The Moral Dilemmas of Judah and Tamar

The Moral Dilemmas of Judah and Tamar October 25, 2021

Judah Tamar

Advent approaches and, with it, my thoughts turn to the lineage of Christ. Who were those significant people listed in Matthew 1? And why were five women, specifically, mentioned by name? This post is the first in a series exploring the stories of those women—and the men paired with them.

The story of Judah and Tamar notoriously confounds preachers—how does Genesis 38 fit within the context of Joseph’s saga, chapters 37–50, and how can a story full of sexual sin and confusing culture be taught in “big church”? This lesson is not safe for the whole family.

But just because the topics are borderline—OK, full-on—risqué does not allow us to skip an important chapter that informs our understanding of both Israel’s founding family and their most famous descendant, Jesus. Judah and Tamar appear by name in the lineage of David (Ruth 4, 1 Chronicles 2:4) and of Jesus (Matthew 1:3), and in a world that generally ignored women the repetition of her name should make us take notice. What are we to learn from this unorthodox pair?

Biblical and Cultural Context

After the Flood, God narrowed his plan to bring a savior to the world by focusing on Abraham (Genesis 12). Four generations later, the twelve sons of Jacob arrive to carry on the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants.

The world of Abraham, the Ancient Near East (ANE), was governed by two cultural realities:

  • Patrilineage, “Father line”: The family line is traced through the father/son. We see this in Matthew 1. The practice remains common around the world, as seen in royal families up to recent decades, and women taking their husband’s family name, passing it along to their children.
  • Patriarchy, “father rule”: the oldest male held authority over the family.

Of Jacob’s twelve sons, the oldest three, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, disqualified themselves from leading their generation (see Gen. 34, 35:21, and 49:4), so the fourth son, Judah, rose to become the leader of the brothers.

Enter Joseph, the eleventh son and most favored punk younger brother. His unwise sharing of dreams in which his older brothers bowed down to him, combined with his father playing favorites (coat of many colors, really?), led to his brothers’ great resentment. Let’s just say it—they hated him. In Genesis 37, Judah masterminds the selling of Joseph into slavery. The rest of Genesis, a total of 14 out of 50 chapters, chronicles Joseph’s story. I’ll let you read Genesis 39–42 on your own.

After Joseph is sold, Judah separates himself from the family and marries a Canaanite woman. Doing so was further evidence that his heart was hard towards the covenant and God of his father. Time goes on, and the famine brings the family together to seek food in Egypt, where they encounter the leader who mysteriously knows their birth order and asks a lot of questions about their home. He also keeps Simeon hostage until they bring their youngest brother with them on their next journey.

We pick up in chapter 43. Israel’s family is out of food again, and Judah is arguing with old Jacob that they must go back for more grain (and Simeon). In verses 8–9, Judah tells his father that he will be responsible for Benjamin, no matter what. He convinces Jacob, and the ten brothers go down to Egypt.

Now jump to the next scene with Joseph (44:27—34). Judah explains why his father will be devastated if they have to leave the youngest and how he objected to Benjamin even coming along.

What happened to Judah? In the years between selling one brother and being willing to lay down his life for his other brother, what clues does Scripture give for why he matured? To understand his growth, we must go back a few years to explore how deeply he sank.

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