Zerah was a common name in the ancient Middle East, and several Zerahs are mentioned in Scripture (e.g., Genesis 36:33; 1 Chronicles 4:24; 6:21; Joshua 22:20). Only three Zerahs have any personal details connected to the mention of their names.
The first Zerah is listed in Genesis 36:13–17 as a grandson of Esau. One of Esau’s wives was named Basemath, who was the daughter of Esau’s uncle Ishmael, making her Esau’s cousin (Genesis 36:3). Basemath and Esau had a son named Reuel; Reuel was the father of Zerah.
The second Zerah in the Bible appears in a single verse in 2 Chronicles 14:9: “Zerah the Cushite marched out against [King Asa and the army of Judah] with an army of thousands upon thousands and three hundred chariots, and came as far as Mareshah.” Historians speculate that this Zerah the Cushite (also called an Ethiopian in some versions) may be Usarken II, the third king of Egypt after Shishak. He may have been born in Ethiopia and married into the royal family of Egypt, thereby inheriting the throne; or he may have invaded Judah after passing through Egypt with the pharaoh’s blessing. Another possibility is that this Ethiopian Zerah was a nomadic leader of Arabians, associated with the Midianites (see Habakkuk 3:7).
The most noteworthy Zerah in Scripture is a son of Judah by his daughter-in-law Tamar (1 Chronicles 2:4). The account of Judah and Tamar is found in Genesis 38. Judah’s son, the husband of Tamar, was so wicked that God put him to death. Judah’s second son was to have a child with Tamar on his elder brother’s behalf, but he was also unrighteous, and God put him to death. Judah asked Tamar to wait as a widow until his next son was old enough to provide an heir, but Judah never intended to fulfill that promise. So, after Judah’s wife died, Tamar posed as a prostitute along the road Judah was traveling. Judah hired her, not knowing who she was. From that union came twins, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38:27–30).
The name Zerah can mean “scarlet” or “brightness.” He was so named because, when the twins were being born, Zerah’s hand emerged first. The midwife tied a red thread around his wrist to establish birth order. But then he withdrew his hand, and his brother Perez was born first. Zerah came out of the womb with the red string on his wrist, thereby earning his name.
This Zerah grew up and became the patriarch of the Zerahite clan of Israelites mentioned in Joshua 7:16–18. Zerah’s great-grandson Achan disobeyed the Lord and took some of the spoil from Jericho in direct violation of God command (Joshua 7:20–21).
Years later, the Zerahites were among the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem from their seventy years in Babylonian captivity. The returning tribe of Judah, including the children of Zerah, numbered 690 members (1 Chronicles 9:3–6).
Zerah’s twin brother, Perez, was an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3–17). Zerah reminds us that God doesn’t overlook anyone because of their parentage or the circumstances of their birth. Every person holds a unique place in God’s order and plan, and each individual is responsible to God for what he does with what he is given.