Genesis 38
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 38

The contents of this chapter are derived from J. The narrative forms an abrupt interruption of the Joseph story. The subject-matter is peculiarly unattractive; but the insertion of the section at this point is probably due to the desire to give prominence to the position of Judah among the sons of Jacob.

The story of Judah and Tamar conceivably resembles that of Simeon and Levi in chap. 34, and that of Reuben in Genesis 35:21 f., in that it may be regarded as symbolizing tribal relations rather than as recording personal history. The daughter of Shua, the wife of Judah, is of Canaanite origin (Genesis 38:2-3). She represents the assimilation of Canaanite clans into the clans of the tribe of Judah. If this view be correct, then the primary object of the narrative is to preserve the tradition which connected leading families from the border races, e.g. Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38:29-30), with the great tribe of Judah. We may also possibly see a subordinate object in the record of the tradition of a pre-Mosaic origin for the institution of the levirate marriage.

1–11.  Judah’s wife and three sons.

12–26.  Tamar and Judah.

27–30.  The birth of Perez and Zerah.

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.
1. at that time] Cf. Genesis 21:22. The notes of time in this chapter are very indefinite. Cf. 12, “in process of time.” The marriage of Judah with the daughter of Shua, the birth of his three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, and the marriage of the first two with Tamar, evidently represent a long interval.

Adullamite] Judah moved from the high ground near Hebron to the lower, i.e. southern, country. The town of Adullam (Joshua 12:15; Joshua 15:35) is now identified with the ruins ‘Aid-el-mâ, 17 miles S.W. of Jerusalem and about 12 N.W. from Hebron. See 1 Samuel 22:1.

Judah and Simeon in Jdg 1:1-20 are represented as acting by themselves, and their names do not appear in Deborah’s Song commemorating the patriotism of the Israelite tribes.

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
2. Shua] Note that “Shua,” like Hirah in Genesis 38:1, is the name of a man. See Genesis 38:12. Bath-Shua, i.e. “the daughter of Shua,” is all the description given of Judah’s wife.

And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
3. and he called] Better, “And she called his name Er.” The mother calls the name, as in Genesis 38:4. The reading “she called” is found in some Heb. MSS., Sam. and Targ. Jer. “Er” and “Onan,” see Genesis 46:12.

And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
5. Chezib] The same name as Achzib in Joshua 15:44.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
6. Tamar] = “a date palm.” A female name, occurring twice in the family of David (2 Samuel 13:1; 2 Samuel 14:27).

Judah, as head of the family, selects a wife for his firstborn, as in Genesis 24:3, Genesis 34:4.

And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
8. perform] The first instance of the “levirate” (Lat. lêvir, “brother-in-law”) law which made it obligatory for a surviving brother to marry the widow of his brother, if the latter should die childless. See Deuteronomy 25:5; Matthew 22:24. The eldest son of a levirate marriage succeeded to the deceased’s name and inheritance.

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.
And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
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.
11. in thy father’s house] A widow without children went back to her father’s family; cf. Leviticus 22:13; Ruth 1:8. A widow with children remained in the family of her husband, and under its protection. Judah evidently believes that the deaths of Er and Onan are somehow due to Tamar. Rather, then, than subject his youngest son Shelah to the risk of a similar fate, he sends Tamar back to her own people, on the pretext that Shelah is too young at present to perform the levirate duty. Compare the story in Tobit 3, where Sarah’s seven husbands are cut off in succession.

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.
12–26. Tamar and Judah

12. Timnah] Possibly the same as in Joshua 15:10; Joshua 15:57; Jdg 14:1.

And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
13. shear his sheep] Sheep-shearing was an occasion of festivity, and often of licentiousness. See note on Genesis 31:19. Cf. 1 Samuel 25:2 ff.; 2 Samuel 13:23 f.

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.
14. And she put off, &c.] The neglect on Judah’s part to satisfy the requirements of the levirate rule provoked Tamar to have recourse to trickery. To our moral sense such conduct is bad and disgusting. But to Orientals, whose life depended so largely upon the sanctity of racial customs, her action may have seemed not only entertaining in its cleverness, but even honourable and justifiable in its devotion to a deceased husband’s rights.

her veil] Tamar apparelled herself in the guise of a religious prostitute (ḳedêshah, Genesis 38:21), one who dedicated herself to the goddess Astarte, the Babylonian Istar. The veil was one of the symbols of Istar.

in the gate of Enaim] i.e. in the open space at the entrance into the town. The name of the town means “wells,” possibly Enam, mentioned in Joshua 15:34, in the same context with Adullam.

by the way] i.e. on “the way side” (Genesis 38:21): see Jeremiah 3:2; Ezekiel 16:15-25.

When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
15. covered her face] Cf. Proverbs 7:10. The attire indicated the character she had assumed.

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?
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?
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.
18. signet … cord … staff] The signet ring is frequently worn by Arabs on a cord fastened round the neck. Cf. Song of Solomon 8:6, “set me as a seal upon thine heart.” The signet ring and the staff, which was often carved and highly ornamented, would be the most personal possessions of a Sheikh, and, as pledges, a most certain means of identification. This astute manoeuvre is the turning-point of the whole story.

And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
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.
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.
21. harlot] Heb. ḳedêshah, that is, a woman dedicated to impure heathen worship: see Deuteronomy 23:17; Hosea 4:14. The Heb. word denotes “a woman dedicated to the service of some god, or goddess.” Her dedication consisted in the sacrifice of her chastity. This repulsive and strangely degrading custom prevailed generally among Semitic races, and was associated with the impure and immoral rites of the Phoenician, Syrian, and Babylonian worship.

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.
And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
23. Let her take it to her] i.e. let her retain the pledges, lest by making enquiries Judah should be exposed to shame.

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.
24. let her be burnt] Judah, as the head of the family, acts as judge having power of life and death, cf. Genesis 31:32. It is remarkable that the matter is not referred to Jacob; but, presumably, this story constitutes a separate tribal tradition, in which Judah stands as the chief authority.

Judah sentences her to death as an adulteress. He treats her as the betrothed of Shelah, and the childless widow of Er. The penalty for adultery in the Levitical law was death by stoning (cf. Leviticus 20:10 with Deuteronomy 22:22; Ezekiel 16:40; John 8:5). Death by burning, the penalty of a priest’s daughter, Leviticus 21:9, was the more ancient usage. The penalty of burning is recorded in the Code of Hammurabi; and occurs in ancient Egyptian sentences for adultery.

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.
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.
26. more righteous] Judah acknowledges that Tamar had a claim upon the observance of marriage customs, and that he had done wrong in neglecting her, and in ignoring the sacred obligations of tribal “levirate” marriage, upon which depended the very existence of an Oriental community. The Heb. verb means “to be right, to have right on one’s side”; and Judah’s words might be rendered “she is in her rights as against me” (cf. Davidson’s Theology of the O.T., p. 267).

And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
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.
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.
27–30. Birth of Perez and Zerah

29. Wherefore hast, &c.] How hast thou made a breach! a breach be upon thee!

Perez] That is, a breach. For Perez, see Ruth 4:12; Ruth 4:18.

And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
30. Zerah] A word which probably meant “the rising of the sun”; but was apparently in popular etymology connected with a word meaning “scarlet.” See, for Zerah, an Edomite, Genesis 36:13; Genesis 36:17; Genesis 36:33.

In this narrative we may discern a reminiscence of a time in which the clans of Ex and Onan disappeared from the tribe of Judah; while those of Perez and Zerah, connected with native Canaanites, became incorporated with it, but were rivals with one another, Zerah, though the more ancient, being obliged to yield to the greater vigour of Perez.

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