It is easy to be confused by the events in this world. You can wonder until you are dizzy-in-the-head if there really is a God who controls this mixed-up world where natural disasters, broken and battered families, rape and child molestation, and murder are common chaos’ that make the news. It can be difficult to see how God is still in control. If only God would spell out the meaning to the mixed-up events of our lives and add clarity to the confusion when He seems absent. Can you fully trust God among the chaos? Has He forgotten His plan and purpose to save? Can you prove to me that He is really at work in this wicked world?
Just as the story of Joseph gets under way [cf. Genesis 37] it is stopped by a short story of his brother Judah. At first it appears to be an unnecessary and untactful interruption. However when you take into account the remaining chapters of Genesis are about the sons of Jacob [mostly Joseph] it fits. The redneck soap opera of Jacob’s family takes a Jerry Springer Show twist in Genesis 38 with the sinfulness of Judah following in his father’s footsteps. In God’s grace He will transform Judah as He did his father Jacob from a godless goober to a godly man fit to be a patriarch carrying the covenant promises of God to future generations.
You would think Jacob would learn from his father and grandfather, Abraham and Isaac, who dreaded the thought of their sons intermarrying with Canaanite women because they knew it would cause them to wander from God [24:3, 28:1; cf. Proverbs 1:10-19, 5:1-23]. Judah did not heed the advice. He fathered three sons [Er, Onan, and Shelah] with a Canaanite woman and then he arranged his eldest son Er to marry Tamar, who was also a Canaanite woman. We do not know much about Er other than he was a wicked man that God simply killed. This left Tamar a widow.
According to the customs of the day a widow would normally marry her husbands brother. He would care for her, protect her, and give her sons to keep the family inheritance alive. Since the ancients did not have elderly living facilities their children would naturally care for their aging parents [Deuteronomy 25:5-6]. Onan happened to be the lucky guy to get Tamar as a wife. He was happy to have sex with her, but misused her and refused to care for her much less see that she bore children. He disobeyed God by not fulfilling his obligation to care or provide for Tamar. Like his brother Er, God killed Onan too. Again Tamar was left a widow.
So Tamar moved into her father-in-law, Judah’s house [cf. Exodus 21:7-11]. He promised to take care of her and give her his youngest son, Shelah. He was too young to marry and he asked her to wait until he grew up. He was afraid to lose yet another son. However, years later when Shelah had grown up, Judah did not keep his promise to give Tamar to him as a wife. So, like Eve who ruled over Adam [3:16], Sarah who gave Abraham her maidservant Hagar to sleep with [16:1-16], and Rachel who gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to sleep with [30:1-8], Tamar also took matters into her own hands rather than trusting God by faith.
Timid Tamar transitioned into bold Tamar. While Judah was weak after the death of his wife, Tamar dressed up like a prostitute [cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24] and stood on the street corner where she knew Judah would pass by and see her winking eyes. Judah took the bait not knowing it was his daughter-in-law because she veiled her face. Judah had sex with her, but did not have the cash on hand to pay for the trick so as collateral he gave her the equivalent of his credit card and drivers’ license. She accepted. After the deal was done Tamar snuck into her widow clothes as if nothing ever happened, but she couldn’t hide for long. God was growing a baby in her belly and conviction in her soul.
As soon as Judah round up some cash to pay for his one-night-stand he sent a servant to find her but she could not be found. In fact, when he asked the other men in town they did not know of any prostitutes in the area. Judah seemed to think he’d been swindled. As time passed, it was revealed that Tamar was being immoral. So Judah [mister morality himself]] following customs of the day sent for her to be burned. To save her life she confessed to being pregnant and had the proof that the daddy was Judah. No DNA results were needed, she had his property in her hands.
Judah was caught red handed. While blushing he also confessed, “ She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” [38:26] And he stayed pure from her the rest of his life. Tamar later gave birth to twin boys [cf.25:19-28, Psalm 127:3] naming them Perez and Zerah. The two boys possibly replace the two sons Judah lost. Ironically Jacob—the trickster—had been tricked into believing his son Joseph was dead [instead sold into slavery] by his son Judah who was also trickster like his father who was then tricked by Tamar into becoming the father of his daughter-in-law’s children.
What is the point of Judah and Tamar’s immoral interruption included within the story of Joseph? Like a chaotic commercial break at the beginning of Joseph’s story, it is there to teach you many things about God and man [as is the point of all Scripture]. What do you learn about man and God from the story of Judah and Tamar?
First, you cannot escape the sight of God. God sees everything. He even sees what you think you can keep secret. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place.” [Proverbs 15:3] You might be able to keep your life tucked away and tidy from those around you, but there is nothing you can keep covered from the eyes of God.
Second, what you cover God uncovers, but what you uncover God covers in His mercy [Proverbs 28:13]. God has His ways of uncovering your dirt and exposing your sin—as He did with Judah and Tamar. This can lead to serious embarrassment, shame, and guilt. There are no secret sins. God sees them all and He will bring them out into the open, if necessary, to call you to repent. “Be sure your sin will find you out” [Numbers 32:23].It is better to shed light on your sin before He does. If you do, He will cover you with His mammoth mercy. In the midst of misery God’s mercy is marvelous.
Third, God can even use your sinful messes for your good and His glory. Like father like son, both Jacob and Judah are sinners. And Tamar who takes matters into her own hands like other leading ladies before her is a sinner. God has to intervene for this story to be straightened out and make sense. And God in His grace and glory will prepare Judah to become a covenant patriarch as He did with his father, Jacob. Sin does have consequences—sometimes immediate, other times eternal—but God works them out for His good and yours too [Romans 8:28-29].
In God’s providence, faithfully uses the deception of Judah and Tamar to keep Jacob’s family line alive through their scarlet threaded twin Perez. And Perez paves the way to the lineage of king David [Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chronicles 2:5, 9-15] and ultimately the King of King—Jesus Christ [Matthew 1:1-6]. The Messiah was to be “the Lion…from the tribe of Judah” [Revelation 5:5]. It was God’s plan that the Savior of the world would come through the family line of sinful Judah and his Canaanite daughter-in-law. And as part of God’s plan He would also be deceived before His death by a close companion [Matthew 26:4, 57-66; 27:24-26]. As Kurt Strassner says in his commentary on Genesis 38,
“Do you see? God is in control; and Jesus is the goal of all human history! God was determined that his Son should be glorified as king! And God was determined that we should have a Savior. Nothing and no one was going to thwart his plan! Not Judah’s sin; not anyone’s sin against us; not even our own sin. God will work all things for the good of his people and the glory of his Son!”
 Kurt Strassner, Opening Up Genesis (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2009), 146.