Genesis 38
Matthew Poole's Commentary
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.
Judah marries a Canaanitish woman, who bears him three sons, Genesis 38:1-5. He marries his eldest son to Tamar, Genesis 38:6. He being wicked is slain by God, Genesis 38:7. The second son is commanded to marry her, Genesis 38:8. His wickedness, Genesis 38:9; and death, Genesis 38:10. He promises her his third son, but performs not, Genesis 38:11. She by a subtle practice commits incest with him, Genesis 38:13. He gives her a pledge, Genesis 38:18. She is found with child; Judah commands her to be burnt, Genesis 38:24. She brings to her father the pledge, Genesis 38:25. He acknowledges it; acquits her, and condemns himself, Genesis 38:26. She brings forth two sons, Genesis 38:27-30.

This story is not without difficulty, if we consider how little time is allowed for all the events of this chapter, there being not above twenty-three years between Judah’s marriage and the birth of Pharez, yea, and the birth of his sons too, Hezron and Hamul, who are said to go into Egypt with Jacob, Genesis 46:12. But there are two ways proposed for the resolution of it, as the phrase, at that time, may be understood two ways; either,

1. More largely, for the time since Jacob’s return from Padan to Canaan, and so the history may be conceived thus, Judah was married some years before the selling of Joseph, though it be here mentioned after it, and so out of its place, as being the foundation of all the following events, which are here placed together, because they followed the selling of Joseph. Judah, and Er, and Onan, and afterwards Pharez, are supposed each to marry and have a child at fourteen years old, which, though unusual, wants not examples both in sacred and profane writers. And they that will quarrel with the Scripture, and question its authority for some such uncustomary occurrences which it relates, show more of impiety than wisdom in it, and shall do well to consider, that God might so order things by his providence, and record such things in his word, upon the same account on which he hath put several other difficult passages in Scripture, partly to try and exercise men’s faith, humility, and modesty; and partly to punish the evil minds of ungodly men, and for their sins to lay an occasion of stumbling and cavilling at the Scriptures before them that greedily seek and gladly catch at all such occasions. Or,

2. More strictly, for the time following the sale of Joseph, which seems the more probable way, and so the story lies thus, Judah was now about twenty years old when he married, and the three first years he hath three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. The two first marry each when they were about seventeen years old. Three years after both their deaths, and when Shelah had been marriageable a year or two, and was not given to Tamar, Judah lies with Tamar and begets upon her Pharez. But as for Hezron and Hamul, they are said to go into Egypt with Jacob, as also Benjamin’s ten sons are said to go with him thither, to wit, in their father’s loins, because they were begotten by their father in Egypt, whilst Jacob lived there, of which more in its proper place.

Judah went down from his brethren; probably in discontent, upon occasion of quarrels arisen among them about the selling of Joseph, whereof Judah was a great promoter, if not the first mover.

A certain Adullamite, of the city of Adullam; of which see Joshua 12:15 15:35.

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
He married her against the counsel and example of his parents. But when Judah had committed so great a crime as the selling of his brother, and God had forsaken him, no wonder he adds one sin to another.

Shuah was the name, not of the daughter, but of her father, Genesis 38:12.

And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
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And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
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And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
Chezib; a place near Adullam, called also Achzib, Joshua 19:29 Micah 1:14.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
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And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
Wicked in the sight of the Lord, i.e. notoriously wicked. Compare Genesis 10:9 13:13.

The Lord slew him, in some extraordinary and remarkable manner, as Genesis 38:10.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
This, as also divers other things, was now instituted and observed amongst God’s people, and afterwards was expressed in a written law, Deu 25:5,6. See also Numbers 36:6,7 Rth 1:11 Matthew 22:24.

Raise up seed to thy brother; beget a child which may have thy brother’s name and inheritance, and may be reputed as his child. So it was with the first child, but the rest were reputed his own.

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.
Two things are here noted:

1. The sin itself, which is here particularly described by the Holy Ghost, that men might be instructed concerning the nature and the great evil of this sin of self-pollution, which is such that it brought upon the actor of it the extraordinary vengeance of God, and which is condemned not only by Scripture, but even by the light of nature, and the judgment of heathens, who have expressly censured it as a great sin, and as a kind of murder. Of which see my Latin Synopsis. Whereby we may sufficiently understand how wicked and abominable a practice this is amongst Christians, and in the light of the gospel, which lays greater and stricter obligations upon us to purity, and severely forbids all pollution both of flesh and spirit.

2. The cause of this wickedness; which seems to have been either hatred of his brother, or envy at his brother’s name and honour, springing from the pride of his own heart.

And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Displeased the Lord; an expression noting a more than ordinary offence against God, as 2 Samuel 11:27. This just but dreadful severity of God is noted both for the terror of such-like transgressors, and to provoke love and thankfulness to God in those whom he useth more indulgently.

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.
At thy father’s house, whither he sent her from his house, that Shelah might not be insnared by her presence and conversation. So he dismissed her with a pretence of kindness, and a tacit promise of marriage to her, which he never intended to keep, as the following words imply; for he said; or rather, but he said; for the Hebrew chi oft signifies but, as Genesis 45:8 Psalm 37:20 Ecclesiastes 2:10 6:2. So here is an opposition between what he said to Tamar, and what he said to himself, or in his own heart, as that word said is oft used: he intimated to her that he would give Shelah to her, but he meant otherwise, and said in himself, I will not do it,

lest peradventure he die also as his brethren did; 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.

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.
In process of time, when many days had passed, and Shelah, though grown, was not given to Tamar,

Judah went up unto his sheep-shearers, to feast and rejoice with them at that time, as the manner was then and afterwards. See 1 Samuel 25:36.

Timnath; a place not far from Adullam; of which see Joshua 15:57.

And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
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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.
Covered her with a vail, as harlots used to do in those modester ages of the world, when they had not learnt to outface the sun, nor to glory in their villanies.

In an open place, where she night be soonest discovered by passengers. This is noted as the practice of harlots, Proverbs 7:12 9:14 Jeremiah 3:2 Ezekiel 16:24,25.

When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
And was doubtless careful not to discover herself by her voice.

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?
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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?
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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.
Thy bracelets, or handkerchief, or girdle, or any other ornament made of twisted thread, which the Hebrew word signifies. God so ordering things by his providence, that his sin might be discovered. And this and other such horrid crimes committed sometimes by the patriarchs, and other eminent persons, it hath pleased God for divers wise and holy reasons to leave upon record, partly, to discover how great and deep the corruption of man’s nature is, and that even in the best; partly, to oblige all men to a humble sense of their own infirmity, and to a diligent application of themselves to God for his gracious succours, and to a greater circumspection and watchfulness to prevent those evils in themselves; partly, to encourage even the greatest sinners to repentance and the hope of pardon; and partly, for the just punishment and obduration of incorrigible sinners, who make such sad examples matter of their delight and imitation.

And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
Note, that fornication was esteemed sinful and shameful amongst the heathens.

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.
Bring her forth to the magistrate, from whom she may receive her sentence and deserved punishment. Judah had not the power of life and death, at least not over her, who was a Canaanite, and who was not in his, but in her own father’s house. But he being a person of great estate and authority, and, as it seems, of obliging conversation, could do very much to persuade those who then had the power of the sword, either to draw it forth, at least in a just cause, on his behalf, or to sheath it upon his desire and satisfaction.

Let her be burnt, as guilty of adultery, which was punished with death by the laws of God, Deu 22:23,24, and of nations too, Jeremiah 29:22,23. He chargeth her with adultery, because she was betrothed to Shelah. See Deu 22:23. This eagerness of Judah proceeded not from zeal of justice, for then he would not have endeavoured to destroy the innocent child with the guilty mother, against God’s law, Deu 24:16 Ezekiel 18:20, but from worldly policy, that he might take her out of the way, which he esteemed a burden and a blot to his family.

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.
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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.
His guilty conscience, and the horror of so foul a fact, together with his sudden surprisal, forced him to an ingenuous confession, whereas he might have used many pretences and evasions, which would easily have prevailed with such partial judges.

She hath been more righteous than I. She was more unchaste, because she knowingly committed adultery and incest, when he designed neither; but he was more unjust, because he was the cause of her sin, both by withholding Shelah from her, who was hers both by right and by Judah’s promise, and by whom her chastity should have been preserved; and by his solicitation and encouragement of her to the sin.

He knew her again no more; showing the sincerity of his confession by his forsaking of the sin confessed. See Job 34:32. And it may be probably concluded, that he neither knew her nor any other woman afterward, because there is no mention of any child which he had after this time.

And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
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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.
The midwife bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, in token of his being the first-born, which she confidently expected he would be.

This breach be upon thee, be imputed to thee, as the same phrase is taken Genesis 16:5.

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.
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And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
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Matthew Poole's Commentary

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