At the time 17-year-old Joseph was sold into slavery, Judah was about 20 years old. Approximately 22 years later Judah, along with the entire household of Jacob, left Canaan to live in Egypt. This means that the events narrated in chapter 38 occurred within a span of less than 20 years. Therefore, it appears that Judah separated from his brothers soon after the sale of Joseph and formed a close relationship with Hirah (Iras [LXX]) the Adullamite (Odollamite [LXX]). (38:1, 12)
In the region where Judah then resided, he became attracted to a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua (Saua [LXX]), and married her. Likely in the first year of their marriage, she gave birth to a son whom Judah named Er. Probably within a year after the birth of Er, Judah’s wife had another baby boy and named him Onan (Aunan [LXX]). Later, she gave birth to another son and called him Shelah (Selom [LXX]). At the time, Judah was living in Chezib (Achzib [Chasbi, LXX]). The Septuagint says that his wife was living there when she gave birth. (38:2-5; see the Notes section.)
It appears that while Er was still a teenager Judah chose Tamar (Thamar [LXX]) as a wife for him. Er lived a corrupt life that came to an untimely end. According to the then-existing custom, Er’s brother Onan had the filial duty to have offspring for his brother by Tamar. Knowing that the offspring would not be his, Onan resorted to coitus interruptus to prevent Tamar from getting pregnant. Like his brother, Onan died a premature death. In keeping with what believers in YHWH as the true God thought, the account refers to what Er and Onan did as displeasing to YHWH and represents their dying prematurely as an expression of YHWH’s judgment. (38:6-10)
Custom of that time required that the childless widow Tamar not marry but wait until she could have offspring by a brother of her deceased husband. Judah’s son Shelah was too young to father a child. Therefore, Judah directed Tamar to return to her father’s house and remain in childless widowhood until Shelah grew up. She did this, but Judah feared that Shelah might die just like his brothers had and, therefore, failed to give Shelah to Tamar when he could have done so. (38:11)
“Days multiplied” or considerable time passed, and Judah’s wife died. After the period of mourning for his wife ended, Judah and his companion Hirah the Adullamite went to Timnah, the place where his sheepshearers were. Upon learning that her father-in-law Judah was heading for Timnah to sheer his sheep, Tamar removed the attire of her widowhood and seated herself at the entrance of a town that was called Enaim (“toward [or near] the gates of Ainan” [LXX]), taking on the appearance of a prostitute. According to the Septuagint, she made herself attractive. The location of Enaim was on the road leading to Timnah. Tamar’s intent was to induce Judah to have relations with her because he had not given his son Shelah to be with her. Her plan was successful. Judah did not recognize her because she had veiled her face, and he assumed that she was a prostitute. For her services, he promised to give her a kid of the goats. To protect herself from a charge of having violated her status as a childless widow, Tamar requested a pledge for the future payment of a kid. She asked for his personal seal, the cord to which it was attached, and his staff. When Judah later sent Hirah the Adullamite to take the kid of the goats to the woman whom he had thought to be a prostitute, his companion could not find her, and the men of Enaim told him that they did not know about any prostitute as ever having been in the vicinity. Judah then gave up any attempt to find the woman, not wanting to become an object of ridicule in the region. (38:12-23; see the Notes section.)
About three months later, the report reached Judah that Tamar had prostituted herself and was pregnant. Acting according to the existing cultural view of that time, Judah pronounced the judgment of death on Tamar, saying that she should be “burned.” This could indicate that, after being stoned to death, her body would be committed to the flames. At this point, Tamar identified the father of the unborn child as the one to whom the seal, the cord, and the staff belonged, and asked Judah to examine them. He then acknowledged that Tamar was more upright than he had been, for he had failed to fulfill his duty toward her by not giving his son Shelah to her so that she might have offspring for her deceased husband. Thereafter Judah never had any sexual relations with Tamar. (38:24-26)
She gave birth to twins. When the midwife saw the hand of one of the twins come forth first, she tied a scarlet thread around it, probably around the wrist. The hand, however, was withdrawn, and the other twin was the first baby boy to be born. The “breach” or perineal rupture that this twin produced came to be the basis for his name Perez (“breach” or perineal rupture [Phares, LXX]). His brother was named Zerah (Zara [LXX]). The name Zerah may be linked to a Hebrew word designating the shining forth of light or brightness, and the bright scarlet thread tied around the baby’s wrist may have been the basis for his name. (38:27-30)
According to verse 3 in the Septuagint, Judah’s wife called the firstborn son Er.
The Septuagint (in verse 5) indicates that Judah’s wife was in Chasbi (Chezib [Achzib]) at the time she gave birth to all three baby boys.
In verses 12 and 20, the Septuagint identifies Judah’s companion Hiras (Hirah) as “his shepherd.”