There are more than a few curious stories in the Bible. In fact, the Bible kind of starts out with a curious story about there being only two things: nothing and God.
If you can believe that Genesis 1:1 is true, then believing the rest of the Bible should be a piece of cake.
One of the most curious stories in the Bible is found in Genesis 38. This chapter seems to break up the continuity between Genesis 37, our introduction to Joseph and his 12 resentful brothers who sell him into slavery, and Genesis 39 where we see Joseph sold into Egyptian slavery and serve in Potiphar’s house. In the middle is Genesis 38, a chapter about Judah, his sons and his widowed daughter in law.
Let me recap it for you (though I do highly recommend you read it for yourself.) Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He previously proposed that his brothers don’t simply kill their arrogant and annoying little brother Joseph, but that they sell him into slavery so that they could benefit financially from his demise. Judah has three sons that we know of. His first son, Er, married a woman named Tamar. Well, Er is not the greatest guy in the world and is actually struck down by the Lord.
Traditionally, if a man dies and leaves behind a widow with no heirs, which is the case with Tamar, then the brother of the deceased would marry his brother’s widow and have children so that the legacy would be passed down. So, that is what happens. Judah’s second son, Onan, marries Tamar. But, he refuses to have a child with her. He knew that the offspring would not be his and so did not fulfill his husbandly duties, so to speak. This too was wicked in the eyes of the Lord and God struck down Onan as well.
So Judah is down two sons because of this woman. And he was not going to lose another. He tells Tamar to remain a widow in her father’s house and to live out the rest of her days basically.
What happens next sounds like it was taken from the script of the Young and the Restless. Some time later Judah’s own wife dies. He is lonely and sad for a while, but eventually is comforted enough to go about his life. Well Tamar knows of Judah’s condition, dresses as a prostitute and deceivingly tricks Judah (her twice-removed father-in-law) to sleep with her. She is actually impregnated by Judah and eventually bears his children, TWIN boys!
Judah is furious that she became pregnant and believes she has been immoral with another man until he finds out that it was he that has been the immoral one. He says, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Tamar eventually has the twins and names them Perez and Zerah. And that is the last we hear of Tamar and her children for a while.
Why is this story important? Why does God choose to interrupt the story of Joseph and his technicolor dream coat to tell us this very odd story about Judah and Tamar?
Why indeed? Let me remind you that the story of Joseph is not about enduring through tough times. The story of Joseph is not remaining faithful to God in the midst of persecution. The story of Joseph is not about having moral fiber even when no one else around you does. Those are all true, and they are definitely part of the story, but they are not the crux of the story. The story is about God’s relentless pursuit of the promises that he made back in Genesis 12 to Abraham and to a greater extent the promise he made to all of us in Genesis 3:15. God promised a serpent-crushing Seed of Abraham that will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth and He will move Heaven and earth to ensure that this will happen.
You see, Judah may have been the fourth born of Jacob, which means he had three older brothers ahead of him in the inheritance and blessing totem pole. He wasn’t even his father’s favorite son. Joseph had that distinction. But the story of Joseph is about God preserving Joseph so that Joseph might preserve his brothers, including Judah. It is imperative that Judah lived through the famine and was able to have children and grandchildren of his own. Genesis 49:10 says “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” This is a prophetic blessing from Jacob to the progeny of Judah. In relation to Genesis 12 and Genesis 3, Judah would be the descendant of the serpent-crushing Seed of Abraham that will also be King.
Now, let me connect the dots for you in case you haven’t yourself. The book of Matthew gives us a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestors back through the ages. It starts with Abraham in verse 2 of chapter 1: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron…” and it goes on from there. Perez, the son/grandson of Judah, is a direct ancestor to Jesus, the serpent-crushing King descendant from Abraham’s seed.
Genesis 38 is a reminder that God’s will shall always be done. It is also a reminder that God does not choose anyone based on their own merit. God chose a idolatrous old man to begin a nation in Abraham. And God chose a greedy, brother-selling, prostitute-monger who is both father and grandfather to be the ancestor of King Jesus.
If we are saved and call ourselves a Christian, it is not because of anything we did to deserve it. We are idolatrous wanders. We are selfish prostitutes and prostitute-mongers. Yet, God, in His infinite kindness, reaches down from Heaven with sovereign grace, and saves us anyway.
Genesis 38 is a reminder of how depraved and wicked we are, and how completely gracious God is. And how His will for a serpent-crushing Seed of Abraham will be King of kings and Lord of lords. And I, for one, am thankful for that reminder.