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In response to this question asked by JonEricson.

Genesis 38:6-11 (NJPS):

Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life.

This is a strange and unique passage in the Bible. What was "displeasing" about Er? Why doesn't the Bible tell us? What are the literary implications of this passage and how should we understand it?

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3 Answers 3

In the end, the focus is less on Er than it is on Judah and Tamar. Judah was stealing Tamar's rightful due, namely a sin and support mechanism. What Er did was irrelevant to the focus the author wished to place on Judah's bad behavior. For more on Tamar and Judah, check out:

In a strictly nationalistic sense, Judah is the primary kingdom of the South, and Joseph the hero of the North (Ephraim is Joseph's son), it is interesting how bad of a light the south is shown in this story. It would seem to be evidence for a more Northerly bias on the part of the writer(s) of Genesis.

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The last paragraph would make an excellent question, I think. – Jon Ericson Feb 24 '12 at 0:34

Sexual Sin

According to Jubilees, Er sinned by refusing to sleep with Tamar:

(1) And in the forty-fifth jubilee, in the second week, (and) in the second year, Judah took for his first-born Er, a wife from the daughters of Aram, named Tamar. (2) But he hated, and did not lie with her, because his mother was of the daughters of Canaan, and he wished to take him a wife of the kinsfolk of his mother, but Judah, his father, would not permit him. (3) And this Er, the first-born of Judah, was wicked, and the Lord slew him. (Jubilees 41:1-3)

According to Rabbinic sources, Er did sleep with Tamar, but avoided impregnating her, in order to maintain her beauty:

ויהי ער בכור יהודה רע בעיני ה', שהיה חורש בגנות ומערה לאשפות. (Bereshit Rabbah 85:4)

ער ואונן שמשו שלא כדרכן מיתיבי כל עשרים וארבעה חדש דש מבפנים וזורה מבחוץ דברי ר' אליעזר א"ל הללו אינו אלא כמעשה ער ואונן כמעשה ער ואונן ולא כמעשה ער ואונן כמעשה ער ואונן דכתיב (בראשית לח, ט) והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו ושחת ארצה ולא כמעשה ער ואונן דאילו התם שלא כדרכה והכא כדרכה בשלמא אונן דכתיב ביה ושחת ארצה אלא ער מנלן אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק דכתיב (בראשית לח, י) וימת גם אותו אף הוא באותו מיתה מת בשלמא אונן משום לא לו יהיה הזרע אלא ער מ"ט עבד הכי כדי שלא תתעבר ויכחיש יפיה. (Bavli Yevamot 34b)

Er and Onan indulged in unnatural intercourse. An objection was raised: During all the twenty-four months one may thresh within and winnow without; these are the words of R. Eliezer. The others said to him: Such actions are only like the practice of Er and Onan! -Like the practice of Er and Onan, and yet not [exactly] like the practice of Er and Onan: 'Like the practice of Er and Onan', for it is written in Scripture, And it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilt it on the ground; and 'not [exactly] like the practice of Er and Onan', for whereas there it was an unnatural act, here it is done in the natural way. [The source for] Onan's [guilt] may well be traced, for it is written in Scripture, That he spilt it on the ground; whence however, [that of] Er? — R. Nahman b. Isaac replied: It is written, And He slew him also, he also died of the same death. [The reason for] Onan's [action] may well be understood, because he knew That the seed would not be his; but why did Er act in such a manner? — In order that she might not conceive and thus lose some of her beauty. (Bavli Yevamot 34b)

וַהֲוָה עֵר בּוּכְרָא דִיהוּדָה בִּישׁ קֳדָם יְיָ עַל דְלָא הֲוָה יָהִיב זַרְעֵיהּ לְאִנְתְּתֵיהּ וּתְקֵיף רוּגְזָא דַיְיָ עֲלֵיהּ וְקַטְלֵיהּ יְיָ. (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Bereshit 38:7)

But Er the firstborn of Jehuda was evil before the Lord because he had not given his seed unto his wife, and the anger of the Lord prevailed against him, and the Lord slew him. (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Bereshit 38:7)

רע בעיני ה' – כרעתו של אונן משחית זרעו שנאמר באונן וימת גם אותו כמיתתו של ער מיתתו של אונן ולמה היה ער משחית זרעו כדי שלא תתעבר ויכחיש יפיה. (Rashi Bereshit 38:7)

Was evil in the eyes of the Lord – [His evil was] like the evil of Onan, viz. that he wasted his semen, as it is written in connection with Onan: “and He put him to death also,” meaning that, as Er’s death, so was Onan’s death. Now, why should Er waste his semen? So that she (Tamar) would not become pregnant and her beauty be impaired. (Rashi Bereshit 38:7)

According to these sources, Er sinned just like Onan, in some form of sexual misconduct.

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The text is obviously ambiguous on this point and I agree with AffableGreek that Er isn't the focus of the story.


Firstborns don't do well in the Pentateuch:

  • Cain is made to be a wanderer (4:11)
  • Ishmael is excluded from the Abrahamic covenant
  • Esau is excluded from the Abrahamic covenant
  • Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh, all firstborns, take up residence to the west of the Jordan river, outside of the Land of Israel proper (32:33)

The story of Judah and Tamar emphasizes that Er was a firstborn:

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death (NIV 38:6-7).

The story does not tell us what Er did to be killed, but the Bible highlights a pervasive theme by implying: Er was displeasing before the Lord because he was a firstborn.

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I am going to completely disagree with the word "because." All of those men were firstborns and displeased God, but their status was not what displeased God. Cain committed murder after offering an unworthy sacrifice. Reuben slept with his father's concubines. Ishmael and Gad were sons of concubines so really don't count as firstborns. Esau's attitude showed he was not worthy to receive the blessing. – Frank Luke Feb 24 '12 at 15:14
@Frank I think Amichai's point is there is a pattern of firstborn's displeasing the Lord, ordained by the Lord. In that sense the word 'because' makes perfect sense (at least to me). – Jack Douglas Dec 22 '13 at 18:20
@JackDouglas, you mean Er's sin was displeasing because he was a firstborn and act appropriately? I can agree to that. – Frank Luke Dec 22 '13 at 21:02
@Frank yes, he behaves 'to type' (not that all firstborns do, but there is a deliberate pattern I think, perhaps even extending to Adam and Meshiach but that may be stretching it :) – Jack Douglas Dec 22 '13 at 21:10
Ah, s.b. "he was a firstborn and failed to act appropriately." That is, act as a firstborn should act in passing on the name and legacy. – Frank Luke Dec 22 '13 at 21:12

protected by Caleb Feb 8 '14 at 23:36

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