I have been wondering if anyone has insight they would like to share on the events described in Genesis 38. Nearly every commentary I have read or heard has pointed out the fact that this chapter is a strange insertion into the narrative about Joseph. I believe it was put where it is because it is a prophetic type. When I was a young Christian and first began to meditate on the scriptures I noticed that verse 1 connects Judah leaving his brothers with their selling off of Joseph just prior to this in chapter 37. Joseph typifies Jesus as Redeemer and Savior, Judah typifies Him as Ruler. If you sell off your Redeemer, you also sell the Ruler. It is interesting that when Judah leaves his brothers, he takes a Gentile wife (type of the gospel going to the Gentiles when the Jews refuse it?). She is the daughter of a man whose name means “to cry for help or freedom from some trouble”. Three sons are born to this couple. Er, Onan, and Shelah. Their names are interesting, as is the name of the woman that Judah gets for his eldest son as a wife. Her name is Tamar, which means "a palm tree (in the sense that a palm tree is ‘upright’).
So the Ruler (Judah) tries to marry his eldest son Er to “uprightness” and he fails. Er means “watchful” and it could be that Er’s failure is related to his failure to be watchful. How many times did Paul warn the early church to be on watch for false teachers? Could there be a prophetic connection?
Then Judah has his second son, Onan, take Tamar as wife. Onan means “strong”. Onan did not want to use his strength to raise up an heir to his brother so he wasted his seed on the ground (the earth). To me this seems prophetic of the majority of the church from Constantine on. There was a preoccupation with earthly things and earthly power.
The birth of Judah’s third son has a bit of information tied to it that makes me wonder if Shelah is really Judah’s son. Verse 5 says “He was at Chezib when she bore him.” Why is this information given? Chezib means “falsehood”. Could it be that Judah went to Chezib as a testimony against an unfaithful wife? Was it Judah who was being false and would later refuse to give Tamar to his third son? As to why Tamar was never given to Shelah,I think there may be a clue in the meaning of his name. Shelah means “request”. When his first two sons died being married to Tamar, Judah did not want to take a chance on losing his third so he made an excuse saying that Shelah was not full grown. Maybe Judah would have given Tamar to Shelah later on if he had lived up to his name and “requested” that Tamar (uprightness) be given to him? Maybe Shelah was not really Judah’s son and hence he had no desire for “uprightness”?
In this whole story, the only one able to produce offspring through Tamar is Judah himself, but this is only because Tamar changes her appearance to look like a harlot. Just like when Jesus came, He presented a view of righteousness that looked like harlotry to the Pharisees. The union of Judah and Tamar produces twins. Their births are surrounded with details that could be prophetic of Israel and the church. That is how I see it anyway. Zerah puts out his hand which is marked with a red string to denote him being the firstborn, but he draws it back in. Then Perez breaks forth unexpectedly. His name means “a breach”. After he was born Zerah came out. His name means “a rising of light, to shoot forth” but he was not named when he put his hand out, but after he is fully born. The church began with the Jews, and for a while there was always a great amount of debate over whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. They were not hardened into the stance they took later on. It seemed like it could go either way. Eventually most pulled back from the new way. While they wavered and debated, the Gentiles began to get saved and I think it is safe to say that no one in the church at the time expected this to happen. At least not in the way it did. Once Perez is born, Zerah finally comes out and receives his name which implies something dramatic, swift, and far reaching. Like when the new testament speaks of the fulfillment of all of God’s plans? The parallels between this chapter in Genesis and church history are interesting.