On Genesis, Part 48: Daughters of Diverse Gods

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Genesis 38:1-30

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On Genesis, Part 48: Daughters of Diverse Gods

In Genesis chapter 37 Moses had described the plight of Joseph, as he was despised by his brothers and left in a pit to die, but he had instead been taken by Midianites and sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites and then to the Egyptians. However since his brothers did not know with certainty what had happened to him, they created a tale whereby Jacob was convinced that he was dead. Joseph went to Egypt at age seventeen, as the text of that chapter informs us, and Jacob will find him in Egypt when he is about forty years old, as later chapters in Genesis also inform us. But now, here in Genesis chapter 38, Moses will give us an account of the early life and children of Judah, and this account is written in such a way that by it we may know that Judah had illegitimate children, whereby he had sinned to the same degree as Esau, his uncle, had sinned. However in the circumstances which followed, Judah was treated more mercifully than Esau, and his errors resulted in his also having had legitimate children, which he did not plan on having, so that he would have a name in Israel. In the end, Judah had two wives, and each of them were daughters of diverse gods.

But once again we must state that these events are not described in a perfectly chronological order, in spite of the fact that Moses had presented them in an ordered sequence. This is a methodical approach whereby he did not have to jump back and forth from subject to subject. At the point when Joseph is seventeen years old, Judah could have been no older than twenty-five or perhaps twenty-six. He was the fourth son of Leah, whom Jacob had married after he had been in Haran for seven years. So we may assume that unless Leah gave birth to twins, something of which we are not informed, then Judah, her fourth son, was born some time around Jacob’s eleventh or twelfth year in Haran, whereas Joseph was born towards the end of the twenty years during which Jacob would be in Haran. So it is safe to conclude that Judah is about eight or nine years older than Joseph, and if we are a year or so off in either direction, the difference is immaterial so long as we bear in mind the possibility.

Now from this point at the end of Genesis chapter 37, where Joseph is seventeen years old and Judah is about twenty-five or twenty-six, to the time when Jacob and all of his sons go down to Egypt, is a period of only about twenty-three years, and by then Judah is already a grandfather at the relatively young age of forty-eight, or perhaps forty-nine. This we read in Genesis chapter 46: “12 And the sons of Judah; Er, and Onan, and Shelah, and Pharez, and Zerah: but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan. And the sons of Pharez were Hezron and Hamul.” Therefore here we must assert, that the only way in which Pharez could have had children of his own before Judah was fifty years old, is if Judah himself had begun having children at a very early age.

Then, we must consider that if Dinah was old enough by the age of sixteen or eighteen to go out and see the daughters of the land, and she was raped, it is plausible that her older brother Judah may have fallen into a similar circumstance at an even younger age, although the lack of control over sexual desire must have been his own. This possibility is especially evident where Judah and his three older brothers were often away on their own in Shechem, tending their father’s sheep. This situation is apparent where it is described in that manner in Genesis chapter 37, where his older sons are in Shechem, and Jacob himself was with Isaac in Hebron, fifty miles away. But it must also have been the case even earlier, since Judah seems to have begun having children even before Jacob had went to Hebron. If Dinah was raped at the age of eighteen, Judah would already have been at least 21 or 22 years old. Dinah was the youngest of the children of Leah, and there were at least several years between her and her four older brothers.

It is evident that while Jacob himself had only fathered one daughter, Dinah, he had already had sons and daughters, where a plural from of the word appears, when he had lamented the loss of Joseph and they had comforted him, as it is recorded in the closing verses of Genesis chapter 37. So at least some of his sons must of already been married with children, and Reuben, Simeon and Levi were all no more than a year to about four years older than Judah. Therefore it is evident that all of the sons of Leah may have married at quite early ages. This should not be seen as something extraordinary. The primary moral influences which these sons of Jacob had as they were raised was from their pagan mothers, and from the surrounding culture. Jacob had only told them to put away their strange gods once they had reached Bethel, only a short time before Joseph was sold into Egypt, as it is described in the opening verses of Genesis chapter 35. So it is fully evident that they were influenced by the surrounding culture.

So, using arbitrary figures, if Judah was sixteen years old when he went to Adullam, and if he had children very soon thereafter, he would have to have been not more than thirty-two years old when his first two sons had died, and when he had impregnated Tamar, so that Pharez may have been born soon enough to have had children of his own by the time that he went to Egypt. Therefore it is also evident that Judah had fathered his first sons even before the rape of Dinah, which may also explain why he was not mentioned in connection with that event, where only Simeon and Levi were mentioned. Reuben was also absent, or unmentioned at that time, and he being the older brother would have been most responsible if he had participated. But both Reuben and Judah are present later, when Joseph was thrown into the pit in Genesis chapter 37.

This scenario leaves very little room for the things which are presented in this 38th chapter of Genesis to have happened, however there are some variables which may be tweaked in order to make it even more plausible. Perhaps Judah was even younger than sixteen when he went to Adullam, or perhaps Leah did have twins, or at least, her sons were born in very quick succession, and Judah was a little more than eight or nine years older than Joseph. However if no twins were involved, it does not seem possible that he could have been born before the end of the eleventh year of Jacob’s time in Haran. But even today, there are countless examples of boys fathering children at ages as early as thirteen and fourteen, with girls who are just as young, and in a world just as corrupt as ancient Canaan. In any event, this is the only way I can find by which we may understand these things rationally, and we certainly cannot ignore them.

So with this we shall commence with our discussion of Genesis chapter 38. I must note that no portion of this chapter seems to have survived in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

Up to this point, there is no indication in Genesis which may serve to identify an Adullamite. However a king of Adullam is first mentioned in Joshua chapter 12, in a period which is about two hundred and fifty or so years after this time, in a list of Canaanite kings which had been defeated by the Israelites under Joshua in the time subsequent to the fall of Jericho. Strong’s original concordance does not define the Hebrew root of the word עדלם or adulam. Both Strong’s and Gesenius state that the root word is unused in Scripture, but Gesenius defines it from Arabic as “to be just, equitable” and thereby he defines the meaning of the derivative compound word Adullam (Strong’s # 5725) as “justice of the people”. [1] We would be skeptical of this, however Brown, Driver and Briggs in their lexicon provide an Assyrian word which seems to support the definition of the root word, where they also agree with Gesenius. [2] Of course, the sense of justice would be from a Canaanite perspective, but Canaanite culture seems to have been heavily influenced by the Akkadian Empire, for which reason the Canaanites also spoke an Akkadian dialect and had written in the same cuneiform characters.

The town of Adullam was evidently in the mountains of what would later be within the territory of Judah, to the south or southwest of Jerusalem. This is evident where later in Scripture, David is said to have fled to the cave of Adullam, both when he had fled from Saul as it is described in 1 Samuel chapter 22, and again at some point during his battles with the Philistines, in 2 Samuel chapter 23. So by that account, it is plausible that Adullam was between Philistia and Jerusalem. While that later account is part of an anachronistic addition to 2 Samuel, the same narrative is repeated in 1 Chronicles chapter 11. In the contexts in which Adullam is mentioned in these books, Adullam could not have been very far from Ephrath, which was later called Bethlehem, and which was only about five miles south of Jerusalem. Even later, in Nehemiah chapter 11, Adullam is listed as one of the towns of Judah which those who had returned from Babylon to Judah had resettled after the captivity. So Adullam may have been close to the route which the patriarchs had often travelled from Shechem to Hebron, along the mountain ridge which had also passed near to Bethel and Jerusalem. However as we have already explained, this account of Judah here in this chapter must be from a somewhat earlier time than when Jacob himself had gone to Hebron. Judah must be in Adullam while Jacob was still living in Salem.

2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

In verse 12 of this chapter it is clarified that Shuah was the name of this Canaanite woman’s father, and also that Judah continued in a friendship with this Adullamite Hirah, who was certainly also a Canaanite. Perhaps Moses had purposely neglected to name this woman, as an indication of his own disdain for her, since she was a Canaanite, but he did name the wives of Esau. Gesenius defines the meaning of the name חירה, Chirah or Hirah as “‘nobility,’ ‘a noble race’” without offering any substantiation for such a definition. [3] Strong’s defined the name to mean splendor (# 2437), attributing its derivation from a verb (# 2357) which means to blanch or wax pale. The name and the underlying Hebrew word only appear in this form here in this chapter, and we would rather agree with Brown, Driver and Briggs, who say only that the meaning of the term, as well as its root, is dubious. [4]

The name שוע or Shua (# 7769, 7770) is defined by Strong’s as riches, and Gesenius agrees, where Brown, Driver and Briggs mark as tentative a definition of opulence. However both Gesenius and Brown, Driver and Briggs offer a second definition for the word, which is as a cry for help. [5, 6]

Here Judah seems to have done to this Canaanite woman much the same thing that Shechem had done to Dinah, as “he took her and went in unto her”. That does not mean that the act was involuntary on her part, but evidently Shuah her father had approved, unlike Jacob with Shechem, and Judah kept her as a wife. Perhaps the fact that Judah was able to keep her is an indication that such behavior was indeed acceptable to the Canaanites. But later in this chapter, where Tamar is discussed, Judah’s incontinence once again becomes manifest, and by that we may also assess his actions here.

3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he [or she] called his name Er. 4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan. 5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

The name Er is defined by Strong as watchful (# 6147), the name Onan as strong (# 209) and the name Shelah as request (# 7956). The name Chezib is, quite aptly, from a word which means false, and Strong’s defines it as falsified. So, taking these names as having some significance, as names so often have significance in Genesis, Judah had lusted after a daughter of riches, and in falsehood she had bore him three sons. As for the town itself, we do not know the precise location of Chezib, as it is not mentioned again in Scripture by that name. However this also supports our contention that Judah was not at home during this time, and it is very likely within this period that Dinah had been raped, and Jacob had moved to Hebron. Instead, he was at Chezib trolloping along with this Canaanite, and was not reunited with his brethren for several years, after the birth of these three sons, where he is with them again when Joseph was left in the pit.

While the sin of Judah’s actions as well as the consequences for that sin do not become fully apparent until the giving of the law at Sinai, the error of his having taken a wife from the Canaanites was already made apparent in the fate of Esau, who had lost his blessing for that very reason. However we cannot be certain that Jacob, who seems to have left everything concerning his life and his fate in the hands of Yahweh his God, had ever fully conveyed the lessons of his experiences to his sons. He certainly must have passed on to them an account of the family history, but how much was impressed upon them, we cannot know. After all, he had only told his house to put away their strange gods once he had arrived at Bethel.

Nevertheless, it is this event to which the Word of Yahweh had referred in the writings of the prophet Malachi, where in chapter 2 we read that “11 Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god.” These words, written some time in the 5th or 4th centuries BC, are a judgment of Judah’s Canaanite wife and sons, and they were also a prophecy of what was about to come upon Jerusalem, that the people of Judah would mingle themselves with the Canaanites and Edomites in Judaea in the time subsequent to that of the prophet. Later, in the 2nd century BC, from the time of the high priest John Hyrcanus, those words had been fulfilled.

So Judah’s sojourn and actions in Adullam, or justice of the people, as opposed to the justice of God, and the sons which he had sired in Chezib, or falsehood, also seem to have been a sort of prophecy. Just before Joseph had been thrown into the pit, a man who would later save Israel in Egypt, Judah was off consorting with a Canaanite. Then just before the time of Christ, all Judaea had also joined themselves to Canaanites, and the result was the same, as the greater number of the Judaeans of the time of Christ were also children of falsehood. Here, these spurious sons of Judah will have their time of reckoning. Then Christ, the Savior of Israel for whom Joseph was a type, had also emerged from a pit and that is an assurance that all of the sons of bastards will have their reckoning. Judaea received only a deposit of His judgement at that time, just as His brethren had received only a deposit of His Spirit.

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

The name תמר or Tamar (# 8559) is from a verb defined by Strong’s as meaning to be erect and also as a palm tree. Gesenius agrees with both definitions. [5] Brown, Driver and Briggs define the verb as to be erect, a palm-tree or date-palm, and also as a column of smoke, a rising motion, [6] where perhaps the term was used to describe such trees as representing something which stands upright. In any event, as we shall see, Judah’s Canaanite sons never had issue with Tamar, and Judah himself did. Then, his Canaanite sons were evidently rejected, and the sons which he had with Tamar would have his inheritance. Therefore it must have been recognized in that time, that the sons which Judah had with the Canaanite woman were spurious, even if Judah had remained responsible for them.

7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

Of course, Er was a Canaanite, accursed by Noah, and other Scriptures reveal the reasons whereby later on, all Canaanites had been accursed even beyond that of Noah, as we had discussed in our commentaries on the tribes of Canaan in relation to Genesis chapters 10 and 15, which were titled The Curse of Canaan and The Vanquished, which is something for which the Canaanites were destined from the beginning. But here, on a personal level, there is no indication as to why Er was considered wicked beyond his brothers. We cannot assume that Er was slain merely for having been a Canaanite, since Shelah was not slain, and since when Onan was slain, as we are about to read, there was a rather precise reason which was given justifying his having been slain. So there must have been some wicked proclivity which manifested itself in Er which is not described here.

In any event, there is no sign that Yahweh had any mercy for these Canaanites, but he would have mercy for Judah. With that it is evident, that his mercy for Judah must have been for the sake of Jacob, and not necessarily for Judah himself. So we read in Luke chapter 1, in the words of Mary on the coming advent of the Messiah, in part, that “54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; 55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” Then again, in the words of Zacharias the father of John the Baptist, in that same context: “71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; 73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham…” So all of the mercy which Yahweh has for Israel, from this very time, is on account of the promises which He had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that mercy is only for their legitimate children.

8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. 10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

The statement of Judah in verse 8, where he said “Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother”, reveals an older custom upon which the Hebrew law concerning levirate marriage was later instituted. But so far any explicit mention of such a custom in ancient inscriptions is rather elusive. Here we shall cite an article published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 77, published in February, 1940, titled The Ancient Oriental Background of Hebrew Levirate Marriage, by Millar Burrows. After discussing attempts by the famous early 20th century archaeologist William Albright to find such a reference as we described, or to find evidence for levirate marriage in Canaan in the meanings of ancient words, we read the following:

Many considerations favor keeping a widow in her husband's family. In various ways the care of her husband’s children, the administration of his property, and the value of the woman’s labor may make this advisable. The necessity of making some provision for her support may enter into the situation also. [This seems to be the opposite of what should be the Christian perspective on such marriages. - WRF] The obvious way to meet all these needs is marriage with another member of the family, and since marriage within her own generation is more natural than marriage to one much older or much younger than herself, it is not surprising to find that among many peoples widows are frequently but not regularly married by their former husbands’ brothers. For similar reasons sororate marriage, the marriage of a widower and a sister of his deceased wife, is equally common.

This is true of the ancient Near East as of other times and regions. No established custom of levirate marriage, to be sure, is clearly attested among the Babylonians, though Koschaker alludes to an unpublished Sumerian inscription which he regards as implying that a widow and her children were taken by her husbands' brothers. The fundamental principle governing the remarriage of widows, as also marriage in general, was the primacy of the family over the individual and the vesting authority over all its members in the head of the family. Belonging to a family meant being subject to its head. A woman who married was therefore, except in errēbu-marriage, transferred from her father’s family to that of her husband, and so came under his authority or that of the head of his family. Where the husband was still under his father’s power, the legal form of the transaction in the ancient Near East was the adoption of the bride by the bridegroom's father ‘as daughter-in-law’ or ‘for daughter-in-law-ship.’ At her husband's death her connection with his family did not cease; his authority over her passed to some other member of the family. That this would frequently, though not always, involve marriage goes without saying.

The term errēbu-marriage refers to the adoption of a son-in-law by his father-in-law, which is the opposite of the more traditional marriage arrangement, but which is known to have happened for diverse reasons. The relationship between Jacob and Laban is sometimes referred to as this sort of marriage, but that is not at all true or accurate. Laban had sons of his own, and had no need to adopt one, and Jacob was never considered as an heir, for which reason Laban also had Jacob swear an oath at Mount Gilead after he had left Haran. The word levirate in the term levirate marriage is not related to the Levitical priesthood. Rather, it is from the Late Latin word levir, which means brother-in-law, and it was evidently coined into English in the 18th century.

The mere act of having spilled his seed on the ground is not the reason why Onan was slain. Rather, Onan had acted in that manner out of greed, since if he had a son with Tamar, that son would have gotten the firstborn share of the inheritance, where if Tamar remained childless it would have fallen to himself. So Onan loved money above his own brethren, and even above the fortunes of a son who would have come from his own loins. So for that reason Yahweh struck him dead, even if it was nevertheless his destiny to be dead for other reasons. But Shelah would be preserved, and his progeny had evidently become thorns to the legitimate descendants of Judah in later centuries.

11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

For reasons we have already explained, Er and Onan must have been quite young when they were married to Tamar, so Tamar herself must have still been quite young. However with the information which we are provided, we cannot know precisely how young they were when these things had occurred. Here it also seems odd that Judah had Tamar remain at her father’s house, rather than at his own father’s house, so at this point in the narrative it is not even clear as to whether Jacob even knew that Judah had taken a wife.

12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

The word for friend here, ריו or רו, reya or rea (# 7453), was evidently confused for a very similar and related word רעי or rai, which means shepherd, where this passage is translated in the Septuagint. That interpretation, however, does not seem to accord with the circumstances in which Judah and this Hirah had first become acquainted, as it is described here in the opening verse of the chapter.

There is a place named Timnah mentioned later, in Joshua chapter 15, as a border city of Judah. It is not entirely clear as to whether this is the same city as the Timnath of Judges chapter 14, which is a city of the Philistines from which Samson had first sought a wife. But a more appropriate candidate here may be the later Timnath-heres mentioned in Judges chapter 2, which by a transposition of the letters is called Timnath-serah in Joshua chapters 19 and 24. This town was in what would later be called Mount Ephraim, north of Jerusalem and closer to where Judah’s father and brethren had typically pastured their sheep. If a tentative identification by archaeologists with the modern Israeli town of Halamish is correct, it is about 16 miles south-southwest of the ancient site of Shechem and about the same distance north-northwest of Jerusalem.

Although she must have still been quite young, Tamar was still awaiting a husband from Judah, as she was no longer a virgin even if a marriage with the Canaanite sons may not have ever been properly consummated. As we have read in the article on levirate marriage, a woman could expect her husband’s family to support her once her husband had died, if her children were young and she had no grown son, or no son, of her own. While Judah sent Tamar to her own father’s house, she nevertheless had a just expectation of acquiring a husband and children from him, and she would now seek to get what Judah had been obliged to provide her.

The circumstances here in which Tamar is found may also be an indication of where she was from. As we have just read in the article which we have cited from the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, once a woman was transferred to the house of her husband through marriage, the head of her husband’s household was expected to provide for her, so her own father would not expect to be burdened with her care again after she had been married. Now this is conjecture, but if Tamar had been one of the daughters of Jacob’s servants, then Judah would represent the authority of his father, and that would fully explain his ability to take and to restore Tamar to her father, and at the same time fulfill his duty of providing for her care. It cannot be forgotten, that Jacob had many servants who were of the stock of the Hebrews of Haran, and who had been with him and his fathers from the time when Abraham had left Haran, and they would continue to be bound to him.

Whether any of them had accompanied Jacob when he went to Egypt, we are never informed, but certainly a number of them may have accompanied him, although being servants they were not counted. We read in Genesis chapter 46, in words which Joseph would say to the pharaoh, that “32 ... the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have.” The phrase “all that they have” could certainly include their servants.

Returning to the account of Judah and Tamar:

13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep. 14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

Tamar set out to seduce Judah by playing a harlot, so she very likely knew something of Judah’s incontinence. In Middle Assyrian laws dating from about the 14th century BC, the wearing of veils by women in public was actually regulated according to their status, so we read, in part:

40: Neither wives of seigniors nor [widows] nor [Assyrian women], who go out on the street [may have] their heads [uncovered]. The daughters of a seignior… whether it is a shawl or a robe or [a mantle must veil themselves; [they must not have] their heads [uncovered]. Whether ... or ... or ... they must [not veil themselves, but] when they go out on the street alone, they must veil themselves. A concubine who goes out on the street with her mistress must veil herself. A sacred prostitute whom a man married must veil herself on the street, but one whom a man did not marry must have her head uncovered on the street; she must not veil herself. A harlot must not veil herself; her head must be uncovered; he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest her, produce witnesses, (and) bring her to the palace tribunal; 23 they shall not take her jewelry away, (but) the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty (times) with staves (and) pour pitch on her head. However, if a seignior has seen a harlot veiled and has let (her) go without bringing her to the palace tribunal, they shall flog that seignior fifty (times) with staves; his prosecutor shall take his clothing; they shall pierce his ears, thread (them) with a cord, (and) tie (it) at his back, (and) he shall do the work of the king for one full month. Female slaves must not veil themselves and he who has seen a female slave veiled must arrest her (and) bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall cut off her ears (and) the one who arrested her shall take her clothes. If a seignior has seen a female slave veiled and has let her go without arresting her (and) bringing her to the palace tribunal, when they have prosecuted him (and) convicted him, they shall flog him fifty (times) with staves; they shall pierce his ears, thread (them) with a cord, (and) tie (it) at his back; his prosecutor shall take his clothes (and) he shall do the work of the king for one full month. [7]

Here where it says “A harlot must not veil herself; her head must be uncovered”, but this does not necessarily contradict what we read here in Genesis. Rather, it shows that a few hundred years later in Assyria, harlots who veiled themselves to conceal their identities must have caused such a problem that strict laws were required which prohibited the practice. Thus we read:

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. 16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

Evidently, whether he was 16 years old or 32 years old, as he is probably about that age here, Judah was sexually incontinent. So he had no restraint when he encountered the Canaanite in Adullam as a youth, and he still has no restraint here on his way to Timnath. But we may also imagine that once again, he was influenced by his Canaanite friend who is with him here, Hirah the Adullamite, and that is also a type for the later fate of Judah and Judaea. This time, however, it works out for Judah’s own good, contrary to any possible expectation. So he answers the prostitute, not knowing that it was Tamar:

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it? 18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

Tamar may not have known it, but the articles which she took from Judah here would protect her integrity later, after it was discovered that she had conceived. But any assessment of the gravity of Judah’s incontinence here must be magnified greatly by the fact that he was willing to part with his signet, which is a ring that served as a seal. It was used to make impression upon seals for letters and other documents, or upon clay tablets recording covenants, which were then baked so that they would be hardened for preservation. Anyone who possessed Judah’s signet could forge documents in his name. [8]

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not. 21 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.

If this were an actual prostitute, Judah would be left in a precarious position, since the signet-ring and other valuable articles were worth much more to a criminally-minded woman than a mere lamb or kid of a flock.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place. 23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

The meaning of verse 23 is obscure as it is in the King James Version. In the Septuagint, where the Greek of this passage was translated by Brenton in an accurate manner, we read: “And Judas said, Let her have them, but let us not be ridiculed; I sent this kid, but thou hast not found her.” A similar reading is found in the English of the New American Standard Bible, which reads: “Then Judah said, ‘Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. After all, I sent this kid, but you did not find her.’” So it seems that Judah took lightly his loss of his signet, but here he had no other choice than to dismiss it, regardless of whatever loss it might have caused him.

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

In my opinion, this response represents an incredible hypocrisy on the part of Judah. A man who would willingly bed an anonymous prostitute should be in no position to judge a woman who acted anonymously as a prostitute. When Judah bedded Tamar, he had no idea whether or not he was sleeping with another man’s wife, and that is also the evident reason for the later Assyrian laws which barred prostitutes from veiling themselves.

In the Song of Songs, or Canticles written by Solomon, he and his wife are used as allegories for the relationship of Yahweh and His wife, the children of Israel. In chapter 5 of that work, the wife is portrayed as having gone off searching for her husband alone, rather than abiding for him patiently at home, and as a result she finds herself wandering in the markets at night, something which only a loose woman or a prostitute would do. So we read, in part: “7 The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.” This is very much like some of the punishments for veiled prostitutes which are found in the Assyrian laws.

But perhaps Judah’s hypocrisy is also a type for the hypocritical kingdom of Judah in later history. So now Tamar will be judged:

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff. 26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Here Judah had no choice but to judge justly, as he himself, by taking an anonymous woman, had violated the bed of his own son. So here he also recognizes the fact that Tamar had only gotten what she was entitled to have, which is a son from the house into which she had been married. Later, this would be written into the law, so it must be from God even if the practice existed earlier in history, in kindred nations.

Therefore we read in Deuteronomy chapter 25: “5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. 6 And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. 7 And if the man like not to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband's brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother. 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; 9 Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house.” But of course, since Canaanites, Moabites and others were excluded from the congregation of Yahweh in His same law, this law cannot compel a man to raise up children with a Canaanite or a Moabite.

While Judah “knew her again no more”, he was nevertheless responsible for her care, and especially now that she would have his sons. So it is very likely that Tamar, who must have only been in her late-30’s at the time when Jacob had gone to Egypt, may very well have lived to have accompanied him there.

27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.

Quite appropriately, as Chezib means falsehood, the Hebrew word תמנה or תמנתה timnah or timnathah from which the name Timnath (# 8553) is taken means portion. Only in Timnath did Judah obtain his portion, in the children which were born to him of Tamar. Thus we see the inspiration of Yahweh God in the actions of Tamar, and that alone should be enough for Christians to perceive that Tamar and the daughter of Shuah were indeed the daughters of diverse gods. Tamar must have been a daughter of Yahweh, a descendant of Adam, as He worked through her in order to remediate Judah’s incontinence, while the daughter of Shuah the Canaanite was the daughter of a strange god, as the prophet Malachi had attested. So the Canaanite son would not be Judah’s heir, although Judah had continued to remain responsible for him, and the fact is demonstrated in the regard shown for the precedence of the births of Pharez and Zerah:

28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. 29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez. 30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.

The name Pharez, or Phares, is from the Hebrew word פרץ or perets (# 6557) which is a break or a tear. It is the same as the word translated as broken (# 6555) earlier in the verse. The name Zerah is from the Hebrew word זרח or zerach (# 2226) which means rising, but this definition is only evident in a particular sense. We must agree with Gesenius, where he defines the root word which has the same spelling (2224) which Strong’s defines as to radiate, and Gesenius explains that the term is used of the rising sun, but says that “It properly means to scatter rays”, meaning rays of sunlight. There Gesenius refers his readers to the very similar word זרה or zerah (# 2219) which is a verb which means to scatter, or of seed, to sow. So a Hebrew word for seed is also quite similar, which is זרע or zera (#2233). [9]

So these names may also represent a prophecy, and here we shall only mention casually, what also seems to be apparent in later history and prophecy, that the house of Pharez in Judah was eventually broken, while a number of Judah scattered abroad in early times were of the house of Zerah, and they seem to have supplied many kings and princes to the ancient world. The scarlet thread, and the red or scarlet hand which appears later in heraldry, are both commonly interpreted to be signs of the presence of Judah, but if that is indeed true, it could only be said to represent Zerah, and not Pharez. Later in Scripture, a scarlet thread has a role in the preservation of Rahab and her family, and in better sources than the modern English translations, Rahab is said to have been an innkeeper and not a whore, which also agrees with the account of her circumstances in the book of Judges.

Then even later, in the time of Solomon, it is the line of Pharez from which had come David and the kings of Judah. Of course, many of Zerah remained with Pharez, but Zerah was also associated with the kings of the nations round about, where we read in 2 Kings chapter 4: “30 And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about.” The word Ezrahite would better be read Zerahite, and the letters must have been transposed. In later Greek myths, Dardanos was the eponymous ancestor of the Dardans, who were also known as Trojans, and Chalcas was said to have been the founder of Pamphylia on the southern coast of Anatolia. These were famous men indeed, and we cannot imagine that Solomon was being compared in wisdom to men who are otherwise unknown.

Much later, in his account of the genealogy of Christ, Tamar is one of the few women mentioned, and the legitimacy of her sons is amplified where they are both mentioned, although Christ had, at least apparently, descended from only one of them, where we read in part, in Mathew chapter 1: “3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar…”

However Shelah had also had children, and they remained with Judah throughout the history of the Exodus, the Judges period and the Davidic Kingdom. So we read in 1 Chronicles chapter 4, from the King James Version: “21 The sons of Shelah the son of Judah were, Er the father of Lecah, and Laadah the father of Mareshah, and the families of the house of them that wrought fine linen, of the house of Ashbea, 22 And Jokim, and the men of Chozeba, and Joash, and Saraph, who had the dominion in Moab, and Jashubilehem. And these are ancient things. 23 These were the potters, and those that dwelt among plants and hedges: there they dwelt with the king for his work.”

Here it seems that the descendants of Shelah were pushed to the fringes of society, but sadly, that is not entirely true. The words translated as plants and hedges are Netaim and Gederah, and they were properly interpreted as the place names of towns in the Septuagint, and in other English translations of the Hebrew. Plants and Hedges are an appropriate place in which thorns should dwell. But the name Chozeba (# 3578), which appears only here in Scripture, is a form of that same Hebrew word which means falsehood, which was the name of the town Chezib (#3580) where the sons of Judah with his Canaanite wife were born. So it is very likely the same town, and it is apparent that the sons of Shelah remained in falsehood, which is appropriate for the children of a strange god.

So the words of Malachi use the life of Judah and his sin as an example in order to explain what would befall the fate of Judaea following his own time. So Judah himself serves in that aspect as a type for Judaea, while Joseph his brother was a type for the Messiah. Furthermore, it is not unfair to attribute at least much of the iniquity in Judah to the presence of the Canaanites of Shelah who bore the name of Judah, but who were actually the children of the daughter of a strange god. On the other hand, if it were not for the upright Tamar, whose actions in Timnath had assured her the portion which she had deserved, Judah himself may not have had a portion in Israel.

The life of Judah is an example which may be summed up in this: Have children with the daughter of a Shua, and your posterity will be falsehood, which shall not stand in the judgment of Christ. Have children with an upright Tamar, and you shall have a portion in the Kingdom of God.

This concludes our commentary on Genesis chapter 38.


1 Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Baker Books, 1979, p. 608.

2 The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, 2021, p. 726.

3 Gesenius, p. 811.

4 Brown, Driver, Briggs, pp. 447, 1002.

5 Gesenius, p. 868.

6 Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 1070.

7 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament 3rd edition, James Pritchard, editor, 1969, Harvard University Press, p. 183.

8 See, for example, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament 3rd edition, on page 222 where there are two Babylonian legal documents which are described as having been signed with a signet by their witnesses.

9 Gesenius, pp. 253-254.

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