I preached Genesis 38 this morning and have really enjoyed preparing and exploring one of the Bible's nasties. Here are my notes, though you can find the audio at http://www.graceinthecommunity.org/.
Genesis 38 – Failed Family Values
Just after World War 2 at Portsmouth dockyard a Ministry of Defence policeman stopped a worker walking out of the gates pushing a wheelbarrow with a suspicious package in it. The policeman opened the package but it contained nothing but bits of rubbish, sawdust and floor-sweepings. He let the man go.
The next day he stopped the same worker again pushing a wheelbarrow containing a suspicious package. Once more it contained nothing of any value. The same thing happened several days on the trot, until the policeman finally said, 'OK, I give up. I know you are up to something, but I can't tell what. Please, I promise not to arrest you, but put me out of my misery; tell me what you are stealing." The worker smiled, leaned towards him and whispered: "I'm stealing wheelbarrows."
Sometimes we miss the most obvious things because we’re too focused on the details, that’s true with Genesis.
Offspring is the key to understanding Genesis. The two big promises (Gen 3:15) of one who would crush Satan’s head and (Gen 12)of people, place, protection and a plan to bless all nations both depend on offspring, on the family line continuing. Last week we saw the beginnings of Jacob’s line; 12 sons but as yet that is where the line stops. No offspring means no promises, that is the context of these chapters; it’s what makes the story so important; it’s about salvation history.
1. Fitting in leads to falling down
In Gen 12 God calls Abram to leave his country, people and Father’s house, to separate from them and live differently. From then on when people like Lot fail to separate themselves it doesn’t end well. When Abraham and Sarah want a wife for Isaac they send a servant to find one from their own people not the Canaanites, the same with Jacob whereas Esau marries Canaanite wives who displease his parents.
The Canaanites are under God’s judgement because of their sin, God’s people, the family of promise are called to live separately from them and to be different.
It’s against that backdrop that we read(1-2), what does Judah do? He leaves his brothers, goes down to live with Canaanites, befriends a Canaanite, and marries a Canaanite.
What strikes you as you read is; Judah is no different to those he lives among; he is governed by his passions and appetites. Even the description of his marriage in Hebrew reads “He saw, he took”, lust seems to govern even his marriage. He feels no shame about rashly sleeping with a prostitute, only worry at the embarrassment it may cause if discovered.
But it isn’t just Judah who is no different. We saw last week the sins repeated from generation to generation, and here we see the same again. Judah is no different from those around him and his children are no different. Er is put to death because he is wicked. His brother, Onan, will not carry out his duty by fathering children to continue his brother’s line and deliberately spills his seed, so he too dies for his wickedness.
Judah and his family are no different from the Canaanites they live among, living by their appetites and doing what they want. Judah’s sin is highlighted even more by the account of Joseph’s purity when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him.
But before we pass judgement too quickly on Judah we need to beware lest we condemn ourselves. Just as Judah looked no different to the society he lived among, just as he absorbed their values and morals, does the church stand out; have we absorbed society’s morals and values?
Statistics show that 1 in 5 people in church struggle with pornography, divorce rates in the church are little different from those outside the church and increasingly attitudes to who to marry and sex before marriage are moulded by society rather than the bible.
Before we condemn Judah and the family we need to look at how alike we are. Just as Judah soaks in the Canaanite culture so we soak up our culture, just as Judah absorbs and lives by their values so do we, just as Judah fails to stand out and be different do we?
This passage calls us not to pass judgement but to repent, to be different, to live distinctively as God’s people. Where are we absorbing society’s values and morals? It’s in what we watch, what we read, what we listen to and what we absorb unthinkingly from them without thinking through what the bible has to say about this. Fitting in leads to falling down, and it affects our families.
2. Know your God
Sometimes you think you know someone and then they say or do something that surprises you.
Genesis is here to reveal God to Israel and to us, to teach God’s people who he is, what he’s like, his plans and what he wants from his people. There are 4 things about God.
a. God judges Sin
I wonder what your reaction was to(7, 10), was the question ‘What right does God have to put them to death?’ If it was it reveals to us that we don’t know God.
We have the same problem that Judah has, look at(11) who does Judah blame for his sons deaths? Tamar, that’s why he has no intention of giving Shelah to her, it’s as if he thinks she is cursed. He doesn’t think it is because of his son’s wickedness and he has no room in his thinking for a God who judges sin.
God judges sin, that doesn’t means every death is the result of God judging specific individuals sins. But God hates sin and he judges it justly, both Judah’s sons despise and reject God. Sometimes people say well that’s the God of the Old Testament the God of the New is different, yet in Acts Ananias and Sapphira and Herod are put to death because of their sin, and supremely in Christ we see that God judges sin as he bears it in our place.
God is a holy God who hates sin and has every right to judge those who rebel against him.
b. God is Sovereign
God is also sovereign and that sovereignty is magnified by his being at work amidst the sin of this failing family, as God works to keep his promises, securing the family line.
Even as Judah leaves his brothers, marries a Canaanite, breaks his word, beds a prostitute, and hastily and hypocritically condemns his daughter-in-law to death, God is ensuring his promise of a seed who will crush Satan’s head, who will establish a people, place, protection and plan to bless all nations will come to pass.
It doesn’t justify any of the characters actions, the bible reports them it doesn’t recommend them, sin is serious and we see God’s hatred of it and his just judgement of it. But God works sovereignly amid the sin and slop turning it to his ends.
We serve a God so sovereign that his purposes cannot be averted or twisted by his people’s sin and rebellion to them. So sovereign that he can even work sin and evil to his ends, who will keep his word and crush Satan through his promised seed.
Isn’t that a great encouragement. God works for our good and his glory even through sin and wickedness.
c. God of grace
Who does God use? How do you answer that question? We tend to think God uses worthy people, good people. But the bible surprises us because it reveals the sinners God uses.
Abraham is an idol worshipper, Jacob a deceiver, David the least impressive and regal of Jesse’s sons, Jonah a racist who doesn’t understand grace, Matthew a Tax Collector, Paul a persecutor of God’s people.
1 Cor 1:26f “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
Certainly that’s true here. Tamar is widowed, neglected, isolated, mistreated, betrayed, and yet it is through this Canaanite who risks her life that God ensures the family line continues.
And God uses Judah, Judah goes on to become the head of the tribe from which the serpent crusher will come. God in his grace works to change Judah, (26)is the turning point as he confesses his sin. The later part of ch38 is some 20 years after the events of ch37, and shortly before the brothers go to Egypt to buy food, and God is working to change Judah. A change that we see when Judah this murderous, callous, appetite driven, Canaanite copying man is so changed that he offers his life for Benjamin’s so that Jacob does not lose him and die.
What accounts for such a change in Judah’s character? It is this incident through which God works by grace to bring him to confess his sin and change.
Sometimes we have to be confronted with the depth of our sin and its consequences before we will change. But grace not merit determines God’s people and their fitness to serve, so that we have no grounds for boasting but in the grace of God.
The meal we’ll share in a minute reminds us of that – we are sinners saved by the grace of God, with no reason to boast but every reason to praise God and thank him.
d. God will bless all nations
This chapter closes with what? The birth of twins. God takes the slop and sin, the lust and lies, the deceit and despair and works it to his ends, so that the offspring are born and the line continues. And as Ruth 4 shows it is from Perez’s line that king David comes, and as Matthew 1 shows from Perez’s line that Jesus is born the one through who all nations will be blessed, the one in whom every promise is fulfilled.
What is your God like? Our God is a God who hates sin and will judge it, who is sovereign and even sin and rebellion cannot stay his promises, who treats us according to grace so that we cannot boast, and who will bless all nations.
How ought we to respond to such a God? We ought to live lives that bring him glory not fitting in and falling down but standing out and shouting out his praise, confident that he is sovereign and will bless all nations.