Sermon: Judah in the Far Country

Last week, we started our series through the life of Joseph, in Genesis 37-50. It is a story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of the pit, in the valley seasons of life. However, while the story centers on Joseph, Joseph is not present in our passage this morning. Instead, we will be switching to Judah for just this week. It’s Genesis 38, verses 1 through 30. Genesis 38. Genesis is the first book in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Genesis 38, beginning in verse 1. One important note before we hear God’s Word this morning: Not everything the Bible records people doing is approved by God. In fact, there is very little in our passage this morning that is an example of what we should do. Yet, as God’s word it still has much to teach us. It’s Genesis 38, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Lord, open our hearts to your word, lead us in repentance and faith as we respond, and set our hearts firmly on Jesus Christ, our only Saviour. Amen. 

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shua; he married her and went into her. She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. Yet again she bore a son and she named him Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to this brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” – for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house. 

In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, and and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, “Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?” But they said, “No prostitute has been here.” So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her; moreover the townspeople said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’” Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.”

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not giver her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again.

When the time of her deliver came, there were twins in her womb. While she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, “This one came out first.” But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out with a crimson thread on his hand, and he was named Zerah.

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God. 

You will not find this story in our average children’s Bible. We have plenty in our home right now, and this story is mysteriously absent. The story of Joseph is always there, but we conveniently and, perhaps, comfortably slide right past this story to get back to Joseph. We might even wonder why this story is here. Why is this is the Bible? Of all the stories in the life of God’s people, what is this one doing in the Bible, and why right here? I thought we were in the story of Joseph, he has been taken down to Egypt, we want to know what happened, what is this troubling story of Judah doing right here in Genesis? 

If you are wondering this, you are not alone. This is not a story of shining examples. In fact, almost everything done in this story is an example of just what not to do. 

This story might seem like a weird and random aside, but as I hope we will see this morning, it is key for understanding the whole rest of the story of the Bible. In order to catch this, I want us to see a movement, a moment, and a way that is made. A movement, a moment, and a way that is made. 

  1. A Movement: The Descent of Judah

First, I want us to see the movement of Judah down and down away from God. It’s verse 1: It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. After Joseph is cast into the pit and then cast into slavery, Judah goes down from this brothers. The wording is no accident. Judah’s movement away from his brothers, away from the covenant people, away from Israel, is the beginning of a steady descent away from God and into ruin. When it says that Judah goes down, we are being told not just of the physical reality of Judah separating from his brothers, but of the spiritual reality of descending into darkness.

For Judah, it begins by him forsaking fellowship with the covenant people and, instead, choosing fellowship with the Canaanites. He first settles down by Hirah the Adullamite. Then he sees a daughter of a particular Canaanite, Shua, and marries her. Biblically, this is a bad sign. When Abraham wanted to find a wife for his son, Isaac, he instructed a servant to go all the way back to his homeland in Haran, because Abraham did not want Isaac marrying one of the Canaanites. When Isaac had two sons, it was Esau who married two Canaanite women, who were a bane and blight upon the family. Rebekah said she would rather die than have Jacob also marry a Canaanite, so Jacob is sent all the way back to Haran for a wife. The people of God were not to marry from the people of Canaan, the people of the land. 

The reason was not ethnic or racial, but religious. The Canaanites worshipped the false god Baal and his consort Asherah. Marriage is a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. To unite in marriage is for two peoples to become one. The danger of marrying Canaanites was that they would lead the people of God away from faithfulness to the LORD, lead them to begin to worship other gods. 

But Judah marries Shua’s daughter. He leaves the people of God, goes down from this brothers, and is united to the Canaanites. Already he is beginning to step away from his calling and identity as part of the people of God. 

At first, things seem to go well. Judah’s wife has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They must have lived a long time in that land, away from God’s people, and done pretty well. The sons grow up until the oldest is of marrying age. Judah, in typical fashion of the day, finds a wife for his eldest son, Er. 

Here is where things begin to fall apart. While on the surface everything must have looked fine – nice family, three nice kids, all looks well – something rotten had begun to take root. Judah’s descent from his brothers, from the land, from the LORD, had an impact on his family. We might think that the state of our soul, our relationship with God, is incredibly personal, and it is. But a life lived walking with God or a life lived walking down and away from God is going to leave marks on those around us. Spiritual apathy is contagious and when the patriarch Judah, the head of his household, spends years knowingly wandering in the far country away from God, his family is impacted.

It turns our Er is wicked. Verse 7: But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. We do not know the nature of Er’s wickedness, only that it resulted in God’s judgment upon him. This creates a crisis. Er died without any heirs. Without intervention, his line will die out. The typical way of dealing with that problem in that time, and later commanded in the Law of Moses, was for the brother of the dead man to take the widow into his home, conceive children with her who would would raised as the dead man’s children and would inherit his property and place in the family. So this is what Judah tells Onan, the second son, to do. Verse 8: Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan’s children with Tamar were to be treated as children of Er and in this way, Er’s family would continue. 

Yet, it is not Er alone who is wicked. Onan refuses to take up his responsibility to Er and Tamar. He refuses to have and raise children that are not his own. Onan’s principle sin is his hatred of his brother, his acting and wishing for his brother’s family to die out. However, to refuse publicly would have resulted in Onan being deeply shamed and humiliated. Deuteronomy 25:7-10 says, “And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off 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 called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.” Onan does not want to go through this, but also does not want to raise up children for his dead brother, Er. 

Instead, Onan finds away to get what he wants, avoid humiliation, and gives him opportunity for a different sin. Verse 9: But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to this brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. In addition to the sin of hating his brother, Onan also desires the pleasure of sex without the possibility of children. He could have been honest and endure the public shame. That would have been wrong, but better than this. He could have taken her into his home, but not had sex with her since he didn’t want to raise Er’s kids. That would have been wrong, but better than this. Instead, Onan takes her into his home, sleeps with her – not just once, verse 9 says ‘whenever’ as if this happened regularly – and does so in a way to ensure she would not get pregnant. 

Onan not only hates his brother, but selfishly and sinful takes pleasure for himself while denying Tamar what is due to her. It doesn’t take much imagination for how this must have been for Tamar. Onan wants sex without responsibility. He wants pleasure with the possibility of consequences unless he wants them. He uses her and then refuses to do what is right by her. 

God judges Onan too. The two older sons are dead and Judah begins to be afraid. But before we go any farther in Judah’s descent away from his brothers and away from God, we should note that our culture’s vision of sex, no matter what activity happens in the bedroom, is profoundly onanistic. The ideal of sex is pleasure without responsibility, whether that responsibility comes in the form of marriage or childbearing. It is sex cut off and divorced from covenant and the possibility of children. Yet, in this ideal we pretend that no one suffers, that love is love, that whatever happens between two consenting adults is no one’s business but their own. We pretend when, in fact, it affects everyone. Just as Judah’s movement down away from his brothers and God made marks on his family, what we do or don’t do in the privacy of our bedrooms, and who we do it with and the vision of life and sex that accompany it, does, in fact, impact us all. In an onanistic world, a world of sex without responsibility, it is the children who grow up with one or another parent out of the picture who suffer. In an onanistic world, a world of sex without responsibility, it is the children who never grow up at all, but are snuffed out before first breath, that suffer. In an onanistic world, it is men and women who are used and use each other for no other purpose than their own pleasure, who end up feeling less, feeling hollow, feeling cheaper by the end. It is an onanistic world that perpetuates prostitution and sex trafficking – institutional ways of pleasure without responsibility, without love, without covenant. 

God’s response to such a vision, such a world is clear. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. But, friends, we have sadly not reached the bottom yet for Judah and his family. Judah has begun to be scared. Two sons are dead and only one left. Perhaps Judah has begun to see that his sons are wicked and worries about judgment falling on Shelah as well. But based on his actions, it is more likely that he fears this is all because of Tamar. Two husbands, both dead now, is she a black widow? Has she brought a curse down on the family? So instead of inviting Tamar to wait with the family until the youngest, Shelah, is old enough to marry, Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait. 

Time passes and Shelah grows up. It turns out, Judah had no intention of marrying him to Tamar. Eventually, Judah’s wife dies and he goes into mourning. This move away from the brothers, move down from his place in the covenant people, had started off well, but seems to be ending in death. Wife – dead. Er – dead. Onan – dead. Shelah is all that is left and he refuses to risk him. 

After the period of mourning, Judah heads up to Timnah to shear his sheep. Tamar gets word and rushes off to see him on the way. She disguises herself, taking off the widow’s garments she has worn for years, and covering her face with a veil, wrapping herself and sitting by the side of the road. 

Some people think that Tamar had the rest of this already planned out, but I am not so sure. Unrecognizable, she sits by the road and sees that Shelah has grown up and that Judah clearly had no intention of marrying her to him. Again, she has been denied a kid, and this time it looks like permanently. 

Let’s just trace Judah’s descent a second. He leaves and goes down from his brothers, marries a Canaanite, and has three sons. The first two of these sons turn out to be wicked and God strikes them dead, so Judah casts their widow out of the family, promising to marry her to the youngest son, but never intending to do so. Now, Judah sees a veiled woman on the side of the road, assumes she is a prostitute and approaches her looking for sex. He does not know it is Tamar, but none of that makes his actions much better. 

When talking of payment, he offers her a kid. The irony should not be lost on us. A kid is just what Tamar has been seeking, and it is just what Onan refused to give her and what Judah has been refusing to give her in the form of Shelah. It is only here, in her boldest and most desperate moment that she is finally promised what she was looking for. Yet, she rightly does not trust Judah’s word. She asks for a pledge, for collateral, until Judah pays up. 

She asks for his signet, cord, and staff. The signet would have been used as a stamp to sign documents with his name. The cord and staff would have been symbols of his authority and power. These are the marks of his identity, position, and authority. She basically asks for his passport, credit card, and house keys. Without batting an eye, he gives them to her, sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant. Later when Judah sends her a kid and cannot find her, he lets her keep them to avoid potential public embarassment. He views being laughed at as worse than giving up his own identity and calling. 

Judah basically forsakes his birthright for this one night. Judah becomes Esau all over again, selling his birthright for a pot of stew. 

We are close to the bottom for Judah. Three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy is obvious and some version of the story has gotten out. Judah is told that Tamar has played the whore and has become pregnant. Judah burns with hypocritical anger. And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”

Judah, who himself slept with a prostitute, is filled with burning rage to think that Tamar has become one. His hypocrisy highlights how easy it is for us to become harsher and more severe with sins in others than we know are in ourselves. Like Judah, we can hypocritically cover the depths of our own sin by piling on condemnation on others. 

This is the lowest point in the whole story of Genesis: Judah burning with hypocritical rage against Tamar. Think of what has happened. Abraham was called to leave everything behind with the promise that God would give him a child and bless him and bless the nations through him. After years of waiting the child is finally born. That child, Isaac, waits decades of his own to have children, only to have two, but one became wicked and fell away. The remaining son, Jacob, struggles his whole life and finally – finally – we begin to see the promise of God fulfilled. Twelve sons, not yet more than the stars in the sky, but a beginning. Yet what has happened. Reuben, the firstborn, slept with Jacob’s concubine. Both a heinous action, but also an attempt to usurp his father’s position and authority. Reuben has become wicked. The second and third sons, Simeon and Levi, after their sister Dinah is taken, trick a whole city into being circumcised and then slaughter and pillage the whole town while the men are recovering. Four more sons, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, have had an evil report given about them. Joseph, for all we know, is gone forever. All the sons participated in some way in the enlsavement of Joseph. Now Judah, the fourth son, the leader of the brothers, has gone away and his family line seems gone and almost extinct as he pours out wrath on Tamar. 

What is left? What is left for Judah? What is there for us when we have gone down and away, when for days, weeks, or years we have intentionally walked away from God. What is left for us? This is the movement I wanted you to see, the movement of Judah down and away that mirrors each of us in our sin as we move down and away from the LORD. 

2. A Moment: Repentance

Yet, here comes the moment I need you to see. As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not giver her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again.

When Tamar puts Judah face to face with his own sin, Judah repents. Throughout this story, Tamar is the only one truly committed to the cause of Judah, she is the only one seeking the birth of a child, the child. When Judah descends and his family spirals, it is Tamar who seeks the child. However much we might question what she did, Scripture is clear that she is the righteous one in this story, at the very least the most righteous. Tamar, in her own way, becomes like the prophet Nathan. Judah, like his descendant David after him, burns with rage against another for the very same sin he has committed. Tamar, like Nathan, holds forth the evidence of Judah’s sin and says, “You are the man.” 

And Judah repents. Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I. Judah acknowledges his sin and returns to his brothers, returns to the people of God. For the rest of the story, we find Judah back with the brothers, no longer down and away from them. He does not sleep with Tamar again, leaving that sin behind. 

Judah, in this moment, becomes a man after God’s own heart, not because he always did right, but because when confronted with his sin, he repented. He acknowledges his sin and returns.

This is why this passage is at the heart of understanding all that happens in the Bible. We should note the daring faith of Tamar, but it is the repentant faith of Judah that should stop us in our tracks. Most of this passage contains nothing where we can say, “Go and do likewise,” but here with Judah, we see a moment that confronts each of us. 

Judah becomes a man after God’s own heart, becomes a model and beacon for us, not because he always does what is right – he doesn’t – but because when he is confronted with his sins, he repents. 

Your story of descent may have different details than Judah’s. Your path away from God might have taken different side roads, but each of our stories eventually arrives at the same moment here with Judah. 

And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”

We are confronted with the reality of our sin, of just how far we have gone, how lost we are. The evidence stares us in the face and we are stopped in our tracks. Will we respond like Judah? Will you? 

Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I.

Judah acknowledged his sin and turned back to God. Will we? Will you? 

3. God makes a way, a breach: Perez -> Jesus

The last thing I want you to see is just how God makes a way. The story ends with the birth of twins: Perez and Zerah. They fight in the womb, and like Jacob and Esau before them, one comes out red, but it is the other who is the chosen one. The son without the crimson thread is named Perez, meaning breach, for the midwife said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” When the line of Judah seemed dead in the water, God made a breach, a way out or through. He provided Perez and Zerah even through the deception of Tamar. And Perez, that breach, that breakthrough child, would become the ancestor of David, the king and man after God’s own heart. And from David would eventually come Jesus, the great way-maker. Through him, when all humanity seemed dead in sin, God made a breach, a way or through. 

The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 lies close to the heart of Scripture, because it shows a story of Judah’s descent into sin, his repentance, and God’s restoration of him. Yet, it also lies close to the heart because from Judah, from Tamar, from Perez, would come the God-man, Jesus the Messiah, who would make a way out of sin, out of death, out of the far country, for all who repent and come to him, for all his children.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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