Everyone knows about Joseph and his fancy coat. He was the one with the dreams of greatness about how his brothers and his parents would bow down to him. Joseph was the favorite son, the one his father loved best, and the one who seemed to rub that in the faces of his brothers. That’s why they hated him and tried to kill him, and that’s why they sold him into Egypt as a slave. Everyone knows that story, and they know how Joseph was thrown into prison because his Egyptian master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape. They know what happened next: that while in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, and eventually that’s what opened the way for him to get out of prison. Even people who have never read the Bible know Joseph’s story. It makes for good theater, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice showed us with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as we learned with the DreamWorks animated movie, Joseph: King of Dreams. That’s why I’m not going to write about Joseph. I’m going to write about the awkward and uncomfortable story of his older brother Judah.
When we get to the last part of Genesis, we usually skip over or skim through chapter 38, the seemingly out-of-place tale about Judah’s dysfunctional family. To summarize, the chapter opens with Judah striking off on his own and taking a wife from the Canaanite people. Was that a bad thing? The Scripture does not say so, which is interesting since it was a bad thing for Judah’s uncle Esau several decades earlier. There is no disapproval of Judah’s choice of wife, nor his choice of a Canaanite named Tamar as wife for his oldest son, Er. Yet there is some strange disapproval of Er; all we know of him is that he was so evil that the Lord killed him. That left Tamar childless, so Judah ordered his second son, Onan, to carry out the role of a kinsman redeemer (Deuteronomy 25:5-9; Leviticus 25:47-55) by marrying Tamar and having a child by her who would become his deceased brother’s heir. Onan was not willing to carry out that role, and for that reason the Lord killed him, too. With Tamar now twice widowed and still childless, Judah advised her to go back to her father’s house and live there until his youngest son, Shelah, had grown up and could marry her. Some years later, when Judah had not carried through with his promise, Tamar forced his hand by a devious scheme. She disguised herself as a prostitute, enticed her father-in-law to have sex with her, and took his staff, signet ring, and cord as pledge for payment of a goat. Later, when Judah learned that Tamar had become pregnant, he was about to have her burned for adultery when she presented his tokens as proof that he was the father. Tamar gave birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah.
This tale is strange enough, but what makes it even more peculiar is that it comes right in the middle of the story of Joseph. It is an interruption in Joseph’s story, and seems to have nothing to do with it. Yet if we look closer we will see that Judah’s story and Joseph’s story are incomplete without one another. The two tales are intertwined, giving us a prophetic picture of what will happen to the entire nation of Israel over the next four millennia. It is nothing less than the tale of the House of Judah and the House of Joseph. These last chapters of Genesis explain how the tale began with the patriarchs of the Two Houses. Since the story continues over several Torah portions, all we can do for the present is cover the beginning, which is Judah’s part of the story.
Let us back up a little and review the account of Jacob’s family. He had twelve sons, Judah being the fourth by his first wife Leah, and Joseph being the eleventh, but the oldest son of his second and favorite wife, Rachel. In ordinary circumstances, neither of them would have been in line to inherit the family name and birthright blessing. Reuben, the firstborn, would have filled that role. However, Reuben disqualified himself by having a sexual encounter with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah (Genesis 35:22, 49:3-4; I Chronicles 5:1-2). Sons two and three, Simeon and Levi, disqualified themselves by murdering the men of Shechem when Jacob was negotiating with their prince, whose son had asked to marry Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Genesis 34). The sons of Jacob’s concubines, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, stood little chance at inheriting the birthright, but the fact that they proved unreliable with their father’s flock sealed their fate (Genesis 37:2). Judah and Joseph therefore were the leading candidates, coming in ahead of Leah’s younger sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and Rachel’s youngest son, Benjamin.
Judah should have been the heir, being the next in line, but Jacob made it clear that he intended to give the birthright to his favorite son, Joseph. That, no doubt, motivated Judah to conspire with his brothers to kill Joseph. But Reuben saw a chance to regain his lost status, and therefore intervened to save Joseph’s life, with the intent of bringing him back safely to Jacob. Judah countered this move by coming up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery for the price of a pair of shoes, and convincing their father that he had been killed. In that way, Judah successfully eliminated both of his rivals, Reuben and Joseph, and bought himself time to prove his worth to Jacob and secure the birthright before his youngest brother Benjamin could come of age and become yet another rival.
It is at this point that we encounter the tale of Judah’s family problems. If his motivation really was to secure the birthright for himself, then we can understand why he wanted his oldest son to father a child as quickly as possible, and why he pressed Onan to produce an heir after his brother’s death. Such cold calculations do not leave much room for grief over two lost sons, or empathy with his twice-bereaved daughter-in-law. If that were indeed the case, then Judah’s invocation of the law of the kinsman redeemer would not have been out of loving obedience to the Lord, but manipulation of God’s commandments for his own ends. Had his heart truly been inclined to the Lord, then he would have followed through with his promise to have Shelah marry Tamar and raise up seed to his brothers. His failure to do so indicated another scheme in his heart: find a suitable wife for Shelah and procure an heir through him. And here we get another odd turn in the tale: Shelah eventually did fulfill the role of kinsman redeemer; his firstborn son was named Er after his oldest brother (I Chronicles 4:21-23).
Shelah’s righteous act would come later, after Tamar realized what her father-in-law was contemplating and took action to avoid the fate of remaining a dishonored widow in her father’s house for the rest of her life. What she did does not seem quite right to us. Who in these modern times would resort to playing the role of a temple prostitute for the specific purpose of having sex with her father-in-law and manipulating him to remove her reproach? Yet that is what she did, and her plan succeeded. Judah realized his guilt, and publicly proclaimed, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:26)
Here is another peculiar thing: how could Judah proclaim Tamar to be righteous when she committed acts that could be considered immoral? The answer comes in the definition of righteousness, something we do not understand very well. Righteousness is not the product of our works, nor is it a synonym for sinlessness. Even righteous people sin, but the question is what they do about their sin. If they try to cover it up and carry on as if nothing has happened, then they suffer the consequences, but if they repent and return to God’s standards, then they are forgiven. Ezekiel put it this way:
“But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die.” (Ezekiel 18:21-24 NASB)
This is a hard thing for us to understand. We have been taught that Yeshua paid the price of sin, and that our faith in Him alone is enough to remove our guilt before God. That is absolutely true; there is no salvation apart from the atoning work of Messiah Yeshua, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1; Acts 4:8-12) What we have not been taught, however, is the full meaning of righteousness. It begins in the heart; we cannot earn righteousness, but if we believe God and follow Him with all our heart He will put His own righteousness on us. That is the example we learn from our father Abraham (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, James 2:22-23). But it doesn’t end there; we must continue in this heart attitude by living out our God’s commandments. That is why we study the Word of God to learn what He has instructed from the beginning. Following His commandments is proof of our love for Him and our transformed lives. That is the fruit of salvation. As Isaiah says:
Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not wane. Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, a people in whose heart is My law; do not fear the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them like a garment, and the grub will eat them like wool. but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation to all generations.” (Isaiah 51:6-8 NASB, emphasis added)
Judah did not act righteously, but Tamar did, even though she acted sinfully. It is a strange thing to grasp for our Western minds steeped in Greek logic. Judah was not looking out for the welfare of his sons, his daughter-in-law, his brothers, or his father, but Tamar was. Judah sought to make a name for himself, but Tamar wanted to build up the house of her deceased husband as the Lord required by His commandments. We may rightly question her methods, but we may also conclude that she likely acted in the only way that was open to her at that time and in that culture. Her heart was right, which meant the Lord could in time correct her understanding of right actions. That may in fact be the reason that she is one of five women named in the genealogy of Yeshua our Messiah (Matthew 1:3-5). Her son Perez became Judah’s heir and the ancestor of King David and of Yeshua. And that is not all. By standing on the righteous commandments of the Lord God, this Canaanite woman taught a permanent lesson to Judah, the patriarch of God’s ruling House. In recognizing his guilt toward Tamar, Judah opened up to the possibility that he might have been guilty in other matters, and that perhaps there was more to life than making a name for himself. As we shall see, something happened to Judah that transformed him from a grasping, murderous schemer into a humble, fatherly leader, exactly the right kind of man to become the father of Israel’s chief tribe and ancestor of the Jewish people. In the beginning he sought to vex his brother Joseph to the point of death, but in the end he will be reconciled with his brother and become the chief advocate for his father’s family. Judah’s transformation is a critical part of the prophetic picture of the past and future history of Israel’s Two Houses.
And it all began with a good-hearted foreign woman who refused to compromise the righteous principles of her adopted family’s God.