ESSAY
Genesis 38 from Multiple Angles (Part I)
POSTED
October 15, 2019

Summary:  The Bible is a multi-faceted text.  As a result, it can fruitfully be analysed in many ways.  Pace, context, flow, imagery:  all of these aspects of the Biblical text are significant and instructive.  Here, by way of illustration, I analyse Gen. 38 in a range of different ways, and show how each method of analysis contributes to a unified theme, namely the continuation of Abraham’s “line of promise.”

Context

The placement of Gen. 38 within the Joseph story is often seen as insignificant.  “The story of Judah and Tamar has no connection at all with the . . . Joseph story,” one commentator says.  “(It) stands alone,” says another, “isolated in every way.”  But while Gen. 38 does interrupt the Joseph story from a purely Table of Contents perspective (and hence seems isolated), it resonates with its context in a number of important ways, as well as with the book of Genesis more broadly (as we’ll see).  By way of introduction and illustration, a few spoilers may help.

Consider the various acts of deception associated with Judah’s past:

  • In ch. 26, Isaac deceives a foreign ruler in a highly Abraham-esque fashion.
  • In ch. 27, Jacob obtains his birthright by rather deceptive means:  when Isaac’s eyes have grown dark, Jacob presents himself as the firstborn.
  • And then, in ch. 29, Jacob the deceiver is himself deceived. When Jacob is in the dark on the first night of his marriage, Laban presents Leah as the firstborn and hence deceives him.[i]

As such, Abraham’s lineage is caught up (for better or for worse) in a string of deceptive acts, which our present text both plays and builds upon.

First, consider ch. 37’s relationship to ch. 38.  In ch. 37, Judah deceives his father, Jacob.  He strips Joseph of his unique ID (viz. his robe) and sends it back to Jacob in order to make it seem as if Joseph is dead.  Then, in ch. 38, Judah is himself deceived.  Tamar disguises herself in unusual clothes and hence obtains her father-in-law’s ID (viz. his seal).[ii]

Now consider ch. 38’s relationship with ch. 39.  In chs. 38-39, Judah and Joseph are removed from their respective environments and forms of accountability:  Joseph is brought down (Y-R-D) to Egypt, while Judah travels down (Y-R-D) to Canaan.  Soon afterwards, temptation comes on both men in the form of a no-strings-attached sexual encounter.  Judah succumbs to temptation, at which point he discovers strings were attached to his actions after all (symbolised by the “cords” he leaves with Tamar).[iii] 

Meanwhile,Joseph resists temptation, though ultimately he too leaves “strings” behind—viz. his garment—, which is presented to Potiphar as evidence of his guilt (ch. 39).  As before, then, deception rears its head, with clothes again at the centre of it.

As such, ch. 38 clearly ties in with one of Genesis’s broader sub-themes.  But its placement is also significant beause of the dark backdrop it paints for what is to follow.

Judah’s experiences in ch. 38 portray Canaan as a place of danger—a land to which it is hazardous for Israel to return.  When Tamar changes her clothes and acquires Judah’s seal, Judah’s identity as Israel’s leader comes under threat, as does the continuation of his line. 

In Joseph’s story, however, the same two symbols—i.e., clothes and a signet ring—function in a very different way.  When Joseph is abandoned in a pit (not for the first time), Pharaoh provides him with a change of clothes and a seal/signet (cp. 41.14, 42).  As such, Egypt is marked out as a place of refuge and safety—an environment in which Abraham’s seed will be able to flourish for many years to come. 

The events of ch. 38 and 39 therefore go together.  Ch. 38’s events reflect the need for Israel’s relocation (indeed, contra the promise of 49.10, the “scepter” almost departs from Judah in ch. 38), while Joseph’s story describes the means by which God will relocate Israel.

But we have got ahead of ourselves.  Let us rewind and consider our text more systematically.

Chronology

The chronological marker with which our text is introduced (i.e., “And it came to pass at that time”) is not a rigid one.  Our text’s chronology must, therefore, be determined by its contents rather than its introduction.  Jacob is said to have migrated to Egypt 22 years after Joseph was sold into slavery (cp. 37.2, 41.46-49, 45.6-7), which leaves little time for the events of ch. 38’s events to unfold.[iv]

Ch. 38’s events therefore seem likely to have taken place after Jacob and his sons relocate to Egypt, which is a plausible enough notion.  Jacob’s sons would have established many business contacts in Canaan over the course of their stay there, which they may well have wanted to maintain after their relocation to Egypt, as the events of 1 Chr. 7.20-22 appear to reflect.  (1 Chr. 7.20-22’s events take place after Jacob’s migration to Egypt, but prior to the exodus.) 

Perhaps, then, Judah travelled back to Canaan from time to time.  Sheep were sheared at a regular time of year in the ANE,[v] in which case the events of Gen. 38 may reflect a yearly trip to Canaan.  If so, the trip may have come to function as a kind of escape from the realities and responsibilities of life in Egypt.

Either way, the awkwardness of ch. 38’s chronology seems significant, since it reflects the character of ch. 38’s events.  Just as ch. 38’s events are out of place chronologically, so too are they out of place morally.  They represent a departure from Judah’s appointed station and duties in life.

Balance of knowledge, flow, and progression

Ch. 38’s narrative sets out at a rapid pace.  By the time we reach the end of vs. 11, we have read about three marriages (Judah’s, Er’s, and Onan’s), three births (Er’s, Onan’s, and Shelah’s), and two deaths (Er’s and Onan’s).  We have also read about many failed duties and responsibilities.  Judah was supposed to have been in Egypt along with his brothers (cp. 1 Chr. 5.2), but has instead headed down to Canaan.  Onan was supposed to have provided (N-T-N) his brother’s wife with children, but declined to do so (vs. 9).[vi]  And Judah was supposed to have provided (N-T-N) Tamar with a wife, but did not do so (vv. 14, 26). 

Hence, while the days have now begun to “multiply” (R-B-B), Tamar has not, and does not have any obvious way to regain forward momentum.  As such, v. 11 represents a roadblock in our text.  Tamar seems destined to remain a widow in Judah’s house.

The flow/pace of vv. 1-11 is significant.  The verses set the scene with a minimum of fuss (so as to draw more attention to what is to follow), and at the same time highlight the nature/tenor of Judah and his sons’ behaviour.  Judah and his sons make a series of impulsive and ill-thought-out decisions, as a result of which the progress of Judah’s line rapidly comes to a halt—and looks like it may soon come to a premature end.

Another significant feature of vv. 1-11 is how its distribution of knowledge among its readers and characters.  We, the readers, know why Tamar’s past husbands have died (i.e., because of their evil deeds).  But Judah and Tamar don’t.  Judah seems to view Tamar as a kind of black widow, and hence tells her to remain in his house, unmarried.  (He promises to give his next son to Tamar in marriage, but has no intention to do so: v. 11.) 

Meanwhile, Tamar is an even worse position.  She doesn’t know why her two husbands have died, and she’s now been given false hope by Judah.  These facts are the backdrop and cause of vv. 12-19’s events, where Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands.

Vv. 12-19 commence with two important events:  first, a third death (that of Judah’s wife), and, second, the discovery of an important piece of information.  In Biblical narratives, the word “behold” (hinneh) frequently introduces either a statement of an incomplete view of events or, as we have here, the discovery of a piece of information.  Tamar receives news of Judah’s intention to go up to Timnah.  In response, she dresses up as a prostitute and waits by the roadside for Judah to come her way.

At the same time, our narrative begins to slow its pace, which causes tension to develop.  (The first few verses of the chapter cover two decades, while the next 18 cover less than a year.)  It also portrays Tamar’s actions—in contrast to those of Judah and his sons—as well-thought-out and carefully calculated.

The exception to vv. 12-19’s drop in pace is found at its climax, in vv. 18-19, where Judah’s affair with Tamar is described by means of five verbs which follow on from one another in rapid succession.  In v. 18a, Tamar requests Judah’s seal and staff, at which point we read, “He gave (them) to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him and arose and departed.” 

Here, one action follows another without further thought or consideration.  Our narrator does not want to dwell on the details of Judah’s behaviour, but on its motive and character.  Judah’s actions are casually entered into, provide momentary gratification, and then rapidly forgotten about (until Judah later receives an unwelcome reminder).

Vv. 12-19 also describe a redistribution of knowledge among our text’s characters, which is reflected in its use of personal names.  In v. 14, Tamar covers herself with a veil, at which point her name disappears from the text, and does not resurface until v. 24, where Judah receives news of Tamar’s pregnancy.

Of course, Tamar is referred to plenty of times in vv. 14-23, but solely by uninformed terms such as “she,” “a woman,” and “a prostitute.”  Why?  Because the narrative has switched to the perspective of Judah, who is unaware of Tamar’s identity.  From Judah’s perspective, Tamar is simply “a woman” and “a prostitute.”  As such, the words of Enaim’s locals have a significant beyond that of their face value.  “No prostitute has been here,” they say—which is entirely correct.[vii]

As mentioned, then, vv. 12-19 describe a major redistribution of the balance of knowledge established in vv. 1-11, and Judah now finds himself on the wrong side of it.  Tamar now knows what Judah does not know, and she is able to prove her claim (due to her acquisition of Judah’s staff, seal, and cords).

The point is underscored in v. 23, where the word “behold” again occurs.  Here, “behold” introduces a statement of Judah’s (uninformed) perspective.  “Behold,” Judah says to his friend, “I have sent the required kid to Enaim, and you have not found the woman.” 

From Judah’s perspective, that is the end of the matter.  He has made every effort to uphold his end of the bargain and can now draw a line under it.  Or at least so he thinks.  But, of course, we as readers know otherwise (as does Tamar).  The matter with Tamar is far from over.  As a result, our narrative’s tension and dissonance continue to build.

Further dissonance is created by the irony of Judah’s sentiments and actions in v. 23.  Judah thinks his actions will shield him from “shame,” yet is about to receive a surprise.  In addition, Judah thinks he has fulfilled his duty to Enaim’s prostitute (insofar as he has sent her a young kid), yet, in reality, he has failed in his duty to her, since the “prostitute” is Tamar, his daughter-in-law.

Like that of v. 11, the conclusion of v. 23 introduces a pause.  For three months, events are left to develop on their own steam without any further comment from our narrator until, with the advent of v. 24, our narrative resumes its forward momentum as a new piece of information is revealed to Judah—one which is (again) introduced by the word “behold.”  Tamar, it seems, has become pregnant through an illegitimate relationship.

Judah’s reaction is conveyed in a mere four (Hebrew) words:  “Bring her out and let her be burnt!”  The brevity of the phrase signals a return to the impulsive and ill-thought-out nature of vv. 1-11’s decisions.  Judah does not bother to investigate the details of the matter.  He simply commands Tamar to be taken and burnt.  (He may even have been relieved to be able to remove her from his books.)  Whatever the details of the matter might be, Tamar is in the wrong, and he (Judah) is in the right.  Or at least so Judah thinks.  But a dramatic change of perspective now takes place.

Tamar produces Judah’s seal and cords as evidence of Judah’s involvement in the matter, and Judah hence becomes aware of his great hypocrisy.  “It is not I who am righteous,” he declares, “but Tamar!”[viii]  Tamar has done what Judah should have done in the first place, and Judah has been brought face to face with his sins—sins both of omission and of commission.

In vv. 27-30, our story concludes.  Restoration comes in the form of two further “behold”-prefaced statements.  These exclamations of “behold” are primarily, I believe, for our ears as readers.  We are about to discover how Tamar’s story ends, and are to marvel at how God reverses the chaos of vv. 1-26.  First, Tamar’s midwife sees twins in Tamar’s womb (“Behold, twins in her womb!”), who replace Judah’s two lost sons. 

And then, to the surprise of Tamar and the midwife, Perez emerges before his brother does (“Behold, Perez comes out!”), and hence becomes Judah’s “firstborn.”  In the process, Perez becomes the man through whom God’s promise to Judah will be fulfilled by way of Salmon, Boaz, David, and ultimately Jesus (Gen. 49.10 w. 1 Chr. 2).  As such, the danger inherent in Gen. 38’s events is averted and the Messianic line continues.

That God sees fit to restore Judah’s fortunes by means of the events of Gen. 38—and that the Jewish people have seen fit to preserve them in Scripture for thousands of years—is quite remarkable.  Not for the last time, Judah’s bad intentions have been turned to God’s good intentions (cp. 50.20), and Judah has ultimately (albeit rather bizarrely) fulfilled his duty to Tamar.

In sum, then, the way in which our text flows and unfolds is of great significance.  It draws our attention to the threat faced by Judah’s line, the apparently fragile thread on which its survival hangs, and the (often dubious) motives of those involved in it, all of which makes us marvel at how God can accomplish his good purposes by means of events such as those described in our text.

In Part II, we analyse our text in three further ways—viz. in terms of its imagery, inner-Biblical resonances, and onomastic content—, and then seek to draw its various threads together.


James Bejon attends a church in Romford, London, where he fellowships, is taught, and teaches.  He presently works at Tyndale House in Cambridge (https://academic.tyndalehouse.com), whose aim is to make high-quality biblical scholarship available as widely as possible.


[i] The connection between these last two incidents is underscored by wordplay and anagrams built around the Hebrew root B-K-R.  Jacob deceives Isaac in order to obtain Abraham’s “benediction” (berachah) and “birthright” (bechorah), while Laban deceives Jacob when he switches Rachel for his “firstborn” (bechirah).

[ii] The connection between these incidents in chs. 37 and 38 is underscored by the employment of certain key words.  Just as in ch. 37 Judah sends (Sh-L-K) his father a form of ID (Joseph’s coat) and asks him to ‘examine it’ (haker-na), so in ch. 38 Tamar sends (Sh-L-K) her father-in-law a form of ID (his seal) and asks him to “examine it” (haker-na).

[iii] Possibly a cord tied around the neck, as the Akkadian pitiltu sometimes denotes.

[iv] Judah meets a Canaanite woman and has three sons with her; each of those sons then grows up; Tamar conceives; and Tamar then bears twins.

[v] See, for instance, Phillippe Abrahami’s “Wool in the Nuzi Texts” in Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean by Catherine Breniquet & Cécile Michel.  (Oxbow Books, Ancient Textiles Series,  2014) 288-289.

[vi] The sense of v. 9’s construction is most likely habitual, i.e., “each time he went into her. . .”

[vii] So Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books, 2nd ed.  2001 (1st ed. 1981) 8.

[viii] I take the phrase tzadeqah mimmenni to be a “comparison of exclusion.”  Judah and Tamar are not both in the right but to different extents; rather, Tamar has done what is right, and Judah has not.

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