Genesis 38: Why Is the Ugly Story of Judah and Tamar in the Bible?

| Time: 8 Minutes

I read Genesis 38 with Judah and Tamar and, if I’m being honest, I felt a little gross after. As I sat with my Bible open, I had to ask, “Lord, why is this in your Word?”

I believe God answered my prayer in a few ways. I share with you how the Lord answered me so you can see that every part of Scripture is truly the Word of God, breathed out for our good.

What Happens in Genesis 38

I do encourage you to read Genesis 38. The entire kerfuffle we read about results from Judah and his sons refusing to fulfill their duty to their in-law, a woman named Tamar (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

Here’s the story. Tamar loses her husband—that’s tough enough. After this, she follows the law of the land and marries her husband’s brother Onan, who is supposed to provide for her (I know this sounds weird to us, but this law was God’s protection. It was for her safety and provision).

Onan reaps the benefits of marriage, but intentionally prevents Tamar from having kids—pretty icky. God thought so too, and Onan dies for his wickedness (Genesis 38:10).

Judah, Tamar’s father-in-law, then promises his other son to Tamar when he comes of age. Sadly, Judah has no intention of keeping his promise (Genesis 38:11). When Tamar realizes Judah has willfully shirked his responsibility to provide her with his son in marriage, she resorts to deception (Genesis 38:14).

On a random outing sometime later, Judah willingly engages with a prostitute. Ironically, shortly afterward, Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant by prostitution. He demands that she be killed. On her way to death, Judah finds out that they were involved together in the same sin—he’s the dad. Tamar is spared; Judah is humiliated, confronted with his evil. In time, Tamar bears twins, who are also Judah’s children.

The grisliness of this story as recorded in Genesis disturbs. This family dynamic is ugly from every angle. Lord, I asked, why did you include this in the Bible? It’s not the most pleasant, and I don’t see how it’s beneficial.

Why Is This Story in the Bible?

I know from reading the Bible how this story plays into the larger story of the Bible, and its role in Scripture was what first came to mind after I prayed. I’d like to share with you how Genesis 38 belongs in the bigger story of the Bible.

See, Judah is the son of Israel that God chooses to carry on the family line of the Messiah, the promised rescuer for humanity (Genesis 49:10). Jesus Christ comes from the line of Judah.

In other words, in Genesis 38, God is showing us the means by which he is keeping his promises to Abraham to provide an offspring that will bless the whole world (Jesus).

The child born of Tamar by Judah ends up being the next link in the lineage of the Messiah (Matthew 1:3).

Unfathomable. Right?

Why Bring the Messiah Out of This Mess?

You may be thinking, “But WHY?” Why did it have to be this way? Why bring the Messiah out of all this mess?

That was my honest question too. Why would God include this unpleasant little anecdote in his Word?

First, because it’s a link in the genealogy of Jesus.

But why would he intend this ugly mess to be a link in his own Son’s story? Well, we know that God brought Jesus into the world out of this mess—maybe that’s the point. Let me explain.

1. How Genesis 8 Makes Sense of Genesis 38

Let’s take a look at two passages that will help us understand why God might bring his own Son into the world by means of such a moral mess. First, let’s look at Genesis 8:21.

After the Lord destroys all mankind and starts over with Noah, he promises to never destroy all mankind by flood, reasoning that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21 ESV).

In other words, humanity is broken beyond repair. The severest of judgments or even the greatest kindness cannot alter our inclination towards evil. My point? Every man, every woman—everyone—is a mess. There are no perfect humans available for God to use to carry out his plan.

No one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10), the Scripture says.

Ever have selective amnesia about this like I do? Ever forget we’re fundamentally bad not good, more prone to wrong than right? It’s a hard truth to swallow!

God has no worthy raw materials to work with. He doesn’t have a perfect instrument in all of creation.

And maybe that’s why the God of the Bible is so wonderful—because he creates salvation, redemption, and beauty despite only having despicable crude raw materials at his disposal… us.

God persevered, forbearing with our perversity, working out his plan to save us from it, and from the punishment we deserve. God persevered to bring the promised Messiah from the line of Abraham, despite the sinfulness of people like those in Judah’s family.

God can work miracles out of a mess.

2. How Genesis 38 Makes Sense of Judah’s Life

We know that our God not only saves; he also redeems. Genesis 38 is a story of redemption, not only in the grand story of the Bible, because it points to the Messiah, but it’s also the story of Judah’s redemption.

When we first meet Judah in the Bible, he sells his brother into slavery (Genesis 37:26-27). Yes, despicable. At the end of Judah’s story, he’s offering to sell himself into slavery to save the life of one of his brothers (Genesis 44:33-34). In other words, Judah changed. Between these two points in his life, we read Genesis 38.

Genesis 38 tells us the story of Judah’s humiliation, how his sin was confronted. We meet him afresh later as a changed man. Genesis 38 indicates that at some point, God humbled Judah and gave him a change of heart.

Judah’s older brothers were disqualified from carrying the Messiah’s lineage for their wickedness (Genesis 49:2-7), but Judah’s sin didn’t disqualify him—Why? God redeemed Judah’s life. God did a work in Judah—he forgave him and showed him grace.

Genesis 38 is in the Bible to tell us that there’s hope for us as sinners. It’s God’s kindness to confront us with our ugliness and let us have a good honest look at our sin. It humbles us and helps us recognize our need for God’s forgiveness, grace, and redemption—which he is willing to give.

Genesis 38 seems to be the turning point for Judah himself. What about you? Is there a “Genesis 38” in your life? That ugly story in your life—the scene you’d rather forget—isn’t the end of your story. It’s God’s invitation to humble yourself before him and receive the forgiveness and fresh relationship with him he offers you in Jesus Christ, the Messiah who suffered in your stead. God can change anyone, and he does wonderful things with those who humble themselves before him (Isaiah 66:2).

3. How 2 Corinthians 4:7 Makes Sense of Genesis 38

Paul writes in Romans, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). What’s the treasure Paul refers to? The Lord Jesus. For those of us who trust in God’s promised rescuer, Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins, we have been restored to fellowship with God. God has come and made his home with us, by the Holy Spirit.

We who believe in Jesus always hold within us a priceless treasure. Yet, we are all, as Scripture describes us—clay jars. Not one of us is a vessel of honorable use in and of ourselves. None of us have turned silver or gold. No, we are cracked clay, vessels made of hardened dirt, yet dignified by the light we hold inside—Jesus.

What Genesis 38 Is in Your Bible

Genesis 38 is in the Bible because it’s part of God’s story of how he would rescue us from our perversion. It’s also in the Bible to remind us that God worked redemption through flawed means. He changed Judah and used his mess to humble him before God and make him a new man. He sovereignly turned Judah’s sinful decisions into steps that would lead to the salvation of many people through Jesus Christ.

For those of us who have accepted God’s salvation offered to us in Jesus, we too are promised a place in God’s plan of salvation—to shine the light of Christ out of our own imperfect, weak lives, just like Judah and Tamar.

When we look at Judah and Tamar, we see clay jars, cracked and obviously broken. But when we step back and see their story as a whole, we see the light of Christ shining through their cracked jars.

Friend, I don’t care how bad you are, how ugly your story is, or how grisly your past is. Neither does God. He offers you total forgiveness if you’ll believe him. He didn’t come to save good people; he came because we’re all hopeless sinners (Mark 2:17). And he offers you new life, a life where his light will fill your heart, and shine through those cracks to help others see his goodness. Genesis 38 is in your Bible to tell you so—that God is good, and he loves to save sinners.

If you’d like to remember the wonderful truth that we are all clay jars that God willingly uses to shine his light into our dark world, feel free to download the poem linked below. 

“Clay Jars” by 

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When the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, we turn from that sin to our merciful God. He will give us both forgiveness and the power to change.