Judah’s Foolishness

We used to have an old Scottish lady that attended our church when I was growing up. She was a dear servant of God and she read her Bible every day. She used to talk about how difficult it was to understand the King James Version of the Bible. The Living Bible was fairly new then and we bought her a copy. A few weeks later she talked to us an her face got red when she said, “Do you know the kinds of things the Old Testament is talking about? She went back to her King James. Some of the things the Old Testament talked about she was much happier not understanding. I wouldn’t be surprised if she started reading in Genesis and shut the book when she got to this chapter.

Last week we began looking at the life of Joseph . . . now, here we are, facing this parenthesis about the life of Judah. Why? There are several possibilities. First, it could be that this account serves to paint the life of Joseph with starker contrast. In other words, after reading this chapter we will appreciate the character and integrity of Joseph all the more.

Second, it could be that Moses wanted us to understand the history of Judah. After all, it was going to be through Judah that God would work to bring the Messiah. In these remaining chapters we will see a transformation taking place in Judah. Or, third maybe the author wanted us to know who Perez was and something about his background


At some time in our narrative, Judah left his brothers (it appears temporarily) and went to stay with a friend in Adullum. While he was there he met Shua and apparently fell in love with his daughter who was a Canannite. Judah and Mrs. Judah had three boys. We don’t read anything about their years growing up. In the next scene the oldest was old enough to get married. This could have been as early as 15. The oldest, Er married Tamar. However, before Tamar and Er were able to have children of their own, Er died. In fact, the Bible doesn’t just say that he died . . . it says, “the Lord put him to death” (v.7). We don’t know what it was that Er did . . . but we do know that he was “wicked”.

When Er died, Judah told his second son, Onan and instructed Onan to have a child through Tamar. In our time this seems like a really bizarre thing to ask of your son. However, it was a fairly common practice. This is called a “levirate marriage” The word “levirate” came from a Latin words meaning “husband’s brother”. A brother would father a child through the widow and the child would take the name of the deceased husband and that child would carry on the name of the deceased brother and receive all of his inheritance. So . . . Since Er did not have any children, it was up to Onan to preserve the family line of his brother.

Onan didn’t think much of the idea. He doesn’t seem to have any qualms about having sex with Tamar . . . he just makes sure that he doesn’t get her pregnant! It may be that Onan didn’t want to have a child that would not be considered his. Maybe he didn’t like the idea that the son he would father would receive the inheritance of the firstborn instead of him! We don’t know “why?”, we just know what happened. Onan resisted . . . and God killed him too!

Judah tells Tamar that she should wait for the third son, Shelah. The Levirate marriage would take place with Shelah. That’s what Judah SAID. But it seems that what Judah thought was this: two of my boys have been involved with Tamar and they are both dead! He is beginning to see a pattern! He concludes that maybe it is Tamar (not the wickedness of his sons) that is the problem. Judah sends Tamar back to her parent’s home and says that he will call her when Shelah is ready. But we are left to conclude that Judah had no intention of ever calling Tamar.

When Shelah reaches the proper age Tamar sees that Judah has no intention of letting his son get close to her. So, Tamar takes matters into her own hands.

We have a hard time understanding the mindset of Tamar. We would say, “Hey, there is nothing wrong with being single and there is nothing wrong with not having any children.” Today Tamar might have gone back to school, gotten a good job, and enjoyed her life with her friends. If she found someone special she would get married again. No big deal.

But things were different in the days in Genesis. Tamar’s life and existence was very much tied to her marriage and family. A woman who did not have children not only was seen as “defective” . . . she also didn’t have any security (when you got older you lived with your children). Since Tamar had already been married and was getting “older” by the standards of those days, and since she already had two partners “die”, I suspect the men weren’t lining up outside her door. Tamar needed to do something. What she did was bold and shocking.

Judah’s wife had died and he decided to go to Timnah to check on how the shearing of his sheep was going. I suppose it would be the equivalent of going to a convention. Tamar gets there ahead of the guys and dresses up like a prostitute. Apparently prostitutes dressed differently than today. . . but Judah seemed to know that she was “available for hire”. Her face would have been covered . . . the entire time.

Judah approaches Tamar and agrees to “pay” the “prostitute” by giving her a goat from his flock. She asks for an IOU until he can bring the goat. He asks her what would be a good “guarantee” and she suggests that he give her his “seal, cord and the staff in his hand.” The seal was like a stamp with your signature on it. . . or perhaps it is best understood as being like your personal brand that could be placed in the wax that sealed a document to show the document was from you. It was unique to each individual.

When Judah got home, being a man of his word, he sent the goat to the shrine prostitute and intended to retrieve his seal, cord and stick. However, when his servant got to Timnah the people of the town said there was not now, nor had there ever been a shrine prostitute. Rather than embarrass himself or his master further, the servant came home with the goat.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, three months passed. Word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law (who he was obviously trying to forget) was pregnant. This could only mean one thing . . . she had been unfaithful. You see, even though Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to Tamar . . . she was still technically “engaged” to him. Judah was so incensed that he commanded that she be brought and burned. This was much harsher punishment than normal but I think Judah was still blaming Tamar for the death of his sons.

When the servants came to get Tamar she produced the seal, cord and walking stick and said that she was pregnant by the owner of these items. Judah hung his head. He declared that she was “more righteous than I”. Now, don’t misunderstand this. Judah is not saying that Tamar is righteous (she still did trick her father-in-law into fathering a child by her). Judah is saying that Tamar is righteous IN COMPARISON TO HIM! He had not only been involved with a woman he was not married to . . . it was his son’s widow! And not only this . . . this all came about because Judah was deceptive in his promise to Tamar about his third son.

Tamar had twins: Perez and Zerah. And Judah never was intimate with Tamar again. We gather that Tamar spent the rest of her days caring for her children.

Whew! It’s quite an account. Hopefully you understand the details of the story. Now we need to ask: “What in the world, if anything, can does God want us to learn from this?”


This whole story began because Judah compromised with what he new to be right. In this chapter we see three compromises,

  • Judah marries a Canannite woman. Do you remember how careful Abraham and Isaac were to find wives for their sons that were not of the pagan land around them? Even in this early years the Fathers in the faith knew what was later spelled out by Moses and then by Paul. Paul wrote
2 Cor. 6:14-16 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

The Bible speaks plainly about the dangers of close relationships with those who do not share our faith. There is very good reason for this. When we are involved in a “mixed marriage” or partnership of any kind, an erosion of our own faith is inevitable. In a desire to “get along” with the non-believer we inevitably soften our own commitment.

There is no better illustration of this than with Solomon. Solomon was the wisest man in the Bible (outside of Jesus) but he still drifted away from God. Why? It was because of his marriages to foreign women. Each foreign woman he married had religious beliefs that were different from him. So, to appease and show respect for his wife, he built a place of worship for her. It is possible (likely?) that Solomon even worshipped at some of these places (surely to show respect for his spouse)! Of course, all of this was an affront to God! These same places of worship became places that caused other Israelites to sin.

  • Second, Judah made a promise he had no intention of keepingOnce we begin to compromise, further compromise gets easier and easier. Judah looked Tamar right in the eye and lied to her! He promised her Shelah but had no intention of letting his youngest son get close to her.
  • Judah became a party to immorality. Yes, Judah may have been lonely . . . but that was no excuse. Judah knew this was wrong . . . he condemned it immediately when he thought Tamar had engaged in an immoral relationship outside of marriage. I think Judah never would have engaged in such a thing if he was still at home. He propositioned the prostitute because he thought he could get away with it since he was away from home. Here’s a principle for you: If you feel you need to hide what you are doing . . . what you are doing is wrong! And the longer you hide . . . the further you drift.

The point I want you to see is the danger of compromise. It is not just our relationships it is in any area of life. Any time we let our guard down. Any time we tolerate or pursue that which is evil, our faith erodes that much more.

Let me give you a contemporary example. A young man (or woman) watches suggestive shows on prime time television. Before long it doesn’t “bother him.” In other words it no longer seems dangerous or inappropriate. So he pushes a little further. He starts watching movies that don’t just suggest immoral behavior, they show it. Next the same young man is looking up pornography on the Internet or buying it over the news stand. This same young man may very well end up involved in immoral relationships before and during marriage. Some may go on to rape and other forms of sexual violence. And it all starts with the first step on the stairway of compromise. Am I blaming the media? Nope. The world will always push the limit. They will always toy with as much sin as they can “get away with”. We should expect that. However, we should also guard against it.

Consider another example. We listen to and learn to accept profanity. Before too long, some of those words and phrases become a part of our vocabulary. “It’s o.k.”, we say, “they are only words.” By this rationalization, we diminish the importance of our word. Before long we are telling “white lies” (lies that supposedly aren’t going to hurt anyone . . . but which erode the foundation of honesty and character). This progresses until it becomes easier and easier to make promises, to declare oaths, to make vows, and to disregard them. We say “they are only words too.” Now our integrity is gone, our word means nothing, our character is diminished. God cries.

Am I overstating things? I don’t think so. The danger of compromise is all around us. You see we live in a world that has vastly different values than those which God proclaims. When we begin to compromise with the world, we begin the process of eroding our faith. It happens in so many subtle ways,

  • you say you have to conduct your business like everyone else or you can’t “make it”. So, you work on Sunday, you cheat on expenses, you under-report your income, you over-charge customers who can afford to pay. And you do it all in the name of “good business”. This kind of good business is sin.
  • you believe that you have to have everything the world says you need to have. So, you borrow heavily to buy what you “need”. The result is that you are bound in debt, must cut back on your giving to others, and your contentment is tied to what you have, rather than to whom you trust.
  • you swallow the notion that science deals with facts and faith deals with feelings. So, you accept whatever a scientist says without scrutiny and discard any teaching of the Bible that doesn’t seem to be supported by science. You never stop to ask yourself what the presuppositions of the scientist are. You see, if a scientist presupposes that there is no God . . . . they will always explain away the supernatural. Their statements are not unbiased conclusions from the evidence. They are really a specific attempt to explain the evidence in a way that supports their worldview.
  • More and more things are being scheduled on Sunday. Since we are sure that God “understands” we choose to sleep in rather than go to bed earlier. We make football, golf or some other recreation a priority over worship. We serve some organization more fervently than we serve the church. But “God understands”. You bet He does . . . .He knows that you are following the path of Judah’s foolishness.

So, how do we keep from falling into the foolishness of Judah?

  1. We need to cultivate a deep love for God. We do this by prayer, Bible Study, Worship. We do it by thinking often of God’s character, His greatness, His wisdom and power. We do it by remembering God’s rich faithfulness throughout our lives and what He did to set us free. We grow in love as we dare to think about the place that God is preparing for us by His grace.
  2. We must learn to think critically. I’m not saying we should be negative people. I’m suggesting that we combat gullibility by asking questions. We must look for hidden messages in the media. We must weigh the truthfulness of every claim. We must take every proposition and filter it through God’s Word. The world of advertising thinks of us as machines that can be programmed. We must resist!
  3. We must stay away from those things that can erode our foundation. I hate to say it, but we need to watch less television. We need to stay out of groups that do not promote the cause of Christ. We need to back off from close friendships with those who live contrary to God’s Word.
  4. We must be quick to repent and seek forgiveness when we have stumbled. We must stop the slide into greater sin as soon as possible.
  5. We need to help each other. Sometimes others can see us drifting long before we see it ourselves. We need to surround ourselves with those who will tell us the truth. And then we need to listen to them.

In short, we must guard our minds and our heart. Don’t be deceived! Major sin draws it’s power from simple choices. 


Now it is easy to come out of this passage and feel all “beaten up”. That’s why this second lesson is so valuable. The great thing about this story is how the story ends.

We read about the birth of Perez and Zerah. They were twins (you know they did run in the family!). You would have thought that everyone would have hated these little guys. They would have been the illegitimate children born out of an incestuous relationship. I don’t know what their life was like growing up but I can tell you how God used them.

Turn to Matthew 1:1

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

Did you hear that? God chose Judah (the compromising immoral liar), Tamar, and Perez her illegitimate son. God chose to bring the Messiah through these descendants! God not only forgave them and restored them . . . He transformed them! One of the great stories of these last chapters of Genesis is the change we see in Judah.

I hope this is encouraging to you. Many of you identify with Judah and Tamar because you feel you have made a mess of your life. You made bad decisions. You knowingly went down a wrong path. You sinned in horrible ways and have concluded that God could never love you or do anything through you. I hope you will be encouraged by this sordid story! The God who forgave them will forgive you. The God who transformed them . . . will transform you. The God who used them . . .will use you.

It doesn’t matter where you have been. It doesn’t matter what you have done. What matters is where you turn now. Anyone who comes to Christ with the pieces of their life will be received and remade. When Jesus died on Calvary He died for your sin. He died for mine. He paid the price. . . . and yes, the price was steep. Jesus gave His life so that you (and I) could have a new beginning. He died to give you a new heart.

So, once again, an old sordid story in Genesis addresses us right where we live. What about you?

  • maybe you’ve had immoral relationships
  • maybe you’ve cheated in business
  • maybe you have been a victim of some kind of abuse
  • maybe you have a failed relationship or two
  • maybe you’ve had an abortion
  • maybe you have committed a crime
  • maybe you have deliberately destroyed others with your words
  • maybe you have a secret life that no one knows about
  • maybe you have simply paid no attention at all to God in your life

Whatever your story . . . all is not lost. God has not turned away . . .you have. His arms are still open. The invitation is still there . . . all you need to do is turn to Him. Believe His promise. Receive the gift of life He offers because of Christ. Trust His goodness, mercy and grace. And do it soon.

And after He has welcomed you into His family . . . thank Him. Enjoy Him. Worship Him. And take a lesson from Judah and be diligent to make sure you never drift from Him again.

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