"Judgments of a Loving God" - Chapter 14





Chapter 14: The Judgments of Genesis (4)

    Er & Onan / Famines / Genesis Recap



Chapter 14 Contents 

14.1 Er and Onan

14.2 Famines

14.3 Genesis recap


Continuing 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.


14.1 Er and Onan


The Judgment

Gen 38:7,10   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.


I 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.


The Story

i) Judah 's Questionable Behaviour

The 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 5:5)


But 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)


ii) Er's wrong behaviour

But 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)

Now 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.


iii) Cultural Tradition

But 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 tradition.


iv) Onan's wrong behaviour

So 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.

So 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)


So 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)


This 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.


v) Ongoing Messiness

For 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.


The Apparent Anomaly in Genesis

Now looking at the wider picture in Genesis, we find a particular peculiarity.

  •   When Adam and Eve sinned God did not immediately kill them but put them out of the garden.
  •   When Cain sinned the Lord did not take his life but banished him from that community.
  •   When 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.


But 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.


The 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.)


When 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.


In 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 with Er).


It 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.



14.2 Famines


An Example of a God-Activity

Gen 41:28-30   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.


Whether 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.


Famine as a Curse

In Jesus' exposition of the last days, ‘famines and earthquakes' are linked (Mt 24:7)

In the ‘curses' of Deut 28, famine is clearly one of the curses of disobedience (Deut 28:18,22,38-40)

There the ‘natural' causes of such famines are shown as

  • mildew or blight destroying the crops,
  • lack of rain destroying the crops, or
  • locusts or worms or other creatures destroying the crops, 
         all with the same outcome – famine, shortage of food.


Cause or Use of Famine?

We 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.


Joseph as God's instrument

i) A dream needing an interpretation

So 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.


ii) The meaning of the dream

At 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.


iii) Accompanying wisdom

Now 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).


iv) Joseph's family come to Egypt

As 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.


v) Israel in Egypt

But 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.



So 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 least.


What 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 would culminate

  • first in the judgment of the biggest despot in the region,
  • then the deliverance of what is now a nation called Israel and
  • then the judgment brought on the pagans of Canaan

                   – all because of a famine.


But 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)


How 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!



14.3 Genesis Recap


Joseph's Lesson for us

Gen 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives


Before 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.


As 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.

Allowing 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:


Overall Summaries

People Involved

Their sin

The judgment

Adam & Eve #


Disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit,

Cast out of the Garden and ultimate death

Cain #


Murdered his brother Abel

Banished from the community into the world

The Flood *

Overflowing wickedness

Destruction by flooding the world.

The Tower of Babel #

Pride and growing wickedness

Being scattered across the world

Abram and Pharaoh

Pharaoh taking Sarai

Disease spreading through the royal household

Sodom and Gomorrah *

Rampant sin, especially casting off sexual restraint

Utter destruction by a massive explosion

Er and Onan *

Established sin and dishonouring the family

Both men put to death by God


None mentioned

7 year famine used by God in His long-term plans


i) Corrective/Disciplinary or Strategy Judgments

Two 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.


ii) Terminal Judgments

  •   It is in only three of the eight cases that death is involved (the ‘starred' ones)
  •   Yes, 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.
  •   Er 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.

iii) Banishment Judgments

  •   In 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 .
  •   What we have are a number judgments that can only be described as definitely restrained. God could have acted very harshly but never did.
  •   Adam and Eve were allowed to continue their lives and the human race but in a different location.
  •   Cain likewise was allowed to continue his life elsewhere.
  •   The people of Babel were likewise allowed to continue their lives elsewhere.


Bearing 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.


Characteristics of the Actions

  •   With the two major catastrophes they simply reflect the awfulness of the state of mankind involved.
  •   With the two men, it would appear that again it was a case of ongoing known sin and refusal to repent.
  •   None of these ‘judgments' appear hasty; in fact they appear to be well thought out and well applied in limited ways to deal with specific circumstances.
  •   There is no sense of them being ‘out of control'.
  •   They 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.


Having now considered all the judgments found in Genesis, we will move on to Exodus and Leviticus.



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