Jan. 13 Reading: Genesis 38-40 Commentary

Below is our Genesis 38-40 commentary from our Beginning to End Bible reading program. You can find an email link at the end of this page to share your thoughts or comments with us.

Key Verse(s):

“How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9)

“But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor…and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (Gen. 39:21, 23)

Genesis 38 – Tamar’s Undeserved Treatment by Judah

commentaryOne of the arguments for the authenticity of the Bible is that it does not shy away from people’s imperfections. God’s plan for mankind still played out even when people did things contrary to accepted and commanded spiritual practices. In fact, it’s because of people’s sin and failure that God’s goodness and glory is magnified to a greater extent. He still chooses to love us and work through us despite of who we are and what we do.

Why bring this up? Because Genesis 38 is one of those sordid stories you wouldn’t expect to find in a book designed to point people to God. It’s filled with unsavory motives and actions that offend our senses of right and wrong.

Jacob’s family is spiritually disintegrating right before his eyes. We read before how his sons Simeon and Levi took revenge on the men of Shechem for the offense against their sister Dinah (Gen. 34). The firstborn son Reuben abused Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine by sleeping with her (Gen. 35:22). All the brothers (save for Reuben and Benjamin) sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37). Talk about awful family dynamics!

And now in Gen. 38, the fourth oldest son Judah, separated himself from the family to seek out Canaanite friends (v. 1). He meets some, including an Adullamite named Hirah. While interacting with these people, he saw and took an unnamed wife, the daughter of man named Shua. This woman conceived and had three sons by Judah, Er, Onan and Shelah in that order.

Tamar’s Unfortunate Situation

In the course of time, Judah found a Canaanite woman to marry his firstborn son Er. Her name was Tamar. We don’t know how long the marriage lasted but probably not long because Tamar had no children with Er. What we do know is that Er was “…wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord killed him” (v. 7).

In this culture, the inability to have a son was a major loss. Everything about the family (experiences, possessions, memories) were passed on through the descendants. To preserve the family line, a brother or another near relative was asked to marry the man’s widow in the hopes of fathering a child to carry on that man’s family. This would later become part of the Mosaic Law. (Deut. 25:5-10; Ruth 4:1-12). And in this case, that responsibility fell to Judah’s second son Onan.

Onan is asked to perform this service for his brother. But he knew whatever child he fathered would not be his. So in a selfish act, when he went in to lie with Tamar, he “…emitted on the ground, lest he give an heir to his brother” (v. 9). This irresponsible action displeased the Lord and He killed Onan also (v. 10).

The next in line for Tamar would be Judah’s third son Shelah. Judah tells Tamar to wait until Shelah is grown. But this is really a stall tactic in the hopes that Tamar moves on. Judah really fears for his son’s life (v. 11), thinking there may be something amiss with Tamar which has caused his two sons to die.

So, without a son and without a husband, Tamar goes to live with her father.

Tamar’s Desperate Action

In the course of time, Judah’s wife dies and he goes to visit his friend Hirah in Timnah. His son Shelah is now grown but has not been given to Tamar as Judah promised. So in her desperation to have a son, she posed as a prostitute and sat in a well-known place on the way to Timnah.

It happens as Tamar has planned (vv. 16-23). Judah saw her and asked to be with her. She agreed but only after Judah promised to give her a young goat as payment and leave behind his signet, cord and staff as a promise that he would send payment. When Judah sends payment back later, the locals have no knowledge of a prostitute being at the place Judah describes.

After three months, Tamar is found to be with child. Judah is livid when he finds out. His only conclusion is that Tamar is with child through prostitution. He says, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” (v. 24).

But when Tamar arrives with Judah’s signet, cord and staff in hand, all is exposed. Judah admits and confesses his sin, saying “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son” (v. 26). And Judah did not know Tamar again.

What becomes of Tamar? Through this incident with Judah, she has twins. She names one Perez, who would end up being in the lineage of Jesus, the Messiah. Tamar even gets mentioned by Matthew (Matt. 1:3) as the mother of Perez, which is unusual for a woman to be listed in a biblical genealogy. She ends up being an important figure despite her origins (a Canaanite),her actions and the actions of those around her.

Genesis 39 – Joseph’s Undeserved Treatment in Egypt

Life can be unfair, sometimes painfully so. Our words and actions in those moments are critical. They will either move us in a direction of healing or pivot us into a life of bitterness. That’s what faced Joseph all his life in Egypt. 

After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph is bought by Potiphar, “…an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard…” (v. 1). Even in this situation though, God is with Joseph, making him successful in everything he did. Potiphar noticed Joseph’s work ethic and prosperity and eventually placed him as overseer of his entire household. He left everything in Joseph’s hand. 

But Potiphar was not the only one who noticed Joseph. Potiphar’s wife did as well. Although she didn’t notice his work ethic. She noticed his handsome appearance. Over time, she repeatedly enticed him to sleep with her.

In his position, Joseph could have easily accepted her advances and no one would have known. But here we see the depth of his relationship with God stepping forward. He begs her to stop asking him saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9).

Potiphar’s wife will not stop lusting after Joseph. On one occasion when no one is home, she becomes overly aggressive in her attempt at seduction and grabs onto his garments. He flees the scene, leaving his garment in her hand. Angered by his unwillingness, she accuses Joseph of sexually forcing himself on her and he is thrown in prison by Potiphar.

Is it fair? No. But it’s all part of a bigger plan.

Genesis 40 – Joseph’s Undeserved Treatment in Egypt, Part II

This must have been the real low point for Joseph. Slave in a foreign country. Falsely accused of rape. Thrown in prison, most likely never to see the light of day.

What must have been going through his mind? There had to be doubts. There had to be days of hopelessness and despair. How could there not be? After all, Joseph was human just like the rest of us who have these feelings over lesser issues.

But we aren’t told anything about Joseph’s thoughts or feelings about being in prison. Instead, we read,

“But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (Gen. 39:21, 23)

Even in the darkest moment of his life, God was with Joseph.

Joseph’s Dream Interpretations

Joseph was eventually joined in prison by Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief butler, both of whom had managed to upset him somehow. They are both placed under Joseph’s supervision. 

One day when Joseph went to attend to them, he noticed their countenance was sad and he asked them why. They both told him they had dreamed something that past night which was troubling to them. Joseph asks to hear the dream, noting that “…interpretations belong to God” (v. 8).

The dreams have similar components but completely different interpretations. To the chief butler it’s explained that the dream means in three days Pharaoh will restore him to his position. To which Joseph pleads with the chief butler to remember him before Pharaoh when his position is restored.

The chief butler hears this good news and hopes for a favorable interpretation to his dream. Unfortunately, to him it’s explained that his dream means in three days he would be executed.

Both dreams unfold just as Joseph (through God) predicted.

The bad news for Joseph continued though. When the chief butler is restored to Pharaoh’s service, he completely forgets to mention Joseph. It’s yet another setback for a man who has done nothing but serve God faithfully.

Questions and Thoughts to Consider from Genesis 38-40:

Joseph’s life was a picture of unfair treatment. He was dealt it on all sides – even by family and employer. Yet he never wavered in his commitment to God. Have you ever been treated unfairly? How did God use that situation for good?

Do you struggle with the “Why me?” question when it comes to being treated unfairly? 

What other points would you want to know about in our Genesis 38-40 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.