Genesis 37–38 Jacob's Sons Were Not Good.

Key Notes: Playing favorites with children. Levirate marriage. Judah's sins. The outcome of multiple sins in Gen. 34,35.37.38.

This text continues the checkered history of Jacob’s family. Joseph will be put in harm’s way by his father and his brothers. He will end up in jail because of his sexual integrity. Meanwhile his brother Judah will embarrass himself in a marital tangle.

37:1–11 Joseph was a setup for family trouble. He was 17 years old, Jacob’s favorite son, the first-born of Rachel. He was given a long coat with sleeves as proof of his father’s affection. Although the Hebrew may also be translated “a coat of many colors”, in either case, this was not a working garment but a conspicuous display of father's favor. A working coat would be short and plain with little or no sleeves. Joseph was marked as a spoiled boy.

Out shepherding with his half-brothers, the sons of Jacob’s concubines, he brought home a bad report about them. That was a mistake. His brothers would not speak to him. Then he told the family a dream about eleven sheaves of harvested wheat gathering around his sheaf in the center and bowing down. Their hostility increased. Then he told the family yet another dream in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down before his star. That was interpreted to mean that he would rule over them all. Even Jacob was offended. Joseph appeared arrogant as well as spoiled. He was a marked man from then on.

37:12–18 Jacob thoughtlessly sent Joseph off to Shechem to bring back another report on his brothers. He was wearing his special coat. (37:23). Joseph must have believed he was untouchable. After wandering around, he was directed to Dothan. He was putting his head into a hornets' nest.

37:18–28 The brothers were tempted beyond their endurance. They wanted to kill him so that he could never be their master. Reuben forbade it. But they pulled off his beautiful coat and threw him into a pit while they decided his fate. While Reuben was away for a few minutes, and the brothers were eating their lunch, a caravan of Ishmaelites / Midianites came by, taking spices to Egypt. The ten brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for 20 pieces of silver, the price of a cheap slave.

37:29–36 When Reuben returned, Joseph was gone. They decided to make up a story: Joseph must be dead. Isn’t this his bloody coat? Lying and cheating appear again. They could have said that the Ishmaelites stole him and they were unable to defend him, or that Joseph never came to see them and must have gotten lost. At least that would have left Jacob with a little hope. This story wounded Jacob and he grieved inconsolably for his dead son. The brothers will live to pay for their envy and hatred of Joseph because his dreams will come true and they will bow down before him.

Jacob failed to discipline his sons, and set the stage for their misdeeds. Sibling rivalry is built into every family. Let us not make a useful stress into a disaster by playing favorites. "Why aren't you beautiful like your sister?" How can you be so dumb when you brother is so smart.” That is child abuse. Each child has gifts from God; nothing more will be added by comparisons.

The next chapter is on an entirely different topic. It is the story of Judah’s marital affairs, extending over thirty or more years. As with chapter 34, we ask what a story of sexual misconduct teaches us.


38:1–11 Note that the story of Judah's folly breaks the narrative of Joseph's life. That suggests a careful arrangement of text.

"Why was this story included? Why are these events described in such detail? Why is the story of Jacob and Joseph interrupted at this point?We may be sure that in a book marked by so definite a purpose and characterized by so spiritual an aim, there is a good reason for including this sad and unsavory episode."
--D. G. Barnhouse in Genesis, a Devotional Exposition. Zondervan;1973, p.165

Judah went out visiting, came to Adullam, met Hirah and married Shua, the daughter of a Canaanite. (Like Dinah, Jacob's daughter, he should have stayed home.) His first son, Er, was given in marriage to Tamar (also a Canaanite?). But Er was wicked and died young at God's hand. The second son, Onan, was recruited to give a son to Tamar, his dead brother's wife, but he practiced careful contraception and also died at God's hand. The third son Shelah was not offered to Tamar for fear of his life. Two men had already been shot out of the saddle. Tamar went back to her father's house forlorn, a widow and without children.

38:12–23 Shua, Judah’s wife, also died and Judah was left childless. After a time of grieving , Judah went to Timnah to visit his friend Hirah who was shearing sheep. Tamar realized that having no child, she had no future. She contrived to win a child from her father-in-law, Judah, playing on his weakness as a lonely widower. She disguised herself as a prostitute, sat by the road and attracted his attention. Her fee would be a goat, but his staff, signet ring and cord (?belt) would be collateral until the goat was delivered. When Judah sent the goat by the hand of Hirah, no prostitute was to be found.

38:24–26 Three months later, Tamar was pregnant and was at once denounced as a harlot. Judah condemned his daughter-in-law to death by fire. (Lev.21:9). When she produced his staff, ring and cord, Judah had to apologize. "She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah."

38:27–30 Twins were born to Tamar by her father-in-law. The first-born was a breach, Perez, the second Zerah. Actually Zerah was first, presenting a hand, which the midwife marked with a red thread. Perez will be in Judah's line to the Messiah. (Matt.1:3). In the book of Ruth, Judah's alliance with Tamar is spoken with approval:
"And may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord wild give you by this young woman." (Ruth 4:12).


The custom which Judah pursued and Onan thwarted, was written into the Law years later. It is called levirate marriage (“levir” means husband's brother). The brother of the deceased was expected to marry the widow, to keep the brother's property intact and manage it for the widow. The first-born son would carry the name of the deceased. (Deut.25:5–10; Matt.22:24). The value to the widow was that her social position and property were protected. In cases where levirate marriage was not possible, daughters had the right to inherit their father’s estate. (Num.27:8). Otherwise she would be relegated to minority status in her father's house or put out on the streets.

Why are these stories given to us, and why in this cluster? Why does Judah's folly break into Joseph's story? Jacob's sons have been guilty of multiple crimes: wholesale slaughter (34:25), incest (35:22), murderous jealousy (37:20), kidnapping (37:28), lying (37:32), marriage to a Canaanite (38:2), adultery  and prostitution (38:16), and plain bad judgment. (38:24). Together, these gross sins give us a message.

When we read OT history, we can see two levels. The lower level is the chronicle of events at a natural level with little visible involvement of God's power and communication. The upper level is where God's plan is being executed. The OT history is uniquely valuable because we see people behaving in their usual fashion, but also we can see God's interpretation and exhibit of power, sometimes initiating (as in Exodus) and sometimes using the folly of humans for His purposes. The gross sins of this section lead to surprising outcomes.

*The slaughter of Shechem isolated Israel from the Canaanites, with fear and hate on both sides. Genetic purity became the policy but at the expense of anti-Semitism.
* Because of Simeon and Levi's slaughter of Shechem, Simeon's tribe will be absorbed and Levi will have no land as the priestly clan had the temple worship as their duty. (Gen.49:5–7). Reuben lost his inheritance in Israel by his incest.( Gen.49:3). Thus,the fourth brother, Judah, rises to the top and is given the lion's share of Jacob's blessing. Gen.49:8–12
Judah's fornication caused him considerable embarrassment but his son Perez will go into the line of the Messiah. Perez will be the ninth from David. Ruth 4:18
*The brothers will pay for their mistreatment of Joseph by an agony of remorse. (Gen.43,44). Joseph will suffer slavery for his egotism, but he will save the whole clan from starvation in Egypt. Gen.45:4–9

On summary, in spite of lies, lust, murder and betrayal, God works His will:
Israel is isolated, and eventually compacted in Egypt.
Judah rises to eminence.
The lineage of Messiah emerges.
Joseph will be in a position to save his people.

Surely He makes the wrath of men to praise Him.

Praise His Name!