Sermon: Genesis 38: Jesus, The Lion Of The Tribe Of Judah?

Old Testament: Genesis 38

“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. 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. 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. 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. 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.’ 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.’ 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. 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.” (Genesis 38, ESV)

New Testament: Matthew 1:1-17

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:1–17, ESV)


[Please excuse any and all typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church, but without the benefit of proofreading.] 


I am aware that to some Genesis 38 will seem like a strange text to preach on the Sunday before Christmas. It’s a rather scandalous story that we find here, isn’t it? And I’ll admit, this story doesn’t feel very “Christmasy”. But I hope you can see that Genesis 38 is not all together unrelated to the story of the birth of Jesus the Christ. Perhaps you noticed that the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew 1 makes mention of the main characters of Genesis 38 — Judah and Tamar. Listen again to Matthew 1:1-3: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…” (Matthew 1:1–3, ESV). 

When Matthew set out to write his gospel concerning Jesus the Christ, he began, not with the story of his birth, but with his genealogy. Matthew was concerned to demonstrate that Jesus was in fact the offspring of Abraham and David. This was important, for Jesus could not possibly be the Christ (that is to say, the Messiah) unless he descended from Abraham and David. For the Old Testament scriptures are clear — the Christ would be born in the line of Abraham and David. Matthew does eventually tell the Christmas story that is familiar to all of us, but only after establishing the descent of Jesus from Abraham and David. 

After reading the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 one might assume that Matthew would be eager to distance Jesus from this mess. But instead he highlights the fact that Jesus’ ancestors include Perez who was born to Judah by Tamar, who was Judah’s daughter-in-law. Notice that Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus does not usually mention the women by whom such and such a person was born. Typically the fathers are the only ones mentioned. But here in Matthew 1:3 we read, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…” As I have said, one my expect Matthew to burry this unsavory story to distance the Christ from the scandal, but instead he does the opposite. He draws attention to the relationship. Not only was Judah the father of Perez (Matthew could have said only that and the genealogy would have been complete), he was the father of “Perez… by Tamar.” 

In fact, there are four other instances in the genealogy of Jesus where Matthew mentions the mother of such and such a person. “Salmon [was] the father of Boaz by Rahab”, “Boaz [was] the father of Obed by Ruth”, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”, and “Joseph [was] the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” In each of the five instances where the mother of such and a person is mentioned there is either some scandal or some surprising thing to be noted about the woman. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah by whom Perez and Zerah were born — that story is scandalous. Rahab was a prostitute and a foreigner (not an Israelite)— scandalous and surprising . Ruth was a foreigner too — it is surprising that the line of the Messiah would run through her. Solomon was born to David by Bathsheba, who was the wife of Uriah — this too was scandalous. And Jesus the Christ was born to Mary, who was a virgin betrothed to Joseph — very surprising. 

What then should we think about the surprising genealogy of Jesus. How should we interpret the sin-laden family history of the Messiah? Clearly, Matthew was not eager to bury these unsavory stories, nor to cover the blemished in the family history of Jesus. To the contrary, he seems to draw attention to the scandalous and surprising things as he traces the generations of Jesus from Abraham and through David. What are we to make of this? 


I. God’s Plan Of Redemption Was Accomplished Despite The Sinfulness Of Man 

First of all, as we consider the genealogy of Jesus in general, and the story of Judah and Tamar in particular, it is apparent that God’s plan of salvation was accomplished despite the sinfulness of man. 

This is an important observation, for it demonstrates that God is able to bring about his plans and purposes in a messy world. He is able to accomplish his will even while men and women rebel against him. Our sins — though they be truly ours, and though they be truly sinful — do not frustrate the plans and purpose of God.    

In the presence of Adam and Eve it was announced that one of her seed would eventually come into the world to defeat the serpent who had deceived them. From that first announcement of the gospel the people of God awaited the arrival of this promised and anointed one, who we call the Messiah or Christ.  

We know now that the Christ did not come into the world immediately, instead he was born in the “fulness of of time”, to use the language of Paul (Galatians 4:4). And he would descend, not from a pure people, but from a mixed multitude — a blemished people with a checkered past. Even the so called “good guys” in the biblical narrative were not really good. Some of them had great faith, and in that respect they are to be emulated, but they were not without blemish. Consider Abraham and his flaws. Consider King David and his. Remember that Solomon was born to him “by the wife of Uriah”, as Matthew points out.  

I suppose that some might reason this way: If God accomplishes his purposes despite my sin, then are my sins really so bad? And that answer to that question is “yes”. Yes, your sins and my sins are truly heinous before God. Each one of them deserves the wrath of God. Our sins have terrible consequences in this life and in the life to come (which is why we must washed by the blood go Christ and clothed in his righteousness by believing upon him).

Here I am not trying to minimize the heinousness of our sin, but to magnify the greatness of our God by saying, nothing can thwart his purposes or frustrate his plans. 

The story of Judah, the son’s of Judah and their relation to Tamar is truly scandalous. So scandalous is this story that I hesitate to go though it in great detail with small children present. I’ll retell the story generally, and I’ll leave it to you to contemplate the details. 

Judah already has a bad reputation in the Genesis narrative. He took part in the plan to kill his brotherJoseph, being driven by jealousy.  And remember also that it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery seeing that they could make a profit while doing away with him. 

It is therefore not surprising to learn in Genesis 38 that Judah’s sons were wicked men. Wicked men do sometimes produce godly offspring, but this is by the grace of God. It far more common, though, for the son’s of wicked men to be wicked also. 

Notice in verse 7 that “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was [so] wicked in the sight of the LORD, [that] the LORD put him to death”. We are not told the nature of his wickedness. Onan, Judah’s second born, was also wicked. Instead of having intercourse with Tamar to raise up offering by her, he went into her only for pleasure. This was wicked in the sight of the Lord. If he did not want to take Tamar as wife, he could have refused to do so. Having taken her as wife, it was his duty to raise up offspring by her. Onan did neither. Instead, he took her as wife only to use her for pleasure. 

One thing that needs to be taken into consideration when interpreting this story is the significance of raising up “offspring” within Israel. To the serpent it was said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15, ESV). With these words the significance of offspring was established.  To Abraham it was said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7, ESV), and “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth…” (Genesis 13:16, ESV), and “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3, ESV), etc. Here it is clear that the offspring of Abraham would be of particular importants to the accomplishment of God’s plan of salvation for the world. The same promises were reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. So for the sons of Judah to show such disregard for the responsibility and privilege of raising up offspring within Israel was  especially wicked. Clearly, Onan cared little about the promises of God given to his fathers. He cared only for physical pleasure. In verse 10 we read, “What [Onan] did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.

Judah promised to give his third son, Shelah, to Tamar when he came of age, but he was afraid that he too would die (as if Tamar had anything to do with the death of his first two sons!) and so he withheld him. 

Though Tamar’s methods were very questionable (sinful), she does come across as a kind of heroine in the Genesis narrative. She, unlike Judah and his sons, was eager to raise up offspring within Israel. If she did not care about offspring for Israel, I suppose she could have went her way and taken a husband from her own people (she was probably a Canaanite). But instead she waited for one of Judah’s sons. And when the third was withheld, she deceived Judah to bring forth offspring by him. Is Tamar to be condemned or praised in this narrative? If only things were so  black and white! What she did was sinful, but again, it appears that her desire to raise up offspring within Israel is to be commended. 

Judah comes off all bad in this story. He promised his third born to Tamar, but withheld him. He joined himself to what he thought was a prostitue while on a journey — really she was his daughter-in-law in disguise. And when his daughter-in-law was found to be with child he ordered that she be put to  death by burning. Wow! The hypocrisy of the man! But he was put to open shame when Tamar presented his signet, his cord and staff — the very signet, cord and staff that she had taken from him as a pledge of payment when disguised as a prostitute. 

The signet was a ring with seal on it. The  cord was a ornamental cord probably used to bind Judah’s cloak. The staff was obviously a walking stick. All of these were personal objects which would easily be recognized as belonging to Judah. The irony is that Jacob deceived Isaac with a cloak and goat, Jacob’s sons (including Judah) deceived him with a cloak and goat, and now Judah is deceived by Tamar as she covers herself with the cloak and awaits the payment of goat for her services. 

The turning point in the story is when Judah’s hypocrisy is discovered. “As [Tamar] 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, ESV).

This may have been a turning point in Judah’s life. [Sometimes the Lord works in this way  — in order to grow us he first humbles us.] In chapter 43 Judah will appear again in the Jospeh story, but he seems to be a changed man. Instead of cold hearted and self serving, he appears compassionate and selfless. There in Genesis 43  Jacob urges his sons to go back up to Egypt to get food, for the famine  in the land was very severe. But Judah protested  saying, “The man [who we know was Jospeh] solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you’” (Genesis 43:3–5, ESV). The brother being referenced was Benjamine, the youngest, and the second born to Rachael. As you know, Jacob would not let Benjamine go for fear that he would loose him also. Listen to how Judah responded to his fathers hesitancy. “Judah said to Israel his father, ‘Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (Genesis 43:8–10, ESV). And when Jospeh threatened to keep Benjamin it was Judah who pleded for the boy and offered to be held captive instead, saying, “Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father” (Genesis 44:33–34, ESV). 

It seems to me that one of the reason this story of the wickedness of Judah is told here in Genesis 38 is to help set the stage for the radical transformation that took place within him. We will appreciate the light of Judah’s transformation much more now that it is set against this dark backdrop of Judah’s hardhearted and self-centered way of life.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus the Christ is known as the Lion of tribe of Judah. And now that you know the truth about Judah’s character in the beginning, isn’t it apparent that God is able to accomplish his purpose despite our sin. God is able to use that which evil for good. How exactly he does this, I cannot say. But that he does it is clear. All of the wickedness that we see in the world does not frustrate the plans and purposes of God, and this should encourage us to press onward and to not loose heart. 


II. God’s Plan Of Redemption Was Accomplished Because Of God’s Love For Sinful Man 

Secondly, as we consider the genealogy of Jesus in general, and the story of Judah and Tamar in particular, it is apparent that God’s plan of redemption was accomplished because of God’s love for sinful man. 

When the scriptures say, “for God so loved the world…” it should astonish us. It should astonish us that God — God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who is radient in glory and unblemished in his purity — would set his love upon sinful and fallen creatures such as you and me. 

Stories like this one about Judah, his sons, and their treatment of Tamar, are meant, in part, to convince us of our unworthiness before God. These stories magnify the grace of God. They demonstrate his mercy. They make it crystal clear that the love that he has shown to the world by providing a savior through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is undeserved.    

When John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). It does not mean  that God has set his love upon all human beings equally and without distinction, as the Arminians and semi-Pelagians say. To interpret the passage that way would make the text to contradict all of those passages about unconditional election and predestination that are found in the New Testament. To interpret the passage that way would set John 3 against John 6 and 17. And to interpret the passage in that way ignores the way that John (and every other biblical author) uses the word “world”. The world “world” stands for the all the peoples of the earth — all nations. And the world “world” also  has moral connotations. It is often used to describe a world that is sinful. When John says, “For God so loved the world…” he intends for us to be astonished at the though that God Almighty would bother to set us love upon wicked people such as you and me so as to redeem a people for himself from every tongue, tribe and nation. 

Tamar was a Canaanite, as I have already said, and yet God determined to use her to accomplish his purposes for the redemption of the world. Judah and Tamar were sinful, and yet God advanced his program of redemption through them. Judah bore Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and from Perez Jesus the Christ would be brought into the world. 

Clearly God’s plan of redemption was accomplished because of his love for sinful man, and not because of our merit. He owes us nothing, friends, except his righteous judgement. Instead he has shown mercy and grace. 


III. God’s Plan Of Redemption Was Accomplished By The Son Of Coming In The Likeness Of Sinful Man 

Thirdly and lastly, as we consider the genealogy of Jesus in general, and the story of Judah and Tamar in particular,  it is apparent that God’s plan of redemption was accomplished by the Son of God coming in the likeness of sinful man. 

I’m sure you have noticed that I have been reading a lot of genealogies lately (and sometimes I really struggle with the names!) But why do the scriptures contain so many genealogies?  Why did Matthew, for example, begin his gospel with a genealogy? 

In part, the answer is that according to God’s plan salvation would be accomplished by one who was truly human. The savior of the world would be of the seed of the Eve. He would be the son of Abraham and of David. Perez is mentioned here because through him the Christ would be born into the world. 

And that is what we are celebrating during this Christmas season — the birth of Jesus the Christ. He was born into the world at the perfect time, according to the will of God.

According to the New Testament scriptures, and in fulfillment to the Old, he was truly human, the son of Abraham, and yet he was truly divine, the eternal son of God.

He was truly human because he came to redeem humans from their sin. He was born into this world a human so that he might live for humans, die for humans, and rise for humans. If redemption was to be accomplished for the sons and daughters of Adam, it required that one from Adam’s race accomplish that salvation by the keeping of God’s law and bearing the penalty that rests upon Adam’s posterity. 

And yet it was also required that this Savior be divine, for no mere human could possible keep God’s law now that the race is fallen; no mere human could possibly bear the weight of the sins of all of God’s elect; no mere human could possibly raise himself from the dead, thus winning the victory over the evil one. 



Friends, Jesus the Christ was both the son of Perez born to Judah by Tamar, and the eternal Son of God. He assumed a true human nature — he came in the likeness of sinful flesh — so that he might provide salvation for you and me. Let us not forget that this Christmas season, but rejoice that God would love us so. 


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