62. Genesis 37:25-28, 38:1-19, and 46:12

III. D. continued

3. Judah (Genesis 37:25-28, 38:1-30, 43:1-10, 44:14-34, 46:12, and 49:8-12)

With Judah we have more personal detail because Judah was the chosen ancestor of the Messiah. God ordained, through Judah, to fulfill His promise to Abraham to bless all the peoples of the earth, and to keep His  promise to the serpent to raise up the Savior who would destroy the results of death. Chapters 37 and 38 show Judah as an unscrupulous person, willing to kill and then to sell his brother whom he hated; but they also show a man, like Israel, with whom God wrestled. We will split up Judah’s life into two sections of these notes in order to keep them short, but it does not divided up very naturally this way.

Judah would have been about ten years old when the family arrived in Canaan. He would have been about eighteen at the massacre of Shechem, old enough to participate and willing enough if he had been there. It appears that before the massacre Judah had essentially left home. There is no reason given why he would have left, but in a family as dysfunctional as this one it is easy to see how it could happen. Judah, in this interpretation, was a restless and independent child who finally had had enough of his family. When an opportunity came, however it came, he moved out and went to live with a native of the land, a man named Hirah. 38:1 means that in this general time frame between the massacre and the selling of Joseph, Judah spent much of his time with Hirah and was married to a daughter of another native named Shua. Shua is said to be a Canaanite, and by this time he could be the genuine article. Hirah lived in the vicinity of Timnah, half way between Bethel and Bethlehem but offset twenty miles west. He was an Adullamite, a man from Adullam, a city just ten miles west of Bethlehem.

Judah was close enough that he could visit his home whenever he wished. If Israel had been the forceful type, he might have tried to make Judah stay home, but he wasn’t. More likely he put Judah in charge of a portion of the family flocks and herds to at least make his absence practical. Thus it was quite possible for him to be present when the anger of the brothers boiled over against Joseph three years after the massacre. It was Judah who came up with the idea of selling Joseph rather than killing him; what was the profit in murder, anyway? Judah was not morally better than Simeon and Levi, just more practical. His anger and hatred did not control him. He used it in a businesslike fashion.

Judah married the daughter of Shua, who is never given a name, as early as his eighteenth or nineteenth year. This timing is necessary to fit in the subsequent history of Judah and his children before the whole family left for Egypt. She must have had the three sons in fairly rapid succession, Er and Onan before Joseph had been sold, and Shelah some time afterward. I would hypothesize that after Joseph was sold – possibly because of suppressed guilt and further alienation from his family – Judah moved further away from them all. By the birth of Shelah, he was living in Chezib (=Achzib) in the southern part of the land that his descendants would later possess, about sixty miles from his father Israel. We are told later that he kept some of his flocks at Timnah so he had become rich enough by himself to have to split up his property.

By 38:6 we jump to Judah’s eldest son Er as an adult and married to another native woman, Tamar, as arranged by Judah. From 38:12 we know Tamar was from the area around Timnah where Hirah lived and possibly Hirah helped Judah arrange the marriage during one of his visits to his friend. This must have been near the end of the time of plenty, just before the seven years of famine, when Er was about twenty years old. Er was so evil that God killed him outright, and considering what God had tolerated up to that point, he must have been evil indeed. Er was the first, but not the last, person recorded in the Bible as being evil enough that God Himself felt it necessary to destroy him. If Er and Onan and Shelah’s mother was a Canaanite, this could be the first indication of how evil the influence of a Canaanite marriage could be, and why it would be such a serious issue later.

The same was true of Judah’s second son, Onan. According to the custom of the day, as well as the later Mosaic Law, Onan was expected to take Tamar as a wife and raise up children for his brother Er, indicating that Er maintained status as one of the people of God in spite of being so evil. Er still had a right to a heritage in Israel and it was Onan’s duty to preserve his brother’s name. Further Er’s continued standing among God’s people is underlined by God’s anger at Onan for refusing to do this duty. Onan seems to have refused to raise up a child for Er from simple selfishness, but he did not refuse in so many words. He was underhanded, pretending to try to impregnate Tamar but ensuring that no pregnancy could result. He was thus an evil man pretending to be a good man. When God executed him, He must also have somehow made known to Judah what his son had done and the story was preserved in the oral tradition.

Nonetheless Er and Onan were still members of the Covenant people; they were still what we would call “saved”. They may have been so evil that they could not be allowed to live, but they were never purged from the Covenant relationship to God. In fact in Genesis 46 when the Scripture lists the descendants of Jacob who went up to Egypt it specifically includes Er and Onan, even though they were dead. When the summary of Leah’s children is given the total is 33 and that includes both Er and Onan, and they are included in 46:26 in the total of Israel’s descendants who went to Egypt. Three times Er and Onan were included in the count, even though they were dead, even though they had been too evil to live; they still had a standing among God’s people in spite of it all. Grace works all the way to the end, and can even work through a necessary execution.

Judah by now was afraid that his last son was in similar peril of execution as well, either because he knew Shelah’s character was as debased as his brothers’ or because he had a superstitious idea that Tamar was at fault. Judah tried to protect Shelah by sending Tamar to stay with her father until Shelah grew up. Shelah was younger than Onan, probably on the order of fifteen or sixteen, and Judah used his youth as the excuse, but it was really just that he was afraid. Judah was probably no more superstitious than any of his day but this was, after all, the Covenant of Revelation. He was a target to be spoken to.

When several years had passed and Shelah had grown up enough and Judah’s own wife had died, he visited his old friend Hirah for the time of sheep shearing, in Timnah near Tamar’s home. It was just as the years of famine were beginning, about the year 1869 b.c. Judah would have been about forty years old and Shelah was eighteen. Tamar knew that Shelah was old enough to be married now but that Judah had not sent for her. When she learned that Judah was coming but that Shelah was not, it became clear to her that Judah had no intention of giving her to Shelah. Perhaps her father had also begun making discrete inquiries as to what was going on, or perhaps he had begun thinking about what else to do with her.

She had limited options open to her if she did not marry Shelah. Women in such circumstances were sometimes forced to become prostitutes by their fathers, though that would become illegal under Moses. Being married to Judah’s sons cannot have been very pleasant, but her situation was hopeless. It was a desperate enough to justify a desperate plan: she decided to disguise herself as a temple prostitute (to which life she might be forced in any event), set up her tent on the road that Judah would take into Timnah, and lure him in. She would be wearing the veil of a temple prostitute and Judah would not see her face clearly enough to recognize her.

This plan was a long shot but then remember Jacob’s wedding night. Many things could have gone wrong. What if Judah ignored her? What if she didn’t get pregnant? What if some other man got there first? But if one is engaged in a desperate plan, one cannot worry about all the details that might go wrong. Oddly enough, and against all reasonable expectations, her plan worked perfectly: she obtained Judah’s seal, cord, and staff  – any one of which would have identified him, he did not recognize her, and she  became pregnant.

We must say that God was with her. God brought her to Judah’s attention, God brought her to Judah’s attention in such a way that he would want to go in to her, God protected her from strangers who might have gotten there first and ruined it all, and God brought about her pregnancy. All of these coincidences require some very intimate participation from God. How could God get involved in such a sordid scheme? Yet He obviously did. The circumstances leave God very little wiggle room; the plan could not have worked at all without some cooperation on God’s part. We could say “He allowed it all to happen but never aided its execution”. Such a grasping at straws is frequently used by well meaning people trying to get God off the hook, but it assumes a totally different character for God than the one He has.

If God is anything, He is a participant. Any interpretation of Scripture that portrays Him as a bystander, an allower of events, is suspicious. Isn’t this what it means to say that He is the living God: that He is active in daily events? From the very beginning, from the very first animal to be killed for its skin for clothing for Adam and Eve, God has shown His willingness to be totally involved in the dirt of creation and there is no reason to think that He ever changed His mind. In fact, the Incarnation is a striking assertion that He is still involved personally in the sordidness of the Creation. Furthermore, God was proud of His involvement in the affair. He italicized His involvement in her scheme by choosing Tamar and this pregnancy to be part of the line leading from Judah to the Messiah. And then He made sure the event was remembered in the oral tradition. And then He went out of His way to be sure Tamar was mentioned in the Messiah’s genealogy in Matthew. He wasn’t just permitting this scheme, He was immersed in it.  These were His own ancestors that were coming together; hence, the whole sordid plot is intimately interconnected to His own plot.

There is another problem with the story of Tamar and Judah that should be mentioned. Tamar disguised herself as a temple prostitute, one who was involved in the worship of Astarte. Astarte was deliberately mispronounced as Ashtoreth in the Hebrew Bible to confuse the name with another word that means “abomination”. Astarte is the same as the goddess Ishtar, the evening star, the goddess of love and fertility. Probably there were no self-employed prostitutes; the pagan temples seemed to have monopolized the profession. There are two different Hebrew words translated as “prostitute”, one in 38:15 and another in 38:21-22, but it is not clear what the distinction of meaning is; they are both translated as πορνη in the Septuagint, from which we get the word pornography. Tamar may not have intended much with the idolatrous aspect of her role; she simply wanted to lure Judah. But Judah was certainly implicated in the worship of Astarte by visiting her. Even though she was not actually a priestess of Astarte, Judah did not know it and his intention was to go to such a priestess. Hence we have the very brother chosen out of all the brothers to be the ancestor to the Messiah involved in the worship of the fertility goddess, and a direct ancestor of the Messiah was conceived in this idolatrous circumstance. This is the heritage that God chose as His own.

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