Just when the suspense of the Joseph story has heightened, the narrative veers away to focus on another brother and his problems: Judah, in Genesis chapter 38. Judah and Tamar’s story isn’t very pleasant, let alone an example of godly living. What then is its purpose?
To put it concisely, it illustrates God’s redemption of humanity. Judah and Tamar are flawed people, but Adonai uses their flaws for good. Through their mutual deception of each other, twins are born, a double blessing. And one of the twins is the ancestor of the royal line of David and Yeshua the Messiah.
Furthermore, in this chapter Judah learns a lesson of humility that probably helps prepare him for the leadership of his brothers, and that in itself should encourage us. We, who are sinful people, need to realize that God’s forgiveness means we should no longer hold ourselves in bondage to our mistakes. He makes all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). Praise Adonai, His designs will not be foiled by our disobedience. Judah was destined to father the ancestor of David and Yeshua, and that’s what happened, despite the errant people involved.
The genealogy and Yeshua’s birth narrative in Matthew 1 further demonstrate this truth. Not everything about Yeshua’s ancestry and birth was stellar, at least from the surface perspective of the flesh. Many of the men in the genealogy we know from history had serious faults. The women Tamar, Rahab, and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba are all associated with unsavory circumstances. We know for sure that Rahab, Ruth, and Rehoboam’s mother weren’t of the chosen people. Joseph, Yeshua’s earthly father, suspected his betrothed Mary of adultery before the angel explained the situation. Yet in the midst of all this human failure, God’s Son was born, pure from all evil, fully divine yet fully man. He is “Immanuel,” (Matt. 1:23), “God with us.” He came to dwell with sinful mankind. He is “Yeshua, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
How great is His love and forgiveness.
On another note, Judah and Tamar’s twin sons are a fascinating Messianic foreshadowing. First of all, childbirth itself is a metaphor for Israel’s redemption (Isa. 66:7–9; John 16:20–22; Rev. 12:5).
Just like their mother Tamar was accused of harlotry, so was Mary (Matt. 1:19; John 8:41).
Zerah’s hand appeared first, and the midwife tied a scarlet thread around it. The scarlet thread always represents redemption and/or cleansing in the Bible (Lev. 14:4; Num. 19:6; Josh. 2:18), so it’s a symbol of Yeshua’s redeeming us from our sins, which was His first act toward us. It’s a token of the full redemption that comes later, when we will physically abide with Him.
Just as the midwife was expecting Zerah to be born first, but was shocked when Perez emerged instead, so Israel was expecting a different Messiah and didn’t accept the real one when He appeared (John 1:10–11; 7:41–53; Rom. 10:1–4).
Perez, Yeshua’s ancestor, was actually born first (imagine the abnormality of how this could have happened in Tamar’s womb – Adonai often chooses the reverse of what we expect, doesn’t He?); his name means “breach.” “Breach-maker” is a characteristic of the Messiah, even in Jewish thought. They refer to Micah 2:12–13 – “I will surely assemble all of you, Jacob, I will surely gather the remnant of Israel….The breaker goes up before them; They break out, pass through the gate and go out by it. So their king goes on before them, And the LORD at their head” (NASB). Although Yeshua gathers us and goes before us at both His comings, the prophecy of making a breach especially fits His first coming, since He breaks us free from sin (i.e., Romans 6:8–9, 22).
Zerah’s name, too, points to Yeshua. It means “dawning.” We don’t have to search hard for the passages that compare Yeshua’s second coming to the dawn: “The Sunrise from on high will visit us, To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78b–79); and also Isaiah 60:1–3, Malachi 4:2, 2 Peter 1:19, to name a few.
God shows us these faith-building pictures in the middle of a story that can be discouraging because of the carnal minds of the human characters involved. And yet He has the power to make all things work together for good. What a testimony for our own lives.