Why Is That Story There in the Bible? Judah and Tamar

Our men’s class has been studying Genesis. One of the big questions as you study through Genesis is why on earth is the story of Judah and Tamar stuck in Genesis 38? What makes the location of this story so strange is that it cuts the Joseph story right in half with no obvious connection. It doesn’t seem to advance the Joseph story. It seems like an unrelated aside that cuts away from Joseph, tells us something about Judah and then goes back to Joseph. If you took Genesis 39 out of Genesis you wouldn’t even miss it. The story would be seamless.

Some theories:
Some have proposed that Genesis 38 breaks away from the Joseph story to build suspense. It does and that could have something to do with why it is there. Another suggestion is that it gives us information about Judah’s descendants that will ultimately result in David and Jesus’ births. I think both of those things have something to do with why this story is told but I also think there is more to the placement of the story here than just those two things.

Robert Alter’s Theory:
In studying for this chapter I had a look back at Robert Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative” and he has an excellent exposition of the narrative function of this story as a part of the bigger story line and not just an isolated story with little to no real connection or way of moving the Joseph story along. Alter believes this story is actually extremely connected to the story line and is one essential (rather than disconnected) piece in moving it to the climax where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and all is reconciled in Genesis 45.

So what is Alter’s theory? His explanation requires a small knowledge of Hebrew and I will spare you that part and give you the gist. It is all about covering things up and revealing things. In the preceding chapter, Genesis 37, the chapter ends with the brothers revealing Joseph’s bloody coat to their father Isaac. They allow Isaac to form the conclusion that Joseph was eaten by an animal and don’t reveal the fact that they had sold him into slavery. It is a grand deception, a coverup, a ruse. They are successful in their scheming. In Genesis 38 we learn that Judah had three sons. The oldest married Tamar. He died. The next one, Onan, refused to have children with her in his brother’s name. He died. The third was never given to her. Judah didn’t fulfill his obligation to provide for her or provide children for her through his lineage (presumably his sons). So Tamar tricks him into sleeping with him by disguising as a cult prostitute. He sleeps with her, believing her to be a prostitute. She secures some of his identifying person items as leverage that he will pay her. She becomes preganant with twins, one of which will become an ancestor of David/Jesus. When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant he orders to her to be killed but she outwits him again by revealing his items, which identify him as the father of the children and make him just as guilty. Later on Joseph will also disguise himself to his brothers and his revealing of his true identity, much like with Tamar to Judah, will be a turning point in the story that advances the narrative and brings us closer to the promises of God being fulfilled.

It makes a lot more sense to me to show that a story/narrative is very purposefully located rather than just say it is random, isolated and disconnected from the surrounding narrative. What makes it even more clear in Alter’s book is how he uses Hebrew to show just how specific these and a few other connections really are. I just don’t have the time to put that here and don’t want to make anyone snooze too quickly either.

8 Responses to Why Is That Story There in the Bible? Judah and Tamar

  1. Charlie Sohm says:

    Wouldn’t it have fit in that spot chronologically? If it’s true that the Joseph story would have been seamless if that story were removed, then I would think it probable that the person who compiled the stories into what became the book of Genesis had separate Joseph stories and Judah stories, and then conflated them into a chronological account as best he could.

    • mattdabbs says:

      I should have had chronology as another possibility of its location. I am not sure if we do know it fits here chronologically. It makes sense that it would. The point that Alter makes is the themes that are being emphasized go beyond chronology to something that is not thematically disconnected at all but is vitally important to the broader story. That is a point that was missed by just about everyone before Alter made the connections he did in his book.

    • mattdabbs says:

      I was looking at Walton’s take on this in his NIV application commentary. He says there is a chronology problem with the story fitting here. It is actually pretty obvious when you think about it. Genesis 38 covers Judah getting married, having three sons who grow up and get married themselves and then Tamar having kids by Judah. That is three generations. There is no way all that can fit entirely between Genesis 37 and 39 because Joseph is not captive prior to imprisonment for decades nor is he in jail for three generations. This must have all transpired through the famine, etc. In other words, the events of Genesis 38 actually could be the last events of the book of Genesis chronologically if you look at the rest of the chapters in Genesis and how long they might have played out. Just thought I would share.

  2. According to Genesis 46:12, the events with Judah and Tamar happened before they came to Egypt. The trouble with some of this chronologically is that the book doesn’t give us spans of years. How old was Judah when Joseph was born? We just don’t know.

    I like the narrative theory you present. I’ll have to check out that book you mention.

    I think supposedly disconnected stories are a lot like vestigial organs. We may think they are useless and just kind of thrown in there, but in reality it just means we haven’t figured out why they are there yet.

  3. joey says:

    Yes, I love Alter’s book. It was one of my first introductions to narrative theology.

  4. Dale Goodson says:

    It may help to consider this chapter in light of the entire book of Genesis. Starting with Genesis 3:15 where we have a prophesy of the serpent’s (Satan as revealed in Rev. 12) head bruised by a promised seed of Eve’s, pretty much the rest of Genesis is all about sons and what it took to get them, preserve them, or how to determine which should be considered the firstborn. Its as if the writer of Genesis is out to track down the promised seed in Gen. 3:15 and assumes it will be a firstborn. We also see repeated attempts to prevent any seed of promise from being born, or any righteous seed from surviving.

    Abraham is singled out in Chapter 12 as one through whom all the world would be blessed. When Abraham’s wife Sarai was unable to have a child, she offered the services of her handmaid who bore him Ishmael. Later Sarai (Sarah) gave birth to Isaac. So which would the promised seed come through, Abraham’s first son, or the son of Abraham’s true wife? God clarified in Gen 17:19 that his contract would be through Isaac, the son of the true wife. A hint that perhaps this meant the promised seed would come through him. After the near sacrifice of Isaac in Chapter 22, verse 18 says in Abraham’s seed (think Isaac) all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

    Isaac eventually has twin sons so its hard to know which one the promised seed will come through, but the Lord appears to sort this out in chapter 28. The world would be blessed through Jacob’s seed. Jacob chooses a wife (Rachel) but he is tricked into marrying her sister Leah. Although he eventually gets to marry Rachel as well, Leah has the first sons. The question is, will the promised seed come through a son of the first wife or the intended wife? The stories that follow help us to sort this out, and virtually the only stories included of the twelve brothers (and the rest of Genesis) are those needed to sort this out. Leah’s first four sons are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Stories tell of Reuben’s sin with his half-mother and Simeon and Levi’s killing spree. At the end of Genesis, neither of these three really get a blessing from their father. (And in the book of Judges, no deliver came from them either althrough they did from every other brother except, I believe it was, Asher.)

    The next in line is Judah, who seems to be the key instigator in the sale of Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn son. An act that is an aparent move to get rid of the competition. Joseph had previously had several dreams that indicated he would be the new family head. He is now shipped off to Egypt as a slave. God doesn’t step in to clarify which one the promised seed would come through, so lets give each of these boys a test to see which is more righteous. Lets text them for, say, their spiritual purity. Judah fails, but Joseph passes. Chapter 38 tells of Judah’s failure but also of what it took for him to have any seed at all that lasted into the third generation (kind of). The problem is that when Tamar has twins, one sticks his arm out first then lets his brother come out. Which was the firstborn? A cord was tied around the one sticking his arm out. After this clue is clarified, we move on to Joseph. He passes the sexual purity test and offers forgiveness to his brothers. Seems like the likliest choice for the promised seed to come through. And he eventually has two sons. Unfortunately, when Jacob goes to bless them, he crosses his arms, a move that aparently gives first-born status to the second born, Ephraim, as opposed to his older brother, Manasseh. THen at blessing time for the other sons, Jacob says kings would come through Judah. So Genesis ends in a riddle. Would the promised seed come through Jacob’s first wife or the intended wife? Through the boy with the cord around his arm or the one that actually came out first? Through the one with the right hand on his head at blessing time, or his older sibling. We have four choices and two tribes (Ephraim and Judah). In the end, the book and details are left for future generations to sort out. Curiously enough, the two faithful spies (in Numbers 13), Caleb and Joshua, were from Ephraim and Judah, and in 1 Samuel, Samuel (from Ephraim) anoints David (from Judah) as king, and in the book of Judges, no deliverer came from the tribes of Judah’s older brothers, but they did from every other tribe except for (I believe it was) Asher. Oh yes, the promised seed eventually came through Judah, and the son with the cord around his arm. Anyway, there is my take on chapter 38. I find it fascinating! Hope it helps.

    • Aaron says:

      Probably one of the better explanations that I have heard so far on this placement. I have had dozen of people say it doesn’t fit there and then they give up and move to a better story – seems about right, like maybe missing a Messiah walking around your city from approx 3 years.

      In my view, It is entirely on purpose that this story splits in between 37 and 39. I was reading this story to see if it had anything to do with the Jews after Jesus was crucified, in sort of a shadow of things to come. Being that Joseph had just been put down below with no water and then brought up and given to foreigners. I was trying to look into the possibility if that could be a leading into what took place next in Judea after the crucifixion.

      Not saying I have figured that out, but that’s where I was traveling with it. I have no clue at this point what it is, but i know God is a lot bigger than our imagination so I allow all things through His Word to be revealed and I don;t dismiss any part of it – even what is commonly called “misplaced” scripture. I like your angle. I am going to look at this closer now.

  5. Dale says:

    So your shadow idea might include the fact that his brothers rejected him and yet he eventually saved their lives. The apostle Paul would have liked that because Joseph brought salvation to both the Hebrews as well as gentiles (Egyptians). Lots of possibilities . . .

    Another interesing sidelight on Genesis 38 is found in 1 Chronicles 4:21. It says here that Judah’s son Shelah, the one who was supposed to marry (or at least give a child to) Tamar and name their first son after his older brother Er, actually had a son and named him Er (after his older brother). He was only supposed to do this if he married Tamar, his older brother’s wife. Which makes me wonder if after all the turmoil revolving around Judah and Tamar had died down, Judah allowed Shelah to do the duties of a surviving brother after all. If this is the case, then it appears obvious that his was NOT the focus of Genesis 38 even though it seems like it was. For if it was, then this fact would surely have been mentioned in Genesis 38 as it would be a natural end of the story. The fact that this wasn’t mentioned at all seems to indicate that the chapter’s purpose was completed with the birth of the twins, rathar than a son named after the older brother. A fact that the book of Ruth seems to agree with. For in the end of Ruth, chronology is picked up where Gen. 38 leaves off: “Now this is the geneology of Perez; Perez begot . . . and Jesse begot David.” So Genesis’ chronology ended with four focal points. Perez (without the string), Zerah (with the string), Ephriam (youngest but with right hand of blessing, Manasseh (oldest but with left hand at blessing). Ruth picks up one focal point and carries it to David. I don’t believe there was any question in either Moses mind (as author of Genesis) or the author of Ruth, that they were tracking down the promised seed.

    Its also interesting that when the kingdom of Israel was split during Rehoboam’s reign (from tribe of Judah), Jereboam, the new king who took the other ten tribes and started another nation, was from Ephriam. So the two tribes highlighted in the end of Genesis were also the two tribes highlighted in the records of the kings. Not likely an accident.

    Correction: in my earlier post, last paragraph, it should say that the promised seed came through Perez, the one WITHOUT the thread, rather than the one WITH the thread.

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