Holy shit. This is quite possibly the most insane chapter in this entire book, and trust me, having read it in detail, that is saying a lot. Your Sunday school probably used this chapter to teach you all about the sins of masturbation, birth control and abortion, but he or she probably didn't tell you the whole story, unless he or she is one sick puppy.
This particular chapter is an interlude about Judah, Israel's fourth son, and a direct ancestor of Jesus. Judah takes a walk one day, and sees a pretty Canaanite girl called Shuah. It's possible he marries her, or he just has sex with her. The result is a son, Er. Then they have sex again, and the result is Onan. If you're familiar with the term Onanism, you know where this is going. Finally, she has a third son who is called Shelah.
Judah finds a wife for Er called Tamar, but before she can get pregnant, Er does something wrong and god kills him. For those of you keeping track at home, this would be his second killing of an individual, Lot's wife being the first. Bonus round: what crimes do not warrant a heavenly death penalty? Which one did? Read through to the end to find out.
Judah said unto Onan 'Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother (v. 8). Now, before his death, Jerry promised to dedicate the rest of his life to preventing homosexual marriage, because it's against the bible. But here we have a quite clear proscription as well: if a married man dies without issue, his brother must marry his wife. For the bible's other teachings on marriage, see here.
Onan isn't too thrilled at the idea of his brother's sloppy seconds, and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother (v. 9). Now, this verse is the one that supposedly condemns masturbation, birth control and abortion all in one go. Jerry is oddly silent. But just reading it, it seems pretty clear that Onan wasn't masturbating, he just pulled out early because if Tamar got pregnant, Er would get credit for the baby. So as an argument against birth control, fair enough, but self-pleasure is still in-bounds as far as I can see.
Anyway, god, turning into a right serial killer in this chapter, kills him.
Judah tells Tamar to go home and wait for his final son, Shelah, to come of age, and she goes.
One day, Judah goes out to shear his sheep. Tamar hears that he's going out and puts on a veil and sits outside, apparently because Shelah is now grown and hasn't married her. Maybe he thinks she's bad luck? I wouldn't blame him.
Judah sees her and thinks she's a prostitute, so he asks her to have sex with him. She asks him what she'll get in return. I think this would be the part where she actually becomes a hooker. Anyway, he promises her a kid from his flock, and she asks for a deposit, his signet ring, a bracelet and a staff. They have sex and she gets pregnant. Then she goes home and puts her widow's clothing back on.
Judah, meanwhile, tries to send the goat down, but can no longer find her. So, prostitution is the world's oldest profession, and ripping clients off is the second oldest. His messanger asks where the harlot went, and they tell him that particular corner has never been frequented by ladies of the night. Judah insists they find her lest we be shamed (v.23) as if the shameful thing here is failing deliver a goat you promised to a prostitute you had sex with.
A few months later, Judah finds out that his daughter in law has been turning tricks and is pregnant. He orders her brought to him and burned. Fortunately, Jerry does not use this passage to call for the immolation of whores.
Tamar is a smart girl, however, and shows up with his stuff, saying he's the father. Judah acknowledges that the ring, bracelet and staff are indeed his, and that he is the one in the wrong, because he never gave her to Shelah. Then he stops having sex with her. Aw, what a guy!
The result is twins, and in the most monstrous description of birth yet, one twin puts his hand out and the midwife puts a scarlet thread around his wrist to show which one came out first. But he pulls his hand back in and the other one comes out. The twins are called Pharez and Zarah.
So, in one chapter that's two murders by a displeased deity, a daughter in law who prostitutes herself to her father in law, a father who visits hookers and a father in law who threatens to throw his hooker daughter in law on the auto-de-fé. What do you think: is this the most fucked-up chapter, or does the title belong to chapter 34 (Dinah is raped and her brothers convince the Hivites to get circumcised, then kill them) or even possibly chapter 19 (crowd of drunken men wants to rape a couple of sexy angels, Lot, to placate them, offers up his daughters, god destroys city, Lot's wife turned into salt, his daughters get him drunk and have sex with him). Actually, it seems a close race between chapters 19 and 38.
Finally, the crimes which do not merit a divine death sentence: eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Adam and Eve) fratricide (Cain), murder (Lamech), nude drunkenness (Noah), lying, casting your son into the desert (Abraham), beating your servants (Sarah), offering your daughters to a drunk, randy crowd, lying about their virginity (Lot), getting your father drunk and raping him (Lot's daughters), public sex (Isaac), polygamy (Esau, Jacob), pretending to be your brother, stealing your brother's birthright (Jacob), lying to your daughter's bridegroom about which daughter he actually had sex with, then fooling him into working for you for free for 7 years (Laban), icon stealing (Rachel), rape (Shechem), mass murder (Simeon and Levi), having sex with your stepmother (Reuben), cross-dressing (Joseph), selling your brother into slavery (Israel's other sons, except Reuben).
And those that do: having evil thoughts (the flood victims), 'grievous sin' (the people of Lot whom, if you will remember, god planned to kill even before the near angel rape), looking back at Sodom (Lot's wife), wickedness (Er), failure to complete the sexual act (Onan).