Many members of the three Religions of the Book use the Bible as a source of guidance for matters of character formation and decision-making. Employment of biblical passages for ethical purposes is not without its complications, however. One such complication occurs in Genesis 38, in the story of Judah’s seduction by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
Judah’s misconduct is part of a larger picture of good and bad behavior in Jacob’s family. Reuben’s dalliance with his father’s concubine results in a rebuke (Gen 49:3-4). Joseph’s fidelity to his employer initially leads to a temporary setback. (Readers might wonder, however, if Potiphar really believes his wife’s tale since he has Joseph jailed instead of executed.) In the end, Joseph’s incarceration is but a stepping stone to better things (Genesis 39). These stories cohere reasonably well with contemporary sexual ethics since continence is rewarded and incontinence is punished. Judah’s tale, however, is a bit more complicated.