Friday, October 24, 2014


Genesis 38
by Ed Cardwell

One might wonder why such a story as found in Genesis 38 should even appear in the Bible. After all, a man engaging the services of a prostitute seems hardly appropriate for a book of such piety and reverence. Such a narrative appears all too shameful and indecent to be included in the same book as the great Patriarchs and early heroes of faith. Yet, there it is.

Respectable Bible teachers would not normally venture into a discussion of such an embarrassing dialogue between bargaining participants of this shameful enterprise. The script itself would mortify the average untrained leader. Of course, in our modern liberated world we entertain far worse with an air of pride and sophistication. But to see such conversation spread through an entire chapter of the Book of Genesis makes us more than abashed and uncomfortable. Yet, again, there it is.

Let us examine this story and see if we can discover some nuggets of truth as to why it may have been included.

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This story itself pivots around a law of Moses found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10:

“When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. 6 "And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. 7 "But if the man does not desire to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, 'My husband's brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.' 8 "Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, 'I do not desire to take her,' 9 then his brother's wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, 'Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.' 10 "And in Israel his name shall be called, 'The house of him whose sandal is removed.'” NAS

The law raises many ‘what if’ questions, but our focus will be on the case of the sons of Judah who apparently fit this qualification.

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The story in Genesis 38 centers around Judah, Tamar, and Judah’s sons and can be summarized as follows:

Judah had taken the role of matchmaker for his first born son, Er, and chose as a wife for him a woman from the Canaanites, Tamar. Er was a wicked man, so God took his life. Apparently he had committed the ‘sin unto death’ (1John 5:16). Judah then volunteered his second son, Onan, to perform his lawful duties as Er’s brother and take Tamar for wife to raise up offspring, the first of which, according to law, would be considered to belong to Er, Tamar’s late first husband. This no doubt would have had special significance where matters of birthright are concerned. Perhaps thinking that he had found a loophole in the law, Onan went into Tamar, but stopped short of implanting her with seed. This act aroused the wrath of God and his life was taken also.

Judah, having already lost two sons, was reticent to assign his third son, Shelah, to a similar fate. Instead he told Tamar to return to her father’s house, and, presumably wanting to buy time, told her that she should wait until Shelah ‘grows up’.

While Tamar waited at her father’s house for Judah to fulfill his promise, time passed – and more time passed. ‘After a considerable time’, according to Genesis 38:12, Judah’s wife died. This would have required a lengthy time for mourning, possibly as much as 12 months, and Tamar’s impatience was growing.

She undoubtedly followed her father-in-law’s movements closely as her suspicion grew that he was going to renege on his promise, as Shelah had already grown up. So when she heard that Judah has gone to visit his sheepshearers near Timnah, and as the period of mourning has passed, she relied on her feminine instincts and devised a very shrewd plan that, if successful, would entrap Judah and exact revenge upon his deceitfulness.

Dressing up as a harlot and seating herself near a Canaanite temple by the road at Enaim, her strategy began to pay off. Judah, having been celibate as normally required during the period of mourning for his wife, succumbed to the temptation that this supposed harlot is offering, clueless that she was actually his daughter-in-law.

When Judah turned aside to her, the bartering began (in verse 16): 

Judah:  Here now, let me come in to you.”

Tamar:  “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?”

Judah:  “I will send you a kid from the flock.”

Tamar:  “Will you give a pledge until you send it?”

Judah:  “What pledge shall I give you?”

Tamar:  “Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.”

And finally:  “So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.” NAS

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We might say that Tamar caught Judah at a very weak moment because, by modern standards, she was essentially asking for his driver’s license, Visa card, and the keys to his car. The items she requested were the essentials for financial security, royal identification and registration, his status and authority, and also his weapon.

The narrative continues in verse 19 and 20:

“Then she arose and departed, and removed her veil and put on her widow's garments. When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman's hand, he did not find her.” NAS

Judah also learned that there was no known prostitute at the Canaanite temple. Satisfied that he had kept his promise, but fearing that he would become a ‘laughingstock’ for being so stupid, he decided to let the matter rest.

Three months later, Judah is informed that Tamar is with child by playing a harlot. His righteous indignation is aroused and he demands that she be brought out, exposed, and burned to death.

This is the moment that Tamar has been waiting for:  to humiliate Judah and to exact revenge for his treachery. She produces the items taken from Judah from the early encounter at the Canaanite temple and addresses her audience:

“I am with child by the man to whom these things belong… Please examine and see, whose signet ring and cords and staff are these?” GEN 38:25 NAS

Judah’s shame is immediately exposed as he recognizes his belongings. He is forced to reverse her condemnation and express his own contriteness of heart:

“She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

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The story does not end here. From this encounter with Judah by the road to Enaim Tamar became pregnant and in the fullness of her time gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Zerah was the great grandfather of Achan, who brought a curse upon Israel when during the battle of Jericho he violated God’s command regarding the ban, whereby all the spoil of that city was to go into the treasury of the Lord.  He was discovered and, as a result, all of his household were stoned to death, and they and all of his possessions were burned with fire.

Interestingly, the other twin, Perez, is the great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather of David, and thus in the direct lineage to Jesus the Messiah.

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But the story doesn’t end there either. There is another story - within the story.

Let’s examine the word for ‘pledge’, underlined in the quoted text above.

The Hebrew word here is !Abr'[e (arabon). This word appears in this form only three times in all of the Old Testament, and all three appearances are here within the context of the encounter between Judah and Tamar.  This is likewise true of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Only here in Genesis 38 do we find this word in the Septuagint, BUT the word is NOT translated into Greek! 

The Hebrew word is merely transliterated. Why? Are there no Greek words for this Hebrew word? Yes, there are. Why, then, was the Hebrew word used instead of the Greek? It must be remembered that Hebrew is the language of religion, the heart and soul of the Hebrew people, unlike the Greek, the language of precision. The most probable answer is that this story is so significant and deeply ingrained in the Hebrew psyche that whenever !Abr'[e (arabon) is used, the listener is immediately drawn to the cardinal theme of this exchange between Judah and Tamar. Judah, himself a grand Patriarch in the direct line to the Messiah, makes a promise, and with that promise, a down payment, or earnest payment, which is in itself the tangible guarantee that the promise is literal, genuine, and sincere, and will ultimately be fulfilled to the letter.

The word is so significant that the word is used in the New Testament – also untranslated!  The true Author of the Book of Ephesians has transported the idea of a genuine, tangible guarantee to a spiritual level. Notice how the Apostle Paul uses this word in the context of spiritual transformation in Ephesians 1:13-14:

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation-- having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory.” NAS

We should be able to infer confidently that the ‘pledge’ in Genesis 38 is nothing less than a prophetic type which looks forward to the down payment, or earnest payment, in the believer’s life of the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This gift, the presence of God’s life in us, is Heaven’s guarantee, THE PROMISE OF GOD, THAT OUR FULL REDEMPTION IS SURE. At the same time it is God’s act of sealing each believer and branding us as BELONGING TO HIM – FOREVER!

This story is one of the most vivid examples that God’s grace and mercy is able to penetrate through even the grossest of man’s sin, to prevail over his weaknesses and frailty, to transform the consequences of his misdeeds, in order to accomplish His eternal plan and purpose, even to the end of days.

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” Romans 11:33 NAS

And finally, it should be added, that the word  avrrabw.n (arabon) is still used even today in Modern Greek. It translates into our English ‘ENGAGEMENT RING’!

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