Most LDSs who have actually read Genesis 38 and 39 have undoubtedly had the thought, or heard the thought, that the juxtaposition of these two chapters teaches important lessons about chastity (see the OT SS manual, where this is made explicit). After all, in the former we have Judah’s wicked sons, the second of which (Onan) ‘spills his seed’ and dies because of it, and then Judah himself is trapped by his penchant for a prostitute. In the latter, we have the righteous Joseph who, unwilling to sleep with his owner’s wife, is thrown into prison because of his refusal, only to rise to second in command of all of Egypt and save Israel. Indeed, Genesis 38 clearly interrupts the Joseph story that began in Gen 37, thus the redactorial insertion, given the topic and putative lexical connections, appears to be the result of someone having seen a connection in these two texts. As James Kugel points out (see pp. 25ff.), even two prominent scholars (Robert Alter and Jon Levenson) have argued on linguistic grounds that these chapters were deliberately put in this order: “A few recent scholars have suggested that the story’s insertion was not the act of a mindless redactor, but a deft move by someone who established, or at least saw, a number of subtle connections between the Joseph saga and the Judah-Tamar episode.”
Kugel rightly challenges each of these linguistic connections and then puts forth what I think is the correct theory: that there was no demonstrable intent to juxtapose these stories. Rather, a compiler, who had before him the task of splicing together traditions of different origins (think of making one narrative out of the four Gospels), put these two chapters together, or rather interrupted the Joseph saga, because the story of Judah and Tamar couldn’t go anywhere else chronologically. It couldn’t go before the Joseph story because that story begins with a young Judah, and in the Judah-Tamar story Judah already has married sons. It couldn’t go afterward because the Joseph story ends with the sons of Israel in Egypt, but this story takes place in Canaan. So the only option left was to put it right in the middle (see Kugel 29), and the break at the end of chapter 37 seems the best place to have done that. If Kugel is correct, as I take him to be (see my thoughts and argument for a compiler here, here, and here), the “lesson” on chastity is one that readers draw out, and not one that was “meant” by any author (leaving aside the fact that I don’t think either story has anything to do with chastity as we have come to prescribe it.)
Do we care? On the one hand, I see us being very concerned with what the authors intended and saw (try telling a seminary class that Isaiah didn’t see Jesus or our day), and on the other, as I argued in my last post, we’re encouraged to draw meanings apart from their scriptural context. Do we, then, have anything invested in the juxtaposition of these chapters? What about in the compilation of the narrative from diverse sources?