Elon, North Carolina
We come today to a passage that is never taught to children in Sunday School. Teens do not learn about this chapter in youth group. Some Christians do not even know this story is in the Bible because it is in the Old Testament and many Christians do not read the Old Testament.
Some preachers just skip this chapter because it is so graphic. It is not G-rated. It is X-rated text. This chapter contains some adult topics. It mentions deception, lust, seduction, ejaculation, prostitution, and incest. Parental discretion is advised for this chapter. I have to warn you today that you are going to hear some things that you have never heard in church. This chapter may have caused a few heart attacks in the Victorian era but we should be able to handle it today.
This is not one of those positive and uplifting chapters. Everyone in this chapter looks bad. Judah looks bad. His sons look bad. The one who looks the best in the chapter is Tamar. Judah said that she was more righteous than he was (38:26) and she dressed up as a temple prostitute and seduced her father-in-law.
This is actually a chapter that everyone should study. It is absolutely fascinating. This chapter is riveting. It is full of drama and suspense. There are lots of applications in this chapter. Before we begin, let’s review the context. The last time we were in the Book of Genesis, we began a new section in the book. Genesis 37-50 deal with the life of Joseph. Genesis 37 tells us what happened to Joseph when he was a teenager. His ten older brothers were jealous of him. They hated him because he was their dad’s favorite and was given a special robe.
When they got a chance, they tore off the robe that Jacob gave him, threw him into a pit and then decided to make some money off of him. They sold him into slavery and taken to another country. This chapter is all about Joseph’s brother Judah. He was actually his half-brother because they had the same father but different mothers. Joseph’s mother was Rachel. Judah’s mother was Leah. Now that seems a little strange.
How does this chapter fit into the context of Genesis? It doesn’t seem to fit. It seems out of place. It is in a section dealing with Joseph but this chapter is NOT about Joseph. In fact, Joseph is not even mentioned one time in the chapter. Actually, it is not out of place at all. The very first verse of chapter says, “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah”. This chapter happens chronologically after the last chapter. It happens AT THAT TIME. Joseph is in Egypt for twenty years.
This chapter covers about twenty years. Judah has to get married and then he has to have kids and then those kids have to grow up and then they have to get married. Tamar is sent back home for a while and then she conceives and has kids. All of that took time. About twenty years go by in this chapter.
This chapter tells you what happened to one of Joseph’s brothers during the twenty years that he was in Egypt. Why did it focus on what happened to Judah during this time? Why doesn’t it tell us what happened to Levi or Reuben during this time? There are two reasons. Judah was the one who came up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery. It was his idea, so this chapter focuses on him but there is another reason. Judah became the ancestor of the tribe of Judah. All of the kings of Israel came from Judah. Jesus came from Judah. He is called “the lion of the tribe of Judah”.
This chapter shows what happens to a man who is living out of the will of God. That describes a lot of Christians, perhaps even some in this church. Judah comes up with the idea of selling his baby brother into slavery. Then, he lies to his father about what happened to him and for twenty years he lives with that lie. For twenty years, he lives with a guilty conscience. He probably thought of his brother every day for those twenty years. This chapter shows what happens to Judah who is living in unconfessed sin.
The chapter begins in the very first verse with three ominous words: JUDAH WENT DOWN. The whole chapter is about Judah going down spiritually and morally. We have already seen his brothers do down (Simeon, Levi, Reuben). Now Judah’s does the same thing. Reuben committed a sexual sin in Genesis 35 and now it is Judah’s turn. He commits a big sin and is caught in the act.
“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.” (38:1-5 ESV)
What happens here? Judah gets married. We are not told what her name was but her father’s name was Shua (38:2). Judah and his wife had three kids, all boys. He had Er, Onan and Shelah. They were all boys. Shelah sounds like a girl (Sheila) but this Shelah was a boy. What is the problem? Judah married a Canaanite.
The Jews were not supposed to do that. They were not supposed to marry idolatrous pagan women. That is why Abraham sent a servant five hundred miles to find a wife for Isaac. He didn’t want him to marry a pagan Canaanite. Christians are not supposed to marry unbelievers. It is a clear teaching of Scripture.
This is interesting for another reason. Many believe that you are Jewish only if your mother is Jewish. The Bible says you are Jewish if your father is Jewish. Notice that Judah married a Canaanite. He married a Gentile. Did that make his children Gentiles? No. They were Jewish. Why did Judah marry a Canaanite woman? The reason he married her is that he saw her (38:2). She was attractive and he married her. That is why most people get married today. They get married simply because of physical attraction.
The main thing most people look for in a spouse is physical beauty. There is nothing wrong with physical beauty. The problem has to do with priorities. We look at physical traits but do not seem to care about what they look like on the inside. What kind of character traits do they have? What do they look like spiritually and morally? That spells disaster to a marriage. It can destroy a Christian marriage quickly.
After Judah, got married, had kids and his kids grew up, he took a wife for his oldest son. The verses that follow contain some language that seems too graphic for church but it is in the Bible, so we can read it.
“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” (38:6-10 ESV).
Lessons from Er
Now this is strange on a number of levels. Judah’s oldest son Er got married but was extremely wicked. We are not told what he did but it was so bad that “the Lord put him to death” (38:7). Someone said that his name was Er because he erred.
So Tamar married the next brother. She is following the culture of the time but he is just as wicked as his brother and he drops dead. Apparently, he did not learn any lessons from his brother. That would be like your brother dying of a drug overdose and you doing the exact same thing. We do not know what Er did but we do know what Onan did. Some women get to be married to a knucklehead. Tamar was married to two morons back to back and both dropped dead. Er and Onan both had an early death. It was sudden and supernatural. What can we learn from them? We learn three things.
First, we learn that some sins are worse than others. Some sins are capital crimes. Others are not. Second, we learn that God kills people. That is what the passage says. It says that the Lord put him to death. He did not die of natural causes. He didn’t put himself to death. He did not die by suicide. The Lord put him to death. How he put him to death we are not told. Did he die by a hear attack? Did as bear eat him? Third, we learn that God does not show favorites. He is no respecter of persons. He even judges sin in the chosen family. He took out Judah’s two boys. That tells us that God takes sin very seriously.
This raises a very interesting question. Does God still do this today? Yes. His nature has not changed. The Bible teaches that there is such a thing as a “sin unto death” (I John 5:16). It is a sin that results in death, an early death. There are examples in the NT of God putting people to death. That is how Herod died in Acts 12.
The Bible says that he started to receive worship to himself and God smote him dead. If you read that chapter in context, it is a little interesting. Herod killed James at the beginning of the chapter. Herod cut the head off of the Apostle James, the one who was the brother of the Apostle John. He arrested and planned to kill the Apostle Peter but an angel helped him escape prison.
In fact, God even takes the lives of some believers today. If you read Acts 5, you will see how God took the lives of two Christians. Ananias and Saphira were believers. They were members of the Church of Jerusalem, the first Christian church. They had been baptized but God took both of their lives. Why?
A man named Barnabas sold some land and gave the money to the church. They decided to do the same thing and told others about it. After they sold the land, they changed their mind. Perhaps, the got more for the land than they expected and they had some financial needs themselves. They agreed to give some money to the church but say that it was the entire amount and keep the rest.
When the Apostle Peter confronted them one-on-one, they both died. Peter did not kill them. God did. What does that passage show us? It shows us that Christians can commit the sin unto death. Now God does not do it every day. If he did it every day, there would not be too many people in church. There are three options.
In some cases, God takes the life of people in judgment. It may be the life of a believer who is living in deliberate rebellion and disobedience to God. There are plenty of people who commit terrible atrocities and do not suddenly drop dead. Cain killed his brother Abel and went on to live a long life. In some cases, God punishes people years later for what they did. In other cases, He does not judge them at all until the next life.
Lessons from Onan
The real question here is this. What was Onan’s sin? Why did God kill him? This passage has led to a huge controversy throughout church history. We have one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible in this chapter. How has this passage been misinterpreted? There are two main views.
1) One view is that Onan’s sin was masturbation.
In fact, in the eighteenth century the word “onanism” referred to masturbation. For men, this involves spilling your seed on that ground and that is what Onan did. Was that what his sin was?
Was the Sin of Onan Masturbation?
Despite the fact that the word “onanism” has come to mean masturbation, the sin of Onan was not masturbation. This is clear from the text. There are two problems with the traditional view of Onan in some circles.
1) The CONTEXT here rules out that interpretation
Onan was not engaging in solo sex here. He has having relations with his wife. You have to interpret the verse in its context. One of the biggest ways that the Bible is misinterpreted is that people take things out of its context. They read a few words, rip it out of its context and come up with a doctrine. Preachers do this all of the time. That is why you need to know your Bible. This is how cults start.
2) The MOTIVE here rules out that interpretation
Masturbation is a practice rooted in lust. What Onan did was NOT a result of lust. The one who commits lust in this chapter was not Onan. It was Judah. He was the one who went out consorting with prostitutes and he lived. Onan died. Onan’s sin was rooted in three things. It was rooted in greed, selfishness and rebellion.
It was rooted in rebellion, because he deliberately disobeyed what his father told him to do. He sinned against his father. Judah told Onan to “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” (38:8 ESV). By his actions, he refused to raise up offspring for his brother Er.
It was rooted in selfishness because he takes advantage of Tamar. He sinned against Tamar. He uses her sexually but refuses to give her any kids. He has sex with her but refused to impregnate her. He has no problem with marrying Tamar or having sex with her as long as he makes sure she does not get any children.
It was rooted in greed, because Onan wants to be the one to receive the double portion as the oldest son. He did not want his son to receive the double portion. He wanted to receive it for himself. If he didn’t have a son, it went to him. He sinned against his dead brother. He wanted his brother’s inheritance for himself.
2) Another view is that Onan’s sin was birth control.
Many believe that birth control is a sin. That is a belief among Roman Catholics and some Protestants. They get that idea from this verse. Onan used a primitive form of birth control. He was the first person in the Bible to use birth control and God took his life. Does this mean that birth control is always wrong? No. It was wrong in this case. It was wrong for Onan but is not necessarily wrong for us. Onan was specifically commanded to raise up seed for his brother. We are not. We are not under the Mosaic Law.
Deuteronomy says that a man could refuse to raise up children for your dead brother. The man who refused would be publically disgraced but not executed (25:7-10). The problem here is that Onan agreed to do it. He went along with the plan and slept with Tamar but then deliberately sabotaged it. He had sex with her but made sure that she did not get pregnant. Apparently, he did not just do this one time. He did it repeatedly.
Nowhere else in the Law of Moses or anywhere else in the Bible is a prohibition on birth control. The Jews never interpreted this as a prohibition on birth control. While the Bible does say that children are a blessing, it does not say categorically that all birth control (e.g., having children but spacing them out) is a sin. Next week, we will look at the incredible drama that takes place in the rest of this chapter.