If you read the last verse of Chapter 37, it would seem only natural to pick up with the first verse of Chapter 39. “Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s officials, the captain of the guard. Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharoah’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.” That would be the perfect and expected sequence – but it is not. Instead, there is this insertion of an incident that appears to have nothing to do with the larger story of Joseph. You would think the author would have set this story aside or put it in a footnote instead of interrupting the main plot of the rest of the book of Genesis. But they don’t and there must be a reason for this.
For me, it is what I would call a Dr. Phil moment. I love the line he uses after he has listened to the woes and attempted fixes of the people he is interviewing. “How’s that working for you?” That’s what this chapter is about. It is a snapshot of how things are going with Jacob’s family after the sons get rid of Joseph. Maybe we should call it a trailer because it is the movie of their lives and not just one instance. What had they hoped for? Things to get better. What do they get? A mess. This chapter is likely a picture of how things go for the family for the next several decades as a result of what the sons did to Joseph. Separation. Deceit. An inheritance of wickedness and death. Shame and corruption.
It’s fair to ask who fell into the worse bondage – Joseph or his family?
After Joseph is carried away, Judah moves to Adullam as he has made friends with a man named Hirah. It’s not a temporary visit and Judah marries a Canaanite woman with whom he has three sons. He then gets a wife for his first son and her name is Tamar. The first son is so wicked that God literally puts him to death. He doesn’t die in an accident. He isn’t murdered. God puts him to death.
The second son has the responsibility – called Levirate marriage – to take Tamar as his wife and give her a child that will take the name of his dead brother. For whatever reason – and it is probably the fact that the child of the firstborn would inherit the family wealth – the second son intentionally keeps Tamar from becoming pregnant. God puts him to death as well for his decision to prevent the line of the family from going on. While it made sense to him, it is wicked in the Lord’s sight and he is put to death. Again, not an accident or murdered but put to death by God.
Everyone was clear about the consequences of displeasing God but as we see that does not seem to inhibit them much. Some people are slow learners!
Now, the story gets complicated.
Judah is obligated to give the final and youngest son to Tamar as part of the marriage agreement. But he only pretends he is going to do that when the son is older. He has no intention of doing so. He sends Tamar home to live with her family having given the impression that she will have the third son when he is older. Instead of recognizing it is his sons who have been wicked, he imagines it is Tamar’s fault and that she is somehow bad luck. It’s always the fault of someone else, isn’t it?
From here it is all downhill.
After a long time – which means Judah had basically left his family and moved to Adullam – his wife died. It also means that his youngest son has likely grown up during that time and Judah has avoided giving him to Tamar. Judah has moved on. We don’t know what his plans are for a wife for his son but, clearly, they do not include Tamar.
Life goes on as usual for him and Judah leaves to attend the annual sheep shearing. It’s important to understand that this was more than a chore for everyone. It was a celebration like Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl. While it may have started off as a simple annual ritual it became far more than that over time. It was a time of drunkenness, debauchery, feasting, the suspension of rules and even the settling of old scores. For whatever reason, it was a time to let go of all restraints and get even for past offenses and rivalries. I don’t think we have anything like it. Well, maybe that describes the Super Bowl. In the several times sheep shearing is mentioned there is almost always license, deception and violence. You can see this in the account of Absalom killing Amnon for raping his sister. He lured him there to join the party and when he was drunk Absalom had him killed in revenge.
In a way, that is what is in Tamar’s mind. She knows Judah has deceived her and what he is looking forward to more than shearing sheep. She knows where he will be and how he is likely to be susceptible. She has thought this through. It’s not done in heated fury but in cold resolve about being mistreated and Judah’s failure to live up to his promise.
Tamar is part of a long line of strong women in Scripture and we sometimes overlook that. Recall the story of Jael and Sisera. Jael lures the great general into her tent with the promise of some rest and safety and then when he is asleep she drives a nail through his head. Naomi is the first to suggest a strategy to Ruth about capturing the heart of Boaz. Rahab shelters the Israelite spies and then makes a deal with them to ensure her own safety. Esther saves her own people by exposing an enemy to the king. David’s first wife, Abigail, flatters him into doing what she wants. Bathsheba talks David into making her son, Solomon, the king.
While you could say this puts women in a bad light as scheming, deceptive and manipulative, it would be just as easy to use this to show how stupid and easily influenced men are. I’ll leave that interpretation up to you.
But one thing is for sure. She’s right about Judah and her plan is perfect for trapping him. His past precedes him and his behavior is predictable. It’s a sorry commentary on his character and what has become of him after selling Joseph into slavery and deceiving his father about what happens. As is often the case, it is one mistake after another as we watch his life decay.
It’s important to realize she is not interested in simply seducing and shaming him. In fact, I don’t believe the writer condemns her for pretending she is a prostitute and trapping Judah. It is more about his sin of deception than her seducing him. It’s not about sex or rape and I don’t think it is really about exposing him for what he has become. Like Rebekah, she wants to carry on the line and fulfill her own commitment and she sees no other options. The whole point is to become pregnant. It is not about revenge but about fulfilling a pledge. If she is going to have a child then it must be this way – like it or not and at the risk of her own life. But he makes it easy in that he has already been seduced by the culture in which he has chosen to live. His immune system has been weakened over a long period of time and you can see that in how he takes the initiative in sleeping with her. No hesitation on his part. She is there but she does not seduce him. He has no one to blame but himself.
Of course, it’s foolish for him to leave his identification with her. It would be like leaving our driver’s license, phone, and passport. I don’t know if it shows Judah’s arrogance, his bad judgment, his foolishness or all of the above. Whatever, it sets him up for exposure.
You’ve probably been reading about the mess Jeff Bezos has created by sending selfies to his girlfriend that are sexually explicit and stupid – especially for someone who should know everything we do can be made public with a click. Is it arrogance, bad judgment, foolishness or, likely, all of the above?
Judah does attempt to send her the payment he promised through Hirah, his fixer, but only in order to have her return his staff and seal. It’s what we would call hush money. When she cannot be found, Judah and Hirah decide to let it drop because they would be the laughingstock of the whole community if anyone knew how foolish he had been to let a prostitute trick him. He could always get another staff and seal and no one would know. Men like Judah don’t like to be fooled by women. They want to destroy them for that. There is no mention of shame or guilt – only the fear of looking foolish in the eyes of other people.
You can tell a lot about someone by the way they react at this point in the story. Normal people have a sense that something is just around the corner for Judah and it is going to get worse before it gets better. Justice is going to be done and there will be a twist to the story that we cannot predict but we know it is there. Judah will get what he deserves. We want the world to work that way. We expect our sin to find us out.
Others don’t see it coming. They think Judah is going to get away with it and everything is going to be fine. That is the way their world works. That’s how criminals and sociopaths think. The end of the story is getting away with it. How you see the end of the story says something about your own character. How you define a happy ending is the way you see the world.
Some scholars have said this story is fiction for this very reason. How could so many things have gone badly all at the same time? Life doesn’t really happen that way. But, thankfully, it does eventually. One thing leads to another and slowly everything unravels and collapses.
Of course, it becomes known that she is pregnant and when Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant and guilty of prostitution he reacts immediately. “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” Normally, a prostitute or woman caught in adultery would be stoned to death. However, in one special circumstance is she to be burned – when she is the daughter of a priest. Her sin is considered to be worse because she is defiling someone set apart and holy. She profaned his holiness and only death by fire will restore him. The rabbis wrote, “If he was regarded as holy, he is now regarded as profane; if he was treated with respect, he is now treated with contempt; and men will consider him cursed.” The verdict of burning says more about how Judah regarded himself than it does about Tamar. He would not be treated with contempt. His image of himself as special has been affected by her behavior. In fact, her sin is secondary to his standing in the community. Not only does he want to punish her but to do it in such a way that actually raises his status. Death by burning is to make him an extraordinary man. It is an unhealthy community when such a man is considered worthy of respect. Psalm 12 is right. “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men.”
And then the twist that some of us hoped for. He is caught in his own trap. He has no choice but to admit what he has done in lying to her. What he had feared has come upon him and he is discovered to be a self-righteous and arrogant liar trapped by a woman smarter and more righteous than him. While he had hoped to deceive and rob her of a son of her own, she uses his corruption and ends up with not only one son – but two. To his credit, there is a small shred of decency left and he recognizes she is, in fact, more righteous than him. Not because he slept with her but because he deceived her. She is faithful to the family at the risk of her own life and he is shown to be what he has become – a disobedient fool with an incompetent fixer.
Judah never remarried and did not have any more sons. Had it not been for Tamar and her drastic determination his line would have veered in another direction. And, of course, one of her sons (Perez) carries the line on through David and then to Christ Himself. Sometimes, Scripture reads more like the National Enquirer than we prefer but it gives us hope at the same time. God’s plans are not dependent on us and even when it looks like the end of the line nothing can stop what He has begun.
There is an interesting footnote about Adullam (also called the Shephelah) where Judah moved when he left home. In 2001, before she became the Secretary of Education, I interviewed Betsy and Dick DeVos at our conference and she told the story of their visit to Adullam. The teacher on the trip taught them about the “Shephelah” — the area between where the Philistines lived and where the Israelites lived. It was the scene of many battles and a highly contested piece of land. Betsy said, “He challenged us all on that trip to be active in the Shephelah where the competing cultures meet and our desire is to be in that Shephelah, to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom. It would be easier to live in a closed and safe Christian culture and fund Christian organizations doing good work instead of going where the risk and the conflict is greatest but that is our calling.”
She was right about the reality of the risk working in the place where the competing cultures meet. Judah is an illustration of that. Losing your moorings. Giving in to corruption. Accepting immorality as a part of life. Thinking of yourself as special and above the law. Adopting the values of the other culture and being seduced by power, wealth and false friends. Those are the dangers of living in the Shephelah where two cultures are in permanent conflict. It exacts a price.
But we need those people and should pray for them when they are called to it.