He that has made up his mind that since Joseph's story was treated in the last chapter, chapter 38 must needs continue the story, will find this chapter out of place. The heading Ge 37:2 showed that "Jacob's History" is being considered. Our portion under consideration shows a very definite angle of Jacob's History. Jacob's family was a minority group. For the present, no matter how strongly Jacob's sons may have believed in the divine destiny of their family, they were running grave danger of being submerged by the Canaanite element, making matrimonial alliances with them, adopting Canaanite ideals of life, and so being ultimately absorbed by this dominant element. For it is to be observed repeatedly that, though the Canaanites were already far inferior to Israel morally, they were very amiable and ready to establish closer contacts with the descendants of Abraham. Realizing this, we can the more readily see why a sojourn in a land like Egypt was a necessity from the Lord's point of view. For the Egyptians of old were noted for their aversion to strangers, especially to shepherds (Ge 46:34).
We are struck at the same time by the rhetorical skill of the author who makes this chapter serve the purpose of letting us feel the lapse of time after the sale of Joseph.
The events recorded in the chapter show a decline to a low moral plane. Things positively offensive to good taste are here recorded. But every attentive reader will have to admit that the manner of relating these events is calculated to produce a deeper abhorrence of sin. It is just as true to state that a remarkable impartiality pervades the entire account. Israel's past was not glorified at the expense of truth. Add to this what Luther emphasized, that these records that show the grievous faults of God's weak saints and the forgiveness they received are of great comfort to all poor sinners of our time.
1-5. And it came to pass at that time that Judah went down away from his brethren and pitched his tent near a man of Adullam, whose name was Hirah. And there Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man whose name was Shun, and he married her and went in unto her. And she conceived and bare a son and he called his name Er. Again she conceived and bore a son and she called his name Onan. Even once more she bore a son and she called his name Shelah. It happened at Chezib that she bore him.
Is there a strict sequence of time between chapters 37 and 38? It seems so. "At that time" would mean: just after Joseph had been sold into Egypt. We need not assume that only the climax of the event recorded in this chapter took place after the sale of Joseph (Strack, and many from Augustine down; also Luther). For about twenty-two years intervene between the sale of Joseph and the settlement in Egypt (13 years till Joseph's promotion plus 7 years of plenty plus 2 years of famine). Judah has time to marry, to have a son whom in his seventeenth year he gives in marriage; to have a second son whom in his eighteenth year he gives to the same wife; and two years remain for the rest of the events of this chapter. Then the items: involved fit closely together: Judah departs from his brethren in vexation over their treatment of their brother Joseph and over their hypocrisy in the sight of their father. At least some such reason for his going "away from his brethren" (me'eth echaw) is possible. His next step was wayyet 'adh ish -- yet shortened imperfect from natah, "to stretch" or "bend." This verb is to be considered as used absolutely, omitting the common object "tent," and so meaning "he pitched" (his tent), or else in the sense of "bend," i. e. "turned aside to a man of Adullam." K. W. suggests both possibilities; commentaries waver; the result is about the same in either case. Judah does approach more closely to a Canaanite man, who appears to have been friendly and welcomed the approach. "Adullam" lay in the western part of the later territory of the tribe of Judah, very likely in the foothills, the Shephelah. In place of a relative clause a co-ordinated clause is preferred: "his name Hirah" for "whose name Hirah" (K. S.351 a).
2. A further contact with Canaanites follows. A man by the name of Shua (a name meaning perhaps "opulence") has a daughter, whom Judah takes to wife. Whether resentment against his brethren had anything to do with this, or whether easygoing friendship with Canaanites lay at the bottom of it all, is hard to say. Three sons are born of this union. To the first the father gives the name; to the second and the third, the mother. As Whitelaw points, out, the giving of the name by the father is supposed to be an idiosyncrasy of the Elohist; yet this chapter is unhesitatingly assigned to J. "Er," from 'ûr, may mean "watcher" or in a theophoric sense: "God is watcher." Onan may mean "strength." Then by contrast Shelah may mean "weak," "drooping," if the lad was less robust than his brothers. Or the name may also mean "rest." At least the birthplace of the latter is definitely recorded as "Chezib," a town near Adullam. This is mentioned for the definite information of the descendants of Shelah of the tribe of Judah (Nu 26:20), that they might know their birthplace or ancestral city. Since "Chezib," or Achzib, could mean "town of lies" or "Lieham" (K. C., Lugheim), the insertion of its name as suggestive of Judah's deception in the matter of giving Shelah to Tamar is possible, yet hardly seems likely. The allusion would be too subtle. Skinner, intent upon discrediting a good text, labels the wehayah of the last clause as "impossible." The clause being a digression has no waw conversive, simply waw conjunctive (K. S.370 1).
6-10. And Judah procured a wife for Er, his first-born, and her name was Tamar. And Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the estimation of Yahweh, so Yahweh let him die. Then Judah said to Onan, go in unto thy brother's wife and marry her as brother-in-law, and raise up spring to thy brother. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his own, so it happened that each time he went in unto his brother's wife he took preventive measures so as not to give offspring to his brother. And that which he did was evil in the estimation of Yahweh, and He let him die also.
Whereas Judah had gone out to select as a wife whom he pleased, apparently he acted without consulting his father. Yet Judah selected his son's wife. Our reckoning above displayed that the son must have been comparatively young at the time. Did the father perhaps by an early marriage seek to steer his son clear of Canaanite vices in matters sexual? It would almost seem so. Er's wife's name was "Tamar," a word meaning "palm tree." They that think the Scriptures to be on the same level with folklore generally here attempt to establish a parallel between this story and the Tammuz myth or with the Babylonian Ishtar myth -- the "goddess who slays her lovers" -- but the evidence advanced by way of support of their contention is quite inconclusive.
7. But "Er was wicked in the estimation of the Lord." Specific mention is made of this wickedness. It is the direct cause for the death of Er. The modifying phrase is appended: "in the estimation (Hebrew: in the eyes') of the Lord." From this last phrase alone we should conclude that the wickedness involved called forth the heaviest divine disapproval. We conclude that it may well have been some sexual perversity, for it is mentioned in connection with Er's marriage. This man was therefore guilty, in a special sense, and "so Yahweh let him die." We find in this fact a direct indication of the truth, "the soul that sinneth, it shall die," man echo that. rings through the entire Old Testament (cf. Ge 2:17; Ps 90:7ff.; Pr 10:27).
8. The custom of levirate marriage seems to have prevailed quite universally at the time, as it is known to have been customary among many nations ancient and modern. Judah does not appear as an innovator in this instance. Levirate marriage implied that if a man had died without leaving a son, the next brother of the deceased, if unmarried, would take the widow to wife with the understanding that the first son born would carry on the line of the deceased, but all other children would be accounted his own. The Mosaic code refers to the custom De 25:5 ff. and made what had previously been a custom among such as the Israelites a divine ordinance. See a further reference in Mt 22:24. The root yabam means "brother-in-law." The Piel of the derivative verb could then be translated "marry her as brother-in-law," the ultimate purpose of course being "to raise up offspring" (Hebrew: "seed") to the brother.
9. Onan knew of this provision and intentionally prevented its realization. Selfishness may have prompted him; he did not care to preserve his brother's family. Greed may have been a concurrent motive; he desired to prevent the division of the patrimony into smaller units. But in addition to these two faults there was palpably involved the sin of a complete perversion of the purpose of marriage, that divine institution. What he did is described as "taking preventive measures." The original says: "he destroyed (i. e. the semen) to the ground." From him the extreme sexual perversion called onanism has its name. The case is revolting enough. But plain speech in this case serves as a healthy warning. Yahweh let him die even as his brother. On wayyéra' see G. K.67 p; on wayyßmeth, G. K.72 f.
11. And Judah said to Tamar, his daughterin-law: Stay a widow in thy father's house until Shelah, my son, grow up. For he said: Lest he die too like his brethren. So Tamar went and stayed in her father's house.
A peculiar situation obtains here: it rests with Judah, the father-in-law, how Tamar is to be disposed of in marriage; Tamar's temporary home, however, until such disposition is made is her father's house. Social customs prevalent at the time were the norm governing such cases. But Judah is using deceit in counselling Tamar to wait (Shebhi -- imperative from yashabh, "to sit or dwell" -- here "stay"), nor does he directly promise to give her to his son. His unexpressed thought, "lest he die too like his brethren," shows his attitude. He believed Tamar was a woman who brought bad luck. Yet, as we have just been informed, the reason for the death of the first two sons lay in their own sinfulness. Somehow the father failed to see this and instead became obsessed with a kind of superstitious notion, worthy rather of a heathen Canaanite than of a member of the chosen family. Beth is accusative of place where (G. K.118 g).
12-14. And quite a number of days passed, and the daughter of Shua, Judah's wife, died. Then when Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to his sheepshearers, he and Hirah his friend, the Adullamite, to Timnah. And it was reported to Tamer: Look, thy father-in-law hath gone up to Timnah to shear sheep. So she laid aside the garments of a widow, and covered herself with a veil, and completely disguised herself and sat down at the entrance to Enayim, which is on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah had grown up, and she was not being given to him as wife.
The Hebrew says, "and the days grew many." We should say, "quite a number of days passed." That does not mean "years," at least not many years. But for a woman destined to be married to the next son it may have seemed like quite a while. Judah's wife dies in the meantime. When he has "recovered from his grief" (wayyinnachem really means "was comforted") it happens to be the time for sheepshearing, a season of general festivity and hilarity. Since they are his own sheep that are to be sheared, he goes to the scene of their shearing to Timnah. This cannot be the Timnah down in the plain, mentioned Jos 15:10; 19:43, but must be another that lay in the mountains, mentioned Jos 15:57, as "went up" shows (Keil). Hirah, Judah's Canaanite friend (v. Ge 38:1), goes with him.
The report of what Judah is doing comes to Tamar's ears. The course that she adopts as a result perplexes us a bit. She makes calculations that seem to have but one chance in a hundred of being realized, but just that one chance is sufficient. It seems she is determined to secure offspring if she can, and if her father-in-law has thwarted her, she purposes to thwart him. Mere lust cannot be laid to her charge. On the other hand, her course is far from innocent. It almost seems as if she had calculated on two things, namely that the sheepshearing festivities would lead to conviviality and more generous drinking of wine (cf.1Sa 25:36), and, then, one is almost inclined to believe that she had heard of other escapades of Judah. Or, at least, she calculated that the widower would at such a time be peculiarly susceptible. In any case, she puts on the disguise that makes her appear as a harlot -- "a veil," (Hebrew: "the veil," the article of the customary thing for such a case, K. S.299 b), "and completely disguised herself" (Hebrew: "wrapped herself up"). Then she sat down by the wayside, as such did who plied this iniquitous trade. She chose "the entrance" (pétach, not sha'ar, "gate") of Enayim, called also Enam (Jos 15:34), "which is on the way to Timnah." Here her grievance is recorded: Shelah had grown to be as old as his brothers had been when she was given to them in marriage, and Judah was doing nothing to keep his implied promise. Without a doubt, had any stranger or any other man than Judah approached her, she would have refused them.
15-19. And Judah saw her and took her for a harlot, for she had her face covered. And he turned to her by the wayside and said: Look here, I want to go in to thee, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said: What wilt thou give me for coming in to me? And he said: I on my part will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said: If thou wilt give a pledge until thou send it. And he said: What is the pledge that I should give to thee? And she said: Thy seal, thy cord, and thy staff which is in thy hand. So he gave these to her and went in unto her; and she conceived of him. And she arose and went away and put aside her veil, and clothed herself with her widow's garments.
What Tamar had designed actually came to pass. Judah does not appear to very good advantage in this account. He seems to know altogether too well how to carry on a transaction of this sort. Since the veil merely seems to be the customary device to give herself the appearance of coyness, such as persons of this sort may use, it effectually serves the purposes of disguising Tamar. When, besides, it is indicated that Judah did not know that she was his daughter-in-law, we see that Judah surely would not have consciously made himself guilty of incest. 'El dérekh rather means "by the wayside" (K. C.) than "to the way." Some compensation should fall to the harlot's lot. She bargains as others might in such a case. The customary fee seems to have been a kid (Jud 15:1). They that suggest that in classical antiquity the goat was sacred to the goddess of love may have the correct explanation. For Canaanite standards prevail throughout this vile episode. Tamar's answer, "if thou wilt give a pledge until thou send it," is an unfinished statement, an aposiopesis, the omitted conclusion being, "I shall be satisfied." 'Erabhon, traced to a Phoenician source meaning "pledge," went over into the Greek as arrabwn.
18. Shrewdly Tamar asks for what she can use as evidence of a conclusive sort, should circumstances make it necessary: seal, cord, and staff. The "seal" (chotham) may have been a ring or even a cylinder seal, such as the Babylonians commonly used. This was always carried around upon his person by the well-to-do man, suspended by the "cord" (pethil); cf. So 8:6. The "staff" may have been like those which, according to Herodotus, the Babylonians carried, having at its head a specially carved figure of "an apple, or a rose, or a lily, or an eagle, or any such thing, for no man may carry a staff without a device," (Herodotus 1:195, cited by Delitzsch). Wattßhar anticipates the result far in advance of the sequence of the narrative. (K. S.369 c). Having achieved her purpose, Tamar lays aside her disguise and arrays herself in the garments of widowhood, which custom demanded.
20-23. And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend, the Adullamite, in order to recover the pledge from the woman's hand; and he could not find her. So he asked the men of her place, saying: Where is the sacred prostitute, the one that sat in Enayim by the wayside? And they said: There was no sacred prostitute here. So he returned to Judah and said to him: I could not find her. Furthermore, the men of the place said there was no sacred prostitute there. Then Judah said: Let her keep them for herself, lest we bring disgrace on ourselves. In any case, I sent this kid, and thou wast not able to find her.
This is the conclusion of the very regrettable tale. Judah sends his pledge. A certain shame may have led him to choose a less sensitive Canaanite to pay his whorish debts, The Adullamite seems to regard such service as a true token of friendship. It follows that very shortly after Judah's falling into her snare, she was no longer to be seen at that place, nor did she appear as a whore. Compelled to ask for her whereabouts, even the Adullamite tries to give the case a better colour by asking for the qedkeshah, "the sacred prostitute." A qedheshah, considered her debasing of herself a votive offering brought to the goddess of love, whether this was merely an occasional act or whether she was a professional (cf. Ho 4:14; De 23:18). So depraved were also the Canaanite morals. But even such a one the men of the place had not seen. Tamar had apparently waited at Enayim so short a time as to be noticed by no one. Hirah reports his failure to Judah. Judah sees the advisability of letting the matter ride and making no further inquiry, for, surely, by extensive inquiries Judah would have advertised his deed. So Judah, content to have done what lay in his power to redeem his pledge, says, "let her keep them for herself."
24-26. It came to pass after about three months that is was reported to Judah: Tamar, thy daughter-in-law, has played the harlot; and, mark, she is also pregnant as a result of her harlotry. And Judah said: Bring her forth that she may be burned. When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law and said: By the man to whom these things belong have I become pregnant. She further said: Look closely now, to whom do these things belong -- this seal, these cords, this staff? And Judah looked closely and said: She is more in the right than I, for I did not give her to Shelah, my son. And he never again had intercourse with her.
Judah is the head of the family and responsible for all that transpires in it. So even his former daughter-in-law, or, as she may also be called, his potential daughter-in-law comes under his jurisdiction. When her condition becomes apparent, it is reported to him as a grave moral offense. We consider kemishlosh as compounded of the inseparable prefix ke-minsh-elosh -- no dagesh forte in the sh, because the consonant is supported only by a Schwa.
Judah's verdict may only have been the traditional one for delinquents who were virtually betrothed. It hardly seems right to assume that Judah designed an especially rigorous punishment for her. At this point already Judah's conscience may have stirred: this would hardly have befallen Tamar had he given her to Shelah for wife. But, then, very likely he will have regarded this outcome as a convenient release from the necessity of ever giving her to his youngest son. The Mosaic law fixed the penalty of burning only for the case of a priest's daughter who had become guilty of harlotry (cf. De 22:20-24 with Le 21:9). The usual mode of execution for other cases was stoning. Here then Judah orders, "bring her forth," i. e. out of the house where she naturally would be found. The word "bring forth" has a forensic flavour. The next clause, wethissareph, "and she shall be burned," is final: "that she may be burned." The le before zenunim is a le of relation (K. S.105) -- "she is pregnant relative to her harlotries," in which plural lies an exaggeration.
25. Tamar is completely prepared for this outcome. She has reason to believe that for all his delinquencies Judah will give her fair play. So she takes Judah's three articles of pledge and sends them to him with the statement that she will not conceal the paternity of the expected child: the owner of these articles is the father. She invites Judah by messenger to look closely whose they be. For "cord," pethil, Tamar uses the plural pethilim, perhaps because of the several strands twisted together to make the stronger cord. Meek translates "seal," chothémeth, as "signet ring." Should the chothémeth actually have been a seal cylinder, this rendering would not fit. This verse begins with a participle and continues with waw conversive with the finite verb (K. S.412n).
26. Judah is taken under circumstances that make evasion impossible. Most likely he would not have attempted evasion anyhow. The mysterious qedheshah of three months ago suddenly stands revealed very clearly. Judah is not ignorant of Tamar's guilt in the case, but his own is double: refusal of Shelah and illicit whoredom. He makes a manly confession. To word this confession "she hath been more righteous than I" (A. V.) sounds too much as though two relatively righteous persons are being compared. Therefore we prefer a rendering like Meek's, "she is more in the right than I." Judah seems to see that the guilt involved is not hers, especially since he himself did her the wrong of refusing the son promised as a husband. After such incestuous connection it was right neither for Judah nor for his son to have her. A notice covering this case closes this part of the episode. We cannot support the statement that claims: (the author) "presents Judah's behaviour in as favourable a light as possible, suggesting extenuating circumstances for what could not be altogether excused; and regards that of Tamar as a glory to her tribe." Many of us from the days of our earliest youth in reading this account have had the impression which later years has but deepened that Judah and Tamar are both represented as guilty of a grievous, yea, even a shocking, moral lapse. The extenuating circumstances applying to the cases of both are also truthfully recorded by the sacred writer.
K. S. has an unusual translation for tsadheqah min: sie hat ein Uebergewicht yon Momenten der Normalitaet. However, since tsedhaqah, the root involved, means "normalcy," this seemingly cumbersome translation is really quite accurate (K. S.308 b). The expression ki-'al-ken is not to be rendered "for on that account," as many still claim. For, as K. W. has demonstrated, a kind of popular pleonasm is involved -- 'al ken is really only an amplied ki or "for."
27-30. And it came to pass at the time of birth, lo, there were twins in her womb. And it happened in birth that one put out a hand and the midwife took it and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying: This one came out first. Then it happened that he drew back his hand, and lo, his brother came out. And she said: How you have forged your way through! And they called his name Perez (forging through). And afterwards his brother came out, upon whose hand was the scarlet thread. And they called his name Zerach.
This conclusion of the chapter records what would be of interest to the descendants of Judah, the birth of Tamar's twin sons. In v.28 wayyitten yadh is an instance of an indefinite subject: "one put out a hand" (G. K.144 a). Apparently, the midwife's only reason for using a scarlet thread to mark this one was because it happened to be conveniently at hand and certainly could serve as an identification tag. It naturally would be anticipated that he would be born first. Such, however, was not the case. Of course, to have a hand emerge is an indication that delivery is not about to be perfectly normal. When his brother preceded him who first put out the hand, he was greeted by the midwife with the remark: "How you have forged your way through" -- an expression of wonder, for which the Hebrew idiom says: "How hast thou breached a breach (parßtsta pérets) for thyself" -- a cognate object, not as A. V. has: "How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee," a rendering which like Luther's (solchen Riss getan) involves the idea of causing a serious rent or rupture. The rendering used above is copied from Meek. Again the two verbs (v.29 and 30) wayyiqra' ("and he called") involve the indefinite subject and may be rendered "and they called." "Perez" means "forging through" rather than "breach." What "Zerah" means we do not know; it hardly means "scarlet."
Criticism regards the chapter as a whole "a pure specimen of Yahwistic narration." Phrases that have been discovered as common to the sections ascribed to J and also exclusively used by him are cited as proof for this claim: "evil in the sight of" (v. Ge 38:7,10), "come now" (v. Ge 38:16), "for therefore" (v. Ge 38:26), "Yahweh" (v.7, 10). This exclusive use is purely accidental, however, even as it is unreasonable to suppose that such common stock terms should be stylistic peculiarities. "Yahweh" is used in v.7 and 10 because God is thought of as the covenant God of Abraham, who watches over the moral integrity of His chosen people.
Entirely unsuited to homiletical use, much as the devout Bible student may glean from the chapter.