Reading through the Bible together
This is an unusual chapter in Scripture. First, it is bracketed by the announcement in the final verse of Gen 37 that the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar as a slave, and by a repetition of the same announcement in Gen 39:1. If we deleted Gen 38 from the manuscript, few, if any, would sense something was missing. This is reinforced by the fact that Joseph is never mentioned in Gen 38. However, this story is critical to the Joseph story. The meaning of Gen 38, appears that Gen 38 is profiling Judah's experience during Joseph's early slavery. Judah leaves Jacob's clan and hires himself out to an Adullamite. While the text does not say why, there is a Jewish tradition that argues the brothers harassed Judah due to their father's grief over the loss of Joseph that he fled. Judah, the leader of the brothers appears now alienated from them and the patriarchal family at large. He thus marries a Canaanite woman and had three sons by her. Judah seems to be going down morally. I propose that Moses included this record of Judah as the antagonist of the larger Joseph story in order to better reveal Judah's character, in contrast to the hero, Joseph.
The key revelations of Judah's character come in his response to losing two sons, married to Tamar. He promises her the third son as husband when he comes of age, but it becomes clear Judah has no intention of risking a third son to Tamar's care. Judah is deceitful. His character is further revealed in the story of Tamar. It would seem she had one chance to spring a surprise on Judah by selecting the tactic most likely to bypass his defenses and succeed. By choosing to pose as a common prostitute in the road after Judah's wife died, Tamar tells us something about Judah's morality. He must have had a habit of patronizing prostitutes. He propositions her and negotiates terms with her like a seasoned veteran. Judah was sexually immoral. The fact that Judah sent a deputy to pay the prostitute, and that the deputy inquires for the missing prostitute by calling her a cult-prostitute, seems to be an attempt to protect Judah's public image. In addition, Judah calls off the attempted payment because he feared ridicule. This mirrors his method in Gen 37 where he consigns Joseph to slavery so that slavery will kill Joseph. Judah was politically shrewd at performing illicit activity while trying to preserve his his public image.
Each of the character flaws of Judah magnified in Gen 38--deceitfulness, sexual immorality, and holding up a good public image while acting maliciously–will be victoriously surmounted by Joseph in the following passages. Joseph will shine where Judah failed, and our first example will be in Gen 39 with a matching temptress story.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University
Collegedale, Tennessee, USA