This Week's Focus Passage

Judah and Tamar

Focus Passage: Genesis 38

Judah and Tamar

If we had been reading the Scriptures in the order in which they are set before us, we would of course have just read Genesis 37 before we came to Genesis 38. We would have concluded our reading of the 37th chapter of that first book with the following words:

And the Midianites sold him—Joseph, that is—into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard.

This is the consummation of the hideous plot that had been designed and carried out by the brethren of Joseph. They had sold him unto the Midianites of a passing caravan on its way to Egypt where he was subsequently sold to Pharaoh’s officer by the name of Potiphar. This account is not continued until the beginning of our thirty-ninth chapter; and we read the continuum immediately in verse one:

And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither.

But how is it that chapter thirty-eight is ‘inserted’ between the thirty-seventh and the thirty-ninth chapters? Inexplicably, and out of the blue as it were, no longer are we reading about Joseph; he has been left in the hands of Potiphar in Egypt. Without any apparent explanation, we are led from Joseph in Egypt to his older brother, Judah. Joseph is totally absent as another account begins:

And it came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

This reminds us of a common practice in many Fundamental churches. It is often the practice of the song-leader when coming upon a hymn with five stanzas to call the congregation saying, ‘We will sing stanzas one, two, four, and five.’ This has been common enough to have encouraged one man to write a small book with the title, ‘What happened to verse three?’ We find ourselves in Genesis wondering, ‘what happened with Joseph; why have we left him for Judah?’ On the surface of it, the account of the behavior of Judah appears to be entirely out of place. Many ‘higher critics’ have jumped at the supposed opportunity to allege that some later redactor simply ‘stuck this story in’ without offering any particular reason. Let us see if we can discover the reason for this seemingly strange ‘interruption’ in the otherwise continuing saga of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob.

This account of Judah begins with the advice that he went down from his brethren. In doing so, whatever his reasons (some imagine a falling-out over the treatment of Joseph), he not only separated from his own people but he attached himself to heathen society, befriending an Adullamite. This led—as it frequently will—to more extended estrangement from his true family. Indeed, it led to Judah marrying a Canaanite, the daughter of Shua, who bare him three sons. When they were of sufficient age to marry, Judah arranged for the elder, Er, to be married to Tamar, likely a Canaanite as well. It is not to our purpose to speak in detail of the miscarriages of the marriages of the sons of Judah. Suffice to say that Judah broke his promise to Tamar to give her to his third son, Shelah, which was the failure that provoked her sin of incest with Judah by disguising herself as a harlot. When Judah, recently widowed, saw her sitting on the roadside, taking her to be exactly how she had intended him to take her, he propositioned her, left her with items of security, or collateral, for promise of payment for her services, impregnated her, and went on his merry way. When it became known that Tamar was pregnant, she was brought before judges and charged with adultery, for she was still betrothed to Shelah. Judah, in his self-righteousness, declared that she should be burnt. In her defense, she had brought forth the items of collateral that he had left with her to demonstrate that he, Judah, was the father. Judah confessed his sin, not of incest, for he did not know she was his daughter-in-law, but the sin of fornication.

This ‘interruption’ is concluded with Tamar giving birth to twin boys; Perez and Zerah, and then in the next chapter we are taken back to the account of Joseph and his plight in Egypt. So what was this ‘interruption’ all about? What was the reason behind this ‘detour’? Was it truly an interruption? Was it really a ‘detour’ from the straight pathway? Were we simply escorted to a rest area for a bit of relaxation before the ‘meanwhile back at Potiphar’s’ of the next chapter? The answer to the imagined dilemma is closer to hand than we may realize. We are told at the outset of the ‘Joseph story’ that it is a part of the ongoing record of the ‘generations of Jacob.’ If we would only keep that in mind when we come to this ‘interruption,’ we should recognize that it is not, after all, an interruption at all in the generations of Jacob. Judah is of the generations of Jacob. In point of fact, he is a son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife; he is among her six sons; borne fourth. This is the son foreordained to be the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. It is not as though it had as yet been revealed to the patriarch, but we are able to look back and witness the ancestry of the one Jacob would, before his death, refer to as Shiloh. As wonderful as Joseph is as a picture of Christ, he is not even once mentioned in His lineage. The beauty of this interruption is the reality of God’s purpose to bring forth His Seed. The ultimate answer to our inquiry is found in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. In that account, we read immediately:

Abraham begat Isaac: and Isaac begat Jacob: and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren: and Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar— verse 1:2—of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.—verse 1:16.

So we are carried from These are the generations of Jacob in Genesis 37, to The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church


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