Part 1: A Seal, It’s Cord and a Staff

By August 4, 2013 Crooked Branches No Comments

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Part 1 a seal, its cord and a staff

I have a very vivid memory of a time in middle school when I went with my friend to his youth group and we sang songs.  I don’t remember any of the other songs that we sang, but I do recall one song we sang.  They all knew it but I was way lost and to make matters worse it had hand motions and stuff like that.  It went like this:

Father Abraham had many sons

And many sons had father Abraham

I am one of them and so are you

This event was so vivid in my memory because I remember thinking who in the world is Abraham and why am I singing that I am one of his sons?  It didn’t make any sense to me when I was twelve years old as one who didn’t grow up in church and never read the Bible.

Well, within ten years I came to know the Lord Jesus and began studying the Bible.  Then it clicked for me and I looked back on that song and I understood why I was singing about Father Abraham.

The Biblical narrative is essentially about the family of Abraham.  Beginning in Genesis 12 God tells Abraham:

2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Then God promised to give Abraham’s descendents a Land flowing with milk and honey and then those descendents would be God’s treasured possession, the apple of his eye.

The rest of the Old Testament is about the unfolding of these promises to the offspring of Abraham.  I’d like to spend the next few weeks looking at a few narratives that capture some fascinating moments in the lives of the children of Abraham.

Abraham had two sons, named Ishmael and Isaac.  Isaac was the promised son and it was through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring would be reckoned.  Isaac married Rebekah and together they had twins named Jacob and Esau.  Though Esau was the first to make his entrance to the world, God elected to make up his chosen race, His people, through Jacob whose name was later changed to Israel.  Israel had twelve sons and those twelve sons became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, the people of God.

This morning let’s look at the story of one of those twelve sons of Israel named Judah.  I would encourage you to turn in your bibles to Genesis 38.  As you do, I will set the context.

Gen 38 1At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah.2 There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; 3 she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4 She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.

6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

11 Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.

12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.

13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.

20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”

“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’

23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.

What a story.  I would guess that for some of you this story is familiar, but for many of you perhaps, this is the first time you have heard this story.  I would be willing to bet that for most of you, this is the first time you will have ever heard a sermon preached on this story.  It’s not one of the more popular stories, yet I believe that it’s a story from which we can draw a valuable lesson.

While many stories in the Scriptures contain examples right and moral living that we should imitate or emulate, this story contains examples of what NOT to do.

Now this story predates Moses and the Law, so we don’t have a specific point of reference for right living in that culture.  Nonetheless, we can make certain inferences from the text and there is a timeless virtue that I want to camp out on, a virtue that is lacking in Judah, and that virtue is integrity.

Integrity has been defined as a concept of consistency of actions, values, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. defines integrity as


  • adherence to moral and ethical principles;

  • soundness of moral character; honesty.

  • the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished

  • a sound, unimpaired condition


When somebody has integrity they are consistently moral and ethical.  One that walks in integrity upholds the truth. They behave as they believe.  Their beliefs and behavior are integral, they are integrated.  They live out the principles to which they adhere.  When someone has integrity, you can look at the whole of his or her life and you see a consistent walk of life.

Integrity is essentially the opposite of hypocrisy.  If you study the gospels, you will find that Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about living in hypocrisy.  He condemned hypocrisy.  If you poll people in our day, one of the biggest complaints about Christians or church-goers is that they are hypocritical.  Hypocrisy has never been something that people were very fond of.

So if you put these complaints and condemnations in the positive, you essentially have Jesus saying, “You should be people of integrity.”  You have our contemporaries saying, “Christians and church people should be people of integrity.”

Even people outside of the covenant community value integrity.  This is a virtue valued by virtually everyone.  Fathers generally want their daughters to marry men of integrity.  Employers generally want to hire employees who have integrity.

How much more should the family of God be a people who have consistency in actions, values, adherence to moral and ethical principles, people whose behavior reflects their beliefs?

Back to the story.  Once again, in Judah, we see a lack of integrity, examples of what not to do.  Let’s walk back through the story and examine Judah’s actions.

First, we see that he finds a wife for his first born son, Er.  He gives her Tamar, but Er is wicked so God puts him to death.  Do you want to know what Er did that was wicked and exactly how God put him to death?  Me too!  But the Bible is silent on those matters so we can only speculate.  And we won’t let what we don’t know rob us of what we do know.  And we do know that Judah told his second son Onan to fulfill his duty as the brother and provide children for Tamar.  This seems to be a custom of the day and something that God was good with because when Onan didn’t fulfill that duty God saw that as wicked and put him to death also.  We know that God is good with it because it shows up later as a command in the LOM in Deut 25:5.

Now, poor Judah; I have to say that I am a little sympathetic toward him here.  I can only imagine how he feels.  Have you ever seen “So I married an axe murderer?”  It’s about this seemingly great woman and everybody who gets close to her ends up dead.  Judah sees Tamar and says Er died.  Then I gave Onan to her and he died.  Shoot, um…there is a common denominator here.  I don’t want to lose Shelah to her also.  So, instead of just giving him to her and risking the loss of his last son, he said, “Hey, Tamar, um, why don’t you go and live as a widow in your father’s house” instead of saying “Shelah, go and fulfill your duty by providing Tamar with children” as he did with Onan.

There is an inconsistency there.  Integrity, by definition, has to do with consistency.  So, based on our definition, Judah has a lack of integrity here.  Sidebar: that doesn’t mean that we should seek consistency in the sense that we should always do the same things no matter what in all circumstances.  If something isn’t working right, or if we find that one method is not expedient, then we should change.  That isn’t the type of consistency we are talking about here.  We are talking about consistency with regard to application of values and morals, ethics and character.  Now, this point here centers on what was proper with regard to fulfilling a duty to a brother to raise up offspring for him in the event of his death.

From Judah’s perspective, we can understand why he would break consistency here.  But Tamar wasn’t the common denominator.  The character of his sons was the common denominator.  The Scripture says that the Lord put Er to death because he was wicked in the Lord’s sight.  The reason Onan was put to death by the Lord was because what he did was also wicked in the eyes of the Lord.  His son did not marry an axe murderer.

Therefore, from our perspective, since we see the big picture, the whole story, we can draw from this story a lesson on doing what is right even when it is hard, even when it is difficult, even when it may be costly.  We can apply this to our beliefs and our behavior.  Some of us know that if we are going to have integrity with our beliefs and hold to a view of the Bible that is more consistent, we might go against the grain, we may speak contrary to tradition and that may be costly.  And most of us know that at times if we are going to have consistency in our behavior and do the right thing, it may be difficult, it may be costly.  If we are less than honest on our taxes, it may be the difference between receiving thousands of dollars from the IRS and paying the IRS.  But being a person of integrity means doing the right thing…period.

A person of integrity is not persuaded by the immorality surrounding them or the lure of personal gain at the expense of setting aside their moral convictions.  A person of integrity is one who is honest; one who is fair; one who abides by rules and regulations.

I worked at AT&T for several years and we had a poster framed that read “Integrity: doing the right thing even when nobody is watching.”

So Judah lacks consistency in following the custom of giving his son to provide children to Tamar.  Then, we have Tamar who follows suit and joins in on the lack of integrity game.  She hears that Judah is on his way to shear his flock.  She decides to disguise herself as a prostitute.  Now um…I don’t know exactly how she pulled this thing off.  We know she had a veil over her face, which as I understand it, that would signify a prostitute, but they had a conversation.  I mean, did she yell on the entire journey to Enaim so that by the time they encountered one another she had that real sexy raspy voice?  And how did she know this would work?  How did she know that just because she was there as a prostitute that Judah would go for her?

We don’t necessarily know the answers to those questions.  What we do know is that Tamar followed suit.  Instead of going to Judah and speaking with him honestly and keeping things above board, she disguised herself as a prostitute and lured him into sleeping with her.  She figured that if Judah was going to walk with a lack of integrity then well, let’s just fight fire with fire.  Two wrongs will make a right.  She wanted children and she got them.  But she did so without integrity.

And boy, did she get Judah!  She got him.  What will you give me?  A goat from your flock?  Well, leave some collateral with me, a pledge that I can keep until you send it.  What does he give her?  His seal, its cord, and his staff.  Very personal items.

What are these?  The staff is pretty clear, but what about the seal and its cord?  The first item is translated as seal by the NIV, NASB, and YLT; the ESV & Orthodox Jewish Bible translate it as signet.  The Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the OT, translates the seal as his ring, (the idea of a signet ring) which would have his seal upon it, which was unique to him.

The second item is translated as cord by the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB.  YLT: ribbon.  The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates this as (signet neck cord) – which sounds like a necklace.

The point is that these were all very specific items that were clearly very personal to him, items with which Judah would be personally identified.

We can infer from Judah’s actions here that he was desperate to fulfill the lusts of the flesh.  In his exposition of the Bible, Gill describes Judah here as, “Being willing to part with anything for the gratification of his lust.” He was clearly not thinking with his brain.  It seems that sexual purity is one of the most common struggles across the board for men.  As several passages in the Scriptures indicate, sexual impurity is a perversion of one of, if not the greatest gifts of God.  Maintaining sexual purity is first and foremost honoring to God, and additionally, it is ultimately a blessing to us when we operate within God’s design and desire.

The story continues.  Judah, once again acts with a lack of integrity, perpetuating this situation.  He hears that Tamar is guilty of prostitution and that as a result she is pregnant.  So he says “bring her out and have her burned to death.”  Because anybody who would do something like that deserves to be burnt to death.

His lack of integrity comes to light when she says, “I am pregnant by the man to whom these items belong.  Do you recognize them?”  Can you imagine how Judah must have felt in that moment?  You know when your heart sinks into the pit of your stomach, when you realize, oh, GOSH!  In that moment, surely Judah recognized how glaringly apparent his lack of integrity really was.

He was a participant in the very act for which he was having her condemned; in fact it appears that he was the one who initiated the act; he approached her.  He openly condemned her for something that he did with her.  It wasn’t simply a matter of Judah had gotten a prostitute before back in the day and got her pregnant.  He did that with Tamar!  He was the guy!!!

His response: She is more righteous than I am because I did not give her to my son Shelah.  He realized his lack of integrity that started with his inconsistency in giving his sons to Tamar and has now come full circle in his sheer hypocrisy in condemning her.

When you read a story like that of Judah’s, how do you feel?  Do find yourself getting a little angry, filled with a bit of righteous indignation?  Did you find yourself crying out, “You hypocrite!”?  I believe that some righteous indignation is natural and healthy to a degree; perhaps it is the fingerprint of God upon us.

But let’s be careful before we get on our high horse.  It’s easy to look at someone else, see their faults, and quickly condemn them, especially when we aren’t guilty of the same exact shortcomings.  However, if we search our souls and examine our hearts, will we not find a little bit of Judah in ourselves?  We may not have three sons, two of whom die after being with a Tamar.  We may not have withheld our third son from her and then slept with her thinking she was a prostitute and then have her burnt to death for prostitution.

But perhaps we have been inconsistent in some way?  Maybe we have:

  • treated one of our friends differently than another

  • treated one of our coworkers or subordinates differently

  • treated one of our children differently

  • made vows on our wedding day but haven’t consistently fulfilled them

Maybe we have lacked consistency in those regards.

And perhaps we have openly condemned something of which we have been guilty.  Maybe we have:

  • said I never…and then we did

  • said you shouldn’t…and then we did

  • said the Bible teaches…and then didn’t do it

  • said to our children, “don’t drink out of the milk container” and then…

  • said to our children, “shut the fridge, you’re letting the cold air out” and then we leave the fridge open

  • said to our children, “shut the door, you’re letting the cold air out” and then left the door open.

  • said to our children, “you need to clean your room first” but our room is a mess.

We can categorize matters of integrity in terms of small matters  and great matters, but I believe that if we can be men and women and children of integrity with the small matters we are more likely to carry that integrity into the greater matters.

I believe that when it comes to integrity in our lives we should be firm in our convictions and (for lack of a better term) strict with self.  I believe that we should set the bar high for ourselves and in our own hearts, walk in ways of righteousness, with consistency, to be people of sound moral character.  Usually, righteousness and sin are clearly delineated in the Bible in black and white terms.  In our own hearts and lives, let’s stand firm for what is clearly right.  As Malcolm X said, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”

While I believe we should be strict on our own hearts, when it comes to our interactions with others in this area, in a sense, we should be both cautious and gracious.  Since it would be nearly impossible to be 100% consistent in everything we say, think, and do and since we should be people who practice what we preach, we should be cautious when it comes to making proclamations, lest we condemn ourselves as our friend Judah did; in other words we should be careful get on some holier than thou soap box.  When it comes to gray areas or matters on which the Bible is silent, we should certainly be careful not to impose our personal convictions on others (homeschool vs public school, organic or not, etc).  Otherwise we become like the fool spoken of in the proverbs who “delights in airing his own opinions.”

And when others act in ways that lack integrity, let’s be gracious; let’s be slow to have them burned to death and quick to examine our own lives, remembering that we, too, in some way or another are guilty of inconsistency or a lack of integrity even if it is in small matters.

As those who belong to the Lord, as those who are children of Abraham by faith, as those who seek to please the Lord, let us be people whose lives are characterized by consistency of values, adherence to moral and ethical principles, honesty, and soundness of character.

Let us be people whose behavior reflects our beliefs, people who practice what we preach.

Let’s be people who do the right thing even when nobody is looking and when nobody will ever find out.

Let us be people of integrity.