Criswell Theological Review 5.2 (1991) 247-57

                     Copyright © 1991 by Criswell College, cited with permission.




              GENESIS 38: ITS CONTEXT(S) AND





                                         EDWARD M. CURTIS

                                                Biola University

                                           La Mirada, CA 90637


Often analysis of the biblical text by critical scholars is based on

perceived textual anomalies so subtle and obscure as to escape detec-

tion by all but those well trained in critical methodology. The discon-

tinuity between Genesis 38 and its surrounding context, however, is

readily apparent to even a casual reader.1 Genesis 37 begins the Jo-

seph story and continues to the point of Joseph's being sold to

Potiphar in Egypt. Genesis 38 then shifts the focus back to Canaan and

describes a rather peculiar incident in the life of Judah. Gen 39:1 re-

turns to the Joseph story and essentially repeats the information in

37:36 before continuing to recount Joseph's experience in Potiphar's


Most modern scholars have supposed that chapter 38 and the

Joseph story come from different sources,2 but this does not account

for why the material was inserted into the Joseph story at this point.

Some have argued that there was simply no other place to put the

Judah-Tamar story because Judah is still at home with his brothers in

chapter 37 and moves to Egypt with his family before the Joseph


1 I recently asked a class to read the Book of Genesis, and one student asked why

Genesis 38 was placed where it is. The student described his feeling about the way the

chapter interrupts the Joseph story as "like hitting a speed bump,"

2 The general opinion among critical scholars is that material about Joseph comes

from both the J and E sources; J combined the traditional material into something like

the present Joseph story. According to this view, Genesis 38 represents an independent

tradition which was incorporated into the present narrative by J. For discussion of these

matters and references see, e.g., C. Westermann, Genesis 37-50 (Minneapolis: Augsburg

Publishing House, 1986) 15-23; 46-50; J, A. Emerton, "Some Problems in Genesis 38," VT

 25 (1975) 346-60; G, W, Coats, From Canaan to Egypt, CBQ MS 4 (1976) 60-80,

Criswell Theological Review 5.2 (1991) 247-257



248                       CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW


story is concluded. The chronological indicators suggest that this is the

perspective of the narrative. The statement in Cen 38:1, xvhh tfb yhyv

("it happened at that time"), while not a precise indicator of time, sug-

gests that the incidents in 38 took place subsequent to the events in

37, while the circumstantial clause with which 39 begins, drvh Jsvyv

hmyrcm ("now Joseph had been taken to Egypt"), implies that the

events of that chapter were simultaneous with those reported in 38.3

Despite the way the Judah-Tamar material interrupts the Joseph

story, certain literary indicators have long been recognized as in some

way tying the two stories together.4 The most striking of the parallels

between the stories is the repetition of the words . . . hHlw/vhlwyv

rmxyv. . . rkyv . . . xn rkh rmxtv/vrmxyv ("they/she sent... they/she said,

'Please recognize it'. . .he recognized . . . he said") at climactic points

in chapters 37 an.d 38.5 Other suggested verbal parallels include the

descent in 3,,8:1 (i1"i1' "", "Judah went do~n ") and the des~ent in 39:1

(drvy Jsvyv, Joseph had been taken down ). Other thematic parallels,

will be pointed out below.

As Goldin points out, these literary and thematic indicators sug-

gest that

whoever put the story as we have it in its present position, must have

been guided by what seemed to him a sound literary principle: either a

thematic or idiomatic connection must be present between the story of

the sale of Joseph into bondage and the account of Judah's encounter

with Tamar.6


3 Even as these general chronological indicators give some sense of sequence and

chronology to the narrative, it must also be noted that the chronology appears to be pre-

sented from a Semitic perspective rather than a modem Western one. In particular, the

chronology given in the Joseph story indicates that 22 years lapsed between the sale of

Joseph by his brothers and the family's move to Egypt during the second year of the

famine (37:2; 41:46, 47; 45:6, 11). The list of those entering Egypt includes the

grandchildren of Judah (46:12). It is hard to imagine how Judah could have gotten

married, had children, married them to Tamar, sent her away to let Shelah grow

fathered Perez by Tamar (after it is obvious to Tamar that Judah does not intend to

give her to Shelah despite the "many days" that have passed and the fact that Shelah is

now old enough for marriage), and have Perez grow up and father two children in the

space of 22 years. For a discussion of this question see U. Cassuto, "The Story of Tamar

and Judah," Biblical and Oriental Studies (2 vols.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1973), 1.32-40.

4 These connectors were recognized by many of the rabbis. For a summary of

these comments see Cassuto, 30-31; J. Goldin, "The Youngest Son or Where Does Gene-

sis 38 Belong," JBL 96 (1977) 28-29; M. Kasher, Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation

(New York: American Biblical Encyclopedia Society, 1962) 5.57-87.

5 37:32-33 and 38:25-26.

6 Goldin, 29.

Edward M. Curtis: GENESIS 38                   249


Despite these indications of an intended connection between

Genesis 38 and the Joseph story in the final form of the biblical text,

most scholars have focused on the meaning of the text at some point

in a hypothetical prehistory of the text.7 Theories about the prehis-

tory of the text, however, tend to be speculative and uncertain since

they are generally based on reconstructions of history and culture for

which there is minimal evidence. It seems more appropriate to con-

sider the meaning of the passage in its present canonical context

since it is there that the tradition is fixed in its final and authoritative

form. In the context of the canon, though, there are sometimes a num-

ber of smaller contexts that influence and even determine the mean-

ing of an individual pericope. A major task of exegesis involves the

identification of the relevant contexts in order to determine how they

affect the meaning of the passage. There are several different contexts

that are appropriate for understanding the Judah-Tamar story.

Genesis 38 reports interesting facts about Judah, Tamar, the de-

scendants of Judah, and about social institutions like levirate mar-

riage. Placing this, perhaps once independent, unit into the Joseph

story gives it a meaning and significance beyond those individual de-

tails. Its setting in the larger context of the Jacob story further ex-

pands the significance, but it is only when the unit is seen in the

context of the patriarchal narrative and God's promise to Abraham

that the full significance of the story can be appreciated. The various

contexts are not contradictory, but complement one another, and each

contributes uniquely to the full impact of the story intended by the

biblical author.

First of all, Genesis 38 functions in its own right as a somewhat

independent and self-contained story about Judah and his family.8

The story relates how Judah left the other members of his family, set-

tled among the Canaanites and married a Canaanite woman. If one

truly limits the context to Genesis 38, it is impossible to tell whether

this was thought to be good or bad.9 In reality, of course, if the story

circulated independently either before or after it was placed in its


7 Emerton ("Judah and Tamar," VT 29 [1979] 403) for example, has argued that "it

cannot be taken for granted that a story in Genesis had a single meaning and purpose

and retained them unchanged throughout its history first, probably, as an independent

unit of oral tradition and then a part of a written document."

8 As O'Callaghan (Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association, "The Structure

and Meaning of Genesis 38: Judah and Tamar" 5 [1981] 73-74) points out, both the

significant vocabulary (numerous family/kinship terms) and the content (Judah's descen-

dants and their offspring) make it clear that the subject of the chapter is Judah's family.

9 Emerton (VT 29, 410-13) argues that the story may have originated among the

Canaanites, since there is no negative evaluation of the Canaanites and since Tamar, who

was probably a Canaanite, is presented in a more favorable light than Judah or his sons.


present literary context in Genesis, the culture would have provided

sufficient clues for evaluating Judah's conduct without the necessity of

explicitly providing them in the story. What is clear from the narrative

is that Judah's first two sons, Er and Onan, were wicked and the LORD

took their lives. No details are given of Er's wickedness, but Onan's sin

lay in his refusal to father a child with Tamar, his deceased brother's

wife, as the responsibilities of levirate marriage required. Judah ap-

parently concluded that since each son to whom Tamar was married

had died, she was a threat to the family, and he devised an excuse for

delaying her marriage to his remaining son Shelah--a delay that he in-

tended to make permanent by simply ignoring her. Judah's attempt to

thwart the intent of levirate marriage and thus deprive Tamar of her

right to bear an heir for the family, and perhaps of her rightful place

in society as well,10 reflects badly on Judah and provides certain de-

tails about both the values of the society and the institution of levirate


The story is also important in terms of the history of the tribe of

Judah since Judah's behavior clearly jeopardized the future of the

family (and in the broader biblical context the line of Messiah). Ta-

mar's "virtue" in circumventing the problem of Judah's refusal not

only protected her own rights but played a significant role in preserv-

ing what was to become one of the most prominent tribes in Israel.

Earlier critical scholars supposed that the references to individuals

actually refer to the various clans in the tribe of Judah and describe

their settlement and movement in Canaan.11 This idea, of course, pre-

supposes a late date for the material, but as Emerton points out, it is

possible that while the story is about individuals, it also reflects in a

general way the later history and movement of the tribes.12 Thus a

story about individuals may have continued to be used beyond its rel-

evance for family history because it generally reflected the situation

of the various clans in the tribe of Judah. The subsequent popularity

of the story is evident from the blessing given by the people of Beth-

lehem to Ruth when her engagement to Boaz (apparently through a

form of levirate marriage) was announced.13

10 S. Niditch ("The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38," HTR 72

[1979] 143-49) has suggested that in ancient Israelite society "the young woman is allowed

only two proper roles. She is either an unmarried virgin in her father's home or she is a faithful,

child producing wife in her husband's or husband's family's home" (145). By denying Tamar the

right to produce children -in the family, Judah made her a misfit in the social structure. By

bearing Judah's children as the result of her deception, "Her position in society is regularized.

She now becomes a true member of the patriarchal clan" (148).

11 See Emerton, VT 29, 404-5 for references.

12 Ibid.

13 Ruth 4:19-20.

Edward M. Curtis: GENESIS 38                   251


Genesis 38 also occurs in the context of the Joseph story, though

as Westermann has noted, the chapter is not really an addition to the

Joseph story, but rather "belong(s) to the conclusion of the Jacob

story.”14 Even so, the Judah-Tamar story does interrupt the Joseph

story, and it must be interpreted in the context of that material. A lit-

erary function of Genesis 38 is immediately apparent; it increases

tension in the Joseph story in much the same way that cliff-hanger

endings in serials and soap operas increase suspense and generate in-

terest. As Baldwin notes, "While the reader is in suspense to know

how Joseph fared in Egypt, he is forced to attend to this review of

Judah's private life.”15 Von Rad says, "It is really effective for Joseph

to disappear from the reader completely for a time just as he disap-

peared from the father and the brothers."16

Commentators have long recognized that the doctrine of retribu-

tion is set in clear relief by the juxtaposition of Genesis 37 and 38. In

Gen 37:26-27 Judah suggests selling Joseph to the Ishmaelite/Midian-

ite traders,17 and while it is not explicitly stated, it seems likely that

he was significantly involved18 in the plan to slay a male goat in 37:31,

dip Joseph's tunic in the blood and present that "evidence" to Jacob

for him to recognize in 37:32, and draw his own conclusions about

what happened to Joseph. Judah is thus instrumental in depriving Ja-

cob of a child and deceiving him with evidence. In chapter 38 Judah

loses two sons and, as Alter19 notes, the deceiver himself is deceived

by the evidence he gave in pledge for the kid in 38:17. According to

the Midrash, "God said to Judah, 'You deceived your father with a kid.

By your life, Tamar will deceive you with a kid.'... God said to Judah,

'You said to your father, "Please recognize." By your life Tamar will

say to you, "Please recognize."’"20


14 Westermann, Genesis 37-50, 22.

15 J. G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12-50 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity

Press, 1986) 162-63.

16 G. von Rad, Genesis (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972) 357.

17 As a result of Judah's suggestion Joseph's life is spared (v 27), but the text does not

present Judah in a totally positive light in this. His comment in v 26, "What profit is it for us to

kill our brother?" uses a word for profit (fcb) that has quite negative connotations, "illicit gain."

18 At the very least, Judah joined with the others as they slaughtered the goat.

Given Judah's leadership role in suggesting that they sell him, it seems likely that he

was si~ificantly involved in this part of the scheme as well.

19 R Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981) 11. While the terms

male goat (Myzf ryfW) in 37:31 and kid (Myzf ydg) in 38:17, 20 are not identical, both the

wording and meaning are sufficiently similar to establish the literary connection.

20 Gen. Rab. 84:11-12 as cited by Alter, ibid. As was indicated in the previous note,

the Hebrew terms for "male goat" in 37:31 and "kid" in 38:17, 20 are similar but not iden-

tical. The Hebrew expression (xn rkh) translated "please recognize" in the citation from

the mid rash is identical in Gen 37:31 and 38:25.


By setting the Judah-Tamar story in the context of the Joseph

story, a deliberate contrast seems to have been made between Judah's

conduct toward Tamar, who may have been a Canaanite,21 and the

conduct of Joseph with another foreign woman, Potiphar's wife.

There is no real basis for evaluating Judah's marriage to a Canaanite

woman and his subsequent behavior toward Tamar in either the

Judah-Tamar story or the Joseph story, and the implications of this

contrast between the two brothers are not clear apart from the

broader context of the patriarchal narrative.

It has also been suggested that the incident reported in Genesis

38 represents a turning point in the life of Judah.22 He appears in a

very negative light when he suggests the sale of Joseph,23 as he does

in chapter 38 in his dealings with Tamar, in his relationship to the

Canaanites (see below), and perhaps to the rest of his family as well.

Judah's guilt in refusing to give Tamar to his youngest son is clear

from his confession in 38:26 ("She is more righteous than I, inasmuch

as I did not give her to my son Shelah"). Throughout the rest of the Jo-

seph story, Judah appears as the leader of the brothers,24 and while

Baldwin's description of him as "sensitive and self-forgetful"25 is per-

haps overly positive, he does appear to have changed. In 44:18-34 he

intercedes for Benjamin before Joseph when he could easily have

justified abandoning Benjamin in an Egyptian jail26 since he assumed


21 Certainly the daughter of Shua, whom Judah married, was a Canaanite woman.

While the text does not indicate the national origin of Tamar, as Emerton points out

(VT 26 [1976] 90), "most commentators believe that Tamar was thought by J to be a

Canaanite. ...The obvious implication is that Tamar was a Canaanite." J. Sailhamer

(Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers [The Expositor's Bible Commentary; 12 vols.;

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990], 2.232) argues that if Tamar had been a Canaanite

it would likely have been mentioned. He suggests that "through Tamar's clever plan,

then, the seed of Abraham was preserved by not being allowed to continue through the

sons of the Canaanite. . . . The line was continued through Judah and Tamar." The force

of this suggestion is reduced by the fact that at other points in the Davidic Messianic

line there are foreign women such as Rahab and Ruth.

22 E.g., A Berlin (Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative [Sheffield: Al-

mond, 1983] 40) says that Judah "seems to undergo a transformation in Gen. 38 and from

Ithat point on is different from the way he appeared in Gen. 37." See also Baldwin, 163.

23 Goldin (JBL 96, 40-43) suggests that Judah may well have deliberately

thwarted Reuben's plan to rescue Joseph (which was perhaps Reuben's attempt to get

back in his father's good graces) in order to protect the position of family leadership

that had come to him essentially by default as the result of his three older brothers

misdeeds (see, e.g., Gen 49:3-7).

24 Goldin (JBL 96, 43) argues that Genesis 38 is part of the theme of leadership in

Jacob's family, and it may well be that a change in Judah's character contributes to that

theme. Goldin maintains that chapter 38 is an important part of the vita of the one cho-

sen to lead the family.

25 Baldwin, 163.

Edward M. Curtis: GENESIS 38                            253


that the boy had actually stolen the prime minister's cup and thus de-

served the punishment he got. This suggests that Judah is a different

person than the one who 20 years earlier sold his little brother as a

slave because of jealousy and irritation over Joseph's dreams and his

favored status with Jacob and over the negative reports that Joseph

brought Jacob about the brothers.

Genesis 38 also occurs in the context of the Jacob story,27 and is

similar to other narratives about Jacob's children (e.g., Genesis 34;

35:22-23). As was noted above, the material may have been placed

here because of the general chronology of the events. Judah was with

his brothers in the Hebron Valley in chapter 37, and he and his wife

and children went into Egypt with the rest of Jacob's family before

the end of the Joseph story. As Goldin has made clear, however, a ma-

jor theme of both the Jacob and Joseph stories is the question of who

will be the leader of Jacob's family, and the narrative contains several

examples that illustrate that the usual principle of primogeniture was

not the exclusive prerogative for leadership. At times this was deter-

mined by the sovereign choice of God (e.g., the choice of Jacob before

the twins were born [Gen 25:23]); in other instances the normal right

was forfeited because of grossly improper behavior (e.g., Reuben,28

Simeon, and Levi).29 Judah's leadership is affirmed despite the fact

that he was not the first born-or the second or even the third born-

and despite Jacob's preference for Joseph. God's providence is evident

in this even though .human factors such as the brothers' irresponsible

behavior playa role as well. The possibility that chapter 38 recounts

an event that began a transformation in Judah's character may con-

tribute to this theme also.30

Finally, the Judah-Tamar story is set in the context of the entire

patriarchal narrative, and this context also provides significant clues

to its meaning. It is well known that the promise made by God to


that he had made with his father is an important consideration in evaluating Judah's action as well.

27 See above, n. 14.

28 Goldin, 37-38, makes the interesting suggestion that Reuben's sexual inter-

course with his father's concubine was not the cause of his losing the birthright but the

result of his perception that he would be unjustly passed over in favor of Jacob's favor-

ite, Joseph. Since possession of the father's concubines apparently signified mastery and

authority over him, Reuben tried to take matters into his own hands.

29 See Cen 49:3-7. Actually in the case of Jacob and Esau elements of both sover-

eign choice and irresponsible human behavior can be seen. Alongside the pre-birth or-

acle declaring Jacob's rule over his brother, Esau's disregard for the promise and its

spiritual dimensions seems to have contributed significantly to his loss of the rights of

the firstborn.

30 See above and nn. 21-25.



Abraham in Gen 12:1-331 dominates the entire patriarchal narrative.

The provisions of that promise included an heir for Abraham (and for

his descendants as well), the land, and the assurance that the descen-

dants of Abraham would become a great nation that would bless all

the families of the earth. The stories of the patriarchs revolve around

that promise and the various obstacles to its fulfillment encountered

by the patriarchs. Abraham responded to God's call and went to

Canaan where he was immediately confronted with a major obstacle

to possessing the land--"Now the Canaanite was then in the land"

(Gen 12:6). Then came a famine in the land that threatened his fam-

ily's survival in Canaan. This obstacle drove them out of the land and

mto Egypt where Abraham s deceit landed Sarah in Pharaoh’s

harem--a rather significant threat to the fulfillment of the promise-

and she had to be extricated by God. The promise was threatened by

Sarah's barrenness, by the command to sacrifice Isaac, by Isaac's not

being married at age 40, and then by Rebekah's barrenness. Jacob's

forced exile from the promised land32 threatened the fulfillment, and

the obstacles did not end with Jacob's return from Aram.

For Abraham and Isaac the threats to the promise seem to focus

primarily on the heir; in the case of Jacob they shift primarily to that

part of the promise involving the land. As the promise theme contin-

ues to unfold in the Jacob story, a theme introduced earlier is devel-

oped in a way that is relevant for understanding Genesis 38. As was

noted above, it is difficult to evaluate Judah's marriage to a Canaanite

woman on the basis of either Genesis 38 or the Joseph story. The Ja-

cob story taken together with the broader patriarchal narrative does

provide a basis for such a judgment. As Abraham was about to send

his servant to Aram to find a wife for Isaac, he made the servant for-

mally swear that he would not take a wife for Isaac from among the

Canaanites (Gen 24:4). This same anti-Canaanite perspective is evident

in 26:34-35 where Isaac and Rebekah's displeasure over Esau's mar-

riage to two Canaanite women (see also 28:8-9) is emphasized. Genesis

34 from the Jacob story suggests one reason for this perspective.

Genesis 34 relates an incident in which a Canaanite named

Shechem had sexual relations with Jacob's daughter Dinah and


31 E.g., in response to the question of where the impetus for the thematic develop-

ment throughout the Pentateuch comes, D. J. A. Clines (The Theme of the Pentateuch

[Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1978] 26) says, "There can be little doubt that the answer

must be: the promise to the patriarchs, with its various elements, and in its various for-

mulations." For a detailed study of this subject see C. Westermann, The Promises to the

Fathers (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980; see also W. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament

Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978) 84-99.

   32 On this see E. Curtis, "Structure, Style and Context as a Key to Interpreting Jacob's Encounter

at Peniel," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987) of 129-37, esp.135-37.

Edward M. Curtis: GENESIS 38                   255


approached her family requesting permission to marry her. In his ne-

gotiations with Jacob, Hamor, Shechem's father and the Canaanite

leader, described the advantage that such an arrangement would have

for the family of Jacob: "Intermarry with us; give your daughters to us,

and take our daughters for yourselves. Thus you shall live with us,

and the land shall be open before you; live and trade in it, and ac-

quire property in it" (Gen 34:9-10). When the sons of Jacob imposed

circumcision as the condition for the marriage, Shechem explained to

his fellow citizens why they should submit to this and afterward said,

“Only on this condition will the men consent to live with us, to be-

come one people" (34:22). What was viewed by the Canaanites as a

significant advantage (becoming one people), was viewed by the bibli-

cal authors as a significant threat to Israel's existence, and this per-

spective provides a basis for judging Judah's behavior in Genesis 38.

The story of Dinah in Genesis 34 shows that the Canaanites living in

the land constituted a major threat to the promise in that assimilation

with the Canaanites would make it impossible for Abraham's descen-

dants ever to become a great nation as Gen 12:3 predicts.

Judah's departure from his brothers and his settling among the

Canaanites represented a threat to the family in that it would be

more difficult to maintain the family's distinctive Yahwistic values in

isolation from the other family members. Settling among the Canaan-

ites and intermarrying with them posed the significant risk of being

assimilated with them (ie., becoming one people).33 It is likely that

Judah's evil sons reflect the values they learned from their father and

constitute evidence for Judah's departure from the values deemed

proper by the biblical author. It is possible that the repetition of the

verb Fyv, "he turned aside" in 38:1, "he turned aside to a man, an Adul-

lamite, whose name was Hirah"; and 38:16, "he turned aside to her

[ie., the prostitute] by the road" is meant to suggest that Judah was

committing fornication in both instances (first spiritually and then

physically), an even closer parallel if Tamar was a Canaanite. Hirah,


33 This theme continues into the Book of Judges. As Block ("The Period of the

Judges: Religious Disintegration Under Tribal Rule," in Israel's Apostasy and Restoration: Essays

in Honor of Roland K Harrison led. A Gileadi; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988] 48) has

suggested, literary indicators make it clear that the editor of the Book of Judges is making the

point that --the spiritual condition of the people inhabiting the land of Canaan at the end of the

settlement period is the same as it had been at the beginning. It has made no difference that the

identity of the people has changed. ...He has exposed the total Canaanization of Israelite society."

Thus the threat anticipated in Genesis proves to be fully legitimate. The close parallels between

the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and the story of the Levite and his concubine in

Judges 19 makes it clear that interaction with the Canaanites has resulted in assimilation of their

values to the point where the Benjaminites are little different from the people of Sodom

and Gomorrah.



Judah's Canaanite friend, uses the term hwdq, “cult prostitute" (vv 21-

22) for the woman with whom Judah had sexual relations while the

narrator (v 15) uses the word hnvz, “harlot, prostitute." Perhaps the

Canaanite's use of a term replete with connotations of Canaanite fer-

tility worship would remind the reader that cult prostitution consti-

tuted an important part of Canaanite worship.

Even as the story of Dinah and Shechem in chapter 34 implies

the threat the Canaanites posed to the fulfillment of the promise to

Abraham, the Judah-Tamar story shows that Judah willingly contrib-

uted to the problem by his behavior.34 As Ross points out, chapter 38

present[s] a picture of a corrupt family. Judah continued his irrespon-

sible course: he had earlier moved the sale of Joseph, then separated

from his brothers and married a Canaanite, and now had seen the

fruit of that marriage thoroughly evil.”35 He further notes, “If it had

been left up to Judah, the family would have assimilated with

Canaanites."36 Aalders says that the events of chapter 38 “especially

bring to light the critical danger that threatened the 'chosen seed' if

they remained in Canaan. Mixed marriages with the Canaanites could

only lead to the people of Israel losing their identity among the

Canaanites and eventually being absorbed by them.”37

This suggests another important connection with the Joseph story

although the verbal and literary connectors are not explicit ones. Gene-

sis 38 shows that living in Canaan among its inhabitants jeopardized the

fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham because the sons of Jacob were

unable and/or unwilling to resist assimilation with the Canaanites. The

family of Judah, the leading spokesman for the brothers, and the one

destined to become the leading tribe and father of the royal and messi-

anic line, was threatened with extinction as a result of Judah's actions.


34 In strong contrast to Judah's behavior, Joseph is presented in chap. 39 as resist-

ing the advances of a married foreign woman. It is true that Joseph does marry an Egyp-

tian, and the daughter of a priestess at that. There are no indications in the text that this

was viewed negatively and that this constituted a threat to the promise or the future of

Abraham's descendants or to proper Yahwistic values. It is unclear whether it was the

context (ie., Joseph was living in Egypt where he perhaps had few choices for a wife

other than Egyptians. In addition, Pharaoh apparently arranged for the marriage) or if

it was Joseph's character that caused the biblical author to view that marriage to a for-

eign woman as appropriate. Generally Egyptians were not viewed in the same over-

whelmingly negative terms as Canaanites though at a later time Solomon's marriage to

an Egyptian princess was viewed negatively and was seen as a major step that set

Solomon on the course that led hIm to apostasy. ;

35 A P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988) 616.

36  Ibid. 619.

37 G. C. Aalders, Genesis (Bible Student's Commentary; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan, 1981) 2.191.

Edward M. Curtis: GENESIS 38                   257


Joseph's time in Egypt and his elevation to a high position there

did much to insure the survival of Jacob's family during the famine

that affected the entire Near East, but there appears to be a signifi-

cance that goes beyond the short term. Gen 43:26-34 describes a meal

that Joseph ate with his brothers in Egypt before he revealed himself

to them. Verse 32 explains that Joseph, the brothers, and the Egyp-

tians ate separately. This was done, according to v 32, because "the

Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abom-

ination to the Egyptians." Likewise, Joseph's family was allowed to

live in the area of Goshen, apparently apart from the areas where the

Egyptians lived, because "every shepherd is an abomination to the

Egyptians" (46:34). The situation in Egypt was very different from that

in Canaan. In Egypt the problem posed by intermarriage and assimi-

lation was far less significant, not because of the Israelites but rather

because the Egyptians would not have anything to do with them. In

Egypt the descendants of Abraham were protected from themselves

because the Egyptians considered them to be an abomination. Thus

Jacob's family was placed in a cultural environment where God's

promise that they would become a great nation could be fulfilled.

As Aalders suggests, "Jacob's descendants had to leave Canaan if

they were to develop as a separate and distinctive people. It was im-

perative that they be moved into a situation where they could not pos-

sibly mix with their countrymen. This, of course, happened in

Egypt."38 The necessity for the Egyptian sojourn in Israel's becoming

a lvdg yvg "a great nation," as predicted in Gen 12:2 is suggested by Jo-

seph in 50:20, "You meant evil against me, but Cod meant it for good

in order... to preserve many people alive [br Mf tyHhl]." While the

same kind of direct verbal correspondence that often links passages

and ideas is not found here, it seems likely that Mf, "people," and yvg

"nation,” are essentially synonymous here and that Joseph's statement

is related to the situation found in Exodus 1. Exod 1:20 says, Mfh bryIv

dxm vmcfyv, "the people have become very numerous and strong," and

this prompts the Pharaoh to do something about a situation he consid-

ers quite dangerous (e.g., Exod 1:7, 9, 12, 20). It seems likely that the

statement in Exodus is meant to emphasize the fulfillment of the

promise to make Abraham's descendants into a great nation.

Recognizing the various contexts in which the Judah-Tamar story

is set is essential in understanding the significance of the events

described in Genesis 38. The contexts complement one another, and

each provides unique information that illuminates the purpose(s) of

the story intended by the biblical author.


38 Ibid.

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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            Dallas, TX 75246

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