What does Genesis 38:21 mean?
ESV: And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.”
NIV: He asked the men who lived there, 'Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?' 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here,' they said.
NASB: He asked the people of her place, saying, 'Where is the temple prostitute who was by the road at Enaim?' But they said, 'There has been no temple prostitute here.'
CSB: He asked the men of the place, "Where is the cult prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim? ""There has been no cult prostitute here," they answered.
NLT: So he asked the men who lived there, 'Where can I find the shrine prostitute who was sitting beside the road at the entrance to Enaim?' 'We’ve never had a shrine prostitute here,' they replied.
KJV: Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.
Verse Commentary:
Hirah the Adullamite is looking for the prostitute Judah slept with (Genesis 38:20). He's assigned to pay her fee and retrieve Judah's personal belongings, left as a pledge (Genesis 38:18). When Hirah can't find her, he asks around, referring to her as a "cult prostitute." Some pagan religions included prostitution in the worship of their gods. In a culture where idol worship was fully normalized, this kind of prostitution may have been somewhat more respectable than non-religious prostitution.

The locals, however, don't know about any roadside cult prostitute. They'd never heard of her. Tamar, of course, was not a resident of that area or an actual prostitute. She was back living in her father's household and pregnant with Judah's child (Genesis 38:19). Her goal was to force Judah to care for her, after realizing his earlier promise (Genesis 38:11) was a lie (Genesis 38:14).
Verse Context:
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.
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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