Judah – a villain turns back

Date: Sunday, 3 May 2020 | Preacher:
Seri­es: | Bible text: Gene­sis 38
Hint: This ser­mon has been machi­ne trans­la­ted. Plea­se note that we can­not accept any respon­si­bi­li­ty for the accu­ra­cy of the content.

Judah is instru­men­tal in the sale of his bro­ther Joseph to Egypt. He then goes down to Cana­an. Cana­an stands for love of the tempt­ati­ons of the world. After acting out his sexu­al needs on his dis­gui­sed daugh­ter-in-law Tamar, he rea­li­ses his guilt and turns back. Now he is even wil­ling to lay down his life for his brother.

Judah was a bro­ther of Joseph who arran­ged for him to be sold into slavery in Egypt (Gene­sis 37:26f). Nor­mal­ly, the fol­lowing four­te­en chap­ters always focus on Joseph. But as in good fea­ture films, the­re is a fasci­na­ting sup­por­ting role here – Judah. It could be the script of a cur­rent, adult soap opera.

Judah descends

«It came to pass about this time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and joi­ned a man of Adullam, who­se name was Hira»(Gene­sis 38:1 LU). Judah sepa­ra­tes from his ten remai­ning bro­thers and goes his own way, down to Cana­an. This is not only to be unders­tood local­ly, but also spi­ri­tual­ly. Cana­an is an image of the attrac­tion of world­ly tempt­ati­ons: the desi­re to satisfy his sel­fi­sh desi­res. It is about hedo­nism, see­king immedia­te plea­su­res. This is what John is tal­king about: «Stop loving this world and what it offers you! For he who loves the world shows that the love of the Father is not in him»(1 John 2:15).

«And Judah saw the­re the daugh­ter of a Cana­a­ni­te, who­se name was Shuah, and took her to wife. And when he went in unto her, she con­cei­ved, and bare a son, and cal­led his name Ger. And she con­cei­ved again, and bare a son, and cal­led his name Onan. And she bare again a son, and cal­led his name Shelah […].» (V.2–5 LU). The mea­nings of the two names of the Cana­a­ni­te men men­tio­ned are sym­pto­ma­tic: Hira (Jude’s friend; v.12) means Nobi­li­ty and Shua is Wealth. Nobi­li­ty and Wealth the­se are two typi­cal repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of this world­ly guild. Judah goes his own way, and a rather god­less way at that. He thus does ever­ything that one should not do at that time and takes a wife from the wrong peop­le. Yet Judah has a very dif­fe­rent cal­ling. His name means Prai­se God and he should con­ti­nue the line of pro­mi­se. Judah saw, took and went in to the daugh­ter of Shua. This reminds us of Eve, who saw, took and ate (Gene­sis 3:6) – and – ins­tead of being hap­py – beca­me frus­tra­ted. In the cour­se of time, his wife gave birth to three sons: Ger, Onan and Shelah.

Errors and confusions

«And Judah gave unto Ger his first son a wife, who­se name was Tamar. But Ger dis­plea­sed the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.»(V.6+7 LU). Ger was so evil that God let him die. He did not want the line of his peop­le to con­ti­nue through Ger. No one can go down an evil path with impu­ni­ty in the long term. The events also cast a bad light on Judah. The lat­ter did not pro­tect him from the influ­en­ces of the Cana­a­ni­tes, but let him sli­de into a repre­hen­si­ble life.

And so Onan comes into play, who is sup­po­sed to enter into a pregnant mar­ria­ge with Tamar, which was alrea­dy cus­to­ma­ry at that time and was later regu­la­ted in the law (Deut. 25:5–10). Onan is to care for Tamar and car­ry on the fami­ly name. But Onan knew that the child­ren from this mar­ria­ge would not count as his own and that the inheri­tance would not go to him. Onan – also alrea­dy stee­ped in greed, does the fol­lowing: «But Onan did not want to father a son who was not his own heir. The­re­fo­re, every time he slept with Tamar, he let his seed flow on the ground»(V.9 NL). Onan does mar­ry his sis­ter-in-law and likes to satisfy his sexu­al lust, but it inter­rupts sexu­al inter­cour­se every time befo­re eja­cu­la­ti­on. In our lin­gu­is­tic usa­ge, the word Mas­tur­ba­te estab­lis­hed its­elf as a syn­onym for mas­tur­ba­ti­on. Ori­gi­nal­ly, howe­ver, it meant the Coitus inter­rup­tusa con­tracep­ti­ve method with low safe­ty. Onan is one like many – he satis­fies his lust in a sel­fi­sh way without taking respon­si­bi­li­ty. By let­ting his brother’s line die out, he com­mits a kind of frat­ri­ci­de. God also lets Onan die.

Judah is undis­cer­ning and sees no fail­u­re of its own. On the con­tra­ry, he loca­tes the pro­blem with Tamar. «Then Judah said to his daugh­ter-in-law Tamar: «Return to your par­ents» house and remain a widow until my son Shelah is old enough to mar­ry you». For he fea­red that Shelah would also die like his two bro­thers. So Tamar retur­ned to her par­ents» house and lived the­re.» (V.11 NL). Actual­ly, Judah is respon­si­ble for her wel­fa­re and also to make sure that she remar­ries. Ins­tead, he sends her back to her father. Judah did not trust God and take respon­si­bi­li­ty. He gave Tamar wise advice and post­po­ned the pro­blem until later. But it came back. His weak­ness and fal­se­hood caught up with him. Judah’s wife died. After the offi­cial peri­od of mour­ning, he went to ano­t­her town to she­ar his sheep. «When Tamar was told that her father-in-law was on his way to Tim­nah to she­ar sheep, she took off her widow’s garments and cove­r­ed herself with a veil. Then she sat down in front of the gate of Ena­jim, which is on the way to Tim­nah. For she knew that Shelah had grown up in the mean­ti­me, but that she had not been given to him in mar­ria­ge» (V.13+14 NL). Tamar sets about put­ting things right. She was appar­ent­ly more inte­res­ted in con­ti­nuing the line of Abra­ham than Judah. The desi­re of the phy­si­cal instincts can be reli­ed upon. Judah fol­lows his unbrid­led sex dri­ve and slept with Tamar without rea­li­sing who she was. He obvious­ly did this on a spon­ta­ne­ous whim. He did not even have any money with him. As pay­ment, he agreed with the pro­sti­tu­te on a kid from his flock, which he would deli­ver to her later. As a pledge, Judah had to lea­ve the signet ring with the cord and the staff. The­se items unmistaka­b­ly point to Judah as their owner and they are a sign that it is Tamar who recei­ves Judah’s fami­ly and inheri­tance. To satisfy his phy­si­cal lust quick­ly, Judah was rea­dy to give any pledge.

The very next day, his friend Hira (gen­ti­li­ty) was sup­po­sed to deli­ver the kid. But the­re was no pro­sti­tu­te any­whe­re to be found at the deli­very address. Three mon­ths later, Judah heard that Tamar was pregnant. A man with a strong sen­se of jus­ti­ce, he threw a tan­trum and deman­ded that his daugh­ter-in-law be bur­ned for not remai­ning faith­ful. The sen­tence was to be car­ri­ed out. But then Tamar’s bril­li­ant move paid off. Judah was con­fron­ted with his own guilt. The pro­sti­tu­te tur­ned out to be her own daughter-in-law.

Judah once decei­ved his father Jacob. A bil­ly goat and a garment play­ed a role: Joseph’s garment was dip­ped in the blood of the bil­ly goat and Jacob tells that his son died at the hands of a pre­d­a­tor. When Tamar decei­ves Judah, clothes and a bil­ly goat also play a role: Tamar dis­gui­ses herself as a pro­sti­tu­te and Judah offers her a he-goat as a reward. Judah once pre­sen­ted Jacob with the sign that would pro­ve Joseph’s death and asked his father to look at it care­ful­ly. Tamar now pres­ents Judah with the sign that pro­ves her inno­cence and his guilt and asks him to look at it care­ful­ly. God leads Judah in such a way that he reco­gni­s­es his guilt.

We should also be atten­ti­ve when we are outra­ged by the beha­viour and guilt of other peop­le. It may very well be that it is pre­cise­ly in this that we are con­vic­ted by God of our own guilt.

Judah turns back

For Judah, this expe­ri­ence marks the point of his con­ver­si­on. «And Judah knew it, and said, She is more righ­te­ous than I: for I have not given her unto Shelah my son. And he had no more sexu­al inter­cour­se with her.»(V.26 SCHL). Judah reco­gni­s­es that Tamar did the right thing and was con­cer­ned about the con­ti­nua­tion of the fami­ly. He also con­fes­ses his guilt in with­hol­ding his son Shelah from her as a hus­band. This pro­bab­ly also inclu­des an admis­si­on of guilt befo­re God. From here Judah deve­lo­ps into the true lea­der of his bro­thers. Towards the end of Joseph’s sto­ry, Judah’s trans­for­ma­ti­on beco­mes evi­dent. When his youn­gest bro­ther Ben­ja­min is to be arres­ted for theft, Judah asks for his release: «Plea­se, my mas­ter, let me stay here ins­tead of the boy as a slave for my mas­ter and let the boy return home tog­e­ther with his bro­thers»(Gene­sis 44:33 NL). The trans­for­ma­ti­on of Judah is an excel­lent examp­le of how God can chan­ge a life. Young Judah is sel­fi­sh, dis­ho­nest and cold-hear­ted. The older Judah acts thought­ful­ly, sel­fless­ly, respon­si­b­ly and is full of com­pas­si­on. The young Judah deli­vers his bro­ther to the kni­fe, the older Judah vou­ches for his bro­ther with his own life.

By the way, Tamar gave birth to twins. In Jesus» fami­ly tree it says: «Judah was the father of Perez and Zer­ah (their mother was Tamar). Perez was the father of Hez­ron […].»(Mat­thew 1:3 NL). Not only Judah, but even the Cana­a­ni­te Tamar found a place in Jesus» fami­ly tree!


This sto­ry shows the tri­umph of grace. From for­ni­ca­ti­on a holy seed is born. Judah beca­me the pro­ge­ni­tor of the Jews, of the lineage of David and of the Mes­siah. Jesus is even cal­led the «Lion of Judah» (Reve­la­ti­on 5:5). God achie­ves his goal through all human fail­u­re. Christ, who laid down his life for you, can also make you a per­son who lays down his life for others.


Possible questions for the small groups

Rea­ding the Bible text: Gene­sis 38

  1. What kind of life­style does Kana­an repre­sent? How are you affec­ted by it?
  2. What was God thin­king when he sim­ply let Ger and Onan die? What is the mes­sa­ge for us in this?
  3. Onan and Judah only wan­ted to satisfy their own needs during sex. Talk to your spou­se about this and how it is in your marriage!
  4. Judah expe­ri­en­ced a mira­cu­lous trans­for­ma­ti­on. In what does it mani­fest itself?
  5. Today, the offer for quit­ting por­no­gra­phy was pre­sen­ted. Would that be some­thing for you?