Judah went down from his brothers and turned to Hirah, an Adullamite. He saw the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite, there. He was intimate with her and she had sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah went to Chezib sometime when she was bearing them. Judah took a wife for Er named Tamar. Er was wicked in the sight of the LORD and the LORD put him to death, so Judah told Onan to do the duty of a brother-in-law and raise up children for Er. Onan clearly refused, each time they were intimate he would waste his seed on the ground, so she would not conceive, thereby giving offspring to his brother. This was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and Yahweh put him to death too. Judah then told her to remain a widow in her father’s house until Shelah would grow up. He feared that his third son would die like Er and Onan, and Tamar complied. Judah’s wife died. He went up to Timnah with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite. Shelah had grown and Judah had not given him to her in marriage, so when Tamar heard he was going to Timnah she changed out of her widows clothes, covered herself with a veil, and sat at the entrance to Enaim (on the road to Timnah). Judah saw her and thought she was a prostitute (she had covered her face). He asked for her to be intimate with him, not knowing she was his daughter-in-law. She asked him what he would give her for her company, and he said he’d give her a goat. She asked for a pledge as a guarantee, asking for his signet, his cord, and his staff. He complied and gave them to her, and they were intimate. She conceived twins, and after all this she put her mourning garments back on and went back to her Father’s house. Later, Judah sent the goat to her with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite, so he could have his signet, cord, and staff back, but Hirah couldn’t find her. He asked the men of Enaim where the cult prostitute at the entrance was, and they said there hadn’t been one there. Hirah returned and told Judah about all of this, and in response Judah said, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at.” (38:23) If they pursued it, his intimacy a prostitute would become public knowledge. Three months later Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant from immorality. Judah commented, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” (38:24) She gave Judah’s signet, cord, and staff to her father saying it was by the owner of these that she was impregnated. Judah then said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again (38:26). She gave birth to twins. One put it’s hand out and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the hand saying, “This one came out first.” (38:28) The baby pulled his hand back and his brother came out first, and they named him Perez. Then his brother with the scarlet thread came out and he was named Zerah.
Judah’s depravity is on full display here, as if selling his younger brother into slavery from chapter 37 weren’t enough. First, he pursues and marries a Canaanite woman, something strictly forbidden to God’s chosen line at this time. Second, his sons, Er and Onan, were wicked. Third, he refuses to give his youngest son, Shelah, to Tamar as a husband to raise up a family in Er’s stead. Fourth, Judah is acquiescing to the foreign god’s of the Canaanites. He not only lay with who he thought was a prostitute, he lay with what he thought was a cult prostitute. Further, it would have been known that the cult prostitute with a veil was married to another man. Through these circumstances God is humbling Judah from his heartless condition of selling his brother, and even more his father’s favored son, Joseph, into slavery. Judah does not want to lose his youngest son like he lost Er and Onan, so he holds off giving him to Tamar. Judah is learning what it would be like to lose a son. Judah is learning what it must have felt like for his father, Jacob, when he betrayed Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites. Judah is learning humility. Later on in Genesis we’ll see God soften Judah’s heart to the point that he offers himself as a slave rather than betray his other youngest brother, Benjamin, to be a slave (Gen. 44:18-33). He grows in empathy for his father, Jacob, in what it would be like to lose his youngest son, Benjamin. In the end Judah is able empathize with his father and his youngest brother to the point that he is willing to be a substitute. This character of becoming a substitute is a mere foreshadow of Jesus Christ’s substitution. Chapter 38 is putting the spotlight on Judah, because in the history of redemption it’s Judah through whom the Messiah will come in Jesus Christ. Judah is the promised seed of the Savior who would come, so it’s important to witness God’s work in his life even here, in the midst of his sin.