Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989) 373-92.
Copyright © 1989 by
An Exegetical Study
of Genesis 38
Steven D. Mathewson
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
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
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
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. [
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
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.
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
context" (Biblical and Oriental Studies, vol. 1 [
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.
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):
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.
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
1985) pp. 75-86.
376 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989
lar to the types of endings usually found in a comic plot.14
General introduction (38:1). The opening verse informs the
aside (Fye.va) to an Adullamite man named Hirah.15 Stigers calculates
The establishment of
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
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.
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
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
Harold G. Stigers, A
Commentary on Genesis (
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-
Atlas of the Bible, trans. and ed. Joyce M. Reid and H. H. Rowley [
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
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
Shelah, the third son, grew up.
as had his two older brothers.25 Stigers suggests that
The Five Books of Moses
with Haphtaroth, ed. A. Cohen [
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
of the levirate custom outside
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. (
Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 336.
Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and
terVarsity Press, 1967), p. 188.
Perhaps, as suggested by W. Gunther Plaut,
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 [
gations, 19741, p. 372). Furthermore C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch comment: "The sudden
of his two sons so soon after their marriage with Thamar
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
Tamar's deception of
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
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
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
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 [
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
be a prostitute.33 So he had sexual relations with her (v. 16). Then
in lieu of payment
an important piece of identification later in the story. This pledge
quickly redeemed, but which Tamar retains for her own purposes."34
seemingly had vanished (vv. 20-23).
story's descent into tragedy is brought to a
climax a s
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,
at least suggest that Tamar's action of seeking conception by
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.
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 [
Press, 1907], p. 275;
tament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green
the term hwAdeq; denotes a "temple prostitute" who functioned in association with the
fertility cult in Canaanite religion (Thomas E. McComiskey, "wdaqA," in Theological
of the Old Testament, 2:788). While
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 (
1983), pp. 60-61.
Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New
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
as she was being brought out to receive her death sentence.37
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
tive) viewpoint of the
story. That is,
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-
see here 'a reflection of his [
ancestral culture. Here is a clear case of adultery, and the penalty is but one. There
to be no reason to seek others.
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
to by hl.,xe~n
are revealed to be
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.
and Philip J. Allcock [
95).. However, one
wonders in what way
Jacob's view does not adequately account for
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
sons, would have been insufficient for the events of Genesis 38 to
have transpired. In the space of 22 years,
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
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
points in his life. Genesis 37:2 indicates that Joseph was 17 years old when he was
by his brothers to the Midianites and subsequently
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
move of Jacob's family into
brings the total to 22 years which had elapsed between Joseph's sale and Jacob's move
382 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1989
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
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
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
George Bush, Notes on Genesis, 2 vols. (
concurs: "The [Judah-Tamar] story concerns an adult Judah who is separated from the
of his brothers and leads a life apart in the south of
of circumstances hardly allows for a positioning of the story anywhere earlier in the
any case is in the wrong part of the country. Neither could it be put immediately be-
the Joseph story, for in the Yahwist's version of
with the rest of his brothers to get the thing launched, as we have just seen. Once the
of Joseph in
nity-to interrupt it without inflicting literary violence to revolt a less sensitive artist
than the Yahwist" (On Genesis, p. 390).
G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis, trans. William Heynen, 2 vols. (
van Publishing House, 1981), 2:190.
Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, trans. John
Hugh, 2 vols. (
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
the coming of the famine forced
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
The second chronological difficulty concerns the mention of Ju-
dah's grandsons in Genesis
Zerah were quite young, perhaps just a few months old, when they
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
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
the family of Jacob would have migrated to
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
not have been any older than 11 when Jacob's family went to
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
tion behind this special phraseology:
It intended to inform us thereby that the sons of Perez were not among
those who went down to
reason. This is corroborated by the fact that Joseph's sons were also not
of those who immigrated
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
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-
and not with his sons. According to
the right to establish a family of his own in
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
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"
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
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.
Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis,
2 vols. (
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
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
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
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).
Robert S. Candlish, Commentary on Genesis, 2
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
sorbed by them. This chapter clearly indicates that Jacob's descendants had to leave
66 Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies, p. 30.
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
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
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
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
In summary, what many view as an intrusion was actually an ac-
count carefully, logically, and purposefully interwoven into the
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
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.
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
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
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
The Biblical Saga and History (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), pp. 18-21.
William McKane, Studies in the Patriarchal
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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-
Second, Genesis 38 develops the theology of Genesis by empha-
sizing the need for Yahweh to remove His people to
events in this chapter "especially bring to light the critical danger
that threatened the 'chosen seed' if they remained
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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).
Aage Bentzen, Introduction
to the Old Testament, 2 vols. (
Gads Forlag, 1948), 2:12.
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