Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989) 373-92.

Copyright 1989 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

 

An Exegetical Study

of Genesis 38

 

 

Steven D. Mathewson

Pastor

Mountain View Bible Church, Helena, Montana

 

Introduction

 

Although Benno Jacob has called the Judah-Tamar story "the

crown of the book of Genesis and Tamar one of the most admirable

women,"1 Genesis 38 has generated more frustration than enthusiasm

among its interpreters. This frustration has ensued from the story's

position amidst the Joseph narrative. Many commentators describe

the positioning of Genesis 38 by terms such as "unconnected, indepen-

dent, interruption."2 Von Rad asserts, "Every attentive reader can

see that the story of Judah and Tamar has no connection at all with

the strictly organized Joseph story at whose beginning it is now in-

serted."3 Similarly Brueggemann alleges, "This peculiar chapter

stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every

way and is most enigmatic."4 Bowie says that Genesis 38 "is like an

alien element, suddenly and arbitrarily thrust into a record which it

serves only to disturb. Certainly few people would choose this chap-

ter as a basis for teaching or preaching."5

 

1 Benno Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis, trans. and ed. Ernest I. Jacob and

Walter Jacob (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1974), p. 261.

2 George R. H. Wright, "The Positioning of Genesis 38," Zeitschrift fur die Alttesta-

mentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982): 523.

3 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, trans. John H. Marks (London: SCM Press, 1961), p. 351.

4 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 307.

5 Walter Russell Bowie, "The Book of Genesis: Exposition," in The Interpreter's

 

373



374 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

This is not merely the sentiment of recent writers. As far back as

the second century B.C., the writer of the pseudepigraphal Book of Ju-

bilees repositioned the Judah-Tamar account later in the Joseph

story after the events of Genesis 41:1-49.6 Moreover, Josephus, in the

second book of his Antiquities of the Jews, gave considerable atten-

tion to the Joseph story and omitted Genesis 38 in the process. The

concern of his second book was "the descent of the Israelites into

Egypt and their eventual liberation therefrom."7 Apparently Jose-

phus did not consider Genesis 38 germane to this theme. Further-

more, as Goldin has observed, even the medieval Jewish commenta-

tor Rashi wondered why Genesis 38 was "placed here to interrupt

the account about Joseph."8 Indeed the location of the Judah-Tamar

story has a long history of being considered problematic.9

Unfortunately the "views of the function and purpose of Genesis

38 have remained relatively static through the years."10 Recently

there has been a renewed interest in Genesis 38 and its related is-

 

Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), 1:757.

H. C. Leupold even concluded that Genesis 38 remains "entirely unsuited to homileti-

cal use, much as the devout Bible student may glean from the chapter" (Exposition of

Genesis, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 19601, 2:990).

6 James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepicrapha, 2 vols. (Garden

City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985), 2:128-32. Chapters 39-45 of Jubilees feature the

author's condensation of the Joseph stories. The opening verses of Jubilees 39 briefly

mention Joseph's sale to Potiphar as recorded in Genesis 37:36 and move immediately

to Joseph's elevation as recorded in Genesis 39:1-6. The remainder of jubilees 39 re-

counts the advances of Potiphar's wife and the imprisonment of Joseph as recorded in

Genesis 39-40. Jubilees 40 then relates the interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams by

Joseph, Joseph's elevation as a ruler in Egypt, and his leadership efforts in preparing

for the famine-events described in Genesis 41:1-49. At this point the author inserted

the Judah-Tamar story of Genesis 38 as chapter 41 in jubilees. In jubilees 42, the au-

thor continued the story of Joseph, picking up with the arrival of the famine as de-

scribed in Genesis 41:53-57.

7 Thomas W. Franxman, Genesis and the "Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus"

(Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1979), p. 215.

8 Judah Goldin, "Youngest st Son or Where Does Genesis 38 Belong?" Journal of

Biblical Literature 96 (March 1977): 27.

9 For a fuller discussion of this point, see Steven D. Mathewson, "The Relationship

of Genesis 38 to the Joseph Story" (MA thesis, Western Conservative Baptist Semi-

nary, 1986), pp. 1-10.

10 Susan Niditch, "The Wrong Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38," Har-

vard Theological Review 72 (January-April 1979): 143. One exception to this trend is

Umberto Cassuto's fine study, first published in 1929, which considered the problem of

Genesis 38's location in the Joseph story. He too noted that scholars of his day paid

much attention to the origin and construction of Genesis 38 but "have not dealt at all,

or only superficially, with the problem of the relationship between this section and

its context" (Biblical and Oriental Studies, vol. 1 [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 19731, pp.

29-40).



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 375

 

sues.11 Yet this has come almost exclusively from scholars whose

critical approach to the text colors the conclusions they offer. On the

other hand conservative writers have given scant attention, at least

in written form, to the Genesis 38 problem.

The purpose of this article is to examine the interconnection be-

tween Genesis 38 and its context. The present writer seeks to demon-

strate that Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, carefully

interwove the Judah-Tamar story with the Joseph narrative for the

purpose12 of further developing his theme in Genesis. This will be

accomplished by examining the chronological, literary, and theolog-

ical relationships between Genesis 38 and its context.

 

An Exegetical Overview of Genesis 38

 

Any such discussion of the relationship between Genesis 38 and

its context must build on an understanding of the chapter itself. Thus

the following overview of the Judah-Tamar story is offered.

 

LITERARY ANALYSIS

The Judah-Tamar story takes the form of a comedy, a type of

story characterized by a "U-shaped" plot that moves from tragedy to

a happy ending.13 Of the plot devices familiar to comic structure,

this story contains at least the following: disguise, mistaken iden-

tity, surprise, sudden reversal of misfortune, rescue from disaster, and

reversal of conventional expectations (specifically, the younger over

the older). Furthermore its ending with the birth of two sons is simi-

 

11 In addition to the aforementioned articles by Goldin, Niditch, and Wright, see

the following: M. C. Astour, "Tamar the Hierodule: An Essay in the Method of Vesti-

gial Motifs," Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (June 1966): 185-96; G. W. Coats,

"Widow's Rights: A Crux in the Structure of Genesis 38," Catholic Biblical Quarterly

34 (October 1972): 461-66; John A. Emerton, "Some Problems in Genesis 38," Vetus Tes-

tamentum 25 (May 1975): 338-61; idem, "Examination of a Recent Structuralist

Interpretation of Genesis 38," Vetus Testamentum 26 (January 1976): 79-98; idem,

"Judah and Tamar," Vetus Testamentum 29 (October 1979): 403-15; Ira Robinson,

"Bepetah`enayirn in Genesis 38:14," Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (December 1977):

569.

12 This writer uses "purpose" here as defined by John A. Martin: "the reason the au-

thor wrote his material for his original readers and for those who would enter into

the original readers' experience down through the ages. The purpose includes the de-

sired effect the material would have on the original readers. The purpose is to be in-

ferred from the text itself and should not be imposed on the text from the outside"

(The Structure of 1 and 2 Samuel," Bibliotheca Sacra 141 [January-March 19841: 42, n.

12).

13 Leland Ryken suggests four major types of stories: the heroic narrative, the epic,

the comedy, and the tragedy. For further discussion and explanation, see his work

How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,

1985) pp. 75-86.


376 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 


lar to the types of endings usually found in a comic plot.14

 

THE FUTURE OF JUDAH'S LINE IN JEOPARDY (38:1-11)

 

General introduction (38:1). The opening verse informs the

reader that Judah went down (dr,y.eva) from his brothers and turned

aside (Fye.va) to an Adullamite man named Hirah.15 Stigers calculates

that Judah was about 20 years of age at this time.16

The establishment of Judah's family (38:2-5). The plot height-

ens as Judah, who had already associated himself with a Canaanite

man,17 took a Canaanite wife.18 The subsequent births of three sons

are "recorded in breathless pace," indicating the subordinate role of

these events as they establish the context for what is to come.19

The tragedy in Judah's family (38:6-11). The account now jumps

from the birth of the sons to the marriage of the first. At this point

in the narrative, Tamar, the second main character, is introduced.

After Judah took Tamar to be a wife for his son Er, tragedy struck.

Because Er was evil in the sight of Yahweh, He took Er's life.20

 

14 Ibid., p. 82.

15 Assuming that the events of Genesis 38 began transpiring soon after Joseph was

sold into slavery, the story would have occurred around 1898 B.C. For a helpful chart

on the chronology from Solomon back to Joseph, cf. Allen P. Ross, "Genesis," in The

Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 2 vols.

(Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983, 1985), 1:89. This sets the story near the beginning of

the Middle Bronze Age 11 A (ca. 1900-1750 B.C.), a period that witnessed a movement

toward a seminomadic and even a sedentary lifestyle. Urban centers began to develop

in Palestine, and the culture was in a state of flux, being influenced from the north and

the east (G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment [Grand

Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974], p. 16; Keith N. Schoville, Biblical Archaeologic in

Focus [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978], p. 40).

16 Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish-

ing House, 1976), p. 278.

17 The designation "Hirah the Adullamite" in Genesis 38:1 identifies Hirah as a

resident of Adullam, a Canaanite city mentioned in Joshua 12:15 and 15:35. The loca-

tion of this site appears to be at the western edge of the hill country about 16 kilome-

ters northwest of Hebron (Emerton, "Some Problems in Genesis 38,' p. 343; L. H. Grol-

lenberg, Atlas of the Bible, trans. and ed. Joyce M. Reid and H. H. Rowley [London:

Thomas Nelson and Sons, 19571, pp. 29, 60).

18 Mixed marriage with the Canaanites was understood by the patriarchs to be a

threat to the Abrahamic promise. In both Genesis 24:3-4 and 28:1, 6, the warnings by

Abraham and Isaac not to take a Canaanite wife were expressed by xlo with the im-

perfect (of HqalA), which denotes permanent prohibition. See Thomas O. Lambdin, In-

troduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 114.

19 Robert Alter notes, "Here, as at other points in the episode, nothing is allowed to

detract our focused attention from the primary, problematic subject of the proper chan-

nel for the seed" (The Art of Biblical Narrative [New York: Basic Books, 19811, p. 6).

20 H. Freedman suggests that Er's wickedness may be "deduced" from the wickedness

and death of Onan mentioned in 38:10. He bases his argument on the terns "also," tak-

ing it to mean "for the same reason" ("The Book of Genesis," in The Soncino Chumash:



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 377

 

After Er's death Judah commanded Onan to go to Tamar and "do

your duty as a brother-in-law" (MBeyav;) to her with the intent of raising

up offspring for Er (v. 8).21 Behind this verse lies the plight of a

childless widow and the resulting custom of levirate marriage.22

But as 38:9-10 reveals, Onan refused to perform this duty, know-

ing that the offspring would be considered his dead brother's and not

his. Driver has pointed out that the construction xBa-Mxi should be un-

derstood as a frequentative use of the perfect and translated "when-

ever he went in" instead of "when he went in."23 Thus the action by

Onan was done repeatedly and was not just a one-time event.24 Be-

cause this was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, He took Onan's life.

Genesis 38:11 draws to a close this sad chapter in Judah's fam-

ily. Judah instructed Tamar to go back to her father's house until

Shelah, the third son, grew up. Judah feared that Shelah would die

as had his two older brothers.25 Stigers suggests that Judah was

 

The Five Books of Moses with Haphtaroth, ed. A. Cohen [London: Soncino Press,

1947], p. 237). However, even if the term "also" in 38:10 means "for the same reason,"

the emphasis is still clearly on the similar magnitude of both sins-not that they

were necessarily identical. Perhaps, as Leupold notes, the sin may have been some

sexual perversity, since it is mentioned in connection with Er's marriage (Genesis,

2:980). But for whatever reason, description of Er's sin did not advance the story line,

and thus it was not specified.

21 According to Ralph Alexander, the primary meaning of the verbal root =' is "to

assume the responsibility to marry one's widowed sister-in-law in order to raise up a

male heir to the deceased brother." He notes that "it developed its specific nuance

from the brother-in-law's function in the law of levirate marriage" (" Cn,," in Theolog-

ical Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and

Bruce K. Waltke, 2 vols. [Chicago: Moody Press, 19801, 1:359). For support of the exis-

tence of the levirate custom outside Israel, see Donald A. Leggett, The Levirate and

Goel Institutions in the Old Testament with Special Attention to the. Book of Ruth

(Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 12-27.

22 Niditch describes the awkward position of a childless widow during this time:

"She is no longer a virgin and does not belong in her father's home. Yet she can no

longer bear children in the patriarchal line; her link with that line, the husband, has

died. The woman who has never had children before her husband's death finds her-

self in a particularly anomalous and uncomfortable situation: Where is she to go?"

("The Wrong Woman Righted," p. 146).

23 S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis (New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1905), p. 328;

Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2d ed. (Toronto: University of

Toronto Press, 1976), p. 85; E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, rev. ed. A. E.

Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 336.

24 Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: In-

terVarsity Press, 1967), p. 188.

25 Perhaps, as suggested by W. Gunther Plaut, Judah thought that by removing her

from the house, the duty of Shelah to marry her might become less pressing with the

passing of time. This seems to be the explanation given in the latter part of Genesis

38:11 for this unusual action (Genesis [New York: Union of American Hebrew Congre-

gations, 19741, p. 372). Furthermore C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch comment: "The sudden

death of his two sons so soon after their marriage with Thamar [sic] made Judah hesi-

tate to give her the third as a husband also, thinking, very likely, according to a su-



378 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

quite "spiritually unperceptive" at this point, refusing "to connect

the evil conduct of his sons with their early demise."26

The groundwork has been laid for the real drama to unfold in

Genesis 38:12-30. Moving at a rapid pace, the author has for the most

part presented the facts without reference to causes or motives.27

 

THE CONTINUATION OF JUDAH'S LINE THROUGH TAMAR (38:12-30)

Tamar's deception of Judah (38:12-23). This section records the

bold actions of Tamar, who deceived her father-in-law Judah into

unknowingly performing the levirate duty. Disguise, an element com-

mon to comic structure, dominates this part of the narrative. Also the

plot now unfolds at a slower pace here in the heart of the story.28

Verses 12-15 describe Tamar's cunning move when circumstances

in Judah's life afforded her an opportunity to act. Judah, whose wife

had died, had finished his time of mourning and was preparing to

join his sheepshearers. The hard and dirty work of shearing sheep

was accompanied by a festival that was noted for hilarity and much

wine-drinking.29 No doubt Tamar calculated that the flavor of this

festival and the sexual unfulfillment that resulted from being a wid-

ower would make Judah quite susceptible to sexual temptation.30

So Tamar removed her widow's garments, veiled her face, en-

wrapped herself in disguise, and proceeded to wait at the entrance of

Enaim.31 The latter part of 38:14 indicates Tamar's motive for this

action: She had not been given in marriage to Shelah even though

he had grown up. She was being deprived of conception through the

law of levirate duty, so she decided to take matters into her own

hands.32

 

perstition which we find in Tobit iii. 7 sqq., that either she herself, or marriage with

her, had been the cause of her husbands' deaths" (Biblical Commentary on the Old

Testament, vol. 1: The Pentateuch [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,

19491, p. 340).

26 Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, p. 279.

27 Von Rad, Geneiss, p. 352.

28 Von Rad views Genesis 38:12-30 as the ''real story" which is set against the

"necessary facts" provided by 38:1-11 (Genesis, p. 352).

29 See 1 Samuel 25:4, 8, 18, 36; 2 Samuel 13:23, 28; cf. Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller,

Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life, ed. Boyce M. Bennett, Jr. and David Ff. Scott, 3d

ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), p. 131.

30 Leupold, Genesis, 2:982-83. Kidner notes that sexual temptation would be sharp-

ened- during this festive time by the "Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornica-

tion as fertility magic (Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 188).

31 The term (38:14) has been problematic and subject to many suggestions.

From the context of 38:21, it is apparent that: alone was sufficient to identify a

place of meeting known to the characters of the story.

32 Middle Assyrian Law number 33 and Hittite Lawn number 193 suggest inclusion of



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 379

 

Judah was fooled by Tamar's disguise (38:15), considering her to

be a prostitute.33 So he had sexual relations with her (v. 16). Then

in lieu of payment Judah left a pledge which would become

an important piece of identification later in the story. This pledge

consisted of Judah's cylinder seal and his staff. Vawter explains,

"What Judah does is surrender his ID card, which he expects to be

quickly redeemed, but which Tamar retains for her own purposes."34

As a result Judah attempted to honor his pledge to a prostitute who

seemingly had vanished (vv. 20-23).

Judah's discovery about Tamar (38:24-26). In these verses the

story's descent into tragedy is brought to a climax a s Judah, still

reckoning the pregnant Tamar to be part of his family, sentences her

to burning.35 But precisely at this point enters the surprise that

 

the father in the line of levirate responsibility. While the extant copies of these

laws are dated a few hundred years later than the time of the Judah-Tamar story,

they at least suggest that Tamar's action of seeking conception by Judah may have

been in accord with a similar custom existing during her time. A translation of these

laws appears in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the

Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 182, 196.

33 Though Judah recognizes her as a hnAOz (38:15), Hirah refers to her as hwAdeq; (38:21).

The verb hnAzA is used regularly in the Old Testament for the activity of a prostitute and

refers to illicit heterosexual intercourse. Primarily it denotes a sexual relationship

outside a formal union or outside the marriage bond (Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and

Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford: Claren-

don Press, 1907], p. 275; S. Erlandsson, "hnAzA," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Tes-

tament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green

[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 19801, 4:99-100). On the other hand

the term hwAdeq; denotes a "temple prostitute" who functioned in association with the

fertility cult in Canaanite religion (Thomas E. McComiskey, "wdaqA," in Theological

Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:788). While Judah was certainly out of fellowship

with Yahweh, it is not necessary to suppose that he was actively practicing Canaanite

religion in this situation. He was simply seeking sexual gratification. Though he certainly

assumed the disguised Tamar to be a temple prostitute, the less technical term hnAOz in 38:15

emphasizes that he recognized her as a prostitute with whom he could fulfill his sexual desires.

See also Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press,

1983), pp. 60-61.

34 Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,

1977), p. 398. Cylinder seals were usually between one and two inches in length and

were made of hematite or else basalt, marble, ivory, or even wood. The outer face of

the seal was engraved with a design which would make an impression when it was

rolled on damp clay, thus creating marks of identification. They were often attached

to a cord which was strung around the owner's neck. See D. J. Wiseman and A. R. Mil-

lard, "Seal, Sealing in the Old Testament," in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas

(Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1980), 3:1407; "Seal, Seals in the Ancient Period," in

Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), 14:1972-74.

35 Later, in the Mosaic Law, burning was prescribed only in the case of a man who

married both a woman and her mother (Lev. 20:14) or a priest's daughter involved in

harlotry (Lev. 21:9). Stoning was the usual punishment for adultery (Deut. 22:20-24).

Stigers points out that the Code of Hammurabi, as well as the Hittite and Middle

Assyrian laws, never prescribes burning for adultery. He suggests, though, that "we



380 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

changes the course of the story. Tamar produced her evidence, re-

vealing that the one who impregnated her was none other than Ju-

dah! The participle txceUm expresses simultaneous action with the

Qal perfect form hHAl;wA,36 Tamar sent her telling items to Judah even

as she was being brought out to receive her death sentence.37

Judah in turn was forced to admit that "she is more righteous

than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah" (v. 26)

Though the root qdc ("righteous") often has moral connotations when

applied to God's standards, its basic meaning is conformity to a stan-

dard, whether ethical or moral.38 The standard in this case would

be the accepted social custom and duty of levirate marriage.39

The verdict from Judah in verse 26 is the normative (authorita-

tive) viewpoint of the story. That is, Judah's statement is the "key

utterance," which "we intuitively recognize as summing up what the

story as a whole is asserting."40

Tamar's delivery of twin sons (38:27-30). The story concludes

with the birth of twin sons by Tamar. Because of the bursting out of

the second boy over the first one, he was named "Perez" (Cr,P,), which

means "an outburst, bursting forth, a breach."41 The name given to

the boy with the scarlet thread tied on his hand was "Zerah" (Hraz,)

a name meaning "dawning, shining, brightness" and perhaps allud-

 

should see here 'a reflection of his [Judah's] patriarchal predecessors or of their own

ancestral culture. Here is a clear case of adultery, and the penalty is but one. There

seems to be no reason to seek others. Judah's judgment was the correct one. More final

conclusions probably will have to wait for further archaeological discoveries" (A

Commentary on Genesis, p. 281).

36 For classification and examples of simultaneous action expressed by the participle

and the perfect tense, see sections 220 and 237 in Williams, Hebrew Syntax, pp. 40, 43.

37 This verse itself, through the two statements of Tamar, creates suspense for the hl.,xe

reader. In her first statement, her items of proof are simply identified by the term

Then her second statement brings her shocking revelation to a climax as the items

referred to by hl.,xe~n are revealed to be Judah's cylinder seal and staff which Tamar had

in her keeping.

38 Harold G. Stigers, in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:752-54.

39 E. Jacob understands this standard to be that of prostitution, the rules and customs

of which Judah.has not respected (Theology of the Old Testament, trans. Arthur W.

Heathcoate and Philip J. Allcock [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 19581, p.

95).. However, one wonders in what way Judah did not respect the rules and customs of

prostitution. Jacob's view does not adequately account for Judah's confession

"inasmuch as I did not give her to Shelah my son." This confession hardly refers to

any customs associated with prostitution, but has reference to the custom of levirate

marriage.

40 This terminology is borrowed from Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, p.

62. Brueggemann also recognizes the importance of this verdict, proposing that it

"constitutes the main turn in the narrative" (Genesis, p. 309).

41 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p.

839.



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 381

 

ing to the bright-colored thread.42

For von Rad, the conclusion to this story is "somewhat unsatis-

factory." He asks, "Is v. 30 its conclusion at all? Strangely it con-

cludes without telling whose wife Tamar finally became. According

to v. 26b, in any case, she was not Judah's. Was she then Shelah's?

Should that not have been said?"43

However, as Ross points out, this conclusion "provides the sig-

nificance of the whole account. God gave Tamar twins, and the line

of Judah continued in her."44 This significance continued to blossom

as God's revelation progressed.45

 

The Chronological Relationship

 

THE CHRONOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

Two alleged chronological problems have led some scholars to

suggest that Genesis 38 was inserted into its present location by a

later redactor or editor. Despite the chronological problems this in-

sertion would pose, the editor who wanted to include the Judah-Ta-

mar story could find no better place to do so without causing even

more difficulty.

As to the first alleged problem, it is often argued that the time

between the sale of Joseph (Gen. 37:25-36) and the migration of Ja-

cob's clan into Egypt (46:1-7), which included Judah and his twin

sons, would have been insufficient for the events of Genesis 38 to

have transpired. In the space of 22 years, Judah would have had to

marry, father three sons, see them grow old enough to be married,

and then father the twin sons born to Tamar.46

The second problem stems from Genesis 46:12, which mentions

two grandsons of Judah, sons of Perez, among the sons of Israel who

 

42 Ibid., p. 280.

43 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 356.

44 Ross, "Genesis," p. 89.

45 Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chronicles 2:3-15; and Matthew 1:3-6.

46 That a space of 22 years occurred between Joseph's sale and the family of Jacob's

migration into Egypt can be established from references to the age of Joseph at various

points in his life. Genesis 37:2 indicates that Joseph was 17 years old when he was

sold by his brothers to the Midianites and subsequently taken to Egypt. In 41:46,

Joseph's appointment by Pharaoh came when Joseph was 30 years of age. Thus 13

Years had elapsed. Genesis 41:46-49 then describes the seven years of abundance at

the end of which 20 years would have passed since Joseph was sold by his brothers.

Genesis 45:6-7 indicates that Joseph's revelation of himself to his brothers and the

subsequent move of Jacob's family into Egypt came two years into the famine. This

brings the total to 22 years which had elapsed between Joseph's sale and Jacob's move

to Egypt.



382 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

migrated to Egypt. If Perez and Zerah were born near the end of the

22-year period, as Genesis 38 implies, it would have been impossible

for Perez to produce the offspring mentioned in 46:12 before or during

the migration to Egypt.

In reference to these alleged problems of the events in Genesis 38

and 46:12 taking place in a 22-year period, Bush's comments repre-

sent the opinion of many critical scholars: "This period is evidently

too short for the occurrence of all these events, and we are therefore

necessitated to refer the commencement of them at least as far back

as to about the time of Jacob's coming to Shechem, Gen. 33:18; but the

incidents are related here because there was no more convenient

place for them."47

 

THE CHRONOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS

On further examination, however, these two supposed chrono-

logical difficulties may be satisfactorily resolved.

In response to the first problem, it would not have been impossi-

ble for the events of Genesis 38 to have taken place during the 22-year

span between the end of Genesis 37 and the commencement of Genesis

39. Judah could have married within six months or so after Joseph's

sale into Egypt and could have had three sons within three years.48

Or Judah could have married before Joseph was sold into Egypt.

Since young people married at early ages in comparison with to-

day,49 Er, the first son, could have married Tamar when he was

about 15 or 16. He may have died a short time later, at which point

Onan was commanded to perform the levirate duty for Tamar.

Onan's sin and death may have occurred between 16 and 18 years

after Joseph's exile. This leaves a couple of years for Shelah to reach

marriageable age and to be withheld from Tamar. Time is still left

 

47 George Bush, Notes on Genesis, 2 vols. (New York: Ivison, Phinney & Co., 1860;

reprint, Minneapolis: James Family Christian publishers, 1979), 2:238. Bruce Vawter

concurs: "The [Judah-Tamar] story concerns an adult Judah who is separated from the

rest of his brothers and leads a life apart in the south of Palestine. This combination

of circumstances hardly allows for a positioning of the story anywhere earlier in the

saga, when Judah was too young, or is presumed still part of the common family, or in

any case is in the wrong part of the country. Neither could it be put immediately be-

fore the Joseph story, for in the Yahwist's version of that story Judah must be on hand

with the rest of his brothers to get the thing launched, as we have just seen. Once the

story of Joseph in Egypt is well begun with chapter 39 there is no longer anv opportu-

nity-to interrupt it without inflicting literary violence to revolt a less sensitive artist

than the Yahwist" (On Genesis, p. 390).

48 G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis, trans. William Heynen, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zonder-

van Publishing House, 1981), 2:190.

49 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, trans. John Hugh, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-

Hill Book Co., 1965), 1:29.



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 383

 

for Tamar's deception, her pregnancy, her delivery of two sons, and

Judah's two trips into Egypt with his brothers to buy corn. No doubt

the coming of the famine forced Judah to rejoin his father's clan.50

So it is possible for the events of Genesis 38 to have taken place

in such a time frame. In fact, Cassuto has further observed that the

opening words of Genesis 38, xvhiha tfeBA yhiy;va, reflect an awareness on the

part of the author of the short time in which the events of the chap-

ter must occur. He comments:

From the opening words of the section we immediately note that the

author was not unaware that the period of time, with which he was deal-

ing, was short and that the happenings that occurred therein were

many, and that he must consequently bring them into the closest pos-

sible harmony. Hence he did not begin with the formula commonly

found in ... Genesis, "And it came to pass after these things," nor does

he write simply "And Judah went down from his brethren," but he uses

the expression "And it came to pass at that time," as though he wished

to emphasize that immediately after the selling of Joseph, at that very

time, Judah went down from his brothers and married the daughter of

Shua.51

 

The second chronological difficulty concerns the mention of Ju-

dah's grandsons in Genesis 46:12. Obviously Judah's sons Perez and

Zerah were quite young, perhaps just a few months old, when they

traveled to Egypt. Therefore it would have been impossible for Perez

to have fathered Hezron and Hamul, his two sons mentioned in Gen-

esis 46:12, before the journey into Egypt.52

A close look, however, at Genesis 46:12 reveals a variation in

the mention of Hezron and Hamul. The end of the verse reads: "And

the sons of Perez were (Uyh;y.va) Hezron and Hamul." Yet throughout Ge-

nesis 46, the listing of descendants was done without the use of a ver-

bal form. For example, verse 12a reads, "And the sons of Judah: Er

and Onan and Shelah and Perez and Zerah."

 

50 If Cassuto is right in suggesting that Er did not marry Tamar until he was 18, the

chronology becomes even tighter. Er's marriage and subsequent death would have been

in the sixth year of plenty when Joseph was 36. Onan, at 17 years of age, could have

then married Tamar and died in the same year. Meanwhile Shelah would have only

been 16. Two years could then pass by until Shelah was 18, convincing Tamar that Ju-

dah would not give her to Shelah. This would have been Joseph's 38th year and the

first year of the period of famine. Then in the second year of the famine Tamar would

have given birth to the twins. Later that year, when the twins were a few months

old, the family of Jacob would have migrated to Egypt (U. Cassuto, Biblical and Ori-

ental Studies, pp. 39-40).

51 Ibid., p. 79.

52 Even if the events in Genesis 38 began to take place shortly after Jacob's return from

Shechem (which could not have been more than six years before Joseph's sale), Perez

could not have been any older than 11 when Jacob's family went to Egypt (Keil and

Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, p. 371).



384 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

Cassuto comments on the "special phraseology" employed in the

mention of Hezron and Hamul: "This external variation creates the

impression that the Bible wished to give us here some special infor-

mation that was different from what it desired to impart relative to

the other descendants of Israel."53 Cassuto then explains the inten-

tion behind this special phraseology:

It intended to inform us thereby that the sons of Perez were not among

those who went down to Egypt, but are mentioned here for some other

reason. This is corroborated by the fact that Joseph's sons were also not

of those who immigrated into Egypt, and they, too, are mentioned by a

different formula.54

 

While the author considered it necessary to mention Hezron and

Hamul in the list of Jacob's family, it was done in such a way as to

distinguish them from the descendants who actually migrated to

Egypt with Jacob.

 

The Literary Relationship

 

THE LITERARY DIFFICULTIES

Scholars who consider Genesis 38 as having no literary connec-

tion with the Joseph story whatsoever generally assume it to be a

later intrusion. Speiser, for example, asserts, "The narrative is a

completely independent unit. It has no connection with the drama of

Joseph, which it interrupts at the conclusion of Act I."55 With simi-

lar sentiment, Vawter writes:

 

53 Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies, p. 34.

54 Ibid., p. 35. Cassuto has also treated at length the reason for the mention of these

sons. He finds the rationale for the inclusion of their names in the purpose of levirate

marriage. Usually the brother of the deceased provides a son for the deceased. But

when the father of the deceased provides a son, the son ranks with the deceased him-

self and not with his sons. According to Cassuto, Judah had five sons, each of whom

had the right to establish a family of his own in Israel. Perez and Zerah, as his sons,

clearly possessed this right. In other words they did not merely replace Er and Onan,

but stood alongside them. If they had replaced Er and Onan, the families of the sons

of Judah would have numbered only three. So two special families were needed to suc-

ceed the name of the dead. Hezron and Hamul, who would have ranked equally with

the sons of Er and Onan, took their uncles' place. Cassuto finds support for this hy-

pothesis in Numbers 26:19-21 which mentions the Perezites, the Hezronites, and the

Hamulites. He explains, "This means that each of the first two sons of Perez founded

a separate family of its own, and that only the children that lie begot after then

established a third family, which was called by his [Perez'sl name" (ibid., p. 38; the

entire argument is given on pp. 36-38).

55 E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981), p. 299. How-

ever, in attributing the insertion of this chapter to the Yahwist, Speiser does admit

that "the place of the present account was chosen with keen literary sensitivity"

(ibid.).



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 385

 

Scarcely has the distinctive Joseph story been begun when it is inter-

rupted by a chapter that apparently has nothing to do with it.... There

can hardly be any doubt that this chapter did, as a matter of fact, origi-

nally have no connection with the Story of Joseph and that it is, there-

fore, in some sense an intrusion here.56

 

THE LITERARY INTERCONNECTEDNESS

Though Genesis 38 obviously interrupts the sequence in the

Joseph story, it possesses a literary interconnectedness with its con-

text.57 While Genesis 37-50 is often identified as the "Joseph story,"

37:2 identifies this section as "the generations (tOdl;To) of Jacob."58 So

while the "focal element" of these chapters is the Joseph story, the

basic unit of narration in Genesis 37-50 is "unified around Jacob and

his sons."59 Genesis 38 "shows a very definite angle of Jacob's his-

tory."60 Therefore it is wrong to deny categorically any connection or

relationship between Genesis 38 and the Joseph story as a whole.

Furthermore in response to the charge that Genesis 38 breaks a

bond between Genesis 37:36 and 39:1, the language of 37:36 and 39:1

allows for a gap into which Genesis 38 nicely fits.61 Delitzsch sug-

gests that this was done as a literary convention by the author:

 

It is historiographic art to break off in the history of Joseph at xxxvii. 36.

We thus get to experience with him the comfortless darkness of the

two decades, during which hopeless and sorrowful longing was gnawing

at the heart of the aged father, and the secret curse of deadly sin de-

ceitfully concealed was weighing on the souls of his children.62

 

56 Vawter, On Genesis, p. 389. Furthermore, G. W. Coats, in discussing the

"redactional unity" in Genesis 37-50, contends that the "bond" between Genesis 37 and

39 is "cemented" by 37:36. This verse, he suggests, must be viewed as "an anticipation

of the introductory sentence in Genesis 39, similar to the recapitulation as a redac-

tional method for cementing a distinct narrative into a larger context" ("Redactional

Unity in Genesis 37-50," Journal of Biblical Literature 93 [March 19741: 16).

57 Conservative scholars do not deny that there is a sense in which the Judah-Tamar

story "interrupts" the Joseph narrative. Even Derek Kidner labels Genesis 38 "a rude

interruption" (Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 187).

58 For a discussion of the structure of Genesis based on the i. i formula, see Ross,

"Genesis," pp. 22-26.

59 Coats, "Redactional Unity," p. 15.

60 Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 2:970.

61 Genesis 39:1 reiterates the information given in 37:36, explaining that Joseph had

been taken into Egypt and sold to Potiphar. Though restatement is common in Hebrew

narrative, such a specific rehearsal by 39:1 of the details given in 37:36 would not be

expected if the former followed right on the heels of the latter.

62 Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols. (New York: Scribner &

Welford, 1889), pp. 266-67.



386 Bibliotheca Sacra / October--December 1989

 

Even Wright acknowledges, "Of course it must be conceded that there

is a sense of the dramatic in the positioning: it provides an interlude

for the Joseph story to incubate and develop after the manner and

function of a Shakesperian sub-plot."63

Moreover, a logical time gap between Genesis 37:36 and 39:1 is

quite appropriate in light of the fact that "the scene is about to be

shifted from Canaan to Egypt."64 The Judah-Tamar story quite mas-

terfully prepares the reader for this shift.65

Another strong argument for the interconnectedness of Genesis 38

with its context is what Cassuto calls "a kind of internal nexus be-

tween the story of Tamar and Judah and the selling of Joseph."66

This relationship between chapters 38 and 37 is "reflected in the cor-

respondence of certain details in the two sections and is clearly mani-

fested in the parallel expressions that denote these details."67 In

particular there is a strong literary parallel between 37:32-33 and

38:25-26. This can be seen in the following layout which lifts out the

key corresponding terms and shows the structure of the verses:

"And they sent ... and they said.... Please examine.... Then

he examined it and said" (37:32-33).

"And she sent . . . saying.... Please examine.... Then Judah

examined and said" (38:25-26).

 

As Cassuto remarks, "It is difficult to suppose that such a paral-

lel is merely fortuitous; it was undoubtedly intended by the author of

the section."68 Likewise, Alter concludes:

This precise recurrence of the verb [rkanA] in identical forms at the ends

of Genesis 37 and 38 respectively is manifestly the result not of some

automatic mechanism of interpolating traditional materials but of

careful splicing of sources by a brilliant literary artist. The first use of

 

63 See Wright, "The Positioning of Genesis 38," p. 523, n. 3. With similar sentiment

Leupold says, "We are struck ... by the rhetorical skill of the author who snakes this

chapter serve the purpose of letting us feel the lapse of time after the sale of Joseph"

(Exposition of Genesis, 2:976).

64 Robert S. Candlish, Commentary on Genesis, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black,

1868; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 2:128.

65 According to Aalders, "it was these events [i.e., Genesis 381 that especially bring

to light the critical danger that threatened the 'chosen seed' if they remained in

Canaan at this time. Mixed marriages with the Canaanites could lead only to the

people of Israel losing their identity among the Canaanites and eventually being ab-

sorbed by them. This chapter clearly indicates that Jacob's descendants had to leave

Canaan it they were to develop as a separate and distinctive people" (Genesis, 2:191).

66 Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies, p. 30.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid., p. 31.



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 387

 

the formula was for an act of deception; the second use is for an act of

unmasking. Judah with Tamar after Judah with his brothers is an ex-

emplary narrative instance of the deceiver deceived.69

 

Alter points out one more literary pattern linking chapters 38 and 37

of Genesis. "In the most artful of contrivances, the narrator shows

him [Judah] exposed through the symbols of his legal self given in a

pledge for a kid (gedi 'izim), as before Jacob had been tricked by the

garment emblematic of his love for Joseph which had been dipped in

the blood of a goat (se'ir 'izim)."70

Also Genesis 38 has at least two notable parallels with chapter

39. The first, as explained by Alter, is a contrast: "Finally, when we

return from Judah to the Joseph story (Genesis 39), we move in

pointed contrast from a tale of exposure through sexual incontinence

to a tale of seeming defeat and ultimate triumph through sexual con-

tinence-Joseph and Potiphar's wife."71

The second connection between chapters 38 and 39 of Genesis is

the verbal root dry in both 38:1 and 39:1. Alter observes:

The story begins with Judah parting from his brothers, an act conveyed

with a rather odd locution, vayered m'et, literally "he went down from,"

and which undoubtedly has the purpose of connecting this separation

of one brother from the rest with Joseph's, transmitted with the same

verb-root (see, for example, the very beginning of the next chapter:

"Joseph was brought down [hurad] to Egypt").72

In summary, what many view as an intrusion was actually an ac-

count carefully, logically, and purposefully interwoven into the

Joseph story.

 

The Theological Relationship

 

In considering the theological relationship between Genesis 38

and its context, the question may be asked, What was the writer's

purpose in including this account, especially in its location in the

Joseph story?

 

VARIOUS PROPOSALS FOR THE PURPOSE OF GENESIS 38

Regarding the purpose of Genesis 38, some scholars have offered

proposals colored by their adherance to the "clan theory." This ap-

proach understands the patriarchal narratives in Genesis to relate to

 

69 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 10.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid., p. 6.



388 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

tribal history. The patriarchs are not necessarily historical individ-

uals but are seen as representing tribes.73 Applied to Genesis 38, this

theory considers the story's purpose to be the recording of the tribal

history of Judah in which two clans disappear and two others ap-

pear. According to McKane, Er and Onan "represent older clans

which no longer retain their independence," while Shelah, Perez,

and Zerah comprise "the chief Judaean clans at the time of the ori-

gin of the narrative."74

However, as Kidner has pointed out, "the narrative [Genesis 38]

has a coherence and a precision of detail which argue strongly for

the actuality of its persons and events."75 Aalders also argues than

Genesis 38 is "actually history dealing with real persons," since Ju-

dah is portrayed in an unfavorable light.76 "If this was a matter of

Jewish myth or nationalistic fantasy, the later Israelites certainly

would have laundered out such tales."77

Some have proposed a secondary purpose. Dillmann, for exam-

ple, writes, "A secondary purpose of the narrative is found in the de-

sire it exhibits of impressing the duty of marriage with a deceased

brother's wife."78 However, Emerton, while observing that this sug-

gestion cannot be disproved, responds that "there is not much in the

story to suggest the didactic intention of inculcating such a general

principle."79

Other scholars have proposed that the purpose of Genesis 38 is

to influence in some way the "moral fabric of society."80 According to

Coats, "to present a helpless widow whose just claim eventually re-

ceives a hearing from a judge who has the power of life and death

over her casts a model for any audience."81

 

73 Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, trans. Peter R. Ackroyd (New

York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), p. 40; Herman Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis:

The Biblical Saga and History (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), pp. 18-21.

74 William McKane, Studies in the Patriarchal Narratives (Edinburgh: Handsel

Press, 1979), p. 142; cf. Gunkel, Legends of Genesis, p. 21; cf. A. S. Herbert, Genesis 12-50

(London: SCM Press, 1962), p. 125.

75 Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 187.

76 Aalders, Genesis, 2:191.

77 Ibid.

78 August Dillmann, Genesis: Critically and Exegetically Expounded, trans. Wm. B.

Stevenson, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), 2:343; cf. also S. R. Driver, Gene-

sis, p. 326.

79 Emerton, "Judah and Tamar," p. 404.

80 George W. Coats, Genesis with an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), p. 276; Niditch, "The Wrong Woman

Righted," p. 149.

81 Coats, "Genesis," p. 276.



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 389

 

It should be noted that none of the above proposals as to the pur-

pose of Genesis 38 builds on or depends on the chapter's position in

the Joseph story. That is, in these proposals the placement of Gene-

sis 38 in the Joseph story has no direct bearing on the purpose of the

chapter.

 

THE PURPOSE OF GENESIS 38 IN LIGHT OF THE THEOLOGY OF GENESIS

However, in the view of this writer, Genesis 38 possesses a theo-

logical purpose that harmonizes with and contributes to the devel-

oping theology in Genesis and in the Joseph story.82

An overview o f the theology o f Genesis. The central theme of

Genesis is the sovereignty of Yahweh in His establishment of a na-

tion through which to bless all the peoples of the world.83

This is borne out in the literary structure of Genesis. As Ross has

pointed out, Genesis is structured by an initial section and then 11 sec-

tions headed by the term tOdl;To ("generations").84 This term, he ar-

gues, introduces the "historical result" of an ancestor rather than

merely introducing a genealogy. Each tOdl;To explains what became

of a line, all the while narrowing down and following the line

through which God would bring blessing. In addition, each tOdl;To

shows a marked deterioration. Up to Genesis 12, the deterioration

ends in judgment by God. After chapter 12, there is a continual dete-

rioration among those striving for a place of blessing.85

Genesis 12 is a pivotal chapter, for it reveals Yahweh's choice

of one man to found a nation through which He will bless all the

peoples of the earth. Genesis 1-11 forms the prologue, giving the

 

82 Here Genesis 38 is being approached from the discipline of "biblical theology,"

which focuses on what the texts of Scripture reveal about the person and work of

God-especially in relationship to mankind. In contrast to systematic theology,

which begins with topics (externally imposed categories of study), biblical theology

begins with the text, observing what topics are considered and how they are devel-

oped by the biblical text. John A. Martin describes biblical theology as "a study of the

text of Scripture for the purpose of discovering and describing what the text meant as

well as what it means. It attempts to draw out universal theological principles. The

biblical theologian draws his categories from the biblical text itself and not from any

outside philosophical system or other sources" ("The Theology of Samuel," Biblio-

theca Sacra 141 [October-December 1984]: 313, n. 1). For a helpful overview of the de-

velopment and methodology of biblical theology, with particular attention to its at-

tending issues, see Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Cur-

rent Debate, 3d rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), pp.

15-183.

83 Ross, "Genesis," p. 26.

84 Ibid., p. 22.

85 Ibid., pp. 22-26.



390 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

background out of which the story in Genesis 12-50 arises.86

The final section in Genesis, the tOdl;To of Jacob in 37:2-50:26, con-

tinues the emphasis on the sovereignty of Yahweh. According to

Brueggemann, the theme of this section is "God is working out his

purpose through and in spite of Egypt, through and in spite of Joseph

and his brothers."87 Though the theology in this section is some-

what "subdued and mostly implicit," Brueggemann emphasizes that

"nonetheless, the narrative [Genesis 37-50] has an identifiable and

singular intention. It urges that in the contingencies of history, the

purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnoticed ways. But the

ways of God are nonetheless reliable and will come to fruition."88

The theology of Genesis 38. Yet despite Brueggemann's magnifi-

cent treatment of the purpose of Genesis 37-50, he misses the point of

Genesis 38 entirely, failing to see its contribution to that purpose. He

writes, "It is not evident that it [Gen. 38] provides any significant

theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might

be of value for theological exposition."89

However, in the viewpoint of the present writer, Genesis 38 fits

beautifully within the theme and purpose Brueggemann described

for Genesis 37-50. It further develops and contributes to the theology

being unfolded in Genesis.

First, this chapter teaches that Yahweh would accomplish His

purpose, even if He had to use a Canaanite woman to do it. Surpris-

ingly, Plaut is one of the few commentators to pick up on this empha-

sis. Even though he approaches the text from a critical perspective,

he has noted the theological import of Genesis 38. Stressing that

"God in His wisdom turned fate to His own design," Plaut concludes:

 

The Judah-Tamar interlude is, therefore, not merely an old tribal tale

but an important link in the main theme: to show the steady, though

not always readily visible, guiding hand of God who never forgets His

people and their destiny.

In this story, Tamar is His unlikely tool. She is a Canaanite, a

daughter of the very people against whom Abraham had warned and

whom the children of Israel would later displace. Tamar is treated with

respect; her desperate deed draws no condemnation from the Torah.

What she did fulfilled the requirements of Hebrew law and, in addi-

tion, appeared to serve the higher purposes of God.90

 

86 Ronald B. Allen, "Theology of the Pentateuch," unpublished class notes, 548,

Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1985.

87 Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 293.

88 Ibid., p. 289.

89 Ibid., pp. 307-8.

90 Plaut, Genesis, p. 376.



An Exegetical Study of Genesis 38 391

 

The closing verses of Genesis 38 confirm that Yahweh's purpose

was being carried out. Here the recurring motif of the elder serving

the younger is worked out in the birth of Tamar's twin sons. God's de-

signs cannot be thwarted.91

The full significance of God's continuation of the line of Judah

through Tamar is revealed later in Scripture. The genealogy in Ruth

4:18-22 indicates that the Davidic line was introduced by Tamar's

son Perez.92 And into the Davidic line, Jesus the Messiah was even-

tually born.

Second, Genesis 38 develops the theology of Genesis by empha-

sizing the need for Yahweh to remove His people to Egypt. The

events in this chapter "especially bring to light the critical danger

that threatened the 'chosen seed' if they remained in Canaan at this

time."93 Eventually they would be absorbed into the culture of the

Canaanites and their identity would be lost. Thus Genesis 38 pro-

vides an important link between Genesis 15:13-16, the promise to

Abraham of his descendants' sojourn in a foreign land, and Genesis 46,

which records the removal to Egypt. The Judah-Tamar story brings

to light the reason behind the promise given in Genesis 15:13-16. Be-

cause of the growing deterioration among the progenitors of the na-

tion Israel, Yahweh would have to remove His people from the land

of blessing for a time.

Along this line the contrast between Judah and Joseph cannot go

unnoticed. "Parallel to Joseph's spiritual ingenuousness, patience,

hopeful trust in the future, appears Judah's strong and daring self-

dependence, fulness of life, sensuality combined with strong absti-

nence."94 Through the triumph over temptation, Joseph was eventu-

ally placed in a strategic position that enabled him to be God's in-

strument in bringing his father's clan down to Egypt. Judah's life-

style, in contrast, revealed the need for the family to be removed in

the first place.

To summarize, Genesis 38 describes Yahweh's accomplishment of

His purpose (in the continuation of the Abrahamic line) despite the

unfaithfulness of Judah--the fourth link in that line. The continua-

tion of Abraham's line, and its narrowing by the introduction of the

Davidic line through Perez, was accomplished by using a most un-

likely person--a Canaanite woman.

 

91 Ross, "Genesis, pp. 89-90.

92 See Eugene H. Merrill, "The Roots of Ruth: Narration and Shared Themes," Bib-

liotheca Sacra 142 (April-June 1985): 130-41.

93 Aalders, Genesis, 2:191.

94 John Peter Lange, Genesis, or The First Book of Moses, trans. Tayler Lewis and A.

Gosman (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1869), p. 591.



392 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989

 

Therefore the normative meaning95 of this story may be stated

as follows: Yahweh will carry out His purpose(s) despite His peo-

ple's unfaithfulness and its tragic consequences on their lives. His

purposes will not be frustrated, even if He has to use means other

than His people to accomplish them. But at the same time, His peo-

ple will experience a loss of joy and blessing in their relationship

with Him.

 

Conclusion

 

Rather than relating to its context as "a dog among ninepins,"96

as Bentzen has suggested, Genesis 38 bears distinct chronological, lit-

erary, and theological relationships to its context. It bears all the

marks of being purposely included at its present location in the

Joseph story by the writer of Genesis. Its theological message, a fur-

ther development of the theology of Genesis, has relevance for God's

people today.

 

95 Biblical theology has a twofold task. Its "descriptive" task is "to discover and

describe what the text meant," while its "normative" task is "to explicate what it

means for today" (Hasel, Old Testament Theology, p. 169).

96 Aage Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Copenhagen: G. E. C.

Gads Forlag, 1948), 2:12.

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu