puts him to death as well. When Judah abandons Tamar, she disguises herself as a prostitute and has sex with him. Found to be pregnant, she proves Judah is the father, and he admits his guilt. She then gives birth to twin boys.
Chapter Context:
Genesis 38 departs from the story of Joseph (Genesis 37:26–28) to describe what happens when Judah moves away from his family at Hebron and marries a Canaanite woman. Two of his three sons are put to death by God, each while married to the same woman. When Judah abandons her, she works a scheme to trick him into having sex with her. Confronted with proof that he is the father in her scandalous pregnancy, she is allowed to live and gives birth to Judah's twin boys. The following chapter returns to a focus on Joseph and his rise within Egyptian society (Genesis 39:1).
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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