1 Chronicles 2:3–4 (ESV)

3 The sons of Judah: Er, Onan and Shelah; these three Bath-shua the Canaanite bore to him. Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death.

1 Chronicles 2:3–8 gives the names of Judah’s five sons and the descendants of his youngest son Zerah, and is based on the only two other genealogies of Judah in the Old Testament (Genesis 46:12; Numbers 26:19–22), both of which stop at Hezron and Hamul (1 Chronicles 2:5). It reveals the involvement of God in Judah’s line in both judgment and election.1 This is promptly illustrated by the sudden ends of Er, Onan, and Achan (1 Chronicles 2:3, 1 Chronicles 2:7).

As a general observation, Judah’s family history does not begin with much promise, given where the line of his descendants is headed. For the first time in Chronicles, the writer invokes the name of Yahweh (Lord) in the context of divine retribution and radical intolerance of sin, even in the elect line. Judah’s firstborn son Er is described in blunt terms: Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death. No further details are provided. Onan came to a similar end but no details are given by the writer. Divine election is displayed in the demotion of the firstborn. (This is seen also in the case of Reuben: though he was the firstborn, he did not inherit his birthright due to the incestuous relationship he had with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (1 Chronicles 5:1–2; Genesis 35:22; Genesis 49:3–4; see also 1 Chronicles 26:10)). The loss of this right was very serious and only happened in cases of very serious offences against one’s parents.2

Judah’s transgression involved chiefly his choice of marriage partners. He marries a heathen woman, Bath-shua (which means daughter of Shua). His marriage to a Canaanite girl is a strong contrast with his great-grandfather’s (Abraham’s) concern that Isaac not marry a Canaanite (Genesis 24:3) and his grandfather’s concern that Jacob avoid getting a Canaanite spouse (Genesis 28:1). But it would also appear from the account in Genesis of the birth of the sons there was a progressive breakdown of the marriage (Genesis 38:3–5). When Er was born, Judah named him. When Onan was born, the mother named him. When Shelah was born, Judah was not even present but in Chezib, near Adullam where his wife came from (Genesis 38:5). This is another reminder of the danger of intermarriage with unbelievers. Of interest is that this is the first of several appearances in Chronicles of the name of a foreign wife/mother, or father/husband among the Israelites without any explicit criticism or condemnation (see further 1 Chronicles 2:17, 1 Chronicles 2:34–35; 1 Chronicles 3:1–2; 1 Chronicles 4:17; 1 Chronicles 7:14; 1 Chronicles 8:8).3

Regarding the sordid account of Judah’s incestuous relationship with Tamar, the Chronicler simply states, His daughter-in-law Tamar also bore him Perez and Zerah (1 Chronicles 2:4). This indeed is a dark blight on the man’s already suspect character. And yet the Chronicler’s emphasis seems to fall on God’s gracious continuation of Judah’s line in spite of the fact that three of his sons were born of a pagan woman and the other one by way of sexual immorality made worse by despicable incest. Yet women, even non-Israelite women (for example, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba), are included in the Chronicler’s genealogy. Divine, superabounding grace was able to deal with each case, including the pagan outsider. No circumstance is beyond the reach of God’s grace.4 This is also seen in Matthew’s inclusion of fallen and Gentile women in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3, Matthew 1:5–6).

Er and Onan died without offspring, and Judah’s third son, Shelah, is briefly mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:21–23. The offspring of Zerah are also limited to a few verses (1 Chronicles 2:6–8), emphasising that the line to David, the messianic line, runs through one son only: Perez (1 Chronicles 2:5, 1 Chronicles 2:9; 1 Chronicles 4:20).

The sin of Er (1 Chronicles 2:3) shows that birth among the people of God does not in itself guarantee a good standing before God. Membership in God’s covenant community brings great privileges but also very serious responsibility. It can never be taken for granted because the greatest danger is the corruption that arises from within the church, and no church, however orthodox, is immune to this happening. The writer to the Hebrews warns the church against allowing a root of bitterness that brings defilement to many (Hebrews 12:16). In contrast, God’s grace is clearly seen in the inclusion of outsiders (Bathshua and Tamar) in the covenant community showing that racial descent is not ultimately the thing that decides who does and who does not belong to God.5