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We interrupt our story of Joseph to bring you this episode of Judah and Tamar. This account has historical significance in that it furnishes the genealogical background for the Davidic and Messianic line. This story is written in only one chapter, but please be aware that it takes place over a number of years. Judah is more than 20 years older than Joseph. His sons, Er and Onan, are more Joseph's age than he is. The chapter is placed here because Tamar and Judah's twins, Perez and Zerah, were born shortly after Joseph is sold away into slavery.

Reuben has lost the privileges of firstborn because he committed incest with one of Jacob's concubines. Simeon and Levi were demoted because of their spiteful and vengeful reaction to Dinah's rape--murdering a village full of men. Next in line is Judah who is chosen as the one through whom the royal line would come. It was this Judah who married a Canaanite, BathShua (1 Chronicles 2:3). BathShua gave him 3 sons, Er, Onan, and later, Shelah. The eldest, Er, marries Tamar and soon after dies because of his evil. We've seen the Lord destroy the whole wicked population except for 8 people in the Great Flood, and destroy the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. I believe this is the first recorded incidence of God slaying an individual because of his evil. [?] Our word "ERR" is derived from the Latin verb ERRARE. One of the books I was researching thought perhaps the Latin origin for this verb may have come from this man's name. One of the dictionary definitions for the verb ERR is "to violate an accepted standard of conduct." That certainly fits this man.

Judah asked his second son, Onan, to raise an heir for Er. This was done in accordance with the Levirate Law. The Israelites thought it important for a man to have an heir to perpetuate every male's name and to keep any property inheritance in the family. The Levirate marriage was an established custom among the tribes of that time and the Hebrews adopted this custom. This marriage custom is mentioned in the Nuzi Tablets that we have referred to from time to time. [Example of Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham.] Nuzi was a city north of Babylonia that has been excavated recently. There they found these tablets with a written record of customs/laws from before the 14th century B.C. Later this particular custom of levirate marriage becomes a part of the Mosaic Law to provide an heir and an inheritor of a dead brother's property and to provide a sort of welfare system for the widow.

The levirate marriage custom says that when an Israelite dies without leaving male issue, his nearest relative SHOULD marry the widow and continue the family of his deceased brother through the firstborn male child of their union. (Deuteronomy 25:6.) All the other children would be considered his own, but the first male child was considered the dead brother's son and his inheritor. If the nearest relative, e.g., a brother, chooses not to marry the widow, she subjected him to gross insult by telling the city elders, who would then call the brother on the carpet and try to persuade him to do his duty. If he persists, the widow is to go up to him in the presence of the elders, not in some council room, but in the open public, and pull his sandal off of his foot and spit in his face and she shall answer and say, "So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house." And the name of his house shall be "the house of him that had his sandal pulled off." (Deuteronomy 25:5-10.)

Onan, the second son of Judah, did not refuse to marry Tamar, but he wasn't compelled to fulfill his role. He didn't want Er to have the firstborn. Rather than saying, "No," to his father and Tamar, Onan uses Tamar, and God slays him for this.

Now there is a third son, Shelah, but Judah is getting rather leery and is afraid his third son might die if he marries Tamar. Being the head of the household, Judah sends Tamar away to her father's house, insisting she live as a widow until Shelah is older. It was sheer evasion, and Tamar is being used for the second time. Later, Judah's wife, BathShua, dies. And one day he meets a "prostitute" whom Judah, a widower, would like to use. He would pay her later. Ugaritic and Mesopotamian sources tell us that three articles had to be used to signify personal identification. Judah leaves his signet, belt and staff as collateral. The signet was a well-to-do man's "signature," since it was used to leave an impression in hot wax.

From the Hebrew words in verses 21 and 22, we know Tamar was not being a common everyday harlot--having sex for money. She was dressed as a religious prostitute whom Judah thought to be associated with some temple to a Canaanite god. These temple prostitutes combined a worship of the miracle and joy of procreation with a sense of awe and mystery concerning the process. This would have been an acceptable thing for widowed Judah to do in the eyes of the local inhabitants. This is a good example to illustrate that actions condoned by our society are not always acceptable to God. I'm sure we can all think of examples that our society today says is acceptable, but we know God would not accept them. Temple prostitution was not in God's plan when he said populate the earth. He meant marriage.

Three months later, Tamar is discovered to be pregnant. The word is brought to "righteous" Judah who orders her to be burned to death because he is told she was playing the harlot - sex for money. Since Tamar had been forced to live in widowhood under the pretense she was betrothed to Shelah, and since Judah was more than willing to fornicate, it's easy to see Judah had no grounds for his self-righteous reaction. Jesus tells us to first take the log out of our own eye before we attempt to take the speck out of our brother's eye. When we point out others' shortcomings and sins, our own will surely be pointed out as Judah's was.

Hittite law allowed a father as nearest of kin to fulfill levirate obligations by marrying a widowed daughter-in-law. So Tamar was not subjected to punishment under local law for her deception. Judah had been ignoring her marriage rights. However, Tamar's religious prostitution and deception of Judah, in spite of hard times, were not pleasing to God. So why did these two end up in the lineage of David and Jesus? Because God's GRACE is magnanimous enough to cover a multitude of sins. If God can pick up a harlot and a fornicator, dust off their dirtiness and use them for His cause, I suppose He can use the likes of you and me.

When we compare Judah with Joseph, we know how far Judah had fallen. No wonder God sent Jacob's family away to Egypt and out of the land of Canaan. By being so readily accepted by the Canaanites, the clan of Israel was being corrupted by the Canaanite customs and morals. In Egypt they would not be as acceptable. They looked different from the Egyptians. They were shepherds, and that occupation was detestable to Egyptians. Being shepherds made them smell different. So when the Israelites go down into Egypt to escape the famine and join Joseph, they are given the land of Goshen - away from the urban Egyptians. Egyptians would not even eat with an Israelite. We'll see later that even Joseph as a ruler was served food separately.

But that's getting ahead of our story in Genesis. Let's get back to Joseph in chapter 39. Joseph is framed by his master's wife and thrown into prison. Don't be misled by the text in chapter 39. Joseph was not thrown into prison one day and the next day put in charge of the other prisoners. It took time to earn the jail keeper's trust. Prison is not fun, even for the righteous. In chapter 41 when Joseph names his firstborn Manasseh, he says, "it is because God has made me forget all my hardship." He knew hard times in prison. Let me read to you from a letter from a friend of ours, a Christian in prison, wrongfully accused. Listen to his hardship. . . .

He was an innocent Christian in a maximum security prison, though he was not a maximum security prisoner. He was made to work on prison grounds doing outdoor, manual labor. He probably had never even mowed a yard before. He was more of a mental giant than a physical one. He was working on his dissertation for his Ph.D. when he was falsely accused.

Why did Joseph have to be in prison in the first place? He had done nothing wrong. What was he doing in Egypt? Why wasn't he at home enjoying the love of his father, Jacob? If God loved him, why did he have to go through 13 years of pain and deprivation? Israel and the church must learn from this that to be the elect means pain.

He endured all this because God had redemptive work to do. The nations were to be preserved in the face of the awful famine. God cared very much for Joseph, but he cared for the nations, too. God's redemptive work included Israel which he rescued through Joseph. Israel's salvation resulted in the appearance of the world's Savior.

To know that God has a loving purpose to fulfill in and through us, as well as to us, gives us power. It has been said that a man who knew WHY could live with any burden. If God came to our room each morning and said, "Now here is what is going to happen today and let me tell you how that fits into my purpose . . ." that would be enough; we'd grin and bear it. He doesn't do that, and that makes it hard.

But when you see Him in Christ, you know then that even if He stands silently watching your pain, He has a loving purpose. In a world of pain He won't exempt His children. In a world of sin, where to be a loving person means suffering, He won't exempt His children. It's knowing He loves us, beyond our ability to grasp, that helps us to allow Him to love others through us even when it means pain for us. Joseph later knew his pain had meaning, his suffering had purpose.

That means while you can't know the future's concrete details, you can know God who guides the future. And if He chooses to use you in such a way as to cause or allow pain, it's a loving choice. And should you say, "Why Me?", God might respond, "Why NOT you?" He used Joseph to the world's benefit and Jesus for world redemption, why not you or me?

Brenda and I have both read to you from the book On the Anvil, by Max Lucado, and his reference to the three kinds of tools--

  • the broken, rusted ones covered with cobwebs of no use to the master,
  • the tools on the anvil, being melted down and beaten into a usable shape again,
  • and then the third group of sharpened, shiny tools lying in the blacksmith's toolbox, available to their master, ready to fulfill their calling.
    This Joseph in despair, in prison, is not Joseph the broken tool or Joseph the tool being re-fired and reshaped; but this is Joseph the useful tool - being used by the Master. Sometimes it is painful being a tool for the Master. I imagine it would hurt to be a hammer. Yet we don't see Joseph getting mad and upset at the Blacksmith, the Master, God, for using him and bringing him pain and despair. Instead, Joseph is focusing his attention on the project at hand and is performing at his maximum for the Master. And the project will be successful.

    We've seen the characters of two different kinds of people that God used. The unrighteous in Chapter 38 (Judah and Tamar) and the righteous (Joseph) in Chapter 39. What do we need to apply to our lives out of these two chapters? First, we can't remove specks out of someone else's eye when we have a log in our eye. When the logs are removed from our eyes, then the person with the speck may come to us asking for help with his speck. Second, sometimes it is painful to be the Master's tool, but like Paul says in Romans 8:28, "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to His purpose."

    Jeannie Cole

    West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
    Ladies Bible Class, Spring 1989

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