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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Genesis Chapter 38


gen 38:0

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.

Genesis 38:1

gen 38:1

About this time, i.e., after the sale of Joseph, while still feeding the flocks of Jacob along with his brethren (Gen 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 Gen 46:8.))

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

Gen 38:2-5

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 (Jos 15:44; Mic 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.

Gen 38:6-10

When Ger was grown up, according to ancient custom (cf. Gen 21:21; Gen 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 Num 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 (Deu 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).

Gen 38:11

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."

Genesis 38:12

gen 38:12

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 (Jos 15:10; Jos 19:43), but Timnah on the mountains of Judah (Jos 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 Gen 38:12 in relation to what follows.

Gen 38:13-14

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 (Jos 15:34).

Gen 38:15-18

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.

Gen 38:19-21

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., Deu 23:18). This was no doubt regarded as the most respectable designation for public prostitutes in Canaan.

Gen 38:22-23

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.

Gen 38:24-26

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 (Deu 22:20-21, Deu 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 (Lev 21:9 and Lev 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 Gen 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.

Gen 38:27-28

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; Pro 13:10), round which the midwife tied a scarlet thread, to mark this as the first-born.

Gen 38:29-30

"And it came to pass, when it (the child) drew back its hand (כּמשׁיב for משׁיב כּהיות as in Gen 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 Gen 46:12; Num 26:20. Perez was the ancestor of the tribe-prince Nahshon (Num 2:3), and of king David also (Rut 4:18.; Ch1 2:5.). Through him, therefore, Thamar has a place as one of the female ancestors in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Next: Genesis Chapter 39