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Further In and Deeper Down: Grace Breaking Through My Blindness (Gen. 38:1-30)

I am nearsighted. I can see things up close (though my eye sight is so bad I have to see something pretty much right in front of my face to actually see it without glasses) but I cannot see things far away at all. I have been nearsighted since I was eight years old and it has gotten progressively worse until about 8-10 years ago. It is also called myopia. Some people are farsighted.  They can see far away, but cannot see up close.

Now Scripture often uses physical sight (or the lack thereof) as an illustration of our spiritual condition. I think we have both a nearsighted issue as well as a farsighted issue. I don’t know what the medical name is for this. But sometimes we can only see what is in front of us whether it is our circumstance, our sin or ourselves. We cannot see God. Other times, we are always looking outside at the proverbial grass and unable to see what God is doing in front of us.

We are continuing our series in Genesis, ending with Joseph’s story. The title of the mini-series is “Further in, Deeper Down.” Through this last story, we will see once again that where sin runs deep, grace runs deeper. Sometimes our circumstances take us further in and deeper down into depression, doubt and despair and that’s all we see, but yet God’s love and grace will still be there and take us further in and deeper down into Him.

When we last left our dysfunctional family, they sold their brother Joseph off to merchant traders, unbeknownst to them that the very thing they were doing was actually making God’s plan come to pass. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. God’s covenant family continues to jeopardize the covenant and put themselves in situations which seemingly looks impossible for God to do anything, but as we have seen all throughout Genesis, what is impossible for man is possible with God.

Today we find a story that you will not find in any children’s bible and it is rated R. Some scholars think it does not belong here, interrupting Joseph’s story, but we will see God actually strategically places this story right here, for our good and His glorious gospel.

A couple of lessons here from Genesis 38:

I.  Our blindness to our sin (vv.1-26)

The more and more I have been studying Genesis, the more and more I see how blinding sin is. Have you ever seen Terminator? People keep messing with it, thinking it’s a guy with a weird accent, only to get terminated. Characters keep underestimating the power of the Terminator.

Once again, we find a major character playing with fire and getting burned. This time, his name is Judah. His name means praise, but there is nothing praiseworthy about his life at this point. Notice what happens to him. Remember the promise given to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation…in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Once again, God’s people put the seed of the woman in danger.

After he sells off his own brother, Judah “went down” from his brothers. “Going down,” is not just geographically, but also spiritually, leaving the land, your identity and your God. It is like Lot, making small decisions that lead to terrible consequences. Commentator Bruce Waltke notes that “Judah dwells in the Promised Land, but instead of being a blessing in it, he conforms to the world and life view of those whom his ancestors despised and whom his progeny is destined to dispossess.”[1]

Judah makes friends with a Canaanite named Hirah. He may or may not have introduced him to a girl who remains nameless. Notice the verbs again: “saw” and “took.” The narrator is taking you back to Genesis 3 again. Eve “saw” and “took” and “ate” (Gen. 3:6). The sons of God “saw” the daughters of men were beautiful and they “took” (Gen. 6:2) and remember in Genesis 34, Shechem “saw” Dinah and he “took her” (Gen. 34:2). In other words, this is lust at first sight. Seeing and taking in Genesis happens when people are blinded by sin and deciding they know what is good for their lives better than God does. Isn’t that the reason for our failures as well? It always goes down to lack of trust that God actually knows what is good for us. We don’t believe that.

This is why you should not make decisions just by “following your heart.” Our hearts are deceitfully wicked (Jer. 17:9). Notice it is all successive meaning there is no thought in Judah’s heart about his actions. Hamilton writes, “Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite girl contrasts boldly with his great-grandfather’s concern that Isaac not marry a Canaanite (24:3) and with Isaac’s concern that Jacob avoid a Canaanite spouse (28:1). One gets the distinct impression that ever since the Dinah incident (ch. 34) Jacob has less and less control over the behavior of his family.”[2] Intermarriage between believers and non-believers once again causes heartache.

Judah thinks everything is going well for him, especially since he has three sons: Er (nthe place, from Gen. 11:28)), Onan and Shelah. In that culture, pretty much right after puberty, you would get married. So Tamar is a Canaanite girl, probably 14 or 15 years old. Er is about the same, but Er, we find out, is a wicked guy. The text does not tell us what Er did that caused his death or even how he died. Here we see the holiness and mercy of God. We have seen in Genesis already that God’s judgment came down only because people were destroying themselves. This was the reason for the Flood (Gen. 6:13). When there was the outcry of injustice in Sodom, He came down and put an end to that (Gen. 18:21).

Notice that there seems to be no reflection in Judah’s part about this that is recorded. But then he asks Onan to step up to do his “duty.” There was a custom in those days called the Levirate Marriage custom (“levir” is Latin for “brother-in-law’), which was designed to protect the widows. Women did not work and were dependent upon husbands and sons. They were helpless. The existing marital laws directed that if a husband died without an heir, his brother was to then marry his widow and produce an heir for him by proxy. The son would not be his but his deceased brother’s son—and the legal heir to firstborn privileges. In fact, the son would be given the name of the dead man.[3]

So Onan is greedy. He wants the firstborn rights, but he knows he is bound to duty. Remember Jacob tricking his dad to get this (Gen. 27:19)? You could refuse this, but it would be a disgrace to do so. But what Onan does is worse. He fakes it. Whenever they have intercourse, he intentionally withdraws. Note that this was not a one-time deal, but a continuous act. No one would know (except the couple), but God saw it. By the way, this text should not be used to show why masturbation is wrong or why birth control is wrong. That is out of context and poor interpretational skills. Narratives are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

I don’t want to go off tangent, but notice that the Lord sees motives. It was not what he was doing, but why he was doing it. You cannot separate the two with the Lord. So the Lord takes his life as well. Here we see examples of God’s judgment. Unless we think that he winks at sin or does not take it seriously, we see here He is holy and just. Also, we see God acting on behalf of the voiceless, here a widow. He is not indifferent to injustice. He hears and sees all of it.

So even more amazing than the fact that Judah would blatantly go to Canaan and disobey is the fact that God is right there trying to get his attention, to draw his attention back to Him. We might see these two deaths as judgment, but it is also an intervention by the Lord, like how you would yank a child’s arm to pull him/her away from the middle of the street if you see a truck coming.

Judah at this point is thinking, “My sons are dropping like flies left and right here.” This girl must be trouble. She’s the black widow spider. But again, blindness. He does not see God in this. Judah sends Tamar away to her father’s house, lying to her that he will give his third son, Shelah to her, when he is old enough.  Time passes. More time passes. Shelah is grown up, but nothing is being done. Tamar is permanently sidelined. Notice that Judah never says Tamar’s name in this story. Neither does he show any concern for her as he was supposed to. It was his job to make sure she would be taken care of. This was injustice.

Judah’s wife dies. He actually shows some emotion to death here when his wife dies. Pastor Kent Hughes says, “Knowing Judah for the kind of man he was, she discerned that when he was “comforted” (v. 12, meaning that the week’s mourning was past), he would be seeking some female comfort. Tamar also knew that it was sheepshearing time and that he would be visiting his old friend Hirah. Also, as a Canaanite, Tamar knew that cultic prostitutes would be out selling their services as fertility magic to ensure the growth of the fields and herds.”[4] After the hard work of shearing sheep, people would party and celebrate. Taking a page out of Jacob’s book, she dresses up like a prostitute. Notice she is still dressed like a widow, while Judah is fine after a week! She takes the matter into her own hands and decides that she will get a son for her departed husband one way or another. She is going after justice.

She sets herself up at Enaim. Do you know what Enaim means? Literally, “at [the] opening of [the] eyes.” It is almost like God trying very hard to help him see God and himself. Don’t you see Judah? All Judah sees is what Judah has always seen: lust. We will Joseph be completely different next time in an almost similar predicament. God is trying to get him to open up his eyes to see what he’s doing; to own up to his sin. Notice it is about a week since his wife has died and he cannot postpone his sexual appetite, though he is willing to delay taking care of his daughter-in-law and leave her a childless widow.

Having no goat for payment, Judah readily gave Tamar his most personal items, which declared his individual and corporate identity—in modern terms, his license and Social Security number. His “signet” was not a ring but a seal (likely cylindrical) that he wore on a cord around his neck. The staff, often carved, was equally distinctive.[5] Why would you give her something so valuable? Isn’t that what sin does? You pay a lot more than you get in return.

Judah is blind. He doesn’t “see” what he’s doing. He has failed in every regard. He has failed as God’s covenant partner. He has failed as a father. He has failed as a brother. He has failed as a son. He has failed as a father-in-law. He doesn’t see his sin. Later, he wants his stuff back. So he sends the goat via his buddy Hirah to give to Tamar. Waltke says, “He has the honor to keep his obligation to a prostitute but not to his daughter-in-law!”[6]

When the supposed prostitute could not be found, Judah lets it go. Judah would rather leave the pledged items with Tamar than conduct an all-out search for them. At this point their recovery would be more of a loss than a gain. It is clear that Judah’s main concern is that he not become the butt of jokes, a laughingstock because a street prostitute has outwitted him and taken advantage of him.[7] Judah is the guy who goes to a strip club only to realize that he left his wallet there and now is too embarrassed to go get it. Again, he’s blind to his situation. He is concerned only about the maintenance of his own reputation.[8]

Three months later, Judah is told by hearsay that Tamar is pregnant. She was engaged to Shelah still. In that culture, being engaged is pretty much like being married. But she gets pregnant. Notice Judah does not go and investigate. He leaps at some person’s report to get rid of Tamar. Though Tamar lives in her father’s house, Judah still has legal authority over her. He is quick to condemn others for crimes he has also committed.[9] What a double standard! But Judah doesn’t get it. He is still blind. Judah’s decree is really just two words in Hebrew: “Take and Burn.”

The usual punishment for adultery is stoning and here he goes further than that. It is her fault for the death of his sons. She has always been in the way. And Judah sees this as an opportunity to get rid of her. Being burned to death is reserved for the most heinous crimes. This is torture as well as death.

He’s been so blind to his sins that all this time he’s been sticking little pins in his mind whenever he thought about her. Why? To cover up his own flaws and failures as a father and ultimately, his failure to God. He needs to believe something bad about her. So this is confirmation. “I knew it all along!”

Judah is a picture of all of us. All of us are blind to our sin in our hearts. Judah is part of the covenant family. He definitely knows more about the true God of the universe than anyone else on the planet at this point, but look at what he is capable of. Are we any different? Do we see our sin? We have this need to justify ourselves and shift the blame. We try very hard to protect our hearts from the reality of how wrong, bad, evil and lazy and proud we truly are. It’s not me, it’s my job. It’s not me, it’s my parents. It’s my spouse. It’s my life season. I couldn’t help it. She made me do it. It was a bad day. We try so hard to justify ourselves.

Just as Tamar is being dragged into the fire, she takes out Judah’s belongings. She says, “By the way, see these? These things belong to the man who impregnated me.” Notice the word “identify” used twice here. It means to “recognize.” Not just physically to see, but to discern and to realize. Really the person who committed adultery with her should be going into the fire as well. But when she says, “See these things,” she is really forcing him to not just to recognize the items, but to recognize himself. Do you see Judah? Do you see the double standard, the hardness of heart, the sexual hypocrisy? Do you see who you are? Do you see what you have become and made of yourself? Do you see the delusion? Do you see the murderous hate in your heart?

He thought she was the bane of his existence. But it turns out, she is the gift of his life. The text says in Gen. 38:26, “Judah identified them.” He recognized. He woke up. He sees. He sees who he really is. Tamar was not a curse in his life, but a blessing. By the way, Tamar is not sinless here. Sexual entrapment and adultery is not ignored. Judah sees it too, saying, “She is more righteous THAN I.”

Judah could have been like, “God hates me! Why are these things happening to me?” He may see it as judgment, but this is grace. Isn’t God so gracious when He shows us our sin? What about be just here is that both Tamar and Judah gets thrown into the fire. Both get executed, but God intervenes in this moment of awakening.

See God’s grace changing Judah. Judah will return to his brothers. He will show great care for his elderly father Jacob. He will even offer himself as a slave to Joseph for his brother Benjamin’s freedom (Gen. 44:18-34). All that happened in Judah’s life was used by the Lord to help him see.

Let’s look at couple of applications here. The sins in our lives and failures in our lives that is most hurting us and the people around us are the ones we cannot see. Our sins look small to us. Our biggest sins look small to us. We are not even looking for it. Every grudge is murder in a little ball. Every lust is adultery in a little ball. Every sin says I’ll just stay in the corner. I wont hurt you.” So we tolerate it. We say, “I fell” like you didn’t mean to do it, you were walking along and oops, you fell into it! or we say “I’m struggling.”

“I’m not a workaholic. I’m just productive.” “I’m not bitter. I’m just expressing moral righteous outrage.” “I’m not flirtatious. I’m just friendly.” “I’m not greedy for money. I just like seeing things grow.” “I don’t overcharge my credit card. I just enjoy good things.” “I’m not a glutton. I just enjoy food.” “I’m not legalistic. I’m just faithful.” “I’m not a Pharisee. I can just see and feel how sinful other people are.” “I’m not critical. I’m just astute.” “I’m not lazy. I’m just tired.” “I don’t have a temper. People are just annoying.”

We are no different from Judah. So we can’t see it, what is our hope? Well God helps us see our heart through Tamars and difficult circumstances of our lives. Listen more carefully to your closest relationships. Earlier this week, Jenny and I got into an argument. And at one point she said, “You are so selfish.” What does our heart do? We justify. And I was thinking, “What? Really? I serve people for a living. I am not selfish.”  Judah comes out. But she was right! I hadn’t really seen it before. Listen closely to your relationships. Even relationships with close people in your life who are unbelievers. Listen even to those people who you think you despise. And if you listen closely and start to see that you are no better than them (and sometimes worse), you can begin to grow and change.  You might think they are the problem, but perhaps they are God’s gift to you to save you from you. People can see our hearts better than we can most of the time. Take time to talk to someone close to you and ask, “Do you see areas in my life that I am blind to?” Get prepared to receive it!

We are blind to our sin, but we need something more than just seeing our sin:

II. The breakthrough of God’s grace in our blindness (vv.27-30)

It turns out that there were twins in her womb. One kid puts out his hand and technically should be the oldest, so the midwife puts a red thread around his wrist. But lo and behold, the other kid actually comes out causing the midwife to call him, “Break out” or “Breakthrough.” The child that should have been second, somehow comes out first. This is typical in Genesis….God is always doing things we cannot predict. It is Abel, the second born that ends up loving the Lord, not Cain. It was Isaac not Ishmael. It was Jacob the second born, not Esau.

What is God telling Israel? God is showing Israel that He can accomplish his plan of salvation even through Israel’s disobedience and the deception of a Canaanite woman.[10] Judah lost two sons and God gives him two more. Tamar’s future will be taken care of by sons. God broke through. He took garbage and made gold.

God’s grace breaks through in the midst of our worst sin and blindness. Isn’t God’s grace so great? This story as well all the stories in the Bible proclaims once again with BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS THAT THIS IS A FAITHFUL SAYING AND WORTHY OF ACCEPTANCE THAT JESUS CHRIST HAS COME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE SINNERS, OF WHOM I AM CHIEF. We can’t just see our sin better, we also need a collision, a breakthrough of God’s grace.

Pastor and Author Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace. But exposing sin is not the same thing as unveiling and applying grace…Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.”[11]

We talk a lot about getting acquainted with our sin, but how acquainted are you with His grace?  Let’s ask God not only to expose our sin, but also to teach us what it means to apply grace. This is where God wants to take us further in and deeper down in this message. We have been further in and deeper down in sin and are quite familiar with it, but He wants us to go further in and deeper down in grace, of which we are quite unfamiliar.

But this break through is nothing Judah. Judah had no idea what God had in store for his future. Centuries later, another Son from this line, broke through into our world. In Matthew 1, we find Judah, Tamar, Perez and Zerah all mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that the first woman mentioned in the New Testament is not Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel or Leah, but a Canaanite Tamar? Jesus has Canaanitish blood running through His blood.  Not only that, Rahab the Jericho prostitute, also a Canaanite, is mentioned. Ruth, the heathen Moabite is mentioned. Bathsheba the adulterous wife of a Hittite is also mentioned. The Canaanites, Hittites and Moabites are the worst of the worst and Jesus enters the world with that heritage. He comes so low, into the Canaanite blood line, so He can take the place of sinners, and in his ancestry are the shameful, the wicked, the ignorant, the sexually dysfunctional, the hard hearted and blind sinner, the selfish, the immoral, the insensitive, the covenant-breaker, the backslider or the worst of the worst, so you and I will never have to wonder, “Will He come low enough for someone so blind like me?” You will never have to wonder, “Will He receive me again?”

The answer is yes! He will and has come low enough for us. He came lower than even in our blood. He came so low as to die upon a cross. Why didn’t God throw Tamar and Judah into the fire? Because one day, Jesus will come, the truly righteous one will become sin. He will be thrown into the fire of God’s wrath, so we will never have to. Judah says, “She is more righteous than I” and is awakened spiritually. But to Jesus we can say, “You are my only righteousness.”  His righteousness is greater than my unrighteousness. His grace greater than all my sin. His Saviorhood greater than my sinnership.

Do you know how Jesus is known in Heaven? Isn’t it astounding to me that Jesus wants to be introduced in Heaven forever as “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5)? He stands as a witness to God’s amazing grace. He fails as a son of the covenant (i.e., intermarrying with Canaanites and behaving like them), as a father (i.e., his sons are wicked), and as a father-in-law (i.e., deceiving Tamar).[12] But Jesus is not ashamed to call Himself from the tribe of Judah. Can you imagine Judah in Heaven? He probably leads the chorus:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found! Was blind, but now I see.


[1]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (509). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2]Hamilton, V. P. (1995). The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (433). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3]Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (452). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[4]Hughes, R. K. (453).

[5]Ibid. (453-454).

[6]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (513).

[7]Hamilton, V. P. (448).

[8]Ibid.

[9]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (513).

[10]Greidanus, S (2007). Preaching Christ from Genesis (377).  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[12]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (515).

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One thought on “Further In and Deeper Down: Grace Breaking Through My Blindness (Gen. 38:1-30)

  1. Thank you so so much for this!

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