Sex, Scandal and Betrayal: Genesis 38
Okay Friends, This is going to be a wild ride.
Genesis 38 is one of my favorite passages in scripture, because I think we get a much different view of the Lord than we’ve gotten anywhere else. There’s a nuance to what is happening here that is unmatched in other passages, especially Old Testament passages where people are getting themselves smote.
Genesis 38 gives us a bit of an introduction to Judah and his family. He had 3 sons- Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar was given to Er as a wife. Genesis 38:7 tells us that Er was wicked in the eyes of the Lord, so God put him to death. He got smote. We got a precedent. If you were wicked in the eyes of the Lord, you got smote. Now, Tamar was left as a childless widow.
Going into this chapter, it is really important to understand the historical and cultural context of marriage and womanhood during this time. The patriarch of the family (in this case, Judah) would choose a wife for his son. He chose Tamar for Er. If the son died, leaving his wife a childless widow, as was the case here, that wife would be given to the brother in order to conceive an heir. That meant that Tamar was to be given to Onan for the purpose of procreation.
They were to have sex, for the purpose of procreation.
Now, the heir conceived during this sexual act would not be Onan’s heir, but rather Er’s. Got that? So he was making a child that would NOT BE HIS, because of the way the custom worked. Because Er was the oldest, he was set to have the greatest inheritance. If Onan created an heir for Er, that heir’s very existence would actually impact Onan’s own inheritance.
However, this was a Godly family. They liked to look as though they honored the Lord. They were part of Abraham’s lineage. There were a lot of promises and inheritances that came with being part of Abraham’s lineage, and that was especially true of being the oldest son to give Judah an heir. If Tamar did NOT conceive, that honor would have gone to Onan. In his own selfish ambition and desire, he wanted that for himself. Tamar knew that this right had been given to her, by her marriage covenant.
She also knew the marriage custom that was in place to provide some measure of protection for women like her. In this particular culture, patriarchy ruled and women had very few options. To be without a husband and without children was a disgrace and left a woman with very little protection, provision or legacy. This custom ensured that her position, protection, provision and legacy were preserved.
Judah was a God-honoring man. He gave Tamar to Onan, as was the custom, to conceive an heir for Er.
Onan, caught in his own selfish attitude and mindset, used Tamar sexually, likely more than once, and rather than honoring the custom to provide Tamar the offspring she was promised, he spilled his semen on the ground. Verse 9 says, “But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife…”
Sex Ed 101: Semen needs to get inside of a woman. That’s pretty important for conception to occur because semen contains sperm, and sperm need to swim up the vagina, through the cervix, the uterus and into the Fallopian tube, where it meets with the egg, creating new life. Spilling on the ground was a pretty good way to avoid conception. It’s not 100% foolproof, (please don’t count on this to avoid pregnancy) but clearly it worked, because Tamar did not get pregnant. There was no heir from Onan.
Now, not only did Onan not give Tamar the heir that was due to her, but he was also repeatedly using her sexually. He was exploiting her body over and over again, under the guise of attempting to impregnate her on his brother’s behalf, while not actually trying to do so at all. It’s repulsive. And he was doing all of this under this guise of righteousness, with all of the people around him believing that he was trying to selflessly give his brother a son; an heir, even though it would negatively affect his own inheritance.
So what did God think of this? Did he think that Tamar was gross, repeatedly having sex with her husband’s brother? We get no indication of that. She was honoring the custom that was in place, that had likely occurred many times, with many women before her. This may sound really gross to us in our society today, because if our husbands died we could just get a job and take care of ourselves. Pay the mortgage. We could remarry, and we would still be considered desirable as a spouse despite our previous sexual encounters. None of that was true or accessible for Tamar. This was her only real option.
God was displeased with Onan, though. So much so, that He put him to death. Onan got himself smote too. So now we have three people- Er, Tamar and Onan. Of the three, two have been smote. Tamar was not one of them.
Now, Judah saw this and he was really reluctant to give her to his third son, Shelah. Verse 11 says that he was afraid Shelah would die too.
I don’t really blame the guy. If two of my boys died surfing, you better believe my youngest would never go surfing, if I could control it. Judah didn’t see the full picture, he only knew that the two sons who had sex with Tamar were now dead.
So Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house until Shelah could grow up, and basically forgot about her. Shelah got married off to someone else and Tamar was left as a childless widow. In the meantime, Judah’s wife died.
When the time of mourning was over, Judah decided to head to his friend’s house, and Tamar heard about it. You know how small town gossip works.
Now, here’s where it gets super crazy. The custom was that if there were no brothers left to produce offspring, that responsibility then fell to the father-in-law. Judah had withheld Shelah from her, so Tamar had decided that she was going to take it upon herself to get offspring directly from Judah.
She dressed herself as a prostitute and positioned herself along his path and waited. How did she know that he would decide to solicit a prostitute? I have no idea. But sure enough, he came walking along and solicited her services, as one does, when one is in mourning. *sarcasm* Since he had no immediate means to pay her, he left his staff and signet as a pledge that he would send payment.
And FINALLY, Tamar conceives.
Now, a few months pass by. Judah has attempted to pay the prostitute but could not find her, so he stopped looking, letting her keep his pledge rather than payment. Would you really want to wander around searching for a prostitute so that you could make sure you paid her fairly?
Then the gossip train got back to Judah, and he discovered that Tamar was pregnant. He declared that SHE SHOULD BE BURNED.
Now, Judah solicited sex from a prostitute.
His daughter in law got pregnant out of wedlock and he declared she should be BURNED?!?! Hypocrisy, much?
But Tamar was ready for this. She simply showed the staff and signet, declaring that the man who got her pregnant owned these items.
Judah realized that her conception was righteous. She should have been given offspring of his lineage. He should have given her to Shelah, and when he did not, he should have went to her himself. He never did. He had failed in his own duties, according to the custom of the time. She took it upon herself to ensure that they were honored. When he realized this, he declared, “She is more in the right than I am, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
And I would argue that God agrees.
Because all through this story, God was in the business of smiting the ones who were evil, who were making decisions out of selfish ambition and who were not righteous in his sight. Tamar did not get smote.
Not only did God not smite her, but God blessed her richly. She gave birth to twins. Her son, Perez, is part of the lineage of Christ.
Did you catch that?
This offspring, this son, That Tamar dressed as a prostitute to conceive, is part of the lineage of Jesus. God was putting the evil ones in this story to death, but with Tamar, he gave her a son who ultimately helped bring Christ into the world, giving us the New Covenant.
Tamar’s motives mattered. Judah’s motives mattered. Onan’s motives mattered.
To God, your motives matter.
The “why” behind the decisions that we make is often just as, if not more important than the actual decision itself.
If we JUST talk about dressing up as a prostitute to trick her father in law into sex, versus spilling semen on the ground, it’s really hard to understand why Onan ended up smote but Tamar did not. But motive matters.
The heart, the intention and the motive behind why you do what you do matters to God. It matters so much.
I encourage you to take a moment and prayerfully analyze your motives- for all of your decisions, both righteous and not-so-righteous. Why do you do what you do? Offer your heart up to the Lord.
Lord, thank you for being a God who sees ME, who knows ME, who understands everything about me. Thank you for Tamar’s story, for the nuance of this Old Testament story of motive, history and culture. Thank you for Judah, and the testimony of swift repentance and recognition of his own failures. Thank you for demonstrating, time and time again, that you use people from all circumstances to do great things. Perez, the son of a woman who was pushed to such desperate measures, part of the lineage of Christ. Thank you for what that means to this not-quite, never-get-it-right, nobody like me. Amen.