Lesson 35: Genesis 38–39
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“Lesson 35: Genesis 38–39,” Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (2014)

“Lesson 35,” Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual

Lesson 35

Genesis 38–39


Genesis 38 and 39 present contrasting experiences from the lives of Judah and Joseph. Genesis 38 gives an account of Judah’s wickedness. Conversely, Genesis 39 illustrates Joseph’s righteousness and shows how the Lord prospered him in all circumstances.

Suggestions for Teaching

Genesis 38

Judah’s unrighteousness is exposed

Read aloud each of the scenarios below. After each one, ask the class to explain what choices are available to them in that scenario and what short-term or long-term consequences may follow those choices.

  1. A friend tells you that it is okay to engage in sexual behaviors together because you love and trust each other.

  2. A friend keeps trying to get you to use pornographic material.

  3. A friend of the opposite gender invites you into his or her bedroom so you can be alone to talk.

Explain that as students study Genesis 38 and 39, they will learn about two brothers—Judah and Joseph—who made very different choices when they were in tempting situations. Invite students to consider what lessons they can learn from the choices of these two brothers.

Draw the following chart on the board. (You may want to do this before class.)



Summarize Genesis 38:1–11 by explaining that after Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites, one of his older brothers, Judah, married a Canaanite woman (a daughter of Shuah). Judah and his wife had three sons together: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but he died before they had children. According to the customary law at that time, a widow who had no children had claim on her husband’s next oldest brother or his closest living male relative. This man, if asked by the widow, was obligated to marry her and raise up seed, or produce children, on behalf of his deceased brother. This practice is known as a “Levirate marriage” (see Bible Dictionary). Onan married Tamar but also died soon after. Judah then promised Tamar that Shelah could be her husband when he was grown.

However, when Shelah was old enough, Judah did not keep his promise to Tamar. Tamar then resorted to deception in order to bear children by Judah, who had the responsibility to provide a husband and children for her.

Invite a student to read Genesis 38:13–18 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for choices that Tamar and Judah made. Tamar’s choice to pretend to be a harlot so she could become pregnant by Judah violated the law of chastity. Tamar knew that her actions might have serious consequences, such as being sentenced to death. By requesting Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff, Tamar gathered evidence to show who the father of her child was.

  • How did Judah respond to this temptation?

After students respond, write on the board Immediately gave in to temptation under “Judah.”

Summarize Genesis 38:19–23 by explaining that Judah sent his friend with a kid (a young goat) to pay the harlot and retrieve his signet, bracelets, and staff, but his friend could not find her. Point out that Judah still did not realize that the woman he believed was a harlot was actually his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

  • Why do you think Judah sent a friend to pay the harlot for him?

Write the following statement on the board under “Judah”: Tried to keep his sin a secret.

Ask a student to read Genesis 38:24–26 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for what happened three months later.

  • How might you have felt at this point if you had been in Judah’s position?

Write on the board Humiliated when his sin was exposed under “Judah.”

Genesis 39:1–19

Joseph is brought to Egypt and resists temptations from Potiphar’s wife

To help students understand the context for Genesis 39, ask a student to briefly summarize how Joseph came to be in the possession of the Ishmaelites. (You might refer students to the chapter summary of Genesis 37 to help them remember.)

Invite a student to read Genesis 39:1–2 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what happened to Joseph after he was sold to the Ishmaelites. Ask students to report what they find. You may want to invite students to mark the phrase “the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man” in verse 2.

Invite a student to read Genesis 39:3–6 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how the Lord blessed Joseph.

  • How did the Lord bless and prosper Joseph?

  • What do you think “goodly person, and well favoured” means?

Ask a student to read Genesis 39:7 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for how Joseph was tested. Ask students to report what they find. You may need to explain that the phrase “lie with me” was a command to have sexual relations.

Invite a student to read Genesis 39:8–9 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how Joseph responded to Potiphar’s wife.

  • How did Joseph respond to Potiphar’s wife? (Point out that according to the Joseph Smith Translation, “wotteth not” in verse 8 means “knoweth not.” Joseph was explaining to Potiphar’s wife that Potiphar trusted him greatly.)

  • What do Joseph’s words recorded in verse 9 indicate about his relationship with God?

  • Based on Joseph’s example, what can our devotion to God give us strength to do? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: Our devotion to God gives us strength to resist temptation.)

  • What do you think we can do to develop strong devotion to God like Joseph had?

Invite students who feel comfortable to share how their devotion to God has helped them to resist temptation. (Explain that students should not share experiences that are too personal or private.)

Ask students to read Genesis 39:10 silently and look for how often Joseph faced temptation from Potiphar’s wife. Ask students to report what they find. Write on the board Resisted temptation day after day under “Joseph.”

Ask a student to read Genesis 39:11–12 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for what Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife became more demanding. Invite students to report what they find.

  • Why was it wise for Joseph to run out of the house in this situation?

  • What can we learn from Joseph’s example about what to do when we find ourselves in tempting situations? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: If we remove ourselves from tempting situations, then we will have greater ability to resist temptation.)

Point out that one way to remove ourselves from tempting situations is to do all we can to avoid those situations. Invite a student to read aloud the following statement. Ask the class to listen for counsel that they feel they need to apply more fully in their lives.

“Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires. Before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. …

“Avoid situations that invite increased temptation, such as late-night or overnight activities away from home or activities where there is a lack of adult supervision. Do not participate in discussions or any media that arouse sexual feelings. Do not participate in any type of pornography. The Spirit can help you know when you are at risk and give you the strength to remove yourself from the situation. Have faith in and be obedient to the righteous counsel of your parents and leaders” (For the Strength of Youth [booklet, 2011], 36).

  • What are some specific ways you can avoid compromising situations that may threaten your virtue?

Encourage students to live this counsel so they can be protected from sin.

Summarize Genesis 39:13–18 by explaining that Potiphar’s wife lied and accused Joseph of seeking to have inappropriate relations with her.

Invite a student to read Genesis 39:19–20 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what happened to Joseph as a result of the lies Potiphar’s wife told about him. Invite students to report what they find. Write on the board Falsely accused of sin under “Joseph.”

Genesis 39:21–23

The Lord blesses Joseph in prison

Begin this scripture block by asking the class the following question:

  • Have you ever experienced painful or difficult consequences for choosing to do what is right?

Ask a student to read Genesis 39:21–23 aloud. Invite the class to follow along and look for ways Joseph was blessed while in prison. Ask students to report what they find. You may want to invite students to mark the phrase “the Lord was with Joseph” in verse 21. Write on the board the following statement under “Joseph”: The Lord blessed and prospered him because of his righteousness.

  • What can we learn from Joseph’s experience? (Students may identify a variety of principles, including the following: If we do what is right, then the Lord will be with us and help us.)

  • When have you felt the truthfulness of this principle in your life? (You may also want to share an experience.)

Ask one or two students to summarize the differences between Judah’s and Joseph’s responses to temptation and the short- and long-term consequences of their choices. Then invite students to ponder the temptations they face. Invite them to complete the following statement in their class notebooks or scripture study journals with those temptations in mind: I will follow Joseph’s example by …

Testify of the truths discussed today, and encourage students to resist temptation as Joseph did.

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Scripture Mastery—Genesis 39:9

To help students apply one of the principles we can learn from Genesis 39:9, ask them to memorize the sentence, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Ask them to repeat the phrase several times until they can do so without help. Invite students to think or say this sentence when they face temptation.

Commentary and Background Information

Genesis 38–39. The standard of sexual morality

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a man and a woman in the marriage relationship prescribed in God’s plan. Such relations are not merely a curiosity to be explored, an appetite to be satisfied, or a type of recreation or entertainment to be pursued selfishly. They are not a conquest to be achieved or simply an act to be performed. Rather, they are in mortality one of the ultimate expressions of our divine nature and potential and a way of strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife. We are agents blessed with moral agency and are defined by our divine heritage as children of God—and not by sexual behaviors, contemporary attitudes, or secular philosophies” (“We Believe in Being Chaste,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2013, 42).

Genesis 38. Judah and Tamar

“With typical honesty, the Old Testament includes the sordid tale of Judah’s incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law. There seem to be several reasons for its inclusion here. First, once again are illustrated the effects of the covenant people forgetting the importance of marrying in the covenant. Unlike his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather (Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham), Judah was not concerned about intermarriage with the Canaanites. … Second, the story shows the lineage of Judah from which the Messiah would eventually come (see Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33). An additional lesson here shows that ancestry is not the determiner of one’s righteousness. Finally, the truth that failure to honor one’s commitments often leads to greater trouble is clearly shown. Had Judah faithfully kept his promise to Tamar, the seduction would never have taken place. Likewise, had Judah been faithful to the laws of morality, he never would have sinned with Tamar” (Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis–2 Samuel, 3rd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 94).

Tamar knew that unmarried women who became pregnant at that time could be sentenced to death and therefore recognized that her actions could have serious consequences. By requesting Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff, Tamar ensured that in the event she was sentenced to death, she would have evidence to show who the father of her child was. These three personal items showed that Judah was the father—particularly the signet, which contained an emblem unique to the owner and was used to designate authority, honor, or ownership. Although Tamar’s motives to have children by those who were responsible for her may have been good, the deceptive means used were wrong.

Tamar’s actions show why Satan’s temptations are at times so compelling. In the ancient world, not having children would have meant embarrassment and even humiliation, perhaps resulting in a poorer quality of life for Tamar. Tamar feared the long-term consequences of remaining childless, and she viewed the risk of remaining childless as being greater than the risk of physical and spiritual death. Tamar took matters into her own hands instead of trusting in God.

“It is important to note Judah’s twisted sense of values. He had no qualms about sending Tamar home with unfulfilled promises nor of picking up a harlot along the road. But when he heard that Tamar was pregnant, he was so incensed that he ordered her put to death” (Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis–2 Samuel, 95).

We must also recognize that despite the double standard of Judah and Tamar’s situation, the Lord holds men and woman equally accountable in keeping the law of chastity. Although because of their culture Judah was not in as much physical danger as Tamar, the spiritual consequences of his violating the law of chastity were the same as they were for Tamar.

Genesis 39:9–12. Avoiding temptation and rejecting sin

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the following of Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife:

“We learn a great lesson from Joseph. When he was presented with a temptation, he immediately separated himself from even the appearance of evil. All of us have events in our lives which find us in challenging situations.

“When we are confronted with that which is evil and degrading—whether it be the wrong kind of music, a television program, or the Internet which places us in the wrong environment—how strengthening it is to remember the story of Joseph: ‘And [he] fled, and got him out’ (Gen. 39:12). He removed himself from the temptation” (“Becoming Men in Whom the Spirit of God Is,” Ensign, May 2002, 41).

President Ezra Taft Benson explained Joseph’s priorities this way:

“When Joseph was forced to choose, he was more anxious to please God than to please his employer’s wife. When we are required to choose, are we more anxious to please God than our boss, our teacher, our neighbor, or our date?” (“The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” Ensign, May 1988, 4–5).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counseled:

“Don’t accommodate any degree of temptation. Prevent sin and avoid having to deal with its inevitable destruction. So, turn it off! Look away! Avoid it at all costs. Direct your thoughts in wholesome paths. Remember your covenants and be faithful in temple attendance” (“Pornography,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2005, 90).