When the Bible is NSFW (Genesis 38)

There are some stories that fall into the category of “Not Safe for Work.”  On the internet, people often use the acronym “NSFW” to describe websites or articles that might offend one’s employers.  It’s not always what you think.  Some sites earn the label just by containing a PG-13 level of harsh language, or—in the case of news reports—by describing events of a particularly horrific nature.

It may surprise us that not only is the Bible “not safe for work,” but neither is Jesus’ family tree.  There are a number of stories and unsavory characters embedded in Jesus’ genealogy, and much of our attention will be given to some of their stories.  Today—as with last Sunday’s sermon—we will be giving attention to the story of Tamar, from Matthew 1:3, where Matthew includes “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.”

The book of Genesis details the story of God establishing not only the natural world, but also a people for himself.  Through a man named Abraham, God established a plan for his people—a promise of land, descendants, and blessings forevermore.  This meant that for God to keep his promises, the genetic line would have to be maintained from Abraham onward—which is actually what we see happening in Jesus’ genealogy.  So the story of Tamar is about God’s determined plan to make that happen by any means necessary.

Now mind you, the story of Genesis 38 takes place over the span of about 20 years, so if some of these events seem sudden it’s because the narration has been compressed for simplicity:

It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3 and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him.

So far, we have Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

Tamar got married to Er, but for reasons left unstated he displeased the Lord and was put to death.  Now, in that era the brother-in-law would be expected to step up and marry the widow.  Onan did just that.  But as we see from the text—and yes, this is the “NSFW” part, amiright?—Onan wanted to enjoy the benefits of marriage without the responsibility of being a Dad.  So God took him out as well.  So if Tamar was to have a child—and, in so doing, continuing Abraham’s genetic line, which was part of God’s master plan—it would have to be through Shelah.  But Judah was a little nervous.  Tamar didn’t have the best track record when it came to husbands.   So he insisted she wait until “Shelah…grows up.”

12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage.    15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned 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?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

Notice verse 14 specifies that Shelah was now grown up.  But Judah failed to keep his word.  Tamar was still single.  How would Abraham’s genetic line be preserved?  How would God maintain his promises?

Tamar exacted a plan by which she would conceive by Judah—that’s right, her father-in-law (did we mention this story isn’t quite “safe for work?”).  Doing so was her last recourse to ensure that Abraham’s line would continue through her—especially now that Judah’s wife was dead.  In his commentary on Genesis, Allen Ross notes:

“The text of Scripture does not cast any moral judgment on Tamar…It is not appropriate to judge her by Christian ethics, for in her culture at that time, her actions, though very dangerous for her, were within the law.  She had the right to have a child by the nearest of kin to her deceased husband.  She played on the vice of Judah to bear this child, and her deceptions worked.”  (Allen Ross, Creation and Blessing, p. 616-17)

In other words, we may find this a bit…icky…but Tamar basically did what she had to do.


20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”


24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.


27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


Judah was busted.  His moral outrage over Tamar only revealed his own hypocrisy.  Yet the most astonishing thing is that through Tamar’s actions the genetic line was preserved.  And, as we now see, this story became woven into the story of Jesus.


Where do we see the gospel in such a bizarre story?  It’s simple, really.  Jesus is the true and better Shelah.  Judah had withheld his only remaining son from her, because he viewed her as an unworthy bride.  God the Father did not withhold his only Son, because he knew it was the only way to redeem the unworthy bride—that is, the Church (Ephesians 5:25-27).


Paul writes that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:31).  This is the message of Christmas: that God sent his only Son into the world that his death would pay the penalty for man’s sin—and in his second coming would restore the whole world.