Commentary on Genesis 38

Last updated: November 13, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. 4She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.

6And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. 8Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. 11Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

12In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

20When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21And 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.” 22So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.'” 23And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”

24About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.

27When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

Notes

1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

We should notice immediately that this account creates a problem chronologically. According to the time span in the Joseph sequence, Joseph is sold when he is seventeen (37:2), is elevated when he is thirty (41:46), and is thirty-nine when Jacob and the family move to Egypt (45:6). This gives a space of twenty-two years. In that same time span, Judah leaves the family, finds a wife and marries her, and has three children by her. These sons grow up, and the oldest gets married. When he dies, his widow marries the second and he dies. After a time, Tamar gets pregnant by Judah and has twins. They grow up, get married, and have children, two of whom are in the group that goes down to Egypt (46:12). This requires two generations to be born, grow up, and have children of their own. Even if we assume that the males become fathers at the tender age of fifteen, this sequence would take at least thirty-five years – and that does not take account of the “after a long time” in 38:12.

U. Cassuto addresses this problem in detail and begins with several acute observations. First he notes that not all of the names given in the list in Genesis 46 go down to Egypt – notably, Judah’s sons Er and Onan (who have died, 46:12), and Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who are born in Egypt (46:20). Cassuto contends that the sons of Perez, Hezron and Hamul (46:12), should be included in that number. He constructs a case that they have not actually been born yet when the journey is made to Egypt but are included in Genesis 46 because they eventually take the place of Er and Onan through the levirate laws. This helps resolve the tension that now only one generation has to be born, grow up, and have children in the course of Genesis 38.

According to Cassuto’s calculations, if Judah left, married, and had sons in short order, his family could be in place by the time Joseph is twenty or twenty-one. If Er was married when he was eighteen, Joseph would be thirty-six, and the time of plenty would be in its sixth year. If Er and Onan both die in their first year of marriage and Tamar waits for one additional year for Shelah, we reach the first year of famine. It is perhaps at this juncture that the brothers make their first trip to Egypt. Then Tamar’s masquerade, her pregnancy, and the birth of the twins can come between the two trips. Consequently, this narrative is reaching its climax just as the Joseph story also reaches the climax of Joseph’s revealing himself to his brothers.1

Adullam is usually identified with Tell esh-Sheikh Madkhur in the Judean foothills northwest of Hebron (1 Samuel 22:1; Micah 1:15).2

5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.

Chezib is the same as Akzib (Joshua 15:44; Micah 1:14), three miles west of Adullam and a place later settled by members of the Shelanite clan (1 Chronicles 4:21-22).3

7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.

In Hebrew, the word translated “wicked” is the name “Er” spelled backwards, thus creating a wordplay.4 Er’s sin is not stated but the verse makes it clear the he deserved to die.

8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.”

In the ancient Near East, the levirate marriage laws required that if a woman’s husband died without offspring his brother should bear a child by her in order to continue the dead brother’s line.

9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.

What Onan did, or refused to do, was so serious a breach of duty that it cost him his life. His action of wasting his semen is compounded by a series of sins. First, Onan refused to carry out his levirate responsibilities. The method he used to evade these responsibilities is wasting his seed. Second, he persistently failed to expedite these responsibilities. V. 9 does not isolate one incident by Onan, but refers to repeated offenses by him. The syntax of v. 9 does not refer to one time “when” Onan had sex with Tamar, but to whenever he had sex with her. Third, Onan put his own interests ahead of Tamar and Tamar’s future child. Num. 27:8-11 states that if a man dies without a son, then his inheritance is to pass to his daughter; if he has no daughter, then the inheritance is to pass to his brothers. Onan apparently does not want to father a son who will prevent him from receiving his deceased brother’s inheritance. Fourth, what makes Onan’s sin so offensive is that he appears to undertake his responsibility, but he fakes it. He does not say, “No, I will not have sex with my sister-in-law.” Tamar does not remove Onan’s shoe and expectorate in his face. Onan does sleep with Tamar, begins intercourse, but then withdraws. Such subterfuge does not escape Yahweh’s notice.5

11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

When Judah directs Tamar to live as a “widow,” he is speaking of her chastity, for without a male protector (husband, son, brother, father-in-law) she had no automatic provision of a sexual partner in the family guaranteeing her a husband and eventually a child. By returning to her “father’s house,” Judah suspends his immediate supervision of Tamar, leaving it again to her father and male relatives to protect and provide (e.g., Lev 22:13; cf. as a brother, Absalom’s care of Tamar, 2 Sam 13:20). But by living as a widow she cannot go outside the bounds of Judah’s family to marry unless he releases her. If released she may seek out another husband or pursue a profession. If not, she must await the next eligible male, Shelah. Thus Judah’s directive, coupled with his refusal to yield Shelah, meant a life-long barrenness. She evidently remained under his watch care since Judah exercised authority over her fate after the discovery of her pregnancy.6

12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

Tamar bides her time until Judah’s wife is dead. For one thing she has no interest in ruining and defaming the marriage of her in-laws. For another thing, she knows that Judah is more sexually vulnerable now that he is a widower.7

“Sheeping-shearing” was a lively festival (cf. 1 Sam 25:2-37; 2 Sam 13:23-28), when wine was freely consumed. If Judah was already under the influence, it might help to explain why he did not penetrate Tamar’s disguise. “Timna” is a village in the Shephelah on the border of the tribes of Judah and Dan (Josh 15:10), the scene of Samson’s exploits (Judg 14:1-5). Z. Kallai identifies it with Tel el Batashi about four miles west-northwest of Beth-Shemesh. Some commentators hold that another Timnah in the southern part of the tribal territory of Judah (Josh 15:57) is meant, but this does not fit so well with the location of Enayim, here described as on the road to Timnah (38:14), which is in the northern part of Judah’s territory (Josh 15:34).8

15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.

Most translations understand v. 15b as causal: “Judah assumed she was a whore, since [so JB, NAB; cf. AV “because”; RSV, NIV “for”] she had veiled her face.” But there is little evidence that prostitutes in Canaan wore veils. Two references, Hos. 2:4 (Eng. 2) and Cant. 1:7, might support this idea. In the first text, Hosea’s wife Gomer is exhorted “to remove her harlotry (or promiscuity, zenuneyha) from her face.” This is more likely a reference to makeup rather than to veils. We do know that prostitutes painted their faces, especially around the eyes (Jer. 4:30; Ezek. 23:40). The second text is Cant. 1:7, which M. Pope translates: “Tell me, my true love, Where do you pasture? Where do you fold at noon? Lest I be as one veiled [keoteya] Among your comrades’ flocks.” Pope suggests that the beloved in the Song is concerned that she will appear to be a (veiled) prostitute, if she has to wander around looking for her beloved. This is not, however, the only possible interpretation of Cant. 1:7. For example, the veil might be a sign of mourning (e.g., 2 Sam. 15:30), not harlotry. Several ancient versions (Pesh., Vulg., Symm.) suggest the reading “Lest I be a wanderer” (reading ketoim, i.e., transposing the and t). The NEB reads “lest I be left off picking lice”!9

I propose that Tamar’s wearing of the veil was not to make Judah think she was a prostitute. Rather it was intended to prevent him from recognizing her. It is not the veil but Tamar’s positioning herself at Enaim (v. 14) that made her appear to be a prostitute.10

18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him.

The seal was used to identify personal possessions and for sealing and legitimating clay documents. A cord passed through it so that it could be worn around the neck. The staff may have been a walking stick or a symbol of authority in his clan. All these objects were important symbols of Judah’s identity.

20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her.

Presumably the Adullamite friend is Hirah (vv 1, 12).

21 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.”

In asking the townsmen about Tamar’s whereabouts, Hirah does not say: “Where is the prostitute [zona]?” Instead, he asks: Where is the cult prostitute [qedesa]? They respond that there never has been a qedesa in their locality. Why does Gen. 38 refer to Tamar by two words, prostitute (v. 15) and cult prostitute? The purpose is certainly not to elevate Judah’s behavior from sleeping with a street prostitute to engaging in ritual fornication with a woman (“a holy one”) who is a temple servant and devotee. Note that the narrator reports that Judah thought she was a prostitute (v. 15), but when he relates the conversation of Canaanites with each other (v. 21), he puts in their mouths the designation “cult prostitute.” In other words, what the narrator called a “prostitute” was in the local idiom a “cult prostitute.” Vv. 21-22 are told, then, from the point of view of Hirah and the Enaimites. Furthermore, a passage like Duet. 23:18-19 (Eng. 17-18), which collocates qedesa and zona, suggests that the terms are related but not necessarily synonymous. The two terms are also parallel in Hos. 4:14.

It is unlikely that Hirah would suppose that the woman who made herself available nowhere near any temple was a cult prostitute. Thus it is dubious that Tamar ever intended to pass herself off as anything more than a prostitute. There would certainly be no reason to laugh at a person (see Judah’s concern in v. 23 about being ridiculed) who had engaged in sexual congress with a hierodule of the Canaanite cult. In order to be as polite as possible to the townspeople, Hirah used a euphemism. In private or plain speech Tamar is a prostitute. In public or polite speech Tamar is a “cult prostitute.”11

23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”

Judah would rather leave the pledged items with Tamar than conduct an all-out search for them. At this point their recovery would be more of a loss than a gain. It is clear that Judah’s main concern is that he not become the butt of jokes, a laughingstock (labuz) because a street prostitute has outwitted him and taken advantage of him. buz usually connotes something like “scorn, shame, contempt,” but here it means “a laughingstock.” Judah’s continued search among the townsmen for “the prostitute” and the pledged items she holds would only broadcast how she had tricked him. It is not wise to advertise one’s follies. Judah is also concerned that Hirah know that Judah is not trying to get something for nothing (v. 23c). He feels constrained to remind Hirah that he did send him with payment to the woman.12

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”

Tamar was in effect betrothed to Shelah and therefore should not have had intercourse with anyone else. Her pregnancy suggests to Judah that she is guilty of adultery.

25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”

The most obvious parallel between the stories of Tamar and Joseph is found in 38:25-26, “’Please identify this ring’ . . . Judah identified them,” which precisely echoes 37:32-33, “’Please identify whether it is your son’s tunic or not.’ He identified it.” Just as in the episode of Joseph’s tunic, an element of divine justice is apparent. Jacob had deceived his father Isaac. He in turn was deceived by his son Judah, and now Judah himself is deceived by his daughter-in-law. In all three episodes, goats and items of dress are used in the deception.13

26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.

Judah’s remark did not mean necessarily that her action was approved; rather, Judah acknowledged that her motivation was consistent with the purpose of levirate marriage, whereas Judah had attempted to circumvent the custom.14

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb.

These twins recall the twins Jacob and Esau. In both cases the twins compete for who will be born first.

28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.”

The thread was to mark who was the firstborn, in this case Zerah. Apparently the midwife knew twins were expected or there would be no need for the thread.

29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez.

Perez means “break through.”15 It is noteworthy that he is the ancestor of David and Jesus.

30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

Zerah means “shining, brightness.”16

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Walton, Genesis, 667.

2Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 366.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 436.

6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 706.

7Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 439.

8Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 368.

9Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 441-442.

10Ibid., 442-443.

11Ibid., 446-447.

12Ibid., 448.

13Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 364.

14Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 723.

15Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 369.

16Ibid.

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