Genesis 38

The Word Made Fresh

1Then Judah left his brothers and went down to Adullam and lived near a man named Hirah. 2He met and married a woman there, the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. 3She gave birth to a son. Judah named him Er. 4She bore another son whom she named Onan. 5She had still another son and named him Shelah while in Chezib.

6Judah found a wife for his firstborn, Er. Her name was Tamar. 7But the LORD saw that Er was evil and put him to death. 8Judah then told Onan, “Go to your brother’s wife and do your duty to your brother; get her pregnant so she will have children for him.” 9But Onan knew that any such child would not be his, so whenever they coupled he withdrew and ejaculated on the ground so that he would not give his brother any children. 10That was evil in the LORD’s sight, and the LORD put him to death also. 11Then Judah told Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s house until his son Shelah grew up, because he was afraid Shelah would die like his brothers. So, Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.

12Time passed, and Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When his time of grieving had passed, he went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah the Adullamite, to visit the men who were shearing his sheep. 13Someone told Tamar that her father-in-law was going there. 14She removed her widow’s garments, wore a wrap and veiled her face. She sat down at the entrance to Enaim, a shrine on the way to Timnah. She knew that Shelah was of age now, but she had not been given to him to have children.

15Judah noticed her, and he thought she was a prostitute because of the veil. 16He approached her and said, “Let me lie with you.” He didn’t realize she was his daughter-in-law.

She asked, “What will you pay me?”

17He said, “I’ll send you a kid from my flock.”

“You’ll have to give me something to hold until you do,” she said.

18“What would suffice?” he asked.

“Give me the cord with your personal seal, and the staff you’re carrying.”

He gave them to her and they lay together, and she became pregnant. 19Then she left him and returned home and changed back into her widow’s clothing and removed her veil.

20Later, Judah sent his friend the Adullamite with a kid from his flock of goats to give to the woman he thought was a prostitute, but Hirah couldn’t find her. 21He asked the people there, “Where is the prostitute at Enaim on the roadside?” But they knew of no prostitute there. 22So he went back to Judah and told him, “I couldn’t find her. The villagers say they know of no prostitute there.”

23″Oh, well,” Judah said. “Let her keep it. I won’t be a fool. You are my witness that I did send the goat kid, but she couldn’t be found.”

24About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has prostituted herself and now she’s pregnant.”

Judah’s response was, “Drag her out and burn her to death!” 25When they went to get her, she sent word to her father-in-law, saying, “These things belong to the man who got me pregnant. Examine this cord with the seal and this staff and see whose they are!”

26When Judah saw them he admitted they were his. “She is more righteous than I,” he said, “because I didn’t give her my son Shelah as I had promised.” (But he did not have sex with her again.)

27When Tamar went into labor to give birth, it was twins! 28One of them reached out his hand while she was in labor and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around his wrist. She said, “This one is first born.” 29But he pulled his hand back and his brother was the firstborn! The midwife exclaimed, “You have pushed your way out first!” That is why he was named Perez. 30His brother followed him out with the scarlet thread on his wrist. He was named Zerah.


1-11: Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He camps near an Adullamite (origin of this clan is unknown) settlement under the rule of one Hirah, with whom he becomes fast friends. He marries a Canaanite woman, and they have three sons; Er, Onan and Shelah. In due time Judah finds a wife for Er, named Tamar. Er dies before they have children, and Onan is ordered to do his duty and have children with her for his brother. Onan enjoys the duty but won’t carry through with it, and he dies also. Judah tells Tamar to return to her father’s house until the third son, Shelah, is old enough to get her pregnant.

12-19: Time passes. Judah’s wife dies. After an appropriate time of grieving, he goes to visit his friend Hirah during sheep shearing. Tamar hears of his plans, dresses like a harlot and plants herself along the route she knows he will take. Shelah, she sees, is old enough to do his duty but Judah hasn’t given permission yet. Judah sees her and propositions her. They make a deal whereby he leaves some of his personal belongings with her until he can pay her price. They go inside and have sex. When he leaves, she resumes her identity as the widow Tamar.

20-23: Judah sends a kid from his flock with Hirah to give to her as the agreed-upon price, but Hirah can’t find her and brings the kid back. Judah is ready to forget the whole incident.

24-26: Three months later Tamar is found to be pregnant, and Judah gets word that she has been a prostitute. This is an affront to Judah’s family for she is legally his daughter-in-law. He demands that she be brought out and burned, but she calmly sends his belongings with a messenger, and he realizes what has happened. She has simply taken matters into her own hands because he hasn’t carried out his promise regarding his son Shelah.

27-30: Tamar has twins, and due to the unusual circumstances of their birth they are named Perez and Zerah.


We can only guess why this rather sordid story is kept in the record; perhaps to emphasize the dangers inherent in marrying Canaanite girls? For us Christians, of course, the significance of the story is that Perez becomes the direct ancestor of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:3).