The scarlet thread

Genesis 38

Before the law of Moses incest was very common among the people. Concubines and sleeping with servants and prostitutes were part of common life among God’s people. Though Judah had served as saviour for his brother Joseph, Genesis 38 shows a terrible side of Judah. If Judah becomes important as forefather of Jesus, he was not a man of God’s mishpat. He did not walk in peace because he did not live with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, he did not reflect God’s character.

He did not marry but slept with a Canaanite woman called Shua, who bore him three sons. Er, her first son, died because he was wicked. Though Judah was wicked, too, imagine how intensively wicked Er must have been if he was killed by the Lord for that. The custom was that if a man died and he was left without son and the brother was not yet married, the surviving oldest brother would marry the widow in order to guarantee his line. Offspring was extremely important to early Judaism. Er’s brother Onan refused to fulfil this traditional duty in order to raise his own offspring and not that of his brother but the Lord put him to death as well. Judah told Er’s wife Tamar to wait until she could marry Er’s second brother Shelah had grown up in order to marry Tamar.

In reality, Judah feared that the Lord would kill Shelah, too, so he kept Tamar at his house and did not give Shelah to Tamar for marriage. He had not kept his promise to Tamar, but Tamar remained faithful to wait for Judah’s fulfilment of his promise. Had she married another man, this would have been against the tradition and Judah could also have criticized her saying, “why did you not wait a little more until I tell you that the time to marry Shelah has come?” She would have been the guilty one. Some people are pleading on their knees for punishment. Judah was among those people. Tamar had a plan to help Judah fulfil his promise. She disguised as a prostitute by putting on a veil that covered her face, according to the custom (cf. 1 Cor 11, where the custom was different) and sat by the way where Judah would pass. Judah saw her, did not recognize her and agreed to pay a goat. She asked him to leave his signet, cord and staff as a pledge until he was able to send the goat to recover the pledge.

Tamar became pregnant by Judah. When people told him that Tamar had become pregnant immorally, Judah burst out in anger and cried out: “burn her”. Wow, what a hypocrite! Even if she had become pregnant immorally, was he any better? Why did he not ask the people to burn him after he had slept with several women immorally? Paul says, “why do you judge the other for what you are doing yourself? Do you think you will escape God’s judgement?” (Rom 2:1).

When she showed the pledge to him, he was struck in his heart and confessed: “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give my son Shelah to her” (38:26). Fortunately, he did not insist that she would be burnt. The twins that were born to Tamar wereפֶּרֶץ , “spreading” or “split” where the name Pharisees comes from andזֶרַח “shining forth”, “sunrise” because “he put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand (38:28).”

This was a lesson in his life, a lesson of humiliation and change of thinking. May the Lord grant us such a lesson.

Observing this history of God’s people, there should be no room to feel superior to other people. There is all room, however, to recognize God’s grace and offer of peace. This offer is extended to all.

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