God’s People By God’s Grace

Genesis 38 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3 and 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 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.

6 And 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 put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’ ” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


This is exciting. I’ve been waiting for two years to get to this chapter in Genesis (not really). Actually, in 20+ years of pastoral ministry, I’ve never once been drawn to preach on Genesis 38. This is one of those passages that almost no one would actually choose to preach on if not for a genuine conviction that God’s people need all of God’s Word. Let me say that again in two different ways.

First, we’re preaching on Genesis 38 because we believe that the whole of God’s Word (not merely the easier or more explicitly “spiritual” or NT parts) is necessary and sufficient to live as God intends. It’s an awesome thing to realize that God has given us everything we need to know to please Him and live rightly in His world in the Bible. But that means all of the Bible, including passages like this one.

Second, we’re preaching on Genesis 38 because the Bible tells us our needs better than our feelings do. In other words, we only know many of our needs only because God has told us they are our needs. The Bible is kind of like a prescribed cancer scan in that way. You may have dire health problems that you don’t feel at all, and wouldn’t find out about until it’s too late, if not for certain preventative screenings called for by your doctor. In other words, you might have come here with a struggling marriage or wayward kids or the pain of a difficult relationship or a recent job loss or some other immediate and deeply felt need that you’d love to hear a sermon on. Of course, God’s Word speaks to each of those things as well and you would be well served to hear a sermon on them. And yet, the fact that this passage is in the Bible means we need to know about levirite marriage and the messiness of the chosen family of God—things you’ll probably never feel the need for. Many times our greatest needs aren’t immediately felt. This passage is an important reminder of that.

Again, the Bible alone—all of it; every word—is truly sufficient for life and godliness. Therefore, if we are to know God, ourselves, and the will of God for us, we need all of the Bible, including Genesis 38. Let’s pray that God would help us clearly see all that we need from this passage and then feel it deeply, in order that we might act on it courageously.


Why Is Genesis 38 Challenging?

In case it isn’t obvious, this passage is challenging to preach on for several reasons. It’s hard because the reason for its inclusion in the Joseph section of Genesis isn’t obvious. If we take out 38, there’s a very smooth flow from 37 to 39. It’s hard because of the several blatant acts of unabashed immorality—sexual in particular—and who likes to talk about that? It’s hard because of the harsh judgment of God. Without much explanation at all He takes the lives of two of Judah’s sons. And it’s hard because of the moral ambiguity of Tamar’s actions. Scholars seems fairly evenly divided between her being a heroine and prostituting deceiver.

Why Is Genesis 38 In the Bible?

I’ll address most of those things in a bit, but before we get there I’d like to answer another question I raised earlier, “Given all of those challenges, why is it in the Bible?”. Why did God choose to inspire a passage like this? There were immediate, historical, and spiritual reasons.

In its immediate context, it filled in some of what was happening during the 20ish Joseph was in Egypt. It also serves to provided a sharp contrast between the integrity of Joseph and the immorality of Judah. Additionally, it laid the groundwork for the much different version of Judah we find later in Genesis. The same man who hated his brother, sought to profit from his enslavement, and did all the wicked things described in this chapter would later offer himself as a ransom. It’s likely that God used the humbling he received at the end of this chapter to change his course. And in that is a significant encouragement for anyone who is struggling to walk in a manner pleasing to God.

Historically, this passage is yet another description of the humble, checkered history of the people of God. The first recipients of Genesis, the myriad descendents of Abraham, did not spring from a righteous plant. Even more significantly, it explains how David, and later Jesus, came through the line of Judah.

And spiritually, it helps us to see the true nature of the effects of being born in Adam and, therefore, in crystal clear terms that our only hope is the mercy and grace of God. There is no sense in which God’s people are God’s people according to our own performance or worth. Without exception God chose the unremarkable, and then the unremarkable, having been chosen by God, proved their unremarkableness.

In short, for many reasons that might not be obvious on the surface, Genesis 38 plays an important role in the development of the biblical storyline and in the message that salvation would be by grace alone, through faith, alone, in Christ alone.

With that, the three main points of this text are that sin is everywhere in this passage and people, righteousness is present but scarce, and combined, these things teach us that God’s grace does not come because we are worthy.


Each week when I begin working on the sermon, I sit down with the text and do my best to get my mind and heart around its flow. My first order of business is to get to the point that I’m able to restate the main point(s) and argument(s) of the text in my own words. Without a doubt, one of the keys to understanding this passage is recognizing the blatant and significant sins of the people involved. Along with that we shouldn’t miss the disturbing casualness with which they engage in them.

Let’s first consider the rampant sin in this passage.

Judah sinned in all kinds of ways.

We’re confronted with sin almost from the first words of the passage. Having left his brothers, Judah took a Canaanite woman for a wife (2). Given what we know of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather, there is no chance Judah didn’t know that it was wrong of him to marry a Canaanite.

Genesis 24:1-3 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years…. 2 And Abraham said to his servant, … “Put your hand under my thigh, 3 that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell…

Genesis 28:1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women.

What’s more, both the word used (“took”) and the context suggest that this was a lustful taking on Judah’s part. This is not the picture of a man filled with honor seeking a wife with whom he meant to live wholly for the glory of God. It is the picture of a man who could not control his physical desires (which we’ll see again later).

A bit more subtly, consider the contrast between the Bible’s description of the great grief of Jacob over (what he thought to be) the loss of his son, Joseph, and its complete silence concerning any grief at all in Judah over the actual loss of his two oldest sons. Every description of Judah to this point is one of selfish, callousedness.

Just a few verses later we’re told that Judah blatantly and knowingly lied to Tamar about giving her to his son, Shelah to be his wife (11, 14). After the loss of his first two sons (who had been married to Tamar), Judah feared losing his third and so he intentionally deceived her. Perhaps understandable, but still sinful.

Perhaps worst of all, particularly because of the casual way he went about it, we see Judah’s sin in that he sought out (what he thought to be) a cult prostitute (15). That this happened during shearing time meant that there was a festive atmosphere and inhibitions were probably way down—which, it seems, is exactly what Judah was looking for after the death of his nameless wife. What’s more, having married a Canaanite woman, he’d inevitably been exposed to their despicable ways. In particular, the Canaanites practiced and encourage sexual deviancy as a means of enhancing the fertility of one’s flocks and herds.

This sin was so grievous that in Hosea 4:14 God declared,

Hosea 4:14 I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes, and a people without understanding shall come to ruin.

Finally, we see Judah’s sin in that he was ready to execute severe justice on Tamar (“let her be burned”) when he found out that she was pregnant by sexual immorality, only to let the whole thing drop when his own sin was found out (24).

Judah’s first son, Er, was wicked to the point that God put him to death (7)

But Judah was not the only one given to sin in this passage. Apparently, Judah’s first son, Er, was wicked too. We’re not told the nature of his wickedness, only that it was so serious that God struck him down.

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.

Judah’s second son, Onan, was wicked to the point that God put him to death (8-10)

Judah’s second son was wicked as well. Unlike his brother, however, the text tells us the nature of Onan’s wickedness. He used Tamar for physical pleasure while depriving her of the child he’d promised to give. Custom (and later the Law of God) called him to bear a child through his deceased brother’s wife in order to carry on his name. Instead, Onan helped himself to the pleasure but not the responsibility that ought to have gone along with it. Worse still, the original language makes it clear that this wasn’t a one-time thing, but an ongoing event. His sin was repeated and significant.

Tamar lied to Judah and slept with him as a prostitute (13-19).

As I mentioned earlier, this is a somewhat controversial position. I don’t claim to have the final word on the issue, but I will say this, there is no sense in which Tamar had the right to bear a child and therefore, there’s no sense in which using sexual immorality to get one was truly honoring to God.

While her actions might be somewhat understandable, Tamar ought to have trusted God to be faithful even if Judah was not. She ought not have taken matters into her own hands. The facts that (1) Genesis doesn’t comment on the moral nature of her decision and that (2) her plan “worked,” do not justify her deceit and fornication. In this, there are lessons for us too, Grace; namely, that the sins of others never justify our sin and the fact that something works, doesn’t make it right, just as the fact that something doesn’t “work,” doesn’t make it wrong (pragmatism is a terrible measure of morality).

Judah’s friend, Hirah, was complicit in his sexual immorality (20-23)

Finally, we see even more sin in Hirah, Judah’s friend. He was complicit in Judah’s seeking out of a prostitute. It really is staggering to me that he would agree to do such a thing in such a casual manner. Imagine being so brazen in your sexual exploits that you think nothing of calling on a friend to pay a prostitute for you. And imagine being a friend so indifferent to sexual immorality that it seems totally normal to agree to such a thing, to be willing to walk up to some stranger and ask where the cult prostitute was in order to render payment on behalf of your friend.

Again, to understand this passage is to see it for what it is: a sin-filled account of a particular time in the history of the chosen people of God. It is the largely disgusting account of the line of our Savior, Jesus Christ. This passage helps us to see the sinfulness of sin and forces us to reckon with the fact that we have all inherited the same nature from our first father, Adam. Our sins might take different form, but we are not fundamentally different in nature from the ones who committed such obviously sinful acts in this passage. This passage teaches us not to be like the Pharisee in Jesus’ day who prayed, ” God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).


That leads to the second point. As bad as things were in this passage, they weren’t as bad as they could have been. In the midst of all of the sin and death, there are still a few glimpses of righteousness.

Judah attempted to keep his word (20-23)

As twisted as it is, Judah at least attempted to keep his word by paying his (supposed) prostitute. It’s hard to know what his true motivations might have been, but there’s at least a hint of honesty here.

Judah acknowledged his hypocrisy when confronted with it (26).

A second flicker of righteousness (an echo of the Hosea passage we read earlier) comes in Judah’s confession that Tamar was more righteous than he was. Having been found out as the man who made Tamar “pregnant by immorality,” Judah exclaimed, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”.

As I mentioned earlier, this is likely a key reason why this story is included in the Genesis account. It is here in part to help explain Judah’s transformation between the hard, calloused man who sinned in such spectacular ways and the one who would offer himself as collateral when the brothers reencountered Joseph in Egypt.

Judah semi-repented of his sin by not knowing Tamar again (26)

In response to all of this we see at least a mild form of repentance in Judah’s decision to refrain from further intimacy with Tamar. This falls short of truly acknowledging his guilt. There’s no evidence of genuine brokenness. And yet, there’s a small glimmer of righteousness here.

Again, we’re meant to see ourselves in this. Until the regenerating, saving, and transforming grace of God comes upon us, we are a tidal wave of sin and a trickle of common-grace goodness. While we might be tempted to look away from the spectacular sins in the Bible, we’re meant to look right at them as a means of recognizing them in our own hearts, as a means of causing us to throw ourselves upon God for the mercy He will always give to those who seek Him. And that leads to the final point.


The great sin of God’s people, combined with the small glimpses of righteousness, come together to remind us that God’s people are His people, not on account of our performance or worth, but by the grace of God alone.

More than anything else, we need to remember that this is the story of one of God’s chosen people. Indeed, it is the story of the one through whom Jesus Christ would come. Jesus is of the line of Judah. And that, once again, is an awesome reminder that if anyone is to become a child of God, it will never be based on anything in us.

Believe it or not, those things are embedded in the final paragraph.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

In this strange birth story, we find another example of God confounding the wisdom of the wise. It was through Perez (as all the kids know from Matthew’s Begats) that Jesus came. Perez was the younger, not the older son. He was born out of wedlock to a pagan woman and her prostitute-seeking father-in-law. Who, besides God Himself, would ordain such a line for the Savior of the world?

All of this, along with all of the rest of the story of God’s people was designed by God to show with absolute clarity what the Apostle Paul would later say in just 32 words. Again, the biblical stories like the one in Genesis 38, combine to make unmistakable the fact that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The simple reality is that just as no one could look at Abraham’s children and think, “Yeah, they definitely deserved to be saved by God. God was wise to pick them on account of their moral uprightness and steadfast faithfulness,” no one with even a partial glimpse into their own heart (revealed here) would do anything but cry out to God for mercy.

Would you do that today, Grace? If you’ve never done that before, today is the say of your salvation. Hope in God today through Jesus Christ and you will be saved—not because you deserve it, but because God is merciful and gracious to all who seek Him. If you are already hoping in Jesus, hope in God today through Jesus Christ and walk in the good works God prepared in advance for you to do.