Genesis 38:1-38:30 Pretty (Clever) Woman

Judah’s conscience… not wise… wife… fertility… wicked… custom… blame Tamar… forked tongue… mistress of disguise… shrewd bargainer… mortgaged family honor… more righteous… redeemed…

Genesis 38:1-38:30

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.

Interesting. I wonder if Judah’s conscience was bothering him at that time (`eth), as he was the one who’d suggested Joseph be sold into slavery. He may also have felt the weight of being ‘heir apparent’, his elder siblings having disgraced themselves through sex and violence. Its probably not a wise move, as Abraham’s line has a bad track record with kings and women on these departures (yarad) from the land of promise. At least Judah picks a more respectful host, Hirah (Chiyrah, a noble family) the Adullamite (`Adullamiy, justice of the people). He also doesn’t bring along a wife, though that is soon remedied:

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name [was] Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

Interestingly, we know nothing of the girl (bath) herself, only her Canaanite race and father Shuah (Shuwa`, wealth). But whatever she lacks in visibility she makes up for in fertility:

And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan. And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

Three sons! And Judah stays in the area long enough to get a pagan wife (‘ishshah) for the second-generation:

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name [was] Tamar.

All this intermarrying is probably not pleasing to God. Yet it is Er’s (`Er, awake) sin (ra`) that gets God’s attention:

And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

No clue what that sin was. But, given the environment, with a pagan mother, pagan wife, and father presumably on the run from God, one could imagine Er inheriting a lot of bad habits. Apparently God finally had enough.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

I presume this was common custom in that day — to provide for a brother’s bloodline and family — since it was later written into the law. Perhaps it was a Hebraic custom rather than Canaanite, as Onan (`Ownan, strong) doesn’t quite get into it:

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.

Which God isn’t happy with either:

And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him

Judah, alas, doesn’t take this a sign to pay closer attention to Yahweh, but seems to blame Tamar:

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.

Judah speaks with forked tongue, publicly promising to deliver Shelah (Shelah, a petition) yet privately planning to withhold him. It does seem we often lie to other people in order to avoid facing God’s justice and the consequences of our own sin.

Judah has perhaps inherited his father’s penchant for deception. But two can play at that game:

And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep. 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.

Another deceiving father-in-law gets trapped in his own hypocrisy:

When Judah saw her, he thought her [to be] an harlot; because she had covered her face. 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?

Not just a mistress of disguise, but a shrewd bargainer to boot:

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]? 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.

She’s learned the hard way not to accept future promises from him! Though Jacob tries to fulfill this one, perhaps chagrined that he’d mortgaged the family honor:

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.

But that hardly makes him a model of integrity. His attitude towards prostitution is rife with inconsistency, as we suspected earlier might be the case with Jacob’s family:

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.

Tamar, however, gets the last laugh;

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.

Judah at least loses gracefully:

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.

I wonder why it was noteworthy that they didn’t have sexual relations (yada’) again (yacaph). My only guess is that she must’ve had wifely status under the circumstances, but Judah — out of respect or fear! — chose not to exercise that prerogative.

What a tangled web! If Jacob was trying to avoid family grief by running from the sight of his mournful father, he failed miserably. As usual, trouble follows those who run from it. Yet, in a strange way God was merciful, in not letting Judah’s line decay into pagan idolatry but rather be redeemed through the courage of a clever woman:

And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins [were] in her womb.

or, as recorded much later:

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

The long arm of the Lord is watching over the children of His promise, even in faraway lands. Tomorrow we’ll see just how far that reaches.


Lord, somehow I always see my own folly reflected in that of the patriarchs. Like Judah I spent long years in the land of noble pagans, unconscious of how my sin was tainting my seed. I clung to my petty pride and self-protection, rather than yielding myself to your justice — and mercy. Teach me the way of true righteousness, and save me from my folly. May I be fruitful in the land of promise, and be a blessing for generations. In Jesus name, and line, Amen.