The Judah and Tamar Story in its Context

The Problematic Character of Genesis 38
In approaching Genesis 38 we are immediately confronted with an apparent discontinuity between it and the surrounding chapters. Brevard Childs observes that, in the light of such discontinuities, the chapter has been ‘summarily dismissed as an unfortunate interpolation into the Joseph story’ by a number of leading commentators.

The reasons for doing so are obvious. Chapter 38 interrupts the story of Joseph, with which the surrounding chapters seem to be concerned. Indeed, 37:36 seems to flow directly into 39:1, as if chapter 38 had never happened. Apart from Judah, none of the principle characters in chapter 38 play much of a role in the surrounding narrative. As Gordon Coats claims, neither the Judah-Tamar story, nor the Joseph story ‘contributes materially to the plot of the other.’ Even among those who recognize the manner in which Genesis 38 shares a formal structure, many motifs, themes and genre with the surrounding narratives the belief that the chapter is merely parasitic is not uncommon.

Further problems exist, which make matters even more complex. Chronologically, Genesis 38 is ‘jarring in its present context’, referring to events that cannot possibly have all transpired before the time when Judah next appears in the Joseph story in Genesis 43 (when Joseph is 39). The fact that the action of Genesis 38 takes place entirely in the geographical context of the Shechem area (Timnath), also seems to sit uncomfortably with the larger narrative that we find it within, a narrative that has Jacob and his family moving to the land of Goshen. Taking these facts into account some have been drawn to the conclusion that Genesis 38 represents an alien and conflicting tradition from the Joseph narrative which surrounds it and contributes nothing to the larger flow of the narrative.

A Different Approach
It is my conviction that closer attention to the way that Genesis 38 functions within its particular context can be of considerable help in helping us to understand why it has been included where it has. Whatever we conclude regarding the claims of the form critics, we must take serious account of the fact that, within its canonical context, Genesis 38 plays a very specific purpose, quite different in important respects from those which some form critics have attributed to the original oral narrative that is supposed to underlie it. An appreciation of the status of Genesis as canon should caution us against privileging some hypothesized original meaning of the abstracted narrative of Genesis 38 over the meaning that it has in the context of the canonical text. In answer to those among the source critics who might suggest that Genesis 38 is merely a distinct tradition clumsily inserted into the Joseph narrative, we should also stress the deep connections that Genesis 38 has with the chapters that surround it.

Even if we admit the presence of a distinct voice in Genesis 38 in the underlying tradition, we must observe that its canonical context places it in direct conversation with the Joseph narrative. Like all texts, Genesis 38 is not an independent, self-contained entity, but draws most of its meaning from outside of itself, from the relationships that it bears with various other texts and contexts. The creation of such (Bakhtinian) dialogue results in Genesis 38 and the Joseph story being mutually illuminating and in the construction of a new ‘unity of differences’. Presenting such a position, Judy Fentress-Williams argues that Genesis 38 provides an interpretative lens by which we ought to understand the surrounding narrative. Humphreys (cited in Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Genesis 16-50, p.363) writes:

The unit provides a counterpointing commentary on what we have witnessed of this family and a proleptic look at what is yet to come. The effect for the sensitive reader is to bring to awareness certain critical dimensions and themes in the larger novella (= the Joseph story), thereby to shape perspectives for reading what is to come.

Theological meaning results when we read Genesis 38 within the canonical conversation within which it is situated. Abstracting Genesis 38 and the Joseph story from the dialogic context in which the canon places them, will result in a loss of meaning on both sides.

Brevard Childs draws attention to the canonical function of genealogy and the importance of the toledot formula in the book of Genesis. Genesis 37-50 is introduced by a toledot formula in 37:2, which refers to the ‘generations of Jacob’. Many of the problems that we face in relating Chapter 38 to the surrounding context arise from the tendency to regard chapters 37-50 as the ‘Joseph story’. The story is actually concerned with the sons of Jacob and, consequently, the story of Judah belongs where it is. This claim is supported by the account of the blessings of Jacob in Genesis 49. As we will later observe, the relationship between Judah and Joseph is deeply significant within the context of the canon and so we should not be at all surprised to find that their stories are brought into close dialogue with each other.

A second observation that helps us to understand the placing of chapter 38 is the manner in which the stories of both Joseph and Judah relate to the theme of the promise, which runs throughout the book of Genesis. By placing the stories of Judah and Joseph alongside each other, the unfaithfulness of Judah, which threatened to undermine the promise of seed, is contrasted with the faithfulness of Joseph in Egypt, which ensures the survival of Jacob and his descendents (45:7).

The Story of Genesis 38
As Wenham observes, the story of Genesis 38 consists of six scenes. In verses 1-5 Judah marries a Canaanite. In verses 6-11 Tamar marries Judah’s sons. In verses 12-19 Tamar traps Judah. In verses 20-23 Judah looks for Tamar. In verses 24-26 we see Tamar vindicated and, finally, in verses 27-30 twins are born to Tamar and Judah.

The problem that underlies the whole narrative is the problem of seed. This problem arises in verses 1-11. Tamar’s attempt to address this problem leads to the further crisis of her condemnation as a harlot, a problem that is both raised and resolved in verses 24-26.

At the start of the narrative Judah is the one who is working towards the bringing forth of seed. By the middle of the narrative Judah is the one who presents the greatest obstacle to this becoming a reality, by his refusal to give his son Shelah to Tamar.

In verse 26 we witness a remarkable turn in the narrative, as Judah acknowledges that the Canaanite Tamar, in her concern to see justice done, was more righteous than he. Tamar is vindicated and Judah arrives at a moral epiphany, one that ran counter to many of the social and cultural norms of his day.

Narrative and Thematic Relationships
There are a number of narrative and thematic links between the Judah and Tamar stories and other stories within the book of Genesis. These connections, which demonstrate the manner in which Genesis 38 belongs in its context within the book, have been observed by a number of scholars, most notably Robert Alter. We will now proceed to observe some of the most important of these.

Perhaps the most striking parallel is that which exists between 38:25-26 (where Tamar presents Judah’s signet, bracelets and staff and asks for their owner to be discerned) and 37:32-33 (where Jacob is asked to discern the blood-stained coat of many colours belonging to his son Joseph). The strong connection that this forges forces us to read the two adjacent passages in dialogue with each other. It also integrates the story of chapter 38 more fully into the wider narrative. It can be added that there is the implication of such an event of recognition at the end of chapter 39, as Potiphar’s wife presents Joseph’s garment to him.

Judah commits two key sins in chapter 37. He sells his brother Joseph into slavery and he deceives his father with a kid (we can presume that Judah was the instigator of this). With this in the back of our minds the later episodes where Judah appears in the narrative begin to assume a greater significance. In chapter 38 the deception of Judah by Tamar is described in a manner reminiscent of the manner in which Judah deceived his father Jacob in chapter 37. This results in a moral epiphany: ‘She has been more righteous than I.’ In chapter 44 Joseph sets things up so that Judah has another opportunity to sell a brother into slavery. This time Judah offers to give himself into slavery instead of Benjamin. Reading the story of Judah within these chapters we see a pattern of redemption, where Judah arrives at an awareness of his sin and manifests a change of heart, in a manner that gains its particular significance by virtue of its close correspondence with his original sin.

[This may be one reason why the stories are recorded out of chronological order. Other possible reasons include the fact that the geographical setting of Genesis 38 would disrupt the geographic movement of the narrative and that placing the Judah and Tamar story where it is brings it into closer dialogue with related Joseph stories, juxtaposing the two characters more clearly.]

In an article entitled ‘Divestiture, Deception, and Demotion: The Garment Motif in Genesis 37-39’ (JSOT 98), John Huddlestun draws attention to the significance of the theme of garments and personal items in Genesis 37-39. Garments and personal items play a very significant role in the parts of this narrative that concern Joseph: Joseph is stripped of his garment on two occasions. On each occasion the garment is produced as evidence for a lie. Garments are also mentioned in association with mourning, as both Reuben and Jacob tear their clothes. We see a number of references to garments and personal items in Genesis 38 (Tamar’s changes of clothing and her taking Judah’s personal items as pledges). Huddlestun also observes that the divestiture of Judah in chapter 38 is juxtaposed with the investiture of Joseph in 41:42.

Parallels also exist between the relationship between Judah and Tamar and the non-relationship between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the faithfulness of Joseph being contrasted with the unfaithfulness of Judah.

A strong parallel, not fully brought out in any of the commentators that I have read, exists between Tamar and Rebekah. Both women, seeing a situation where the male to whose house they belong was perpetuating manifest injustice, resorted to cunning and courageous acts of deception in order to restore justice. Rebekah had been informed by God that her elder son was to serve her younger son (25:22-23). Recognizing that Isaac was ignoring the word of the Lord and was determined to bless Esau rather than Jacob, she took matters into her own hand. The description of her hurried and purposeful actions in 27:6ff closely resemble those of Tamar in chapter 38. Tamar saw that Judah was being unjust in not giving her his son Shelah. In so doing Tamar stands in a long line of resourceful women who deceived unjust men in order to restore justice, both within Genesis (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) and within the wider OT (Hebrew midwives, Rahab, Jael, Michal, Esther).

In addition to this parallel between Tamar and Rebekah there is a strong parallel between the description of the birth of Rebekah’s twins (25:24-26) and those of Tamar (38:27-30). In both cases the colour red is given significance and in both cases the manner in which the children come out is seen as significant. These parallels between Tamar and Rebekah cast Tamar in a very positive light.

Another significant theme in Genesis which is present in chapter 38 is that of the reversal of birth order. Judah’s two oldest sons are killed by God and only the youngest son is left. The same theme recurs in the description of Tamar’s giving birth. Zarah gets his hand out first, but Perez breaks through before him. The problem of childlessness, which occurs on numerous occasions in the book of Genesis, makes its final appearance in the book at this point.

The reference to a kid of the goats might be significant in this context. Kids have played a role in the Genesis narrative on two earlier occasions, both of which are already paralleled with the narrative of chapter 38 in various ways. The blood of a kid was used to deceive Jacob concerning the death of Joseph in chapter 37. Rebekah used goats to deceive her husband Isaac into thinking that Jacob was his son Esau. In both of these cases the kid is used to deceive the father into thinking that someone was or that something belonged to his son. The symbolic connection between the kid and the son has already been created by the earlier narrative in Genesis, as James Jordan observes (it is also reinforced later on in Scripture). The fact that Judah offers a kid to Tamar as payment only heightens the irony of the passage. A kid is exactly what she wants! Judah looks for the unknown prostitute, seeking to give her the promised kid. However, unbeknownst to Judah he has already given Tamar the kids that she was looking for and his pledges are returned to him without the need for further payment.

Numerous other possible thematic and linguistic relationships and narrative parallels between Genesis 38 and other parts of Genesis exist (e.g. between Tamar and Lot’s daughters), but we will not explore them here. In general it is a good idea to presume that the Scriptures do not record even the smallest details without reason. For example, even proper names may have significance. In Genesis 38 I suspect that there might be something to the fact that Judah meets Tamar (‘palm’) in a place called Enajim (‘double fountain’). Apart from the quite obvious theme of patriarchs meeting women at wells, they might be something more going on here. In Exodus 15:27 suggests a possible connection between palms and the Gentile nations and wells or fountains and sons of Israel. Tamar the Canaanite is the palm tree, who will give birth to two sons, who may be represented by the reference to the ‘double fountain’.

Judah and Joseph
There are very good reasons why the Judah and Joseph stories are juxtaposed with each other throughout chapters 37-50 of Genesis. The following are a few observations that serve to illuminate this aspect of the narrative.

In Genesis 49 we find Jacob’s blessings of his sons. Most of the sons are passed over in one or two verses, but both Joseph and Judah receive extended attention. Judah is spoken of as the one from whom the ruler of the people shall come. Incidentally, the references to such things as the sceptre and staff in the context of the blessing of Judah might give added significance to the personal effects that Tamar took from him in chapter 38. Genesis 49:8 makes a significant claim: ‘your father’s children shall bow down before you.’ This should be regarded as deeply meaningful, given the dream of Joseph in 37:9-10.

Judah and Joseph became the two leading tribes of the Israelite nation. Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) came to dominate the Northern Kingdom of Israel; Judah dominated the Southern Kingdom of Judah. On a number of occasions in Scripture the whole of the nation, in its two chief parts, is seen to be represented by Judah and Joseph (cf. Psalm 78:67-68; Ezekiel 37:15ff; Zechariah 10:6). Consequently, the fact that the canon places the stories of Judah and Joseph in dialogue with each other here should not surprise us in the least. Judah fails to preserve a posterity and the posterity is only preserved because God and Tamar outwit him. Joseph, however, serves to preserve the posterity.

Joseph’s leadership is seen as being temporary. 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 describes Judah as ‘prevailing’ over Joseph to become chief ruler. The ascension of Judah to leadership took place at the time of David. Prior to David none of the leaders or judges of Israel came from the tribe of Judah. As we shall later see, later parts of the canonical text may imply that the fact that the royal line comes from Judah’s extra-marital relationship with Tamar is one of the causes of this state of affairs, giving the story of Genesis 38 a deeper importance than might be originally supposed.

We have already observed narrative parallels between Joseph and Judah, both of whom are separated from their brothers (cf. 38:1) and later rise to positions of rule among their brothers, both of whom have relationships with foreign women (cf.41:45), both of whom have children whose birthright is reversed (38:27-30; 48:15-22) and have histories that ‘rhyme’ in various other respects as well. Careful attention to the details of the narrative preceding Genesis 37 can also illuminate the character of their relationship. Close attention to the underlying chronology of chapters 29-31 yields the probability that Judah and Joseph were born within a year or two of each other. Simeon and Levi (Genesis 34) and then Reuben (Genesis 35:22) disqualified themselves from the birthright and rule, leaving Judah and Joseph next in line. [This, of course, presumes that the sons of Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah did not have the same inheritance rights (cf. Abraham’s treatment of his children by Hagar and Keturah).]

The careful reader of the canonical text of Genesis should not be surprised that the narratives of Judah and Joseph are given prominence over those of all the other brothers. This is exactly what we should expect to find. The story of Genesis is not merely historical, but typological and prophetic, looking forward to a time beyond that which it records. Small details like the fact that it is Judah who intercedes for Benjamin begin to take on greater significance when we read Genesis in the light of the larger biblical narrative, where we see that the tribes of Judah and Benjamin come to compose the Southern Kingdom.

Wider Canonical Significance
Leaving the immediate locality of Genesis, the story gains added significance when read against the background of the rest of the Pentateuch, the rest of the OT canon and the rest of the biblical canon as a whole. I will not be exploring extra-canonical re-readings of Genesis 38, but I highly recommend Esther Marie Menn’s work on this subject, Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) in Ancient Jewish Exegesis: Studies in Literary Form and Hermeneutics. The treatment of Genesis 38 in later extra-canonical Jewish literature (Testament of Judah, Targum Neofiti, Genesis Rabba) is explored in detail by Menn.

In Deuteronomy 25:4-10 we see the law concerning the practice of the levirate, something that is shown in operation in Genesis 38. Elsewhere in the law we read of the death penalty for adultery and harlotry. The fact that Judah calls for Tamar to be burned is interesting, given the fact that such a punishment was only present in the law for the daughter of a priest who ‘plays the whore’ (Leviticus 21:9). Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, prior to the setting apart of the tribe of Levi, justice was administered and priestly roles were performed by the pater familias, something that can also be seen in the fact that it is Judah who pronounces Tamar’s sentence.

The association of burning with harlots in Scripture can also be found in the story of Rahab; Rahab the prostitute is delivered from the city of Jericho, while the city is burnt with fire (the scarlet cord in the Rahab story also resonates with the scarlet thread in Genesis 38:28-30). In Revelation 17-18 the same theme emerges.

The story of Tamar is also related to the story of Ruth. Ruth comes from the nation that incited Israel to whoredom (Numbers 25). Like Tamar, she is a woman who takes the initiative to fulfil the levirate. Like Tamar she plays a prominent role in the genealogy of David. Tamar is explicitly mentioned in Ruth 4:12, strengthening the connection further. The stories of Tamar and Ruth also serve to bracket the period of Judah’s being out of rule, which makes the parallels between them even more significant.

The fact that the genealogy of Ruth 4 takes the form that it does, obviously skipping a number of generations, suggests the possibility that a theological point is being made. An answer to this is ready to hand when we read Deuteronomy 23:2, which teaches that a child born out of wedlock should not enter into rule among the people of Israel until the tenth generation. In Ruth 4 David is presented as the tenth generation from Judah and Tamar. The story of Genesis 38 thus comes to be presented as ‘a story of royal origins.’

In the story of David the story of his ancestors Judah and Tamar seems to be close beneath the surface on a number of occasions. We see parallels between Judah and David in the manner in which they sin sexually and later arrive at moral insight and repentance when they finally see the character of their sin, moving from righteous indignation at the sin of another to humble recognition of their own sin (Judah through the revelation that he is the father of Tamar’s children and David through the parable of Nathan the prophet). In both cases their sons bear the force of their punishment. Four of David’s sons die (the infant child of Bathsheba, Amnon, Absalom and finally Adonijah [Most likely in fulfilment of the case law of Exodus 22:1, given the judgment that he cast on himself in 2 Samuel 12:5-6, which God reduced in 12:13-14]) and Judah’s sons are not permitted to enter into rule for ten generations on account of the sin of their father. Parallels between Tamar and Bathsheba can also be observed: both are probably Canaanite (Uriah is a Hittite) and both have questionable sexual relationships with a leader of the tribe of Judah.

The story of David’s daughter Tamar also has close links with the story of Judah and Tamar. The shared name is the most obvious connection, but further resonances exist. In both stories we see cases of incest. In both stories there are attempts to set things right at the time of sheepshearing (Genesis 38:13; 2 Samuel 13:23), both of which occur in the area of Ephraim. In Genesis we see the widow Tamar remaining in the house of Judah; in 2 Samuel we see the deflowered Tamar remaining in the house of Absalom. In both stories garments are significant. Interestingly David’s daughter Tamar is the only other recorded instance in the biblical narrative of a coat of many colours. In 2 Samuel, as in Genesis, this garment is torn and the sin committed by a brother against one of his siblings is avenged at the time of sheepshearing.

More connections between the story of David and the story of Judah in Genesis 38 could be listed. For instance, Geoghegan draws attention to the significance of Perez’s name in connection to David’s dynasty.

The final port of call in our brief survey of the significance of Genesis 38 within the context of the wider canon is found in Matthew 1, where Tamar is listed alongside Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba as the only women in the genealogy of Jesus apart from Mary. Parallels between Tamar and each of these other women have already been observed. This suggests that these four women play a significant typological role within the canonical text. All are non-Israelite. One dressed up as a harlot, another was a harlot, a further one came from a nation that acted the harlot with Israel and the final one had an adulterous relationship with the king of Israel.

In the whole of the canon of Scripture a prominent theme is that by which God takes a cheap whore and transforms her into a virgin bride. As Warren Gage argues, the virgin bride of Revelation 21 is rescued from the city of the whore of Babylon of Revelation 17-18, just as the prostitute Rahab was delivered from the city of Jericho.

In the gospels Jesus meets a number of women with disreputable pasts, who later become His followers (Mary Magdalene, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet, the woman at the well, etc.). Through Matthew 1’s delicate allusion to the story of Tamar, this whole broad theme is brought to the surface, with the story of Tamar providing a witness to it.

More could be said, but I think that I will leave it here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to The Judah and Tamar Story in its Context

  1. Byron says:

    Thanks for this Al – you’ve summarised heaps of work here. Was this for an essay? Earlier in the year our rector was preaching through the Joseph story and came to similar conclusions on this chapter. The sermon can be found here if you’re really interested (see April 30 – it was actually the last recorded sermon before our church building and a sermon library going back decades were destroyed by fire in early May).

  2. Al says:


    This was actually written in preparation for a ten minute presentation I gave on the subject. I wanted to make sure that I knew the subject very well before presenting anything on it, so I decided that I would write a lengthy essay-like treatment of the chapter first. Most of the material in the post above never made it into the presentation itself.

  3. The Scylding says:

    Your typological conclusion – God takes the whore and makes her a bride – is key here. How does that connect to the opposite – ie in the prophets the bride is often depicted as adulterating after other men. How would that (typologically) preempt the grafting and casting off of branches in Romans?

  4. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

  5. Debra Wagner says:

    Thank you for this article. Still have lots of questions though.
    Your link to the ‘cheap whore – virgin bride’ does not work. Do you have a web address for it? Thank you

  6. toddott says:

    There are a lot of parallels and connections, but who do these characters represent typologically?

    • I don’t think that is how typology tends to work. Typology connects characters together, for instance, but without either character straightforwardly ‘representing’ each other.

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