Genesis 38
Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary
Judah's Marriage and ChildrenHis Incest with Thamar - Genesis 38

The following sketch from the life of Judah is intended to point out the origin of the three leading families of the future princely tribe in Israel, and at the same time to show in what danger the sons of Jacob would have been of forgetting the sacred vocation of their race, through marriages with Canaanitish women, and of perishing in the sin of Canaan, if the mercy of God had not interposed, and by leading Joseph into Egypt prepared the way for the removal of the whole house of Jacob into that land, and thus protected the family, just as it was expanding into a nation, from the corrupting influence of the manners and customs of Canaan. This being the intention of the narrative, it is no episode or interpolation, but an integral part of the early history of Israel, which is woven here into the history of Jacob, because the events occurred subsequently to the sale of Joseph.

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.
About this time, i.e., after the sale of Joseph, while still feeding the flocks of Jacob along with his brethren (Genesis 37:26),

(Note: As the expression "at that time" does not compel us to place Judah's marriage after the sale of Joseph, many have followed Augustine (qusaet. 123), and placed it some years earlier. But this assumption is rendered extremely improbable, if not impossible, by the fact that Judah was not merely accidentally present when Joseph was sold, but was evidently living with his brethren, and had not yet set up an establishment of his own; whereas he had settled at Adullam previous to his marriage, and seems to have lived there up to the time of the birth of the twins by Thamar. Moreover, the 23 years which intervened between the taking of Joseph into Egypt and the migration of Jacob thither, furnish space enough for all the events recorded in this chapter. If we suppose that Judah, who was 20 years old when Joseph was sold, went to Adullam soon afterwards and married there, is three sons might have been born four or five years after Joseph's captivity. And if his eldest son was born about a year and a half after the sale of Joseph, and he married him to Thamar when he was 15 years old, and gave her to his second son a year after that, Onan's death would occur at least five years before Jacob's removal to Egypt; time enough, therefore, both for the generation and birth of the twin-sons of Judah by Thamar, and for Judah's two journeys into Egypt with his brethren to buy corn. (See Genesis 46:8.))

Judah separated from them, and went down (from Hebron, Genesis 37:14, or the mountains) to Adullam, in the lowland (Joshua 15:35), into the neighbourhood of a man named Hirah. "He pitched (his tent, Genesis 26:25) up to a man of Adullam," i.e., in his neighbourhood, so as to enter into friendly intercourse with him.

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
There Judah married the daughter of Shuah, a Canaanite, and had three sons by her: Ger (ער), Onan, and Shelah. The name of the place is mentioned when the last is born, viz., Chezib or Achzib (Joshua 15:44; Micah 1:14), in the southern portion of the lowland of Judah, that the descendants of Shelah might know the birth-place of their ancestor. This was unnecessary in the case of the others, who died childless.

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.
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
When Ger was grown up, according to ancient custom (cf. Genesis 21:21; Genesis 34:4) his father gave him a wife, named Thamar, probably a Canaanite, of unknown parentage. But Ger was soon put to death by Jehovah on account of his wickedness. Judah then wished Onan, as the brother-in-law, to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother, and raise up seed, i.e., a family, for him. But as he knew that the first-born son would not be the founder of his own family, but would perpetuate the family of the deceased and receive his inheritance, he prevented conception when consummating the marriage by spilling the semen. ארצה שׁחת, "destroyed to the ground (i.e., let it fall upon the ground), so as not to give seed to his brother" (נתן for תּת only here and Numbers 20:21). This act not only betrayed a want of affection to his brother, combined with a despicable covetousness for his possession and inheritance, but was also a sin against the divine institution of marriage and its object, and was therefore punished by Jehovah with sudden death. The custom of levirate marriage, which is first mentioned here, and is found in different forms among Indians, Persians, and other nations of Asia and Africa, was not founded upon a divine command, but upon an ancient tradition, originating probably in Chaldea. It was not abolished, however, by the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 25:5.), but only so far restricted as not to allow it to interfere with the sanctity of marriage; and with this limitation it was enjoined as a duty of affection to build up the brother's house, and to preserve his family and name (see my Bibl. Archologie, 108).

And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
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.
And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
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.
The sudden death of his two sons so soon after their marriage with Thamar made Judah hesitate to give her the third as a husband also, thinking, very likely, according to a superstition which we find in Tobit 3:7ff., that either she herself, or marriage with her, had been the cause of her husbands' deaths. He therefore sent her away to her father's house, with the promise that he would give her his youngest son as soon as he had grown up; though he never intended it seriously, "for he thought lest (פּן אמר, i.e., he was afraid that) he also might die like his brethren."

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.
But when Thamar, after waiting a long time, saw that Shelah had grown up and yet was not given to her as a husband, she determined to procure children from Judah himself, who had become a widower in the meantime; and his going to Timnath to the sheep-shearing afforded her a good opportunity. The time mentioned ("the days multiplied," i.e., a long time passed by) refers not to the statement which follows, that Judah's wife died, but rather to the leading thought of the verse, viz., Judah's going to the sheep-shearing. ויּנּחם: he comforted himself, i.e., he ceased to mourn. Timnath is not the border town of Dan and Judah between Beth-shemesh and Ekron in the plain (Joshua 15:10; Joshua 19:43), but Timnah on the mountains of Judah (Joshua 15:57, cf. Rob. Pal. ii. 343, note), as the expression "went up" shows. The sheep-shearing was a fte with shepherds, and was kept with great feasting. Judah therefore took his friend Hirah with him; a fact noticed in Genesis 38:12 in relation to what follows.

And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
As soon as Thamar heard of Judah's going to this feast, she took off her widow's clothes, put on a veil, and sat down, disguised as a harlot, by the gate of Enayim, where Judah would be sure to pass on his return from Timnath. Enayim was no doubt the same as Enam in the lowland of Judah (Joshua 15:34).

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.
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
When Judah saw her here and took her for a harlot, he made her an offer, and gave her his signet-ring, with the band (פּתיל) by which it was hung round his neck, and his staff, as a pledge of the young buck-goat which he offered her. They were both objects of value, and were regarded as ornaments in the East, as Herodotus (i. 195) has shown with regard to the Babylonians (see my Bibl. Arch. 2, 48). He then lay with her, and she became pregnant by him.

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?
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.
And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
After this had occurred, Thamar laid aside her veil, put on her widow's dress again, and returned home. When Judah, therefore, sent the kid by his friend Hirah to the supposed harlot for the purpose of redeeming his pledges, he could not find her, and was told, on inquiring of the inhabitants of Enayim, that there was no קדשׁה there. הקּדשׁה: lit., "the consecrated," i.e., the hierodule, a woman sacred to Astarte, a goddess of the Canaanites, the deification of the generative and productive principle of nature; one who served this goddess by prostitution (vid., Deuteronomy 23:18). This was no doubt regarded as the most respectable designation for public prostitutes in Canaan.

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.
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.
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.
When his friend returned with the kid and reported his want of success, Judah resolved to leave his pledges with the girl, that he might not expose himself to the ridicule of the people by any further inquiries, since he had done his part towards keeping his promise. "Let her take them (i.e., keep the signet-ring and staff) for herself, that we may not become a (an object of) ridicule." The pledges were unquestionably of more value than a young he-goat.

And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
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.
About three months afterwards (משׁלשׁ prob. for משּׁלשׁ with the prefix )מ Judah was informed that Thamar had played the harlot and was certainly (הנּה) with child. He immediately ordered, by virtue of his authority as head of the tribe, that she should be brought out and burned. Thamar was regarded as the affianced bride of Shelah, and was to be punished as a bride convicted of a breach of chastity. But the Mosaic law enjoined stoning in the case of those who were affianced and broke their promise, or of newly married women who were found to have been dishonoured (Deuteronomy 22:20-21, Deuteronomy 22:23-24); and it was only in the case of the whoredom of a priest's daughter, or of carnal intercourse with a mother or a daughter, that the punishment of burning was enjoined (Leviticus 21:9 and Leviticus 20:14). Judah's sentence, therefore, was more harsh than the subsequent law; whether according to patriarchal custom, or on other grounds, cannot be determined. When Thamar was brought out, she sent to Judah the things which she had kept as a pledge, with this message: "By a man to whom these belong am I with child: look carefully therefore to whom this signet-ring, and band, and stick belong." Judah recognised the things as his own, and was obliged to confess, "She is more in the right than I; for therefore (sc., that this might happen to me, or that it might turn out so; on כּי־על־כּן see Genesis 18:5) have I not given her to my son Shelah." In passing sentence upon Thamar, Judah had condemned himself. His son, however, did not consist merely in his having given way to his lusts so afar as to lie with a supposed public prostitute of Canaan, but still more in the fact, that by breaking his promise to give her his son Shelah as her husband, he had caused his daughter-in-law to practise this deception upon him, just because in his heart he blamed her for the early and sudden deaths of his elder sons, whereas the real cause of the deaths which had so grieved his paternal heart was the wickedness of the sons themselves, the mainspring of which was to be found in his own marriage with a Canaanite in violation of the patriarchal call. And even if the sons of Jacob were not unconditionally prohibited from marrying the daughters of Canaanites, Judah's marriage at any rate had borne such fruit in his sons Ger and Onan, as Jehovah the covenant God was compelled to reject. But if Judah, instead of recognising the hand of the Lord in the sudden death of his sons, traced the cause to Thamar, and determined to keep her as a childless widow all her life long, not only in opposition to the traditional custom, but also in opposition to the will of God as expressed in His promises of a numerous increase of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Thamar had by no means acted rightly in the stratagem by which she frustrated his plan, and sought to procure from Judah himself the seed of which he was unjustly depriving her, though her act might be less criminal than Judah's. For it is evident from the whole account, that she was not driven to her sin by lust, but by the innate desire for children (ὅτι δὲ παιδοποΐ́ιας χάριν, καὶ οὐ φιληδονίας τοῦτο ὁ Θάμαρ ἐμηχανήσατο, - Theodoret); and for that reason she was more in the right than Judah. Judah himself, however, not only saw his guilt, but he confessed it also; and showed both by this confession, and also by the fact that he had no further conjugal intercourse with Thamar, an earnest endeavour to conquer the lusts of the flesh, and to guard against the sin into which he had fallen. And because he thus humbled himself, God gave him grace, and not only exalted him to be the chief of the house of Israel, but blessed the children that were begotten in sin.

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.
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.
And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
Thamar brought forth twins; and a circumstance occurred at the birth, which does occasionally happen when the children lie in an abnormal position, and always impedes the delivery, and which was regarded in this instance as so significant that the names of the children were founded upon the fact. At the birth ויּתּן־יד "there was a hand," i.e., a hand came out (יתּן as in Job 37:10; Proverbs 13:10), round which the midwife tied a scarlet thread, to mark this as the first-born.

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.
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.
"And it came to pass, when it (the child) drew back its hand (כּמשׁיב for משׁיב כּהיות as in Genesis 40:10), behold its brother came out. Then she (the midwife) said, What a breach hast thou made for thy part? Upon thee the breach;" i.e., thou bearest the blame of the breach. פּרץ signifies not rupturam perinoei, but breaking through by pressing forward. From that he received the name of Perez (breach, breaker through). Then the other one with the scarlet thread came into the world, and was named Zerah (זרח exit, rising), because he sought to appear first, whereas in fact Perez was the first-born, and is even placed before Zerah in the lists in Genesis 46:12; Numbers 26:20. Perez was the ancestor of the tribe-prince Nahshon (Numbers 2:3), and of king David also (Ruth 4:18.; 1 Chronicles 2:5.). Through him, therefore, Thamar has a place as one of the female ancestors in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch [1857-78].
Text Courtesy of Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

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