SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 24 Genesis 38

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis** 38**. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15
Genesis 16
Genesis 17
Genesis 18-19
Genesis 20-22
Genesis 23-24
Genesis 25
Genesis 26:1-33
Genesis 26:34-Genesis 28:9
Genesis 30:25-31:55
Genesis 32
Genesis 33
Genesis 34
Genesis 35-36
Genesis 37

Genesis 38
New International Version (NIV)
Judah and Tamar

38 At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2 There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; 3 she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4 She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.

6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

11 Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.

12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.

13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.

20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”

“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”

23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.

27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.

If a mod could remove the “reload this page” part of the thread title, that’d be appreciated. Not sure how that got there.

This is a weird chapter to my modern eyes for sure. So hopefully there’s some more background than what we’re seeing here. A couple questions for the more learned amongst us:

  1. Do we know why Er was wicked?
  2. Was Judah sleeping with a prostitute OK (ie not wicked)?
  3. The red thread on the twins. Was birth order that important, esp when it came to twins? The stories we have gone through so far seem to eschew the birth order as either unimportant or overruleable by the father.

Moderator comment: I’ve fixed the thread title as requested

Now, me as poster:
Yes, it’s a very weird story to modern eyes and seems like a weird digression. Joseph was at a cliff-hanger, sold into slavery in Egypt, and the text interjects “Meanwhile, back in Canaan” for a sexual exploit involving one of the brothers. It feels like a digression. However, there are interesting parallels between the two stories, it’s actually thoughtful compare/contrast.

  • In 38:1, Judah “went down”; in 39:1, Joseph “was taken down.”
  • Judah’s two sons die; Jacob thinks his son is dead
  • Clothing is used for deception in both stories
  • Both stories involve a kid
  • Judah succumbs to seduction (ch 38); Joseph resists seduction (ch 39)

An underlying theme of the Joseph story is justice: what you do to others is done to you. Judah caused his father to lose a child, so Judah loses two children. From our modern point of view, this is harsh, but from the point of view of 3000 years ago, not so much.

Taking stpauler’s questions first:
• I don’t know why Er was wicked. My study has focused on the text and its plain meaning (as well as literary implications), rather than the huge (and interesting) speculation about what’s NOT in the text. Perhaps cmkeller, more learned in Talmud and Rashi than I by a long shot, knows some interpretations?
• It’s not prostitution per se that’s the problem here, it’s whether the woman was married (in which case, sleeping with someone not her husband was adulterous.) If she was not married, it was not seen as wicked.
• Birth order was extremely important to the society – more than just Israelite society, but the entire Middle East – and, for that matter, Western Europe and Asia , and not just in ancient times. The bible is filled with reversals, that the moral stature is more important than the birth order. We’ve had Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, we’ll get Moses over Aaron, David over his brothers. These are all stories that say that the moral order is not the same as the societal order, and that transmission of the parents’ values depends on the individual children, not the birth order.

I wrote a Staff Report on the sin of Onan:

It might be easiest for me to retell the story in my words, with comments.

Judah’s oldest son Er dies without any children. The Levirite marriage was a custom at the time: when a man dies childless, the wife is married to the oldest brother to produce an heir, so that the property and family are maintained. (Remember that polygamy was permitted.) So, Er’s brother Onan should marry and impregnate Er’s wife Tamar. But Onan “knows the child would not be his”, that is, the child would be the official son of Er, inheriting Er’s share. So Onan doesn’t fulfill his obligation and, in consequence, dies.

Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house as a widow, until his third son Shelah is old enough to impregnate her.

Later, Judah’s wife dies, and he goes to the sheap-shearers (as did Joseph.) Tamar disguises herself by hiding her face under her clothing. Judah meets her on the road, thinks she’s a prostitute, and has sex with her. He promises to pay her a kid, but Tamar insists on some pledge (collateral) in the meantime. Judah tries to send the kid, but can’t find the unknown woman.

When Judah is told Tamar is pregnant, he thinks she’s been sleeping around. As I said, if she were single, having sex would not be a sin. But she is technically married to Shelah, and so a one-night stand is adulterous. Judah wants her executed.

Tamar shows him the pledges, says “See if you recognize [these.] (Gen 38:25) I think the NIT translation misses the point. She actually says, “Recognize well” – the same words used in 37:32 when the brothers show the torn tunic to Jacob! That’s a literary echo that should be not ignored. Judah deceived his father with clothes, a kid, and “recognize well,” and now he has been similarly deceived.

Judah acknowledges that he screwed up (pun intended), and that Tamar was correct in tricking him into providing an heir for Er. Judah lost two sons, but now has recognized his errors and matured, so he has three sons. (Again, from our modern point of view, this is neither fair nor just, but from the ancient perspective, it was.) From the older son will come Boaz and later King David. As noted, his twins have the same Jacob/Esau problem, competition for who is first-born.

The Judah story thus echoes themes and motifs of the Joseph story, and prepares us for what is to come. We see that Judah has changed, matured, become a better person. For Joseph to be reconciled with his brothers, both he and they must mature and repent, so the text is setting up the later tests and their outcome.

Judah emerges from this as leader of the family, even though Reuben was first born (more on Reuben in a few chapters.) Judah will speak to Jacob (43:4ff), take charge when the brothers have problems in Egypt (44:14) and negotiate for the release of Benjamin (44:18). Jacob selects Judah to lead the migration to Egypt. So, while the next chapters deal with the rise of Joseph, we have here the rise of Judah as eventually the primary tribe of the southern kingdom.

I am struck by what a gutsy move Tamar makes. God is not mentioned in this story. Her actions are her own initiative. She finds herself stuck in legal marital limbo and comes up with a desperate scheme to get herself out. She was endangering her life. She took a gamble on what kind of man Judah was.

Birth order is not just important with the string but also with Onan’s actions. With his brother dead, Onan could inherit as first born. But if his Er had a son (i.e., if Onan had a son that counted as Er’s son) then that son gets the first born’s share.

Looking at the map it looks like Judah leaves the northern territory and that the action takes place it what will one day be his tribe’s territory.

I realize that Moses is still in the future, but the Mosaic punishment for adultery is stoning. Yet Judah, in verse 24, calls for Tamar to be burnt.

I realize that Monty Python is also still in the future, but could Judah have thought that Tamar was not just an adulteress, but a witch? It would help his own self-esteem to think that he was not deceived by a simple veil, but by evil magic. And note verse 11, where he seems to be thinking that Tamar is somehow responsible for the death of his first two sons, and that if he allows Shelah to marry her, he too will die.

Similarly, God doesn’t really play much of a (direct) role in Joseph’s story, so that’s another sort of parallel, perhaps Through Jewish history, Tamar has always been viewed as heroic and is a common name for girls.

That’s certainly a very interesting interpretation, and he does seem to be blaming her for the death of his sons. I didn’t raise the stoning/burning point, and I’m on the road now so don’t have the direct ref, but burning was the punishment for the daughter/wife of one of the priestly family (descendents of Aaron) for adultery.

Tamar is one of the three named women in Jesus’s genealogy in Matthew. (The other two are Rahab & Ruth)

Jumping in a day late, but I put a lot of time into my most recent response to last week’s thread…


(Thanks for the vote of confidence, CK)

According to the Talmud, it was because he practiced coitus interruptus (no, I haven’t mixed him up with Onan, the Talmud says they were both killed for the same sin). That Talmudic passage also says that the reason Er did so was in order not to damage Tamar’s beauty by getting her pregnant. This motivation, rather than the mere act of seed-spilling, might be more the reason for his death. As I mentioned in the Genesis 5-6 thread, one of the things that the pre-Deluge generation did that was considered bad was marry two wives, one for child-bearing and the other for beauty, so Er’s motivation hearkens back to that. In the Biblical value system, to preserve feminine beauty by preventing procreation is a perversion of the natural order - on the contrary, the purpose of feminine beauty is to entice men to beget offspring!

It was not. In fact, even Maimonides, whose code of law mostly deals with Jewish law as it applies to contemporary people, makes a point of stating that what we moderns would refer to as casual sex (including for pay) was perfectly fine before the Torah was given at Sinai, and only afterward was it considered wrong.

As mentioned by CK Dexter Haven upthread (and expanded upon by myself below), Tamar was considered a daughter of priesthood, so it’s likely that her first-born had some sort of priestly privileges, whatever that amounted to before the Torah was given. Since Judah already had prior children, the importance of which twin was older wasn’t relevant on his side of the equation.

CK Dexter Haven:

To expand on this, the Talmud says that she was a descendant of Melchizedek, described in Genesis 14:18 as a “priest of God Most High”.

Link to new thread for Genesis 39