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Genesis 38-40    Listen Podcast


Another important struggle between wombmates (Genesis 38)

1 It came to pass at that time that Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.
2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her.
3 So she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.
4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan.
5 And she conceived yet again and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. He was at Chezib when she bore him.
6 ¶ Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD killed him.
8 And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.”
9 But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.
10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.
11 ¶ Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.” For he said, “Lest he also die like his brothers.” And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.
12 ¶ Now in the process of time the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.”
14 So she took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face.
16 Then he turned to her by the way, and said, “Please let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. ¶ So she said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?”
17 ¶ And he said, “I will send a young goat from the flock.” ¶ So she said, “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?|”
18 ¶ Then he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” ¶ So she said, “Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.
19 So she arose and went away, and laid aside her veil and put on the garments of her widowhood.
20 ¶ And Judah sent the young goat by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her.
21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, “Where is the harlot who was openly by the roadside?” ¶ And they said, “There was no harlot in this place.”
22 ¶ So he returned to Judah and said, “I cannot find her. Also, the men of the place said there was no harlot in this place.”
23 ¶ Then Judah said, “Let her take them for herself, lest we be shamed; for I sent this young goat and you have not found her.”
24 ¶ And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.” ¶ So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”
25 ¶ When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are—the signet and cord, and staff.”
26 ¶ So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.
27 ¶ Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that behold, twins were in her womb.
28 And so it was, when she was giving birth, that the one put out his hand; and the midwife took a scarlet thread and bound it on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.”
29 Then it happened, as he drew back his hand, that his brother came out unexpectedly; and she said, “How did you break through? This breach be upon you!” Therefore his name was called Perez.
30 Afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand. And his name was called Zerah.

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; Perez (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, "You shall not take a wife from 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 has 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 out and let her be burned." 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 Zerah gets a hand out first and gets tagged, Perez 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 Perez 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. 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 Perez and his twin brother Zerah. While being delivered, Zerah 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, Perez, actually ended up being born first. That surprised the midwife and she exclaimed, "How did you break through?" As a result of this exclamation, he was named Perez, which is the Hebrew word for "break through."

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 Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.
2 The LORD was with Joseph, and he was a successful 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 he did to prosper in his hand.
4 So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority.
5 So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had in the house and in the field.
6 Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate. ¶ Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.
7 ¶ And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.”
8 ¶ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand.
9 There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
10 ¶ So it was, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he did not heed her, to lie with her or to be with her.
11 ¶ But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside,
12 that she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.
13 And so it was, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside,
14 that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.
15 And it happened, when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside.”
16 ¶ So she kept his garment with her until his master came home.
17 Then she spoke to him with words like these, saying, “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to mock me;
18 so it happened, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside.”
19 ¶ So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, “Your servant did to me after this manner,” that his anger was aroused.
20 Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison.
21 But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.
22 And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing.
23 The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it 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. 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 It came to pass after these things that the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their lord, the king of Egypt.
2 And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief butler and the chief baker.
3 So he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison, the place where Joseph was confined.
4 And the captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he served them; so they were in custody for a while.
5 ¶ Then the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison, had a dream, both of them, each man’s dream in one night and each man’s dream with its own interpretation.
6 And Joseph came in to them in the morning and looked at them, and saw that they were sad.
7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, “Why do you look so sad today?”
8 ¶ And they said to him, “We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.” ¶ So Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.”
9 ¶ Then the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “Behold, in my dream a vine was before me,
10 and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes.
11 Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
12 ¶ And Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days.
13 Now within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand according to the former manner, when you were his butler.
14 But remember me when it is well with you, and please show kindness to me; make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house.
15 For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon.”
16 ¶ When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Joseph, “I also was in my dream, and there were three white baskets on my head.
17 In the uppermost basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, and the birds ate them out of the basket on my head.”
18 ¶ So Joseph answered and said, “This is the interpretation of it: The three baskets are three days.
19 Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head from you and hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat your flesh from you.”
20 ¶ Now it came to pass on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants.
21 Then he restored the chief butler to his butlership again, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.
22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them.
23 Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot 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.