Devotionals Archive

Daybreak: Genesis 38:1-30

Sep 24, 2021

“Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.” (Genesis 38:11)

Broken promises have consequences. Failing to keep commitments — even those made in private — will have an effect on those around us.

When Ethel Hodson was in high school, her father’s craving for alcohol caused him to lose a good job and leave their home. In time, he sent her mother forty dollars and promised, “More when possible — God bless you all.” When no more money came, his family knew that he had broken his promise. Ethel relates in her testimony that the family lacked the things they needed, so that broken promise had an impact. It resulted in hardship and sorrow for everyone involved.

Happily, that is not the end of Ethel’s story. While staying in a cheap hotel in a run-down area of Portland, Oregon, her father heard some music. Following the sound, he listened to a group of people on a street corner telling about Jesus and the change He could make in a person’s life. Ethel’s father prayed and was saved, and his life was transformed. He obtained a job and then began to fulfill his promise by sending money to his family on the East Coast. In time, his wife was persuaded to bring the children to Portland, where their family was reunited. Ethel, a great-grandmother now, is a witness to how God can help a person keep his promises. 

In the focus verse, Judah made a promise to his daughter-in-law, but he did not keep it. In the culture of his time, he was to arrange for her to marry his third son, and he indicated his intention to do this. When his daughter-in-law saw that he was not following through, she set about to reveal his negligence. The consequences were heartbreaking and long-lasting. 

Promises should be kept. We need to follow through on what we tell our children, grandchildren, or other family members we will do. Business agreements and contracts need to be honored too. We must stand behind our word, and therefore it is wise to be cautious in what we promise. If we fulfill our agreements, our family, friends, and associates will be spared the detrimental effects that accompany broken promises, and God will be glorified. 


This chapter gives the history of the family of Judah, which is important because the nation would one day carry his name, and also because Christ would come through his lineage. 

While the events in this chapter seem to interrupt the story of Joseph, scholars hold varying positions regarding the timeframe. Some researchers believe that Genesis 38 gives the account of Judah during the years just following Joseph being sold into Egypt. Others think that the events of this chapter took place before or near the time of the episodes in chapter 34. It is possible that Jacob’s sons and grandsons married in their early to mid-teen years.

Wherever this account fits in the chronology, it illustrates the potential harm of the Canaanite influence that surrounded Jacob’s family. Adullam was a town about fifteen or twenty miles northwest of Hebron, which was Jacob’s home. Judah would have known the importance Abraham’s family placed on not marrying Canaanite women, but he ignored those values when he chose Shuah as his wife. The Canaanite influence from Shuah and her family must have been responsible in part for the wickedness of Judah’s sons. 

Levirate marriage was a custom that many ancient cultures in that area followed. Webster defines levirate as “the sometimes compulsory marriage of a widow to a brother of her deceased husband.” The purpose was to provide for the widow and preserve the name of the brother who had passed away. Legally, the children of this marriage belonged to the deceased man, not the birth father. After the death of his elder sons, Er and Onan, Judah indicated his daughter-in-law would be given to his third son, Shelah, once he was old enough. 

When Tamar saw that Judah was not keeping his word, she set out to entrap him. In the Canaanite culture, sheep shearing included feasts and extravagant entertainments. Tamar heard where Judah had gone to shear sheep and that his wife was dead, so she went there dressed as a prostitute. The original word translated “harlot” in verse 15 was zonah, and indicated a common harlot. The word qedeshah is also translated “harlot” in verses 21-22, and was a term used for temple prostitutes. Whichever role Tamar assumed, her scheme was successful. 

The collateral Tamar required until payment could be made was Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff (verse 18). Signets of that time were cylinder shaped with a carved seal. The bracelets were cords that went through the center of the signet so it could be worn about a person’s neck. The staff was likely engraved and was a leadership symbol. These were Judah’s personal items which gave clear proof of his identity. 

Three months later, when Judah learned Tamar was with child, he called for her execution. When she identified him as the father, he admitted his guilt. He knew he had broken his promise to have his son Shelah marry her. In verse 26, the Hebrew word tsedeqah that is translated “righteous” has a legal sense; according to the levirate custom, she had a right to have a child by her deceased husband’s relative. 

Verses 27-30 tell of the birth of Tamar’s twin sons. God’s plan to send His Son Jesus Christ through Judah’s lineage was not altered because of this immoral act (see Matthew 1:3).

Amplified Outline

(Hannah’s Bible Outlines – Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II.   The early history of the chosen race 
      D.   Joseph 
            4.   Judah and his family (38:1-30)
                  a.   His sons by a Canaanite (38:1-5)
                  b.   His childless progeny (38:6-11)
                  c.   His intercourse with Tamar, his daughter-in-law (38:12-26)
                  d.   His two sons by Tamar (38:27-30)

A Closer Look

  1. What steps might Judah have taken to avoid being drawn into marriage in the Canaanite culture?
  2. How long after Judah went to the prostitute did he find out who she was?
  3. What steps can we take to be sure that we keep any promises we make?


God can help us to be true to our word. Let’s make keeping our promises a priority!

Reference Materials