Wicked Sons of Judah

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” (Gen. 38:11).  

- Genesis 38:1–11

Some Midianites had just sold Joseph into Egypt before our excursus on providence. Today, we open to Genesis 38 where Moses passes over Joseph briefly to look at another son of Jacob.

The temporary emphasis on Judah is expected because Moses is in the process of recounting the story of Israel’s children (“the generations of Jacob,” 37:2a). Genesis 38 also tells us how Judah begins to change from a heartless son to one willing to sacrifice himself for another (chap. 44). It is therefore important for Moses to include his story.

Judah showed himself a scoundrel when Joseph was sold into slavery (37:26–28), and today’s passage bears out this evaluation. First, Judah marries a Canaanite (38:1–5). Thus, he dishonors Jacob who, like his fathers before him, probably warned his sons not to marry pagans (24:1–9; 26:34–35; 28:1–2). Judah also fails as a father. His son Er marries Tamar, whom scholars agree was a Canaanite woman. He is so evil that the Lord takes his life (38:6–7).

A man who died childless in ancient Israel might miss out on God’s pledge to give His people many offspring (Deut. 7:13), and his widow would have been left destitute. However, the Lord graciously addressed such dire situations. The dead man’s brother had to marry his sister-in-law (levirate marriage) and count the first son they bore as his dead brother’s child. This kept the brother’s name from vanishing and gave the imperiled woman an inheritance (25:5–10). 

Judah’s other son Onan is evil because he violated this regulation, which was a known custom even before God sanctioned it in the Mosaic code. Onan is willing to marry Tamar and enjoy the physical pleasures of their relationship, but he is unwilling to bear the burden of raising up a son for his brother. Each time he sleeps with Tamar he acts to prevent impregnating her (Gen. 38:8–9). By this Onan figuratively raises his fist in protest against heaven since his deeds ultimately attempt to block God’s promise to give Jacob many grandsons (35:11). Thus, the Lord strikes him down (38:10).

After this, Judah delays giving his last son to Tamar for fear that he too may die (v. 11). Thus, all her in-laws fail to act justly by her.

Coram Deo

Paul tells us that anyone who fails to provide for his family has denied the faith and is “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Onan was killed when he would not give a son to Er or a provider for Tamar, and so we must not take a failure to provide for our families lightly. Note that provision is much more than just food and shelter. God will also reckon with us if we fail to spend quality time with spouses and children or do not point them to Christ (1 Sam. 3:10–14).

Passages for Further Study

Deut. 27:19
2 Kings 4:1–37
Isa. 1:21–31
Luke 10:25–37

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