This week’s reading: Genesis 38:1-30
Last week, we had just begun learning about the incredible life of Joseph, but now, we switch gears with a whole chapter about another son of Israel, Judah. It may seem strange and out of place, but let’s never forget that the Bible has ONE central theme, and we humans are not it. God’s Word is all about the Love of God that is displayed through the Messiah, His Son, our Jesus. We are following the story of Judah here because Jesus will eventually come from the lineage of Judah, not Joseph. And so we find this very important, life changing story here right after Joseph is sold into slavery. Why is it life changing? Because if we can learn the lesson that Judah learned, like him, we will become completely different people. We are in Genesis 38, reading his complex story of transformation, that is found in verses 1 through 30. Listen to the point that changes Judah’s heart and see if you can spot the moment:
“About three months later Judah was told, your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant. Judah said, ‘Bring her out and have her burned to death!’ As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these,’ she said. And she added, ‘See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’ Judah recognized them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not sleep with her again.” Gen 38:24-26 NIV
Judah leaves his brothers. Recall how it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery. (see Gen 37:26-27) Also envision the deep heartbreak of his father, Israel, when he assumed Joseph was dead. (see Gen 37:33-34) What do we think this did to the guilty hearts of the sons of Israel, including Judah? The Bible says this father was so grieved that although his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, he refused, and greatly mourned Joseph’s supposed death. (see Gen 37:35) Grief is such a difficult part of this broken and fallen world. God never wanted death to touch His Creation. Yet mankind’s sinful, selfish desires opened up the door for it to become our sad reality. When we attempt to step out of God’s Holy Will and do whatever we think is right, suffering and sorrow always result. These brothers were so jealous over the special treatment Joseph received from their father that they could not see with eyes of compassion, forgiveness or mercy. All they saw was inferiority, offense and hatred. When we live a life that centers our perspective on MMI, we will not judge others correctly. Sadly, we always assume others have bad intentions, while we love to think that all our intentions are always for good. More on this later. My point is, we humans are fallen creatures who have gone astray from God’s good plan for this world, and as a result, there are many harmful consequences that we never wanted. My Study Bible explains about why Judah may have left his brothers this way: “Perhaps it was hard for Judah to see his father grieving for Joseph, especially with the deception involved. The phrase left his brothers may indicate that there was a falling out between Judah and his siblings over Joseph.” (Quest Study Bible p55) To not think that there would be major friction between these deceivers is to not be placing ourselves in their position. Even as I was writing this, I could not help but notice something interesting. Israel began his life with the name Jacob, which means Deceiver, and his early actions mimicked this name. He tricked his brother Esau and lied to his father, Isaac. (see Gen 25:29-34 & 27:5-29) Now what is happening? He is being deceived by his sons. They are lying to him. Could this still be the results of his previous heart attitude? While he became humble, he still made some major errors, like lifting Joseph above his brothers. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way. We humans seem to default to the latter. I mentioned last week that we have to place ourselves in the shoes of all these humans from the Bible in order to really learn from their failures and successes. Never forget that these were real people, with real struggles, and real flaws. Sometimes they turn to God and get things right. Many times, like with these envious brothers, they definitely do not. The fallout after Joseph is gone— and they have no idea where, or if he is even still alive— in addition to now having lied to their father whose heart is wrecked over the whole thing? It must have been overwhelming for them. And so Judah sets out on his own. Could this be a guilty conscience that he just does not want to deal with? Could he be trying to escape reality by starting a new life somewhere else? Does he think this will all just go away somehow? Do we? By God’s Grace, He never allows us to ignore our past mistakes, but desires for us to face them head on. This does not mean He makes us pay a penalty for all our sinful actions. As a matter of fact, if you are born again then Jesus has already paid that eternal penalty. But God is still concerned with the imperfect character traits within us that caused us to act in those wrong ways. Sooner or later, if we truly desire to become more and more like Jesus, His Perfect Son, then we are going to have to confess our shortcomings and allow God to heal us from them. I believe that this is exactly why this chapter about Judah is right here, in this place of God’s Story. God is not moving Judah so that he may become worthy of God’s mercy, but God does desire to humble his heart. Listen to this excerpt from Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary: “But God will show that his choice is of grace and not of merit, and that Christ came into the world to save sinners, even the chief. Also, that the worthiness of Christ is of himself, and not from his ancestors.” So while God includes sinful people in the lineage of Jesus, He is not counting on their perfection to bring about the Messiah. It is only God’s Grace that makes it possible for our Savior to enter into this world as one of us. Yet I believe God is moving in Judah’s life, for his benefit and ours. And that God has redemption waiting for Judah.
Judah’s family. So Judah moves to a city in Canaan and stays there with a friend named Hirah. While there, he marries a Canaanite woman and starts a family. This should raise some flags for us, my Friends, but let’s continue. We read that his unnamed wife grants Judah three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah decides to find Er a wife from that land and who is called Tamar. Now, remember how both Abraham and Isaac did not want their sons to marry outside of the family, because it could cause their sons to turn their backs on the God of Abraham? This is what we are seeing here with Er as the Bible tells us, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” (Gen 38:7) First, Judah marries a Canaanite woman and then he marries his son off to one as well. It is simple to see that they both may have had a negative influence over Er and this is why their forefathers did not want there to be unions with foreigners. (Think King Solomon here— see 1Ki 11:3) Between his mother and his wife, Er must have been openly worshipping their false gods and being defiant towards the God of Abraham. This was just not acceptable and God quickly shows His displeasure. Er dies. Now according to custom, his brother, Onan, was obligated to marry Tamar to give Er a descendant to carry on his name. Onan’s character is not any better as he acts to dishonor the memory of his dead brother. Greed and jealousy take over his actions. The Bible says that “…Onan knew that the offspring would not be his…” and probably not wanting to lose any of his own inheritance, he attempts to shirk his responsibility. (see Gen 38:9) God, once again, shows His displeasure as, he too, dies an early death. (see Gen 38:10) At this point, having lost two of his sons while they were married to her, and not wanting to lose his last one, Judah chooses to deceive Tamar. Matthew Poole’s Commentary says that Judah probably was “…imputing the death of his two sons either to her fault, or to her unluckiness, rather than to his own or his son’s miscarriages.” Of course, Judah does not think his sons could have done anything wrong. He is still blind to the sins he has invited into his family. And so he convinces Tamar to go back to live with her father as a widow. Then when Shelah is old enough, he would give him to her in marriage in order for him to fulfill his duty for his brothers. We must understand, this is a lie. Judah has no intentions of honoring Tamar. We also must realize that, for a woman in those days, a marriage and having children was a sign of grace. It was their job. It was their purpose. They required a man to provide for their needs and without a husband or sons, Tamar’s future was in question. But she believes Judah and obediently goes to live with her father. The Bible then says, “After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.” (Gen 38:12) Tamar hears about this trip and poses as a prostitute on the road to Timnah, where she knew Judah would pass. You see, Tamar had not married anyone, since Judah had told her to remain a widow. She had been waiting the whole time for Judah to fulfill his promise. (see Gen 38:11) Judah had made a marriage contract with her father to take her in as family, but then pretended he would honor the agreement at a later date, which he never does. But she was not a fool, as the Bible says, “For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.” (Gen 38:14b) So even though her actions may sound strange to us, she had to do something. Did she know what would happen? Most likely not. But again, she had to do something to remove the disgrace Judah had brought upon her. As Sir Scott Walter said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” One problem leads to another which leads to another. Yet look how great our God is! He uses all our deceptions and fears and weaknesses to bring about His Holy Plan. This seems like a crazy soap opera, but God is not done with this family yet. For God also has redemption waiting for Tamar.
Tamar does what she has to do. Being influenced by the region where he now called home, Judah sees this woman he thinks is a shrine prostitute and he decides to sleep with her. Remember he was on his way to the shearing of his flock. Listen to my Study Bible’s explanation: “Shrine prostitutes were used in the fertility cults of the ancient Middle East. These cults believed that harvests and flocks were increased by ritual intercourse with the prostitutes of certain goddesses.…” (Quest Study Bible p56) Again I say, when we step out of God’s Holy Will, we are headed for trouble. Judah approaches this woman, but he does not recognize her as his daughter-in-law because, as was the custom for prostitutes, Tamar keeps a veil over her face. Judah tells her he wants to sleep with her, but the disguised Tamar asks him for payment first. Judah promises to send her a goat from his flock, but can she trust him? The Bible says, “He said, ‘What pledge should I give you?’ ‘Your seal and it’s cord, and the staff in your hand,’ she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.” (Gen 38:18) Again, did Tamar plan all this? I do not think so, but she was certainly pretty happy that it turned out this way. You see, many times when things “just seem to work out for our benefit,” we have to admit we did not plan for the situation to come together that way. Very often, we are simply following God’s Plan, unaware that we are doing so. Thankfully, there are lots of times where God will simply move us to do things even though we are not really certain why we are doing them. I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me on more than one occasion. I am not sure what to do, but I know I have to do something, so I step out in Faith and start doing what I know I can. Then God shows up to do what only God can, make things work together for my good. Like Tamar, we might know we have a need and have to do something, but God will move us whether we are seeking His guidance or not. Again, what an awesome God we have, my Friends. He never leaves us to our own devices without having a way to bring things back into His original plan. Yes, we still might have to choose to think the thoughts and act on the ideas, but our Sovereign God truly has things in control. While never forcing us to go this way or that, He knows when we are desperate and when we will simply follow whatever He is prompting us to do. Again, whether we acknowledge it is Him or not. I do not believe that Tamar knew God. How could she? Look at the men in her life that should have led her to the God of Abraham. They were being influenced by their own MMI mentality. By their own greed and jealousy. By their own choices to follow the current culture, instead of seeking God. She was simply doing what she had to do. And God saw her pain and honored her, even though Judah had not. As God would have it, Tamar becomes pregnant and goes back to live in her father’s household. We do hear how Judah tries to fulfill his promise by sending the woman his goat, but she cannot be found. He is told by the locals that they do not even have any shrine prostitute, and Judah immediately feels foolish. He knows he has been deceived, but has no recourse to get his items back from whoever he slept with. Even though those items could be identified as his, since they were custom-made articles, he decides to drop it because he does not want to make a fuss about finding this mysterious woman. He doesn’t want others to know about his shameful act or gullibility, afraid the men of the region will make of him a “laughingstock.” (Gen 38:23) God continues to work in the background of the lives of these two though, because God has redemption waiting for both of them.
The transformation of Judah. It is three months later, where apparently Judah has forgotten the whole incident with the prostitute, when he is told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” (Gen 38:24a) Take note of how he is so very quick to judge and condemn her! Immediately he calls for her to come to him so that he may burn her to death, for crying out loud! (Gen 38:24b) Are we like this too? Do we forget the foolish things we have done in the past and jump down someone’s throat the second they mess up? Do we want to burn their reputation by calling them out? We know what Jesus says about this, don’t we? Let’s stop a moment and look at Matthew 7, starting with verse 1: “Do not judge, or you will be judged. For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:1-5 BSB) Too many times, people misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. It is our obligation to discern between what is right and what is wrong. It would be foolish to not judge someone who has murdered another person as clearly having done something very wrong. To not speak up when someone bullies another person. To stand by and do nothing if we see someone attempting to steal from another person. We must judge one another’s actions. The problem is when we go too far and condemn the person. God wants us to distinguish between the person and the action. Here Judah is ready to sentence Tamar to death, literally, without taking into consideration her motives, her suffering, her fear. Without remembering his own deception. Without paying attention to the beam in his own eye. Listen to this wisdom from Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on this topic of judging others: “Briefly, we may say:—(1.) Judge no man unless it be a duty to do so. (2.) As far as may be, judge the offence, and not the offender. (3.) Confine your judgment to the earthly side of faults, and leave their relation to God, to Him who sees the heart. (4.) Never judge at all without remembering your own sinfulness, and the ignorance and infirmities which may extenuate the sinfulness of others.” This is where Judah is being judged by God. Judah takes none of these options into consideration. He acts like judge, jury and executioner. He tries to act like God. And this is exactly the problem with judging people’s hearts. While we can, and should, judge the acts, we do not see the depths of the heart the way God does, so only He can judge the person. Tamar quickly sends Judah this message: “‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these,’ she said. And she added, ‘See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’” (Gen 38:25) She has the evidence to convict Judah of his own wrong doing. He lied to her, did not perform his fatherly duty towards her and left her to fend for herself. He followed foreign gods and slept with a shrine prostitute. He was so quick to judge her, without giving any thought to his own sins. And he was quick to judge his brother, Joseph, too, condemning him to imprisonment or worse. Judah had to come to terms with this great sin and Prideful heart attitude. And so God brings him back to it. By God’s Grace, Judah chooses humility as he confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” (Gen 38:26) Here Judah comes face to face with “the beam in his own eye.” Judah knows he has had the wrong heart attitude towards Tamar and towards his brother. He realizes Joseph probably did not have any bad intentions. He was just sharing his dreams. It was not his fault that their father loved him best, even if, in his immaturity, he enjoyed the privilege. Judah must forgive Joseph, forgive Tamar and forgive himself. There is a big change in his heart which we will see proof of later in this unfolding story of the sons of Israel. Judah goes from wanting to kill his brother, Joseph, to stepping up to protect and wanting to take the place of his brother Benjamin. It is a lovely transformation and one we all need to make if we are to receive the redemption God has waiting for us.
Plan A. Judah’s heart is changed as God redeems him. Tamar becomes a mother and a part of the lineage of the Messiah as God redeems her. And my Friends, God is looking to redeem each of us as well. I heard a radio announcer say recently that God has a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A: we humble ourselves or Plan B we are humiliated. The truth is, since The Downfall, every human must now come to a place of humiliation so that we may decide which Plan to remain under. If like Judah, we finally become aware of, and confess our own sinful heart, we can place our trust in God, choosing humility, and be saved for all time. If we refuse. If we decide to continue living as if life is all about MMI. If we deny God. Then Plan B will be our reality for all eternity. But this is not what God wants. God would much rather each human repent, humbling ourselves so that we may return to Plan A. (please see Eze 33:11) This is what God has done through Jesus, making The Way for us to return to His original design. Let’s learn the lesson Judah did. Humility. It is a life long process. Once to be saved, but then with every decision we must make thereafter. Will we choose our will or God’s? I know I have come to many points of humiliation in my life where I come to the place where I simply decide to trust God further. When I do, I finally let go of the things that God has been trying to heal within me. I always feel freer. I always sense more peace. I always experience increased joy. And I become more and more content with life. Want that too? Then won’t you join me?
Until we meet again, keep lifting your eyes to God, He’s closer than you think.
<>< Peace, Diane