When’s the last time you heard a sermon on Genesis 38? Can you summarize the story of Genesis 38? I’m sure you’re aware of the next story in Genesis 39: Joseph rejecting the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife. So, what is Genesis 38? It’s a grimy, revolting, devastating, and uncomfortable story. Genesis 38 is rated TV-MA—and there’s a danger in not preaching it.
The story of righteous Joseph ghosting Potiphar’s wife is no stranger to podcast feeds and pulpits. But if we aren’t careful, we could fall into the heinous error of communicating only one situation of sexual sin—a man resisting the advances of a woman—and then inadvertently paint women as the reason sexual sin happens. There’s a reason why #ChurchToo exists. We need a wide-angle lens for identifying sexual sin. And Genesis 38, in context with Genesis 39, shows us the sexual sin of men—Onan and Judah—and the sins of abuse and neglect that Tamar endures.
Preach the Grisly Texts—This Is Real
It’s easy to see why we don’t hear sermons on Genesis 38. Who among us is eager to talk about a man being told, according to cultural customs, to impregnate his widowed sister-in-law? Who is eager to draw attention to Onan’s coitus interupptus semen on the ground? Who looks forward to a homiletical moment about Judah impregnating his daughter-in-law Tamar because he thought she was a cult prostitute? These aren’t the texts seminary students dream about expositing one day behind the pulpit. And that’s part of the problem.
There’s a reason why #ChurchToo exists. We need a wide-angle lens for identifying sexual sin.
We know every passage of our sacred book is from God, profitable for Christians, and a part of how we mature (2 Tim. 3:16; Matt. 4:4). Because that’s true, pastors must preach the whole Word, in season and out of season, comfortable texts and uncomfortable texts.
Our churches need to hear the grisly account of Genesis 38 because this is our world. Sexual abuse, lies, scandals, hypocrisy, and victims—this ancient Near Eastern drama isn’t too far removed. You may think people don’t want to hear these horrible scandals, but you’d be wrong. There’s a reason some of the most popular shows—Breaking Bad, The Morning Show, Tiger King—are filled with scandals and gross misconduct. It’s our world. And it’s the local church, too. God speaks to these sins, these traumas. Passages like Genesis 38 shine a light on sexual sin, abuse, and neglect, calling for repentance and justice.
Revolting Texts Call for Repentance and Justice
Our churches need to hear Genesis 38 sermons because every church has people who’ve committed the sins of Onan or Judah—sexual misconduct, fornication, or behavior that diverges from one man and one woman in marriage. “Such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). Some men and women are enslaved to digitized prostitutes and need the jarring account of Genesis 38 to bring them to walk in the light.
But don’t forget the other side of Genesis 38. Our churches have members and onlookers who have been abused and looking for hope and justice—like Tamar. There are people in our churches who think abuse and sexual misconduct occur out there; little do they know that victims of abuse sit across the aisle. Pastors must preach to these people and these situations. God has the receipts. Pastors must call abusers to repentance and proclaim justice for victims. It’s all in Genesis 38.
We hear more sermons from Genesis 39 because we see Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife with his ripped cape flapping in the wind. It provides a needed word on resisting temptation. “Make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14). But what about the man who didn’t run away? What about the woman who texted her Joseph to come over because her husband just left? This is where Genesis 38 helps us.
Pastors must call abusers to repentance and proclaim justice for victims.
Preaching Genesis 39 and Genesis 38 helps you tell followers of Jesus to avoid sexual temptation (Joseph) and to repent of sexually exploiting others (Onan and Judah). It’s easy to give and hear sermons on avoiding sin in general. But pastors must tell people to confess and forsake their real sins, like Judah did. Once the light shines, he confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26). Revolting texts call us to repentance. Abusers, like Onan, are called to repentance. Don’t miss that Onan drops dead. That’s a serious word on God’s heart for the abused. God sees. It will not stand unpunished.
We love the highlights of Joseph and Genesis 39. But we also need the lowlights of Genesis 38. God meets us in the lowlights. It’s there in the wreckage of our lives that God shows us the way out. Our sexual past doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
Tamar and Joseph: Righteousness Wins Even When It Loses
As Tamar’s belly begins to show from Judah’s twins—which he doesn’t yet know are his—he wants Tamar torched for this supposed sexual treason against the family. What does Tamar do? She says, “Well, the guy that got me pregnant, he left his phone in the whorehouse.” It’s Judah’s. His case, his background picture, his ringtone. Justice is served. Judah repents. Judah confesses. Tamar is cleared, vindicated, and blessed with children who will bring forth Boaz, then David, then Jesus of Nazareth.
God shows us that our sexual sins don’t have to be the end of the story.
Much like the story of Joseph, whose act of righteousness lands him in prison, the long arc of righteousness wins in the end. And with Tamar, the long story of redemption is heard—not only at the end of Genesis 38, or in the gleanings of Boaz’s field, or when Goliath’s head made a thud in the Valley of Elah. Redemption is realized when Tamar’s ultimate progeny lives righteously, acts justly, loves mercy, and dies on the cross for sinners and rises for our justification (Matt. 1:3).
Genesis 38, and the wider context of redemption, shows us that justice will be served. It might come in a year, or in a generation, or at the end of the age, but as surely as the risen Son, it’s coming. Like Tamar, Jesus is mistreated, abused, scandalized—and vindicated. God redeems what we can’t understand, when we can’t see a way out.
Righteousness wins, even when it loses.