And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.”
Genesis 38 is an inset chapter that breaks from the narrative of Joseph’s life. We learn about a troubling incident in the life of Judah.
We read that Judah took a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua, to be his wife and had three sons through her: Er, Onan and Shelah. The oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar. The line of Judah was to continue through this union. Unfortunately, Er was sinful and died at God’s hand. According to the ancient law of levirate marriage, the next son would then father a child with the widow. The child would be considered the legal heir of the deceased firstborn and continue the family line (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Onan, the second-born of Judah, had sex with Tamar but withdrew to prevent her conceiving a child for Er. This resulted in Onan’s death.
Judah then promised Tamar that she would marry his third-born, Shelah, when he reached an appropriate age. That was a promise Judah never kept.
Tamar was desperate for a child. In her desperation, she concocted a plan to be impregnated by Judah himself! She disguised herself as a prostitute and lured Judah into hiring her for sex. He did not know that he was sleeping with his own daughter-in-law. Tamar took Judah’s signet and cord as a pledge for payment for her sexual services.
Months later, when Judah discovered Tamar had become pregnant out of wedlock, he intended to execute her. Before that happened, Tamar presented the incriminating evidence: Judah was the father of the child. Judah realized his error and sin and allowed her and the twins she carried to live (Genesis 38:26).
The main lesson illustrated by this account is hypocrisy. Judah was about to kill Tamar for a sin he was equally guilty of. It took being confronted with his own sin to stop his hypocrisy.
Later we will read the example of Joseph, which stands in stark contrast to Judah’s hypocrisy. In private, Joseph would be tempted to commit adultery with his master’s wife, but he maintained his integrity by fleeing from the sin (Genesis 39:11-12).
Study these verses to learn more about Christ’s teaching on hypocrisy: Matthew 23:25-28; Luke 12:1-3; John 8:1-12; Romans 2:21-24.
Is Onan’s use of contraception evidence that birth control is sinful? Is that what we are to learn from this account? Read our article “Is Birth Control Wrong?”
Tomorrow on the Daily Bible Verse Blog: “God’s Future Home.”