Scarlet Threads of Hope
At the end of Genesis 38, we read the story of Tamar's labor. Sermons don't always allow the time to examine every detail of a passage. But verses 27-30 reward our careful study with unique insight into God's redemptive plan.
The Scarlet Thread of the Midwife
The account of the birth of Tamar's sons starts this way, "When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb". Now listen to the description of Rebekah's delivery in Genesis 25:24, "When her time came to give birth, there were indeed twins in her womb." This repetition implies something is similar between these two sets of twins.
What is it?
Read the next verse describing Tamar's labor, "As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife took it and tied a scarlet thread around it, announcing, 'This one came out first.'" (Genesis 38:28) In the race to exit the womb, one baby managed to cross the finish line first by sticking out his hand. Since birth order was so fundamental to ancient families, the midwife quickly wrapped his wrist with a scarlet thread in order to confirm that this one was the "firstborn".
After this, the second baby exits Tamar's womb. We read, "But then he pulled his hand back, out came his brother, and she said, 'What a breakout you have made for yourself!' So he was named Perez." (38:29) Did you notice the baby-talk of the midwife? Her exclamation reads just like the cute and affirming way people still talk to babies today. Her expression of Perez's "breakout" shows that this baby, while technically second, has come out unexpectedly. Like Jacob, he usurped his "older" brother while coming out. He is named "Perez" to emphasize that act of breaking out.
Zerah, the firstborn, comes out in verse 30. His name identifies his firstborn status with the brightness of the sunrise. Though it was an odd finish, the midwives have determined that Zerah won by a hand.
These sons are mentioned again in Genesis 46 and Numbers 26. Moses tells that Judah's sons were Shelah, Perez, and Zerah. While Shelah holds the lead as firstborn overall, Perez, rather than Zerah, is mentioned second in the genealogy.
So which son of Judah inherits God's blessing of Judah? This is an important question because God promises that Judah will inherit the promised Messiah in Genesis 49:10, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples." "Shiloh" here is a name that means "He whose it is" or "He to whom it belongs". This means that there will be one who comes from Judah whom God gives the right to reign from Jerusalem.
We don't learn the answer to our question until we get to the book of Joshua. There we see another scarlet thread. This time, it marks God's choice.
Rahab's Cord of Scarlet Thread
As you may know, the prostitute Rahab has a particularly honored status in the Bible because she welcomed Israel's spies when they came into her house. Then, after informing them about her city, she protected them from Jericho's soldiers and let them escape the city by a cord of scarlet thread.
Right before they ran back to the Israelite camp, in return for her protection, Rahab asked if she and her family could be rescued from the destruction of Jericho. They answered, "We shall be free from this oath to you which you have made us swear, unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread in the window through which you let us down, and gather to yourself into the house your father and your mother and your brothers and all your father’s household." (Joshua 2:17-18). This meant that as long as she tied the scarlet escape cord outside her house, they will see it and rescue her and her family from her house.
Rahab agrees to this in Joshua 2:21, "And she said, 'According to your words, so be it.' So she sent them away, and they went; and she tied the scarlet cord in the window." When Rahab said that, she and Israel's spies were finalizing a covenant between them: Rahab and her family would be protected during the Jericho conquest in exchange for her faithfulness to the spies.
This is significant because God himself sovereignly fulfills that covenant by preventing the walls from collapsing in the area where her house was built. Joshua 2:15 clarifies this detail, "Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall."
Later in Joshua 6, the walls of Jericho came down (6:20). As promised, God saved Rahab and her family in her house despite the rest of the walls falling because Rahab had remained faithful to the terms of her covenant (Joshua 6:22-25).
Archeologist Bryant Wood is one of several archaeologists who have excavated and written about the ruins of Jericho. In one article, he points out a little-known fact about these walls,
The German excavation of 1907-1909 found that on the north a short stretch of the lower city wall did not fall as everywhere else. A portion of that mudbrick wall was still standing to a height of 8 ft (Sellin and Watzinger 1973: 58). What is more, there were houses built against the wall! It is quite possible that this is where Rahab's house was located. Since the city wall formed the back wall of the houses, the spies could have readily escaped. From this location on the north side of the city, it was only a short distance to the hills of the Judean wilderness where the spies hid for three days (Jos 2:16, 22). Real estate values must have been low here, since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district. (https://tinyurl.com/33x8x3cm)
This stunning discovery reveals that a small portion of the fallen wall of Jericho still stands today. While the rest of the walls all fell outward and crushed he houses built against them, those who stayed in one northern area were preserved from the initial collapse. The city gates, which were closed (Joshua 2:7), were located on the southwestern side of the city (https://tinyurl.com/bdz4dj9u). A house built along this northern wall would have provided a perfect escape from the city by climbing down a long cord.
What happened to Rahab after all this? She and her family lived in Israel as an honored family (Joshua 6:25). She was not only saved physically but spiritually (James 2:25; Hebrews 11:31). As a legitimate covenant member of God's people, she married Salmon, the descendant of Perez (Matthew 1:5). She and Salmon's descendants included the two kings who united Israel's twelve tribes, David and Solomon. Solomon wrote the last reference to scarlet thread in Song of Solomon 4:3, "Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your temples are like a slice of a pomegranate behind your veil." Finally, Matthew 1:16 shows that her line ended in the greatest king of Israel, Jesus Christ.
Shelah may have seemed like he deserved Judah's blessing because he was the eldest. Zerah may have seemed like a valid runner up because he stuck his hand out first. But God chose Perez and blessed him with something far better than high birth-order or a red bracelet, a godly wife who genuinely trusted in Yahweh. The fruit of this marriage culminated in the King who fulfilled God's special promise to Judah.
The Scarlet Epilogue
God blessed Perez with the noble line of the Messiah. But one might wonder what happened to the descendants of the other two sons, Shelah and Zerah? For the curious, both tribes are mentioned later in Scripture.
As for Zerah, 1 Chronicles records that he had five sons: Zimri, Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara.
After the conquest of Jericho, the tribe of Perez was blessed by a righteous woman, but the tribe of Zerah was cursed by a disobedient man. Joshua 7 records the sin of this notorious Zerahite, Achan. The text emphasizes Achan's descent from Zerah three times (Joshua 7:1, 18, 24).
Before to the conquest of Jericho, Joshua warned Israel not to keep any spoils from Jericho for themselves. Doing so would make the camp of Israel "devoted to destruction" (Joshua 6:18). But Achan disregarded this command and stole two hundred shekels of silver and a gold bar weighing fifty shekels (Joshua 7:21). His sin led to Israel's defeat in the second Canaanite city they attacked, resulting in the death of 36 soldiers (Joshua 7:5). In order to atone for the camp, Achan, his family, and all his livestock were killed. Before his death, Achan gave a thorough and sincere confession of his sin, leading many, including myself, to hope in his final salvation (Joshua 7:19-21).
Though this is a tragic ending, it is not the end of the Zerahites altogether. Six hundred ninety of them became residents of the city of Jerusalem after they conquered it (1 Chronicles 9:6). And even after the exile, one of them, Pethahiah, returned to Jerusalem as a representative of King Artaxerxes when the city and its walls were rebuilt (Nehemiah 11:24).
As for Shelah, 1 Chronicles gives us various details. It reveals the name of his mother, "Bath-shua the Canaanitess" (1 Chronicles 2:3). This name literally means "Daughter of Shua". Shelah went on to have five sons: Er, Laadah, Jokim, Joash, and Saraph (4:21-22). Shelah took the name "Er" from his oldest brother, whom God killed for being evil (Genesis 38:7). By choosing to honor Er by naming his firstborn son after him suggests that Shelah may have not seen Er as the wicked man he was. Shelah's second son Laadah had descendants known as "fine linen workers" in a city called Beth-ashbea (1 Chronicles 4:21). His youngest sons, Joash and Saraph, moved away from Canaan and "ruled in Moab" (1 Chronicles 4:22).
The descendants of Shelah who remained in the region of the tribe of Judah were described as craftsmen who produced pottery for Judah's king (4:23). Overall, it appears that Shelah's family began with a strong Canaanite identity and fractured into divided affiliations between the tribes of Canaan, Moab, and Judah.
What can be learned from following the tribes of Perez, Zerah, and Shelah through the rest of the Bible? Shelah may have been expected to inherit Judah's blessing because he was oldest. The midwife may have thought Zerah would be more likely than Perez because he stuck his hand out first. But God gave the blessing of Judah's inheritance through a Gentile prostitute, Rahab, who had neither lineage, birth order, or earthly status to merit such a blessing. God works in unexpected ways that undermine human traditions and institutions. He does this to show that His choices are sovereign; not ours.
This study also confirms the truth of John 1:12-13 "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." This teaches that our spiritual inheritance doesn't come through birth order, blood lineage, fleshly exertion, or human choice. Our salvation comes by God's will as we believe in the name of Jesus and receive Christ as our Lord.