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Judah marries the daughter of a Canaanite, Genesis 38:1, Genesis 38:2; and begets of her Er, Genesis 38:3, Onan, Genesis 38:4, and Shelah, Genesis 38:5. Er marries Tamar, Genesis 38:6; is slain for his wickedness, Genesis 38:7. Onan, required to raise up seed to his brother, refuses, Genesis 38:8, Genesis 38:9. He also is slain, Genesis 38:10. Judah promises his son Shelah to Tamar, when he should be of age; but performs not his promise, Genesis 38:11. Judah‘s wife dies, Genesis 38:12. Tamar in disguise receives her father-in-law, he leaves his signet, bracelets, and staff in her hand, and she conceives by him, Genesis 38:13-23. Judah is informed that his daughter-in-law is with child; and, not knowing that himself was the father, condemns her to be burnt, Genesis 38:24. She produces the signet, bracelets, and staff, and convicts Judah, Genesis 38:25, Genesis 38:26. She is delivered of twins, who are called Pharez and Zarah, Genesis 38:27-30.
And it came to pass at that time - The facts mentioned here could not have happened at the times mentioned in the preceding chapter, as those times are all unquestionably too recent, for the very earliest of the transactions here recorded must have occurred long before the selling of Joseph. Mr. Ainsworth remarks “that Judah and his sons must have married when very young, else the chronology will not agree. For Joseph was born six years before Jacob left Laban and came into Canaan; Genesis 30:25, and Genesis 31:41. Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into Egypt, Genesis 37:2, Genesis 37:25; he was thirty years old when he interpreted Pharaoh‘s dream, Genesis 41:46. And nine years after, when there had been seven years of plenty and two years of famine, did Jacob with his family go down into Egypt, Genesis 41:53, Genesis 41:54, and Genesis 45:6, Genesis 45:11. And at their going down thither, Pharez, the son of Judah, whose birth is set down at the end of this chapter, had two sons, Hezron and Hamul, Genesis 46:8, Genesis 46:12. Seeing then from the selling of Joseph unto Israel‘s going down into Egypt there cannot be above twenty-three years, how is it possible that Judah should take a wife, and have by her three sons successively, and Shelah the youngest of the three be marriageable when Judah begat Pharez of Tamar, Genesis 38:14, Genesis 38:24, and Pharez be grown up, married, and have two sons, all within so short a space? The time therefore here spoken of seems to have been soon after Jacob‘s coming to Shechem, Genesis 33:18, before the history of Dinah, Genesis 34, though Moses for special cause relates it in this place.” I should rather suppose that this chapter originally stood after Genesis 33, and that it got by accident into this place. Dr. Hales, observing that some of Jacob‘s son must have married remarkably young, says that “Judah was about forty-seven years old when Jacob‘s family settled in Egypt. He could not therefore have been above fifteen at the birth of his eldest son Er; nor Er more than fifteen at his marriage with Tamar; nor could it have been more than two years after Er‘s death till the birth of Judah‘s twin sons by his daughter-in-law Tamar; nor could Pharez, one of them, be more than fifteen at the birth of his twin sons Herron and Hamul, supposing they were twins, just born before the departure from Canaan. For the aggregate of these numbers, 15, 15, 2, 15, or 47 years, gives the age of Judah; compare Genesis 38 with Genesis 46:12.” See the remarks of Dr. Kennicott, at Genesis 31:55 (note). Adullamite - An inhabitant of Adullam, a city of Canaan, afterwards given for a possession to the sons of Judah, Joshua 15:1, Joshua 15:35. It appears as if this Adullamite had kept a kind of lodging house, for Shuah the Canaanite and his family lodged with him; and there Judah lodged also. As the woman was a Canaanitess, Judah had the example of his fathers to prove at least the impropriety of such a connection.
And he was at Chezib when she bare him - This town is supposed to be the same with Achzib, which fell to the tribe of Judah, Joshua 15:44. “The name,” says Ainsworth, “has in Hebrew the signification of lying; and to it the prophet alludes, saying the houses of Achzib shall be (Achzab) a lie to the kings of Israel, Micah 1:14.”
Er - was wicked in the sight of the Lord - What this wickedness consisted in we are not told; but the phrase sight of the Lord being added, proves that it was some very great evil. It is worthy of remark that the Hebrew word used to express Er‘s wickedness is his own name, the letters reversed. (Er) ער wicked, רע (ra). As if the inspired writer had said, “Er was altogether wicked, a completely abandoned character.”
Onan knew that the seed should not be his - That is, that the child begotten of his brother‘s widow should be reckoned as the child of his deceased brother, and his name, though the real father of it, should not appear in the genealogical tables.
Wherefore he slew him also - The sin of Onan has generally been supposed to be self-pollution; but this is certainly a mistake; his crime was his refusal to raise up seed to his brother, and rather than do it, by the act mentioned above, he rendered himself incapable of it. We find from this history that long be fore the Mosaic law it was an established custom, probably founded on a Divine precept, that if a man died childless his brother was to take his wife, and the children produced by this second marriage were considered as the children of the first husband, and in consequence inherited his possessions.
In process of time - This phrase, which is in general use in the Bible, needs explanation; the original is וירבו הימים (vaiyirbu haiyamim), and the days were multiplied. Though it implies an indefinite time, yet it generally embraces a pretty long period, and in this place may mean several years.
Thought her to be a harlot - See the original of this term, Genesis 34:31 (note). The Hebrew is זונה (zonah), and signifies generally a person who prostitutes herself to the public for hire, or one who lives by the public; and hence very likely applied to a publican, a tavern-keeper, or hostess, Joshua 2:1; translated by the Septuagint, and in the New Testament, πορνη , from περναω , to sell, which certainly may as well apply to her goods as to her person.
It appears that in very ancient times there were public persons of this description; and they generally veiled themselves, sat in public places by the highway side, and received certain hire. Though adultery was reputed a very flagrant crime, yet this public prostitution was not; for persons whose characters were on the whole morally good had connections with them. But what could be expected from an age in which there was no written Divine revelation, and consequently the bounds of right and wrong were not sufficiently ascertained? This defect was supplied in a considerable measure by the law and the prophets, and now completely by the Gospel of Christ.
Wilt thou give me a pledge till thou send it? - The word ערבון (erabon) signifies an earnest of something promised, a part of the price agreed for between a buyer and seller, by giving and receiving of which the bargain was ratified; or a deposit, which was to be restored when the thing promised should be given. St. Paul uses the same word in Greek letters, αρῥαβων , 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14. From the use of the term in this history we may at once see what the apostle means by the Holy Spirit being the Earnest, αρῥαβων , of the promised inheritance; viz., a security given in hand for the fulfillment of all God‘s promises relative to grace and eternal life. We may learn from this that eternal life will be given in the great day to all who can produce this (erabon) or pledge. He who has the earnest of the Spirit then in his heart shall not only be saved from death, but have that eternal life of which it is the pledge and the evidence. What the pledge given by Judah was, see on Genesis 38:25 (note).
Where is the harlot that was openly by the wayside? - Our translators often render different Hebrew words by the same term in English, and thus many important shades of meaning, which involve traits of character, are lost. In Genesis 38:15, Tamar is called a harlot, זונה (zonah), which, as we have already seen, signifies a person who prostitutes herself for money. In this verse she is called a harlot in our version; but the original is not זונה but קדשה (kedeshah), a holy or consecrated person, from קדש (kadash), to make holy, or to consecrate to religious purposes. And the word here must necessarily signify a person consecrated by prostitution to the worship of some impure goddess.
The public prostitutes in the temple of Venus are called ἱεροδουλοι γυναικες , holy or consecrated female servants, by Strabo; and it appears from the words (zonah) and (kedeshah) above, that impure rites and public prostitution prevailed in the worship of the Canaanites in the time of Judah. And among these people we have much reason to believe that Astarte and Asteroth occupied the same place in their theology as Venus did among the Greeks and Romans, and were worshipped with the same impure rites.
Lest we be shamed - Not of the act, for this he does not appear to have thought criminal; but lest he should fall under the raillery of his companions and neighbors, for having been tricked out of his signet, bracelets, and staff, by a prostitute.
Bring her forth, and let her be burnt - As he had ordered Tamar to live as a widow in her own father‘s house till his son Shelah should be marriageable, he considers her therefore as the wife of his son; and as Shelah was not yet given to her, and she is found with child, she is reputed by him as an adulteress, and burning, it seems, was anciently the punishment of this crime. Judah, being a patriarch or head of a family, had, according to the custom of those times, the supreme magisterial authority over all the branches of his own family; therefore he only acts here in his juridical capacity. How strange that in the very place where adultery was punished by the most violent death, prostitution for money and for religious purposes should be considered as no crime!
The signet - חתמת (chothemeth), properly a seal, or instrument with which impressions were made to ascertain property, etc. These exist in all countries.
Bracelets - פתילים (pethilim), from פתל (pathal), to twist, wreathe, twine, may signify a girdle or a collar by which precedency, etc., might be indicated; not the muslin, silk, or linen wreath of his turban, as Mr. Harmer has conjectured.
Staff - מטה (matteh), either what we would call a common walking stick, or the staff which was the ensign of his tribe.
She hath been more righteous than I - It is probable that Tamar was influenced by no other motive than that which was common to all the Israelitish women, the desire to have children who might be heirs of the promise made to Abraham, etc. And as Judah had obliged her to continue in her widowhood under the promise of giving her his son Shelah when he should be of age, consequently his refusing or delaying to accomplish this promise was a breach of truth, and an injury done to Tamar.
The midwife - bound upon his hand a scarlet thread - The binding of the scarlet thread about the wrist of the child whose arm appeared first in the birth, serves to show us how solicitously the privileges of the birthright were preserved. Had not this caution been taken by the midwife, Pharez would have had the right of primogeniture to the prejudice of his elder brother Zarah. And yet Pharez is usually reckoned in the genealogical tables before Zarah; and from him, not Zarah, does the line of our Lord proceed. See Matthew 1:3. Probably the two brothers, as being twins, were conjoined in the privileges belonging to the birthright.
How hast thou broken forth? - מה פרצת (mah paratsta), this breach be upon thee, עליך פרץ (aleycka parets); thou shalt bear the name of the breach thou hast made, i. e., in coming first into the world. Therefore his name was called פרץ (Parets), i. e., the person who made the breach. The breach here mentioned refers to a certain circumstance in parturition which it is unnecessary to explain.
His name was called Zarah - זרה (Zarach), risen or sprung up, applied to the sun, rising and diffusing his light. “He had this name,” says Ainsworth, “because he should have risen, i. e., have been born first, but for the breach which his brother made.”
There are several subjects in this chapter on which it may not be unprofitable to spend a few additional moments.
1. The insertion of this chapter is a farther proof of the impartiality of the sacred writer. The facts detailed, considered in themselves, can reflect no credit on the patriarchal history; but Judah, Tamar, Zarah, and Pharez, were progenitors of the Messiah, and therefore their birth must be recorded; and as the birth, so also the circumstances of that birth, which, even had they not a higher end in view, would be valuable as casting light upon some very ancient customs, which it is interesting to understand. These are not forgotten in the preceding notes.
2. On what is generally reputed to be the sin of Onan, something very pointed should be spoken. But who dares and will do it, and in such language that it may neither pollute the ear by describing the evil as it is, nor fail of its effect by a language so refined and so laboriously delicate as to cover the sin which it professes to disclose? Elaborate treatises on the subject will never be read by those who need them most, and anonymous pamphlets are not likely to be regarded. The sin of self-pollution, which is generally considered to be that of Onan, is one of the most destructive evils ever practiced by fallen man. In many respects it is several degrees worse than common whoredom, and has in its train more awful consequences, though practiced by numbers who would shudder at the thought of criminal connections with a prostitute. It excites the powers of nature to undue action, and produces violent secretions, which necessarily and speedily exhaust the vital principle and energy; hence the muscles become flaccid and feeble, the tone and natural action of the nerves relaxed and impeded, the understanding confused, the memory oblivious, the judgment perverted, the will indeterminate and wholly without energy to resist; the eyes appear languishing and without expression, and the countenance vacant; the appetite ceases, for the stomach is incapable of performing its proper office; nutrition fails, tremors, fears, and terrors are generated; and thus the wretched victim drags out a most miserable existence, till, superannuated even before he had time to arrive at man‘s estate, with a mind often debilitated even to a state of idiotism, his worthless body tumbles into the grave, and his guilty soul (guilty of self-murder) is hurried into the awful presence of its Judge! Reader, this is no caricature, nor are the colourings overcharged in this shocking picture. Worse woes than my pen can relate I have witnessed in those addicted to this fascinating, unnatural, and most destructive of crimes. If thou hast entered into this snare, flee from the destruction both of body and soul that awaits thee! God alone can save thee. Advice, warnings, threatenings, increasing debility of body, mental decay, checks of conscience, expostulations of judgment and medical assistance, will all be lost on thee: God, and God alone, can save them from an evil which has in its issue the destruction of thy body, and the final perdition of thy soul! Whether this may have been the sin of Onan or not, is a matter at present of small moment; it may be thy sin; therefore take heed lest God slay thee for it. The intelligent reader will see that prudence forbids me to enter any farther into this business. See Clarke‘s note at Genesis 39:21.