Judah and Tamar: What do I do with Genesis 38?

If you’ve been able to follow along with us for the past couple of weeks then you know that we’ve kicked off 2024 with a series we’ve called Joseph: Redemption in Process. Click here for a playlist of this series on Youtube.

Normally I like to lay out a preaching series at whatever pace seems natural which is typically chapter by chapter. Funny thing about Joseph’s story though: chapter 37 concludes with a cliffhanger ending and shifts (with an almost audible, grinding kah-chunk!) into a years-long story involving Joseph’s half brother, Judah, and his daughter-in-law, a woman named Tamar. This story falls outside the scope of our preaching series so we won’t be covering it in the pulpit this time around. That being said, I am a firm believer that everything in the Bible has been intentionally crafted and preserved with purpose, skill, and divine inspiration, and so it is worth spending some time examining. If you are not familiar with the story or if you haven’t read it in a while, click here to read Genesis 38.

Are you back? Good, and extra points if you actually read it! Before I go on, maybe take a second to jot down some of your initial thoughts on the story. Why do you think this story is here? What do you think were the important details or what stood out to you? What did you take away from it? It’s always good to exercise and practise your own process of discernment with scripture before diving into the opinions of others – it helps build your own Biblical literacy muscle and appreciation for how the Bible is put together. 

Let me walk you through my process when I approach this story. First, I acknowledge the impression it left me with. My honest reaction to Genesis 38 was, “I need to wash my eyeballs with soap…” The details of this story are a dumpster fire filled with incendiary elements of sex, subterfuge, scandal and suffering, (there’s your alliterated summary…). There’s a reason we don’t include chapter 38 when we teach Joseph’s story to kids – it’s a tangled web of highly charged, complicated issues in a historical context we are far removed from. At the front end of the message this week (Jan. 14) I said that we can sometimes look to the people in the Bible as role models or try to justify their choices with the rationalisation of, “they’re in the Bible so they must be showing me how God wants me to live.” The story of Judah and Tamar is not something I would ever want anyone to imitate or attempt to justify. The resolution to the story is far (very far!) from ideal or even good. The best I can muster is that the resolution is only somewhat satisfactory because, at the very least, Judah is taken down a peg, Tamar survives her scheme and is no longer a destitute widow. That’s far from, “and they all lived happily ever after.” For anyone who grew up with adaptations of Aesop’s Fables (which is all of us in Canada, whether we know it or not), we have an expectation that stories like this will have some kind of moral to them:

  • Cry wolf too often and you lose trust and won’t get help when you need it 
  • Those who don’t help the little red hen will not get to eat her bread 
  • If you’re a frog, don’t give rides to hitchhiking scorpions 

That kind of thing. The end of these kinds of stories offer a clear lesson to be learned as the characters live with the consequences of their actions. That’s a nice, easy structure to follow along with because it offers clear, unambiguous commentary and morals. The Bible, on the other hand, is anything but simple and often doesn’t give a lot of commentary; it just presents the stories of people as a representation of humanity and the complexity of navigating life in a world tainted by sin. For more on that, check out this video by the Bible Project. 

Getting back to Genesis 38: here is this strange, uncomfortable story happening in the middle of another story. It’s presented without any formal transition or commentary, so why is it here? To figure that out, it helps to establish and break down the major elements involved. I’m going to be going through this with the assumption that you have some familiarity with Christianity as well as the whole story of Joseph and his family. If not, it would be helpful for you to take some time to at least read Genesis chapters 12-50. It won’t fill in all of the gaps, but you’ll at least know who all of the characters are and their connection to this particular story.

First, Genesis 38 focuses on Judah. Why? I think that it’s because he carries a great deal of significance as Israel’s history unfolds. Right before Jacob dies in Genesis 49, he pronounced blessings over each of his sons. This is a form of prophecy, a revelation from God, and his words to Judah in verses 8-12 reveal that his family will produce a line of kings that will rule over the descendants of Israel until one comes to rule all nations. As you continue on in the Bible, you find out that the Davidic dynasty came from the tribe of Judah and that eventually Jesus came from the line of David. In terms of the whole story of the Bible, Judah’s descendants are a big deal which informs why we are getting a story about the circumstances of his sons’ conception.

Another significant detail is that Judah was the one who came up with the plan to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. He plays a major role in putting the events of the larger story into motion, so it’s not surprising (or at least a little less jarring) that we get a story that gives some insight into his life as Joseph is being marched to Egypt. 

Third detail: the tragedy of Tamar’s life that informs her actions in the story. Something to keep in mind about the ancient near east (where and when this story takes place) is that unmarried women, especially widows, were vulnerable people. The provision for that vulnerability was that if a woman lost her husband then she would become attached to his brother and the first son they produced would inherit her first husband’s estate. That’s the procedure we see play out in this story when she marries the second brother, Onan. However, that provision disappeared when Onan decided to withhold a son from Tamar. He had no problem using her for sex, but he had no intention of producing a child who would not further his own interests. When he died, the final brother, Shelah, was too young to marry, but the promise from Judah was that when the time was right she would once again be married so that she would not need to live as a vulnerable widow. You can see in the text what was really in Judah’s mind when he said this. He was doing what we saw him do in the previous chapter; selfishly plotting without regard for the good of others, and Tamar was left cheated, alone and vulnerable. By the time she takes matters into her own hands it’s likely that we, the reader, have developed a sense of pathos for her. Her solution to her problem is objectively sneaky, strange and immoral, but you can at least empathise with her rationale even if you can’t justify it. 

Finally, everything about the story is uncomfortable (see also disturbing, macabre, salacious, tilted, etc.). The cruelty of Judah and his sons, the sexual exploitation, the deceit, none of it feels good by the end. There is a resolution – Tamar receives her sons – but it feels off. Even worse, the author makes no attempt to have that “here’s what we learned today” moment. The most we get is Judah begrudgingly (at least that’s the attitude I see when I read it) admitting that Tamar’s actions are more justified than his own. The story just exists, and when it’s wrapped up we’re just left to sit with it. I think that is significant because, like the video linked above points out, it becomes an opportunity for readers to examine the story and see what part of our own heart and character are on display. To be clear, you need to be careful not to project inappropriately. It’s very unlikely, or at least I hope it’s unlikely, that you will be your own kids grandparent. It’s also important not to skew this as an example of godly conduct. It’s not. Tamar is proclaimed more righteous than Judah, but that’s not the same as saying her plan was good. She was righteous relative to Judah, which is a little like saying someone weighs less than an elephant: it’s objectively true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re healthy. That being said, the actions of Tamar, Judah, Er, and Onan are all motivated by things that live in our hearts which removes a layer of separation that might allow us to judge them rather than relate to them. I think it’s important to not resist that discomfort as we approach the account of Judah and Tamar, or any other part of the Bible for that matter. 

Like I said, this story does not come to a satisfying conclusion (just like real life!), but it does chronicle an important episode in the history of Israel that serves to highlight the redemptive nature of God and how he patiently works in the hearts of people who do not have it all together. If you pay attention you will see that there is a thread running underneath Joseph’s story where we see Judah’s heart changing as time goes on. This story is the beginning of that process. It’s a messy story, but in the end Judah has to come face to face with his own sin. From this point forward we start to see signs of his heart shift. In chapter 43 he opposed Jacob’s irrational behaviour (Jacob would rather lose his whole family, including Benjamin, to starvation and abandon Simeon in prison than risk Benjamin going to Egypt) and offered him assurance for Benjamin’s safety. In chapter 44 when Joseph threatened to arrest Benjamin, Judah made good on this promise to Jacob and begged to take his place. Judah went from having a heart defined by festering, selfish jealousy that was willing to sell a brother into slavery, to now sacrificing his own freedom for the sake of a brother and love for his father. The story of chapter 38 is the beginning of that transition.

The greater impact of this story is seen as the history of Israel unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible (I will never pass up an opportunity to harp on the importance of reading portions of the Bible within the context of the whole Bible!). Again, much like Joseph’s story, nothing that went on here was good, but God was powerful and faithful to use the harmful, selfish and immoral actions of these people for his redemptive purpose. Ultimately Jesus comes into the world through Perez, the illegitimate and scandalous son of Judah and Tamar. If we are looking to at least come away with an understanding of why this confusing and uncomfortable story has been included and preserved, this would be my suggestion: 

  1. It is a key part of tracing the heritage of Jesus in Matt. 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-37. By the way, there are interesting discrepancies in these two genealogies that might be worth looking into as well!
  2. It unflinchingly shows the brokenness that exists in our hearts and in the world at large.
  3. It demonstrates the redemptive mercy and grace of God as he redeems the actions of broken, sinful people and continues to call them into partnership with him rather than rejecting them. Does that mean that everything in this story was orchestrated by God? In my opinion, probably not. My read of the Bible has led me to be careful about picturing God at a celestial whiteboard dispassionately ticking off the elements to a grand plan that meticulously lays out his unwavering and ironclad schedule for lottery winners and happy couples right beside cancer patients and refugees. I am more convinced that God’s power is so complete that even with universal free will in play, his purpose will ultimately still be accomplished perfectly.

There is likely a lot more that can be gleaned from this story, and that is the beauty of scripture. I’ll paraphrase a line from The Fellowship of the Ring where the wizard, Gandalf, delightedly remarks on how humble, little hobbits are much more than they appear to be at first glance – The Bible is a really amazing thing. You can learn all that it has to say in a month and yet, even if you spend a hundred years with it, it will never run out of fresh insight and new revelations. My hope is that as you consider what I’ve laid out in this little essay you will be emboldened and better equipped to intentionally interact with the Bible, both on your own and in community with others. This isn’t a summary of all there is to know about Genesis 38, it’s an invitation to dig deeper. I hope you take it up!

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