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For New King James text and comment, click here.
Genesis 38-40 Listen
Another important struggle between wombmates (Genesis 38)
1 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.
2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
9 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.
10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
11 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.
12 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.
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
14 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.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
16 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?
17 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?
18 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.
19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
20 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.
21 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.
22 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.
23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
24 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.
25 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.
26 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.
27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
28 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.
29 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.
30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
This story is most interesting, although it is not immediately apparent why it is included in the Genesis account. Let's establish that right now; Pharez (aka Phares, aka Perez), the son born out of this incident, is an ancestor of King David and Jesus, the Messiah. Had it not been for the actions of Tamar, Judah's line might have been terminated; that's why this story is so significant.
Verse 1 shows us that this incident began to unfold about the same time as the events in Joseph's life between chapters 37 and 39. We know Joseph to be 17 years old at the end of chapter 37 according to Genesis 37:2. We further know from the sequence of the births of Jacob's children that Judah was about three years older than Joseph (see notes on Genesis 30 regarding Jacob's children), making him about 20 years old or so. Since the family moved into Egypt approximately 22 years later (when Joseph was 39; see notes on Genesis 45:1-28), that means that these events took place over the 22 years when Judah was between the ages of approximately 20 to 42.
This story begins with an undesirable marriage - Judah to a Canaanite woman. Ooooo...based upon family history, you know that Jacob and Leah couldn't have been too keen on that union. Who can forget Isaac's word to his son, Jacob, in Genesis 28:1 (see notes) when he flatly commanded him, "Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan."
So, Judah had his first son, Er; he married him off to a woman named Tamar. Er died at the hand of the Lord because of excessive wickedness (verse 7). Judah told his second son Onan to assist by helping Tamar conceive so Er would have a descendant in his name, a practice that was later included in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, see notes); it is known as "levirate marriage." Onan took the free pass for personal pleasure, but intentionally withdrew at the critical moment for the express purpose of not allowing Tamar to conceive a child; God considered this a wicked act and slew him also.
Why did Onan do it? Actually, while the text doesn't say, it's really quite simple to venture a pretty solid guess here. Remember the valuable blessing of the firstborn? His dead brother, Er, was the firstborn of Judah, and Tamar's son, though to be conceived with the help of Onan, would have still been Er's son, not his own. Onan must have considered that if he held out with Tamar, the firstborn grandson of Judah would be his own son by his own wife. Moreover, Onan would have been responsible for Tamar's son's support to adulthood.
Judah promised Tamar that his third son would do the surrogate job when he matured, but he failed to keep his promise after his son was grown. Judah later referred to his failure to follow through with his commitment to her as an act of unrighteousness when he says of Tamar in verse 26, "...She hath been more righteous than I..."
Tamar takes matters into her own hands. As she waits for Judah to fulfill his promise to her with regard to his youngest son, it becomes obvious to her that he has forgotten. Since Judah had sent Tamar back to live with her own father in the meantime, she was not in Judah's daily view to remind him of his promise. After the death of Judah's Canaanite wife, Shuah, he goes up to where they are shearing his sheep - perhaps his first outing as a widower. While out with the boys, he decides to seek comfort from a local prostitute. Here's the twist; Tamar knew that the only way she could legitimately bear an heir was in the name of her deceased husband, Judah's oldest son. She therefore poses as a prostitute and has relations with Judah himself. She does it to bear a son; he does it exclusively for pleasure.
At this point, she is still considered family property and had not been released by Judah to marry someone else. He doesn't realize with whom he has just been so very intimate. She's smart though - gets a security deposit for the transaction - items that are indisputably the property of Judah. The Hebrew word for "pledge" used in verses 17, 18 and 20 is "ar-aw-bone´." It's actually only used these three times in all of the Old Testament. Yet, it is transliterated into Greek in three New Testament passages and translated "earnest" [of the Spirit]. For more information on the usage of this word in the New Testament, click here.
When it is told Judah that Tamar is pregnant, the solution is simple in his mind (verse 24); "Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." That's enough to give in-laws a bad name. Hey! Hang on a minute Judah! Wait 'til you find out who the father's gonna be! Well, all right then, let the children be born! At birth, isn't it interesting that here's yet another struggle between two wombmates vying for the right to become the firstborn? Remember Jacob and Esau? Even though Zarah gets a hand out first and gets tagged, Pharez doesn't give up and manages to beat his brother out to win the highly-esteemed privilege of being "the firstborn." And that's how Pharez came into life; he was the ancestor of King David and Jesus, the Messiah. And that's why this amusing story is so vital to Jewish history. Come to think of it, didn't Grandpa Jacob use a disguise to fool his father back in Genesis 27 (see notes)?
But wait! There's more - an issue even larger than the ancestry of King David. God had made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that the land of Canaan would be their possession - not the Canaanites. You will recall that Abraham and then Isaac took great measures to make certain their sons did not marry Canaanite women. When Judah married a woman of Canaan (verse 2), as Jacob's oldest unblemished son, he threatened to invalidate that promise. While he wasn't the oldest son (he was actually #4), he was the oldest who had not committed an atrocious act. However, Tamar's son by Judah served to skip the generation that included the descendent of the Canaanite woman with the blessing of the firstborn. Certainly that is why this narrative is so very significant in Jewish history. For more information on the blessings/curses on Judah's three older brothers, click here to read Jacob's blessings/curses on them in Genesis 49. As a result of Tamar's actions, Judah's eldest son has NO Canaanite blood, despite the fact that Judah had married a Canaanite woman through whom his other sons had been born.
Now...it may seem like what Tamar did was dishonest. However, she really just managed to secure the right of the firstborn for her son which had been promised to her by Judah many years earlier. Isn't it interesting that she used trickery to get what was rightfully hers just as Jacob and his mother Rebekah had done with Isaac a few decades earlier in Genesis 27 (see notes).
Then there's this other interesting twist to the story - the order of the births of Pharez and his twin brother Zarah. While being delivered, Zarah stuck his hand out first and was marked with a scarlet thread by the midwife. He subsequently pulled his hand back in and his brother, Pharez, actually ended up being born first. That surprised the midwife and she exclaimed, "How hast thou broken forth?" As a result of this exclamation, he was named Pharez, which is the Hebrew word for "break forth."
Incidentally, an extension of this levirate marriage practice is the central theme of the Book of Ruth (see notes). In that story, Ruth marries a near kinsman, Boaz.
Joseph gets double crossed by an aggressive woman (Genesis 39)
1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
2 And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.
3 And his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to prosper in his hand.
4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.
5 And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.
6 And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.
7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.
8 But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;
9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
10 And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.
11 And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within.
12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.
13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,
14 That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice:
15 And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out.
16 And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home.
17 And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me:
18 And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out.
19 And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled.
20 And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.
21 But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
22 And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.
23 The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the LORD was with him, and that which he did, the LORD made it to prosper.
This account continues from Genesis 37 (see notes).
Meanwhile, back down in Egypt, Joseph starts his new life as a slave in a high Egyptian official's house. He's come a long way - from a household where everybody hated him except for his Dad, to a household where everybody loves him - perhaps one of them a little too much. Potiphar's wife is persistent as she tries to expand his household duties, but Joseph resists all the way down to the end. When it becomes obvious that Joseph will have nothing to do with her aggressive sexual overtures, she frames him for the same, and he goes to prison.
Joseph always lands on his feet; pretty soon he's the jailor's right-hand man. Now...an innocent man going to jail isn't really funny; though it is amusing that Joseph had these dreams of superiority over his brethren back when he was 17 years old. But...since then, he's only been a slave, a household servant and a prisoner...for 13 years. It just goes to show you: The road to success isn't always paved!
Incidentally, to those who believe the old saying, "Clothes make the man," consider this. Joseph was proud of his "coat of many colors" (Genesis 37:3,23,32 - see notes) but it really caused him nothing but heartache when it was ultimately used to prove to Jacob that Joseph was dead. Then, in Potiphar's house, Joseph's garment is once again used to frame him for a crime that he did not commit. In this case, clothes nearly broke the man.
Joseph hosts the royal butler and baker (Genesis 40)
1 And it came to pass after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker had offended their lord the king of Egypt.
2 And Pharaoh was wroth against two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers, and against the chief of the bakers.
3 And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound.
4 And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them: and they continued a season in ward.
5 And they dreamed a dream both of them, each man his dream in one night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, which were bound in the prison.
6 And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad.
7 And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his lord’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly to day?
8 And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.
9 And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me;
10 And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes:
11 And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.
12 And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days:
13 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.
14 But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house:
15 For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews: and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.
16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph, I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head:
17 And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head.
18 And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days:
19 Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.
20 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants: and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants.
21 And he restored the chief butler unto his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand:
22 But he hanged the chief baker: as Joseph had interpreted to them.
23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him.
Serving as the king's royal butler and baker is tough. I don't know what they did, but the king puts them into Joseph's jail. They each have a dream. It would appear that they were accustomed to having someone interpret their dreams, but now they're in prison. Joseph recognizes their sadness and invites them to share their dreams with him for interpretive purposes. Joseph first interprets the butler's dream, "You're gonna get your old job back in three days!" Joseph makes an appeal to the butler to remember Joseph's dilemma when he returns to Pharaoh's house and try to intercede for him. Whoa! great interpretation the croissant maker thinks, "Now do me!" Ooooo! Bad news, cream-puff boy! You're gonna die in three days! Sure enough, three days later the butler is back serving the king and the baker is hanging from a tree. So, did the butler remember his friend, Joseph, back in prison. Well...not immediately, but his time will come in Genesis 41 (see notes) where this story continues.
I guess the baker thought all of Joseph's interpretation would have fairy-tale endings after hearing the interpretation of the butler's dream. One distinction though: Notice in verse 11 that the cup of the butler was placed in Pharaoh's hand, but the birds in verse 17 ate Pharaoh's baked goods out of the basket on the baker's head before Pharaoh had a chance to eat them.