The Black Sheep
The Black Sheep
If you’ve every taken an interest in genealogy and family history, chances are you’ve run into some “black sheep”. They’re the sort of people that your relatives are either eager to gossip about or whose mention causes them to fall into silence. I found a few of these people in my own family tree. Mentioning their names caused everyone to clam up. They were embarrassments to the family and no one wanted to talk about them, let alone have an amateur genealogist recording their sins for posterity.
Remarkably, Holy Scripture takes an entirely different approach to family history. The family line of King David—the same family line as Jesus—is a rogue’s gallery. For all the men and women of faith, there are plenty of villains. Most of these are villains who were eventually transformed into saints by the patient grace of God. And that’s why they’re there. They witness to us that no sinner is beyond the redeeming power of God’s loving-kindness and grace. They also remind us that God can and has and will use even the worst sinners to fulfil his plans of redemption for humanity.
And so as we began the story of the twelve sons of Jacob, the storyteller painted a very unflattering picture of these fathers of Israel. They were men who hated their little brother so much that they had no qualms about murdering him and only stopped short of that because the opportunity for a little profit came along. Instead murdering him, they sold him into slavery. Even Joseph didn’t escape the story without showing his bratty good-two-shoes side. But God will use these men to redeem fallen humanity. The main focus of the story is on Joseph. He’s the one whom God, in his providence, sent to Egypt so that his family could be saved from starvation years later. But after sending Joseph off to Egypt, in Chapter 38 the storyteller brings our attention back to Canaan and shows us the character of Judah. Joseph will save his family from starvation, but Judah is the father of King David and ultimately of the Messiah. Through Judah God has saved us all. And yet what we see of Judah at the beginning of the story is unflattering. It’s the sort of thing most of us might be ashamed to have recorded in our family history—the sort of thing we clam up about when our grandson asks about Uncle Judah. And yet here in Scripture, Judah’s sins are recorded in the historical record for the entire world. Why? Because it reminds us that no one is beyond the grace of God. Because here we see that God often uses our sin as a spark to set on fire a flame of holiness that will transform our lives.
The timeline for Judah’s story is a little hazy. Genesis 38 covers at least twenty years. These events may have begun before Joseph was sold into slavery; they certainly overlap the time of Joseph’s life in Egypt, probably right to the time Jacob’s family relocated there.
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him. (Genesis 38:1-5)
Judah separates from his brothers and falls in with the Canaanites. He joins up with a man named Hirah and while living amongst the pagans, one of them, a Canaanite woman, catches his eye. He “saw” and “took” her. To take is the normal way to describe marrying a wife in Hebrew, but the storyteller connects it with “seeing”, which strongly suggests that Rueben was lusting after this woman. He wasn’t thinking about the propriety of marrying a pagan woman or whether or not this was an advantageous thing to do. He saw a woman he thought was beautiful and married her, regardless of any serious consideration. This paints Judah as an impetuous man overcome by lust. It also tells us that he doesn’t particularly value the covenant. He’s not only left his family to live with the pagan people of the land, but now he’s intermarried with them. In fairly short order we’ll see that he starts acting like those pagans.
Something like ten to twenty years pass between verses 5 and 6. The storyteller returns to Judah as he begins marrying off his adult sons.
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. (Genesis 38:6-7)
We aren’t told what Er’s sin was, but it was obviously very serious—serious enough for God to strike him down. This left his wife, Tamar, in a difficult position. In that culture a woman relied on her husband or her son to care for her. Tamar doesn’t have either and to return to her father’s house was often a shameful thing to have to do. But the culture provided a solution in a practice called Levirate marriage. The father-in-law of the childless widow was obligated to marry the woman to his next son and the firstborn son of that union was then raised as the son of the dead man and with full inheritance rights. God spells out specific rules for this in Deuteronomy, but the Canaanites had very similar laws long before. It shouldn’t surprise us, though, that not every man was enthusiastic about marrying his widowed sister-in-law and raising a son who would not legally be his own. Deuteronomy 25 takes this in account and allows the brother to refuse this obligation, but requires him to go through a ceremony of public shaming. In Judah’s time, the Canaanites were obviously stricter about it. And so Judah marries Tamar to his second son, Onan, who wasn’t keen on the idea of giving up his inheritance to his own son by Tamar.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. (Genesis 38:8-11)
The storyteller is clear that Onan didn’t do this once or twice, but that he did it repeatedly. He was happy to use sex with Tamar for his pleasure, but he selfishly denied his dead brother the blessing that God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. Throughout Genesis, God has called his people to be fruitful and to multiply. His blessing to Abraham was a multitude of descendants. But Onan rejects both the joyful duty God has given his people and the specific blessings he had promised to Abraham and his family. Onan practises a form of systematic birth control in an attempt to frustrate the fulfilment of God’s plan and promise and for that he’s put to death. Onan knew God’s plan and God’s expectation of him, but he knowingly and wilfully did everything in his power to derail God’s plan to bless Abraham’s sons with children. Brothers and sisters, trying to derail God is foolish. Onan forfeit his life for it and, as we’ll see later in the chapter, God will bring his plans to fulfilment whether we cooperate or not.
This leaves Tamar in a difficult spot again. Shelah, Judah’s third son isn’t old enough to marry, so Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait. But we also see that Judah has no intention to marry her to another one of his sons. From his point of view, Tamar was bad luck at best. At worst she was a witch or possessed by a demon as we see with Sarah in the story of Tobit. Tamar, nevertheless, patiently waits in good faith for Shelah to grow up, but Judah ignores his duty to her and leaves her waiting. In that sense, Judah is as guilty as Onan was. Onan refused to do right by her and spilled his seed on the ground. Judah refuses to marry her to his third son. Eventually Tamar gives up hope of Judah doing the right thing and takes matters into her own hands. What’s remarkable about this is that we’d expect Tamar to give up on this delinquent son of Israel and simply take another husband from amongst her own people. It wasn’t uncommon for Canaanite women in her position to become temple prostitutes in the fertility cults of Ishtar or Anat. But she doesn’t do that. That’s what’s so remarkable here. She has seen something in Judah’s horribly messed up family and instead of giving up on him, she holds on tight. No matter how sinful Judah and his sons were, through them Tamar had seen a glimpse of God’s covenant grace and she wasn’t willing to let that go. Like Ruth, she saw beyond the immediate human failures and attached herself to God’s people. Abraham’s great fear had been that his sons would marry Canaanite women and be drawn away from God and into paganism. But here in this one instance we see one of those Canaanite women being drawn away from her pagan past and clinging desperately to a future with God. Look at verses 12-19:
In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
The regulations for Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy didn’t take matters this far, but the laws of the Canaanites actually required that if a man had no more sons for his widowed and childless daughter-in-law to marry, he was to required to taker her to wife himself. Hearing that Judah would be travelling nearby, Tamar decided to force him to fulfil his obligation to her.
She takes off her “widow’s weeds”, veils herself like a cult prostitute, and waits for Judah along the road where she knows he will pass by. In Canaan, prostitutes who were devoted to fertility or mother goddesses would veil themselves as the symbolic brides of the gods Baal or El. They would re-enact the divine marriage with men like Judah who wanted to win the gods’ blessing on their crops and herds. This doesn’t reflect well on Judah’s character. Had Judah been a righteous man and devoted to the Lord, Tamar never would have hatched such a plan. Her scheme depended on her knowledge of him as man who dabbled in pagan rituals, who trusted in pagan gods, and who routinely caroused with prostitutes. Considering his character, it’s no wonder that he raised sons so evil that God struck them down.
Sheep-shearing time was also a time for festivals. Judah may well have been intoxicated, making it unlikely that he would recognise Tamar through her veil. He sees her along the road and negotiates her price, settling on a lamb. Of course, he doesn’t have the lamb with him, so she demands some kind of security. Specifically she demands his staff and his seal. The staff was a sign of his authority in the family. It probably had carvings on it that identified it as his. The seal was something like a signet, worn on a cord around the neck. A man would stamp it in wet clay the way we put our signature on a paper contract. Judah’s leaving his staff and seal with Tamar would be something like leaving your wallet for security. It’s got your ID and your credit cards. This was Judah’s ID. Imagine how you’d feel if you left your wallet with someone for security—maybe while you test drove a car—and came back to find them gone. That’s exactly what happens to Judah. He sends his friend back with the lamb to pay Tamar, but she’s nowhere to be found.
When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.” (Genesis 38:20-23)
Again we see Judah’s character. He wasn’t ashamed of having done business with a prostitute or engaged in a crass act of pagan worship. His only concern is that no one should know he was foolish enough to give her his staff and seal as security. Judah puts the incident behind him and for three months things are quiet, then someone brings word to him that Tamar is pregnant.
About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” (Genesis 38:24)
We get a sense again of what kind of man Judah was. He refused to provide for his widowed daughter-in-law as the law required. He’s left her to languish in her father’s house, while he cavorts with prostitutes. But now, when he hears that Tamar is pregnant, he suddenly takes an interest in her. He’s like Jacob, who ignored his sons and only took an interest in them when they’d done something wrong. And so Judah becomes indignant and calls for her execution. It immediately brings to mind Jesus warning to us: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). We remember his words to the men ready to stone the adulteress: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Judah is the worst kind of hypocrite. And Tamar exposes him.
As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Genesis 38:25-26)
A woman who had broken her betrothal vow could be sentenced to death, and it’s on that ground that Judah calls for her to be burned. Nevermind that Judah, himself, had broken that vow by refusing to give his son to her in marriage. The problem for Judah is that Tamar wasn’t the only one to be punished. According to the law, the man with whom she had broken her vow was also to be put to death, so in sending his staff and signet to the “court”, Tamar’s implicating Judah. If she deserves execution, so does he. Ultimately, Tamar exposes Judah’s self-righteousness. And it’s at this point that Judah drops his charges; but he doesn’t just do it out of a desire for self-preservation. When he drops the charges he admits his own guilt. Not the guilt for prostitution and not guilt over pagan worship, but his guilt for having neglected his covenant obligations to Tamar. He admits: “She is more righteous than I.” She may have put on an immoral front, she may have tricked me, but in doing all that she was only claiming what was hers by right and what I had refused to give her. And this admission marks a profound change in Judah.
If we overlay the timeline of Genesis 38 on the larger story of Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, there’s a good chance that they converge at about this point. Judah is confront by Tamar with his staff and seal and asked to identify them. But through Tamar’s actions, God confronts Judah too. Only Judah and his brothers knew the truth behind what happened to Joseph. For twenty years or more, their scheme to sell Joseph into slavery has been their secret. Judah and his brothers had covered their crime by presenting Joseph’s fancy coat, torn and covered in blood, to Jacob. They led their father to believe that Joseph had been killed by an animal. And now, as Tamar presents Judah’s identification—and that staff and seal were as much his “ID” as Joseph’s fancy coat was his—God hits Judah with the full weight of his guilt. Judah confesses. He’s been the unrighteous one. But the change in Judah isn’t just seen here. It’s very likely about this same time that the brothers made their second trip to Egypt as we read in Chapter 44. Joseph recognised them and put them to the test—a test in which Benjamin, his younger brother and, no doubt, now Jacob’s favourite son, was framed for a crime. Whereas the old Judah was happy to throw Joseph to the wolves years before, the new Judah steps before the governor of Egypt, pleads for mercy for his brother, and even offers to make himself Joseph’s prisoner in Benjamin’s place. This is a dramatic change in Judah.
On the heels of Judah’s humble admission of guilt, God does an amazing thing. Because of their evil, God had taken Judah’s two eldest sons. Look at verses 27-30:
When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.
God had taken Er and Onan, but he now gives the repentant Judah two sons through Tamar. The storyteller’s point in this account of Perez and Zerah and the scarlet thread is simply to show that God is at work in the birth of these boys. All along, God has chosen the younger over the older, the supernatural son over the natural son, and breaking all the cultural norms of the day. He does it again here as he gives preference to the younger Perez, not only causing him to supplant his brother as firstborn, but by giving him the place of honour in redemptive history. Consider that it’s Perez, born of this Canaanite woman who clung so tenaciously to the covenant family of Israel, whose line gives birth to Boaz. It was Boaz to whom the pagan Moabitess, Ruth, clung in her own desire to be connected with the covenant family. Boaz was the great-grandfather of King David, who in turn was the forefather of Jesus the Messiah. Gordon Wenham writes of Genesis 38, “So this story, which at first sight seems to be so marginal to biblical history, records a vital link in saving history. Tamar, through her determination to have children, secured for Judah the honor of fathering David and the Savior of the world.”
Friends, St. Paul wrote to the Romans that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more and I can’t think of many stories that communicate this message as powerfully as Judah’s story. Judah was one of God’s covenant sons. He bore the sign of the covenant in his circumcision. He had been raised to know the amazing acts God had done in the lives of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but he abandoned that inheritance and threw his lot in with pagan idolaters. We might expect God to wash his hands of Judah, but that’s not how God operates. Just as God sought after the rebellious Adam and Eve, so he seeks after rebellious Judah. As Judah sins, God’s grace abounds: making right what Judah did wrong, confronting his sins, turning his heart, and drawing him back. Brothers and sisters, this is how God works in the lives of his people. His desire is to restore us to his fellowship and to his friendship and that’s just what he does. And consider the nature of his grace. God does more than simply call his wayward sheep back to the fold. As with the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, God rejoices at the restoration of his rebellious children and puts us in places of honour. God took Judah out of his rebellious pagan life, he gave Judah two righteous sons to take the place of his two wicked sons, and he incorporated him into his great plan. Judah was the father of the Messiah, of the Lord for whom all creation groaned in longing and who, at the cross, would finally conquer our great enemies: sin and death.
And so consider, brothers and sisters, that our own sins—yours and mine—are no obstacle to God’s grace. He will pursue you and me just as he pursued Judah, to draw us back into his will and into his kingdom. And never settle for the belief that your sin, once forgiven, leaves you worthless in the kingdom. His Holy Spirit causes the fruit of grace to grow in the life of every Christian, he gifts every Christian for effective ministry, and in his providence he has a place of honour for every one of us in his redemptive plans to bring the Good News of King Jesus to humanity. God’s amazing grace will wash clean even the blackest of sheep and leaves us all white as snow.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, we asked in today’s collect that you would make us love what you command. Let that be our continual prayer. Confront us in our sins and turn our hearts as you did Judah’s, that we might learn to love your commandments and walk faithfully in your will so that we glorify you and effectively do the work of your kingdom. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthew, and Mark W. Chavals, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), p. 70. Recent research has called some of these conclusions into question. See Karel van der Toorn, “Prostitution (Cultic)”, Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, pp. 510-513; idem, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, trans. Sara J. Denning-Bolle (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), pp. 93-110.