Genesis 38 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Genesis 38
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


This episode is no interruption of the narrative, for, as we have seen, the Tôldôth Jacob is the history generally of Jacob’s posterity, and especially of the next great event in their development into a nation, namely the descent into Egypt. Two main reasons may be assigned therefore for giving this history of Judah’s life; the first, that it shows the great risk of utter contamination incurred by the patriarchs in living among the Canaanites; the second, and more important, that Judah was invested by his father with the rights of primogeniture, and therefore that this history belongs to the genealogy of the Messiah.

And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.
(1) At that time.—This does not mean at the time of Joseph’s sale; for as there was only an interval of twenty-two years between that event and the descent into Egypt, this period is scarcely long enough for the events recorded in this chapter. According to the usual chronology, Judah, Leah’s fourth son, would not have been more than eight years old when he left Padan-aram, and only one year at most older than Joseph, the son of Jacob’s old age. But the more true chronology which we have followed, gives time for him to have been Joseph’s senior by twenty years, and the events recorded here probably began soon after his father’s arrival at the tower of Eder.

Adullamite.—The town of Adullam, near which was David’s famous cave, has been clearly identified by Lieut. Conder (Tent-work, ii. 158). It lay in the great valley of Elah, which formed the highway from Hebron to the country of the Philistines, some two or three miles south of Shochoh, and fifteen or sixteen miles west by north from Hebron. Judah “went down” thither, not as Abenezra and others have supposed, because it was to the south, but because it was towards the sea, and the road is an actual descent from the hill country of Judah into the Shephelah, or lowland, in which Adullam was situated. The sons of Jacob often, probably, with a few retainers, made expeditions in search of pastures for their cattle; and Hirah, apparently, had shown Judah hospitality on some such journey, and finally a friendship had grown up between them. “Turned in to,” however, literally means pitched (his tent) close by; and the friendship between Judah and Hirah, thus accidentally formed, seems to have ended in Hirah taking the charge of Judah’s cattle.

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
(2) Canaanite.—This is rendered in the Targum merchant, and so the Authorised Version translates Canaanite in Proverbs 31:24. In favour of this view is the fact, that the marriage of Simeon with a Canaanitish woman is regarded as an act so exceptional, as to be worth recording (Genesis 46:10). But we may well doubt whether, at so early an age, the terms Canaanite and merchant had become synonymous. “Shuah” was the name of the woman’s father, as appears plainly in the Hebrew. (See also Genesis 38:12.)

And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.
And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.
And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.
(5) Chezib.—Mr. Conder has found traces of this place at Ain Kezbeh, near Beit Nettif, a little to the north of Adullam (Handbook, p. 408). In Micah 1:14-15, it is called Achzib, and is there also placed near Adullam.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
(8) Go in unto thy brother’s wife.—We learn from this that the law of the Levirate, by which the brother of the dead husband was required to marry the widow, was of far more ancient date than the law of Moses. Its object, first of all, was to prevent the extinction of any line of descent, a matter of great importance in those genealogical days; and, secondly, it was an obstacle to the accumulation of landed property in few hands, as the son first born after the Levirate marriage inherited the property of his deceased uncle, while the second son was the representative of the real father. A similar custom existed in parts of India, Persia, &c, and prevails now among the Mongols. The Mosaic Law did not institute, but regulated the custom, confining such marriages to cases where the deceased brother had died without children, and permitting the brother to refuse to marry the widow, under a penalty, nevertheless, of disgrace. Onan, by refusing to take Tamar, may have been actuated by the selfish motive of obtaining for himself the rights of primogeniture, which would otherwise have gone to his eldest son, as the heir of his uncle ‘Er.

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.
(11) For he said, lest he also die.—It is evident from this that Judah, for reasons which, in Genesis 38:26, he acknowledged to be insufficient, wished to evade the duty of giving a third son to Tamar. It does not follow that he blamed her for their deaths; for the loss of two sons in succession might well frighten him. Philippsohn says that it became the rule, that if a woman lost two husbands, the third brother was not bound to marry her, and she was even called Katlannith. the murderess. (But see St. Matthew 22:25-26, where no such custom is acknowledged.)

And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.
(12) Timnath.—There were two places of this name (Joshua 15:10; Joshua 15:57). One was a little to the west of Bethlehem, the other upon the Philistine border, beyond Bethshemesh. As it lay, however, only about seven miles beyond Adullam, and as the flocks there were Judah’s private property (Genesis 38:13), and under the charge of Hirah, this remoter place, now called Tibneh, is probably the Timnath meant, as at Bethlehem the pastures were occupied by his father. (See also Genesis 38:14.) For the sheep-shearing, see Genesis 31:19. Instead of “his friend Hirah,” the LXX. and Vulg. render his shepherd Hirah. This would require no change in the consonants, but only in the vowels. Most of the other authorities agree with the Authorised Version; but even so, there was most probably some partnership between Judah and Hirah in these flocks, and they would be under Hirah’s charge whenever Judah was absent, tending the flocks of his father.

And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.
And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.
(14) In an open place.—Heb., in the gate of Enajim. Enajim means “the two fountains,” and we learn from Genesis 38:21 that it was the town where Tamar’s father dwelt, and where Tamar was living with him in her widowhood. In the exploration of Palestine, Enajim has been identified with a place called Allin, Anin, or Anaim, three miles east of Tibneh, and situated upon an ancient road coming from Adullam. This makes the conclusion come to for other reasons certain, that the Timnath on the Philistine border was the town meant.

When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.
(15) Because she had covered her face.—The Jewish commentators all agree that this was not the custom of harlots; and as Judah, in Genesis 38:21, calls her kedeshah, one consecrated, he probably thought that she was a woman performing the vow required of every female votary of the Phœnician Venus (Astarte), once in her lifetime (Herod. i. 199). Hence the hire was a kid to be sacrificed to the goddess. As for Tamar her object was to assert her claim to the inheritance of ‘Er. Lange considers that the wickedness of ‘Er had caused him, equally with Onan, to neglect her, and that consequently there was no real incest. This is made probable by her immediate conception.

And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?
And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?
And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.
(18) Thy bracelets.—Heb., thy cord. The art of engraving was probably not advanced enough among these nomads to permit them to engrave gems small enough to wear in a ring. Judah evidently suspended his signet round his neck by a cord; and this custom still exists among the Arabs, of whom some wear signet rings, while others hang them round their necks. Probably each man of distinction had his emblem, and in Genesis 49 Jacob seems to refer to them. Thus Judah’s emblem was a lion, Zebulun’s a ship, Issachar’s an ass, &c.

Thy staff.—The staff in ancient times was elaborately adorned. Herodotus (i. 195) describes the staves carried by the Babylonians, as having on them carvings of fruit, or of some flower or bird; and Homer perpetually makes mention of the “sceptres,” that is, walking-sticks, of the kings, as carved so magnificently as to be worthy of being ascribed to Hephaestus, and handed down as emblems of authority from father to son. (See Iliad, ii. 101-107.) It is from these staves that the sceptres of kings, and the batons of field-marshals, &c, are derived.

And she arose, and went away, and laid by her vail from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.
And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.
Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.
(21) Where is the harlot . . .?—Heb.,Whercisthe kedeshah (see Genesis 38:15) that was at Enajim by the wayside? “Enajim (the two founts) by-the-wayside,” seems to have been the full name of the village. (See Genesis 38:14.)

And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.
And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.
(23) Lest we be shamed.—Maimonides asserts that Judah had committed no breach of the Law, the utmost therein commanded being that no Jewish woman should become a kedeshah (Deuteronomy 23:17). But Judah evidently regards what he had done as shameful, and having big friend’s testimony, if needed, to prove that he had performed what he promised, he bears with the loss of his signet and staff, rather than let the people know that he had been guilty of an act which they too would condemn.

And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.
(24) Let her be burnt.—As being by law the wife of Shelah, Tamar was condemned by Judah in right of his position, as head of the family, to the punishment usual for adultery. In subsequent times, this penalty was limited to one who had married mother and daughter (Leviticus 20:14); or to the daughter of a priest guilty of unchastity (Leviticus 21:9). On this account, the Jewish expositors argue that Tamar belonged to a priestly family, and some even think that she was descended from Melchisedek.

When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.
(25, 26) She sent . . . —The Talmud praises Tamar for so acting, as to bring no public disgrace upon Judah; and he acknowledges that he was most to blame, because the cause of her crime was his own failure to act justly by her.

And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.
And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.
And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.
And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.
And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zarah.
(30) Zarah.—Heb., the rising, especially of the sun. There is in the name an allusion to the red streak placed (upon the child’s hand.

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