14: The Judgments of Genesis (4)
Er & Onan / Famines / Genesis Recap
Er and Onan
to consider the specific judgments of God recorded in the book of
Genesis we now move to next consider the even stranger case of Er
and Onan, and will then consider the role of famines in the economy
of God, and then recap all we have seen in Genesis.
Er and Onan
But Er, Judah 's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight;
so the LORD put him to death….. What he (Onan) did was wicked in the
LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
suspect if you ask most Christians about Er and Onan they will look
completely mystified for this is not one of those passages of Scripture
that features in Sunday School teaching. Nevertheless it involves
two judgments of God and so we will consider them. The end result
of what goes on is that God kills two men. At least that is what our
two verses above indicate, so we had better see the circumstances
and see if we can make any sense out of this situation.
Judah 's Questionable Behaviour
whole situation is messy. Judah is one of Jacob's sons and of course
we know that humanly speaking at least Jesus came from this part of
the family tree: “See, the Lion of
the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.” (Rev
Judah clears off from the rest of the family and married a Canaanite
woman (Gen 38:1,2). In later years Moses would forbid such a thing
in the Law given by God, but this is in the early years of Israel's
history. Judah has two sons Er and then Onan (v.3,4). Continuing the
family name always has been an important feature of family life and
so Judah gets a wife for his eldest son, Er, whose name is Tamar (v.6)
Er's wrong behaviour
then we come to this simple but devastating verse: “But
Er, Judah 's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD
put him to death.” (v.7)
we don't know what his wickedness was but the implication is that
this is not a one-off failure but a way of life. Er IS wicked and
every aspect of his life is wicked. Beyond that we cannot say for
the Scripture does not tell us. God's judgment is clearly that he
is set in his ways and will never change and so he dies. We don't
know how, but it is that simple; somehow the Lord brought his life
to an end.
then the story appears to get even more murky, but to understand it
we have to understand the practice of the Middle East that when there
was a widow, the next nearest relative should honour her and marry
her so that she is not cast out of the family. The fact that she married
into this family should be respected and so the next born should marry
her and have children with her so that the family name is continued
through her. It is an honouring practice. This was later built into
the Mosaic Law (Deut 25:5,6) but for the moment it is simply accepted
Onan's wrong behaviour
Onan is to take her as his wife and is to continue the family tree
through her. But then we read, “But
Onan knew that the offspring would not be his” (v.9a).
I think what this really means is that he felt he was pressed into
this situation unwillingly and that she was really his brother's wife
and so he was an unwilling participant in this practice.
Onan performed what is basically a basic form of birth control and
we read, “so whenever he lay with
his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from
producing offspring for his brother.” (v.9b)
what he is doing is despising his father's name, despising the memory
of his dead brother and insulting and abusing Tamar and so we read,
“ What he did was wicked in the LORD's
sight; so he put him to death also.” (v.10)
situation could have continued on and on but the Lord was not having
that. There was in fact a younger brother (v.5) but we must assume
he was much too young to be brought into this practice.
the record, Judah is dilatory about doing anything about this (v.11,12)
and nothing changes except Judah's wife dies. (v.12) To cut a long
story short Tamar tricks Judah into having sex with her (v.13-19)
and conceives via him. When we see the family tree (Mt 1:3) we see
she and her son is included in the Messianic tree. Continuing the
name, in this primitive time, was considered essential. She was considered
righteous for this reason.
Apparent Anomaly in Genesis
looking at the wider picture in Genesis, we find a particular peculiarity.
Adam and Eve sinned God did not immediately kill them but put them
out of the garden.
Cain sinned the Lord did not take his life but banished him from
Pharaoh took Abram's wife and later Abimelech took her as well,
the Lord did not kill either king but gave them opportunity to repent.
now we come to these events above and the Lord kills both men. Now
admittedly the record is very brief and so we don't know if there
have been warnings given by the Lord. It seems to go against the divine
pattern for both men to be killed without warning.
text seems to indicate that Onan's basic birth control method was
an ongoing thing that happened again and again and it is likely therefore
that the Lord would have spoken into his conscience more than once
to stop this. (We don't know the Lord's input into Er's life.)
we consider the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, in both instances there
was a righteous man testifying to the wrongs of the rest and so their
ongoing sins were a constant rebellion against God. With the passing
of time (v.12) and Tamar not conceiving, it is probable that questions
would be asked and maybe Onan's practice became known. Now Judah doesn't
seem a particularly good example of a father but old man Jacob, as
grandfather, is becoming more godly as the years pass and would no
doubt ask questions. One way or another Onan would be resisting the
pressures put upon him and it would appear, therefore, that he has
hardened his heart about acting in the proper manner. We make these
points as suggestions towards why it was that he died: this was a
serious ongoing situation with ongoing sin.
the absence of detailed information we would do well not to jump to
conclusions, especially the one that puts the Lord in a bad light.
What we have here are two men who behave unrighteously in ongoing
ways; they are ongoing sinners and they have not repented and appear
to give no signs of repenting (yes, we are jumping to that conclusion
is not surprising, therefore, that the Lord acts against them both.
In it He is conveying the message, families are important, this chosen
family is important, and wives are important and those who reject
those three things will be answerable to the Lord. It remains a mysterious
case for which answers are not clear, but there is more to it than
meets the eye at first instance.
An Example of a God-Activity
It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what
he is about to do. Seven years of great abundance
are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine
will follow them.
this constitutes a judgment of God or not remains to be seen. However
the years of good harvests and then of famine were clearly identified
here by Joseph before they happened, as acts of God. I have underlined
the “what he is
about to do.” The fact that Joseph spoke it clearly as
a prophetic interpretation of a prophetic dream of what God would
do – and then it happened exactly as said – leaves us no alternative
but to attribute these years to God's activity.
as a Curse
Jesus' exposition of the last days, ‘famines and earthquakes' are
linked (Mt 24:7)
the ‘curses' of Deut 28, famine is clearly one of the curses of disobedience
the ‘natural' causes of such famines are shown as
- mildew or blight destroying the
- lack of rain destroying the crops,
- locusts or worms or other creatures
destroying the crops,
all with the same outcome – famine,
shortage of food.
Cause or Use of Famine?
are not told which of the ‘natural' causes the Lord used in the time
of Joseph merely that a famine occurred, first in Egypt and then in
the whole world (Gen 41:56,57). In any other context we would say
that a famine was to chastise the people and bring them back to God.
In this situation there is no indication that the world is especially
ungodly and unrighteous and when we come to look closely at the story
and see the effects of this famine, we can only conclude that this
famine was more something the Lord used to bring about a number of
other things that are part of His long-term plans.
as God's instrument
A dream needing an interpretation
our starting place is that the Lord is going to do something and He
gives Pharaoh a dream which needs interpreting. Discussion reveals
there is a dream-interpreter (Joseph) in prison who has twice given
accurate interpretations of dreams to a fellow prisoner. So Joseph
is brought before Pharaoh and interprets his two dreams as seven years
of abundance followed by seven years of famine.
The meaning of the dream
the end of his interpretation he is quite specific: “The
reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that (a)
the matter has been firmly decided
by God, and (b)
God will do it soon.” (Gen 41:32) Note the two
elements we have highlighted. This is something specifically planned
by God and He will go on to bring it about. This will be an act of
the Almighty God, Creator of all things who acts into His Creation
as He sees fit.
more than that, Joseph has what we might call a word of wisdom and
lays out before Pharaoh a strategy for dealing with the coming fourteen
years (Gen 41:33-36). Pharaoh sees the wisdom in this and realises
that Joseph would be the best person to bring it into being. The end
result? Joseph is appointed in charge over all of Egypt, second only
to Pharaoh (Gen 41:40-43).
Joseph's family come to Egypt
the story unfolds we see the seven years of plenty followed then by
the seven years of famine which spreads far and wide – even to Canaan
where Joseph's family still live. If you know the story you know that
the brothers are eventually sent by their father to Egypt to buy grain
and although they do not recognize Joseph in his finery, he recognizes
them and we follow a somewhat tortuous story of him playing with them
until he eventually reveals himself and they and their father come
and live under his protection in Egypt, where they prosper greatly.
Israel in Egypt
of course that is not the end of the story. They settle in Egypt –
indeed they settle there for over four hundred years until they are
made slaves and then eventually delivered by an aging shepherd by
the name of Moses and we have the most startling event in the whole
of the Old Testament, the Exodus.
this famine of seven years was used to put Joseph in the role of second
most powerful man in the region, enable him to be restored to his
family and then the family to settle there in Egypt to eventually
be delivered from slavery by the miraculous hand of God – which would
have been seen or heard of by all the nations of the Middle East at
we are left to conclude is that we have been observing a long-term
strategy of God to bring about a series of events which
in the judgment of the biggest despot in the region,
the deliverance of what is now a nation called Israel and
the judgment brought on the pagans of Canaan
– all because of a famine.
the more you look the more you realise the enormity of this plan because
it started right back when the Lord chose Abram and revealed to him:
“Know for certain that (a) your descendants
will be strangers in a country not their own, and (b) they will be
enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But (c) I will punish
the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward (d) they will come
out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers
in peace and be buried at a good old age. (e) In the fourth generation
your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites
has not yet reached its full measure." (Gen 15:13-16)
specific is that! When Joseph, the young spoilt brat, starts having
dreams (Gen 37:5-9) it starts off a sequence of events which, followed
through, results in a nation called Israel inhabiting a land called
Canaan and becoming the people of God through whom God will reveal
Himself more and more to the onlooking world. And so the famine was
merely a tool used by God to progress His plans of revealing Himself
to His world. Amazing!
Lesson for us
intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what
is now being done, the saving of many lives
we move on into Exodus we need to pause up and reflect on the judgments
we have considered so far. At the end of the book we find the above
quote from Joseph to his brothers in respect of all that had happened
to him. It summarised his life: his brothers had been against him
and having been given the opportunity, sold him into slavery. The
long-term outworking of that was that he ended up being the second
most powerful man in the region and was thus able to save Egypt and
also his own family as well as surrounding nations.
a story it has some pertinent lessons for this subject. First God
has to work with sinful human beings.
- sometimes He acts against them and
disciplines them and brings change in them,
- sometimes He ends their life where
He sees there is never going to be change, and
- sometimes He allows the sinful working
of men to bring about a greater purpose.
Joseph's brothers to move against him was one such example. In the
New Testament, allowing and even provoking the Establishment to move
against Jesus (see Acts 2:23) was another. Whatever action God takes
is for the good of mankind, So let's take an overview of the judgments
we have observed in Genesis:
& Eve #
God and eating the forbidden fruit,
out of the Garden and ultimate death
his brother Abel
from the community into the world
by flooding the world.
Tower of Babel #
and growing wickedness
scattered across the world
spreading through the royal household
and Gomorrah *
sin, especially casting off sexual restraint
destruction by a massive explosion
and Onan *
sin and dishonouring the family
men put to death by God
year famine used by God in His long-term plans
Corrective/Disciplinary or Strategy Judgments
of the above differ from the others in terms of cause. The Lord moved
against Pharaoh, not so much because of sin but to
protect Sarai and Abram. In the case of the Famine
sin is not mentioned; it was simply a tool in God's long-term plans.
is in only three of the eight cases that death is involved
(the ‘starred' ones)
there is utter destruction in respect of the Flood
and Sodom & Gomorrah, and in both instances
the cause appears rather like a surgeon cutting out diseased organs
to stop the disease wiping out the whole body; they were necessary
to protect the earth and it's long-term wellbeing.
and Onan's death's
appear to correct and bring to an end ongoing sin which was preventing
the development of God's plans through that family.
three judgments, banishment or scattering is the method God used
for dealing with the situation (the ‘hashed'
ones). i.e. Adam & Eve, Cain, the Tower of Babel
we have are a number judgments that can only be described as definitely
restrained. God could have acted very harshly but never did.
and Eve were allowed to continue their lives and the human race
but in a different location.
likewise was allowed to continue his life elsewhere.
people of Babel were likewise allowed to continue their lives elsewhere.
in mind the nature of the sins in each case, these were remarkably
limited actions. Pharaoh's life was temporarily disrupted but that
was all. The famine simply brought a great change in circumstances
which also involved the chosen family.
of the Actions
the two major catastrophes they simply reflect the awfulness of
the state of mankind involved.
the two men, it would appear that again it was a case of ongoing
known sin and refusal to repent.
of these ‘judgments' appear hasty; in fact they appear to be well
thought out and well applied in limited ways to deal with specific
is no sense of them being ‘out of control'.
are each an example of a clearly restrained and controlled form
of dealing with a problem in the most appropriate manner possible
for the long-term wellbeing for the earth.
now considered all the judgments found in Genesis, we will move on
to Exodus and Leviticus.