What is the Purpose of the Judah and Tamar Story in Genesis 38?
The Old Testament is weird. That sentence isn’t even worth writing, but I wrote it anyway. As far as OT stories go, Judah and Tamar rank pretty near the top of the list of weird stuff. It starts right after Joseph is sold into slavery and his brother give his coat of many colors, now bloodied, to his father as evidence of his death. The next chapter (Genesis 39) jumps back to Joseph, who is now enslaved in Potiphar’s house and about to be falsely accused of sexual assault. The rest of Genesis is about Joseph’s rise to power and, most importantly, it explains how in the world the sons of Jacob ended up in Egypt all the way from Canaan and sets us up for the Bible’s paradigmatic rescue story, the exodus from Egypt.
So back to Judah and Tamar: why in the world do we have a story about Levirate marriage, religious prostitution, and deception in the middle of all that? And what does it even mean? First, the story. You already know Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob and Leah; we explored her tragic story in a different column. It was Judah’s idea in Genesis 37 to sell Joseph into slavery rather than murder him outright. Judah was a great capitalist.
Chapter 38 starts with a quick run-through of Judah’s sons—Er, Onan, and Shelah (“Be at Ease”), all born to the same Canaanite woman, Shua. Next Judah finds his son a wife, namely Tamar. So far, so good, but things turn ugly pretty quickly. Er, “the firstborn of Judah, was wicked in the eyes of Yahweh,” so Yahweh killed him. (Notice the continuing pattern of subverting the firstborn—Cain, Ishmael, and Esau were all firstborn sons.) Judah then gives Onan, his second-born son, as a husband to Tamar to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her.”
Onan practices the most ancient form of birth control because, while he has no problem sleeping with Tamar, he doesn’t want the responsibility, financial and otherwise, of raising a child for his brother. Onan, just like his older brother, was wicked. So Yahweh also kills Onan. Judah sends Tamar away after promising her his third son when he’s old enough to marry. But, sensing something was amiss and knowing that the problem definitely couldn’t be his own boys, Judah has no intention retrieving Tamar from her “father’s house.” Judah—like his father before him—fails in his responsibilities as a father and refuses to ensure the protection and well-being of his widowed daughter-in-law.
But Judah repents. And that repentance explains why the promise of the head-crushing seed will continue through him.
Enough time passes for “Be at Ease” (that is, Shelah) to grow up, and of course Tamar remains widowed in her father’s house. Judah’s wife dies, and Judah goes up to shear his sheep, stopping along the way for coitus with a prostitute. We know that prostitute is none other than Tamar, his daughter-in-law, but Judah thinks he’s making a simple transaction: money for sex. Eventually Judah “heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another [she’d] been messin’ around.” He decided—in a move that shocks exactly no one who’s read the previous thirty-seven chapters of Genesis—to burn her alive. The surprising part is Judah’s humble repentance when he realizes that he is wicked one—just like his sons before him—and the out-of-wedlock child is his. “She is more righteous than I,” Judah states, “since I did not give her my son Shelah,” thus bringing us fully back to the narrative’s beginning.
Like I said already, there’s a lot of weird going on here, but let’s focus on why this narrative is here, right in the middle of the Joseph story, and in the next column we’ll look at Levirate marriage and why Tamar is more righteous than Judah. Genesis 3:15 promises that Eve’s seed will crush the serpent’s head. That promise drives the rest of Genesis, and really the rest of the Bible.
In Genesis 12 the field of head-crusher candidates narrows down to Abraham and his line, then it passes on through Isaac (not Ishmael), then Jacob (not Esau). Jacob, of course, has twelve sons, and at this point it’s unclear which one will carry on this promised seed. Rueben, the firstborn son, is disqualified because he slept with his father Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22; 49:3–4). Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s second- and third-born sons, are disqualified because they so violently avenged their sister Dinah (Genesis 34; 49:5–7).
Next in line is Judah, but he is a slave trader, man stealer, and hypocrite who neglected his daughter-in-law and then wanted to burn her alive for doing exactly what he had done. But Judah repents. And that repentance explains why the promise of the head-crushing seed will continue through him: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10 ESV). This story about Judah and Tamar thus explains Judah’s prominence and gives another clue to Genesis’s pressing question: “Who is the Messiah who will crush the serpent’s head?”