Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Genesis 38

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Genesis 38:1. At that time — That is, about that time; this expression, as also the words then, in those days, often referring in Scripture to a considerable space of time. For though these words, as Le Clerc well observes, seem to connect the following events with those spoken of in the former chapter, yet some of them, particularly Judah’s marriage, which leads to the rest, must have happened long before Joseph was sold into Egypt. This chapter must therefore be here placed out of the order of time, and the events here recorded must have happened soon after Jacob came from Mesopotamia into Canaan, though Moses, for some special reasons, relates them in this place. Judah went down from his brethren — Withdrew for a time from his father’s family, and got intimately acquainted with one Hirah an Adullamite. When young people that have been well educated, begin to change their company, they will soon change their manners, and lose their good education. They that go down from their brethren, that forsake the society of the seed of Israel, and pick up Canaanites for their companions, are going down the hill apace.

Verse 2
Genesis 38:2. He took her — To wife. His father, it should seem, was not consulted, but he acted by the advice of his new friend Hirah.

Verse 7-8
Genesis 38:7-8. Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord — That is, in defiance of God, and his law. And the Lord slew him — Cut him off by an untimely death, before he had any children by Tamar. As long life among the Jews was generally reckoned a blessing from God; so an untimely death was accounted a punishment. The next brother, Onan, was, according to the ancient usage, married to the widow, to preserve the name of his deceased brother that died childless. This custom of marrying the brother’s widow was afterward made one of the laws of Moses, Deuteronomy 25:5. Onan, though he consented to marry the widow, yet, to the great abuse of his own body, and of the wife he had married, and to the dishonour of the memory of his brother that was gone, refused to raise up seed unto his brother. And this story seems to be recorded by the Holy Ghost purposely to condemn, not only his malignant and envious disposition with respect to his deceased brother, but also and especially that vile pollution of his body of which he was guilty. For, observe, The thing which he did displeased the Lord, and brought upon him the Lord’s vengeance. And it is to be feared that thousands, especially of single persons, still displease the Lord in a similar way, and destroy their own bodies and souls. All such sins, at the same time that they dishonour the body, evidence the power of vile affections, and are not only condemned in the Scriptures, but by the light of nature, and were held even by the heathen moralists to be peculiarly criminal, and by the Jewish doctors to be a degree of murder. See Universal History.

Verse 11
Genesis 38:11. Remain a widow till Shelah my son be grown — The contract of marriage, it seems, was so understood, even before any positive law was made on the subject, that, if the husband died without any issue, his next brother was to marry his wife, and as long as any of his brethren remained they were bound to marry her, if left a widow. Accordingly Shelah, the third son, was reserved for Tamar, yet with design that he should not marry so young as his brothers had done. For it would seem from Judah’s expression, Lest peradventure he die also, that he thought marrying too young was the cause of their death; though some consider his conduct as an evidence that he never intended to give his son to her.

Verse 14
Genesis 38:14. She put her widow’s garments off, &c. — Some excuse her conduct in this by suggesting that she believed the promise made to Abraham and his seed, particularly that of the Messiah, and that she was therefore desirous to have a child by one of that family, that she might have the honour, or at least stand fair for being the mother of the Messiah. She covered her with a veil — It was the custom of harlots in those times to cover their faces, that though they were not ashamed, yet they might seem to be so: the sin of uncleanness did not go so bare-faced as it now doth.

Verses 17-21
Genesis 38:17-21. A kid from the flock — A goodly price at which her chastity and honour were valued! Had the consideration been a thousand rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil, it had not been a valuable consideration. The favour of God, the purity of the soul, the peace of the conscience, and the hope of heaven, are too precious to be exposed to sale at any such rates. It is a good account, if it be but true, of any place, that which they here gave, that there is no harlot in this place, for such sinners are the scandals and plagues of any place. Judah sits down content to lose his signet and his bracelets, and forbids his friend to make any further inquiry.

Verse 23
Genesis 38:23. Lest we be ashamed — Either, 1st, Lest his sin should come to be known publicly; or, 2d, Lest he should be laughed at as a fool for trusting a whore with his signet and his bracelets. He expresses no concern about the sin, only about the shame. There are many who are more solicitous to preserve their reputation with men, than to secure the favour of God; lest we be ashamed, goes further with them than lest we be damned.

Verse 24
Genesis 38:24. Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt — Some have inferred from this that fathers then had the power of life and death over their children. But if so, it is probable that some instance would have occurred and have appeared on record in which such a power was actually exercised. It seems very unlikely that Judah should have such a power, at least over her, who was a Canaanite, and who was not in his, but in her own father’s house. He probably only meant, Bring her forth to the magistrate, from whom she may receive her sentence and deserved punishment, as a person guilty of adultery, (having been betrothed to Shelah,) a crime formerly punished with death by the laws of God, and of divers nations. See Deuteronomy 22:23-24; Jeremiah 29:22-23. This eagerness of Judah, however, proceeded not from zeal for justice, for then he would not have endeavoured to destroy the innocent child with the guilty mother, but from worldly policy, that he might take her out of the way whom he viewed as a disgrace and burden to his family. But perhaps, though he uttered this severe sentence in the heat of his passion, he would not have urged the putting of it in execution; or, as some think, by burning her he might mean no more than branding her in the forehead to denote her being a harlot.

Verse 26
Genesis 38:26. And Judah acknowledged them — His guilty conscience and the horror of so foul a fact, together with the sudden surprise, forced him to make an immediate and ingenuous confession. She hath been more righteous than I — This he says because he had broken his word with her in withholding Shelah from her, whom he had promised; whereas she had kept her faith with him, and had lived as a widow honestly; besides, she had committed the fact out of desire to have a child, he to satisfy his lust. She was, however, more guilty than he in another respect, as having knowingly committed both adultery and incest, when he designed neither. And he knew her again no more — Thus showing the sincerity of his confession, by forsaking the sin confessed, the only sure way of showing it.

Verse 28-29
Genesis 38:28-29. When she travailed — It should seem the birth was hard to the mother, by which she was corrected for her sin: the children also, like Jacob and Esau, struggled for the birthright, and Pharez, who got it, is ever named first, and from him Christ descended. He had his name from his breaking forth before his brother: this breach be upon thee — The Jews, as Zarah, bid fair for the birthright, and were marked, as it were, with a scarlet thread, as those that came first; but the Gentiles, like Pharez, or a son of violence, got the start of them, by that violence which the kingdom of heaven suffers, and attained to the righteousness which the Jews came short of: yet when the fulness of time is come, all Israel shall be saved. Both these sons are named in the genealogy of our Saviour, Matthew 1:3, to perpetuate the story, as an instance of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus.