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Old Testamen Lesson 11 (KD): Genesis 34, 37-39

Posted by Karl D. on March 16, 2014

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Judah, Tamar, and Joseph
Reading: Genesis 34, 37-39

1 Reading notes

I noticed I had some notes from my reading of scriptural text for Lesson 11 so I thought I would post them. It’s certainly not a lesson plan or outline.

2 Judah, Tamar, and Joseph

Chapter 37 marks the beginning of the Joseph Narrative. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and his brothers deceive their father into believing that Joseph, his favorite son, is now dead. Later in chapter 39 the narrative picks up with Joseph as a slave in the house of Potiphar. The story of Judah and Tamar, contained in Genesis 38, interrupts this story.1

2.1 Interrupting the Joseph Story

One, I think important, question is why does the author of Genesis interrupt the flow of the Joseph narrative to tell us about Judah and Tamar?

The author, could have constructed and ordered the narrative differently. For example, he/she could have decided to omit the story of Judah and Tamar entirely. Its inclusion signals its importance but what about its placement? Why is it placed right after Joseph is sold into Egypt by his brothers?

  • One possibility is there is no other place really to put it. It happens around this time and you can’t really put it anywhere else.
  • Also, maybe it is there to (in part) show passage of time between Joseph’s brothers selling him and Joseph’s ultimate fate in Egypt. This delay also helps build a sense of suspense.
  • While both of the preceding may be true, I think there is much more to it than that. Judah and Tamar story fits perfectly as part of the overall Joseph narrative. These two stories are closely related and linked. Recognizing the intertwined nature of these stories enhances the impact of both stories.

2.2 Structure of Genesis 37-50

The overall structure of Genesis 37-50 is nearly perfectly parallel. Within this parallel structure the Judah and Tamar story fits perfectly as part of the overall Joseph narrative. This bolsters the notion that the Judah and Tamar story is not an inconvenient interruption and is an important part of the overall Joseph narrative. It is, of course, possible to see Genesis 37-50 as a just a collection of stories rather than as a tight integrated unit but I think such approaches ignores important features of the overall narrative.

The Structure of Genesis 37-50 2

a. Trouble between Joseph and brothers (37:2-11)
a’ More trouble between Joseph and brothers (37:12-36)
b. Sexual temptation involving Judah (38:1-30)
b’ Sexual temptation involving Joseph (39:1-23)
c. Joseph interprets two dreams of prison mates (40:1-23)
c’ Joseph interprets two dreams of Pharaoh (41:1-57)
d. Brothers come to Egypt for food (42:1-38)
d’ Brothers again come to Egypt for food (43:1-44:3)
e. Joseph has some of his family brought to him (44:4-45:15)
e’ Joseph has all of his family brought to him (45:16-47:12)
f. Prospering in Egypt: Joseph in ascendancy (45:16-47:12)
f’ Prospering in Egypt: Blessings on Jacob’s sons (47:27-49:32)
g. Death of patriarch: Jacob (49:33-50:14)
g’ Death of patriarch: Joseph (50:15-26)

Alternate Way to View the Structure of Genesis 37-50 3

a. Joseph and the family strife he incites (37:1-36)
a’ Judah and the family strife he incites (38:1-30)
b. The descent and ascent of Joseph (39:1-41:57)
b’ The descent and ascent of the brothers (42:1-47:27)
c. Blessings: Joseph (47:28-48:22)
c’ Blessings: all the brothers (49:1-28)
d. The end for Jacob (49:29-50:14)
d’ The end of Joseph (50:15-26)

2.3 Similarities Between the Joseph Narrative and the Tamar Narrative

In what ways to you think the story of Joseph in Egypt is related to the story of Judah and Tamar?

2.3.1 What similarities and overlap do you find between the two narratives?

Robert Alter points out a number of similarities and areas of overlap:

  1. Deception plays a prominent role in both narratives.
    • Ironically, Judah is the chief deceiver in the Joseph narrative and the deceived in the Tamar narrative.
    • It is the “father” that is primarily deceived in both narratives.
    • Of course, deception links to other narratives in Genesis as well. For example, Jacob as a deciever of his father (this includes the link that Jacob use of animal skins to deceive Isaac.)
  2. Clothing plays a critical role in the deception.
    • Joseph’s coat is used to deceive Jacob.
    • Tamar dresses as a prostitute and wears a veil to deceive Judah.
  3. The death of a son features prominently in both.
  4. In both, primogeniture is violated (on the other hand, sometimes it seems that virtually every story in Genesis involves a violation of primogeniture).
  5. Goats figure prominently in both and are wrapped up in the deception in both narratives.
    • Goat’s blood is used to deceived Jacob.
    • Judah’s promised payment to Tamar is a goat.
  6. Sexuality is an important part of both narratives.
  7. Both narratives are about who will rule Israel: Joseph in the short run and Judah’s line in the long run.
  8. The heroes in both stories are for a time helpless and lack any real recourse or options. Both are able to overcome their dire circumstances they are dealt.
  9. Recognition is critical in each story and an important part of the triumph of the Joseph and Tamar.
    • Joseph recognizes his brothers but they do not.
    • Tamar recognizes Judah but Judah doesn’t recognize her.
  10. The requirement to leave something to seal the deal.
  11. Both Joseph and Tamar are foreigners. Joseph is a foreigner in a strange land and Tamar was probably a Canaanite. They are likewise both mistreated by their families.
  12. A brother is betrayed in both (Onan betrays his dead older brother).
  13. “Judah attempts to do Tamar what has been done to Joseph, except in a fashion that brutalizes her socially rather than physically.”4
  14. Joseph and Tamar are both for a time forgotten.
  15. Joseph and Judah both “went down.”

(1) And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. (Genesis 38:1)

(1) And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither. (Genesis 39:1)

2.3.2 Are these similarities important?

  • What do you make of these similarities?
  • Do the similarities help us understand the Joseph story better?
  • Maybe more importantly, do these similarities helps us understand Tamar and her interaction with Judah better? Do these similarities affect how you view Tamar?
  • Do these similarities point us to the important elements in both stories?
  • Do they give us insight into the overall theological point(s) of these narratives? If so, what are the important shared theological points in the stories?

2.4 Contrasting Elements in Joseph Narrative and the Tamar Narrative

2.4.1 Death in the Family

Sons of both Judah and Jacob die in the narratives. Jacob and Judah respond and grieve very differently:

(33) And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. (34) And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. (35) And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him. (Genesis 37:33-35)

(7) And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. (8) And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. (9) And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. (10) And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also. (11) Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:33-35)

  • Are the differences between Jacob and Judah here important? Do we learn anything about each of them?
  • Are the differences in the way Joseph and Judah react instructive for each of us? Is either reaction entirely appropriate?

2.4.2 Sexual behavior

Judah is exposed because of his sexual impulsiveness and Joseph ultimately triumphs in part because of his sexual restraint. Seduction and failed seduction.

  • Judah’s role serves as an important contrast. Is he changed by the events of Chapter 38? Is this important to understanding Judah’s later behavior in the Joseph narrative?
  • but it is very prominent in the Joseph narrative. Well, the Lord
    is mentioned in terms of explaining the death of Judah’s oldest

2.5 Additional Thoughts

2.5.1 Deceit

Deceit plays an important role in many of the narratives in the Book of Genesis. Why is deceit so important and such a prominent theme?

  • Furthermore, deceit is often used to further the desires or plan of the Lord (i.e., to ensure the fulfillment of the coventental promises to Abraham). Why?

    I would be surprised if this was an accidental theme. it seems too prominent. What does it teach us about God? What theological concepts does it hint at? How can the prominence of deceit in these narrative teach us something about God?

  • Does it make you uncomfortable that deceit is so prominent? Why? On the other hand, what is the upside to the prominence of deceit?
  • Why does the trickster always end up getting tricked?
    • Jacob tricks his father.
    • Laban tricks Jacob.
    • Jacob tricks Laban.
    • Judah (as the leader of the sons) tricks Jacob.
    • Judah tricked by Tamar.
    • Sons of Jacob tricked (mildly) by Joseph.
  • Is this trickster motif important? Is it just a coincidence? Does it tell us something about the human condition? Is it a completely non-spiritual theme?

2.5.2 Primogeniture

Primogeniture is violated almost all the time in Genesis (it almost seems like it is a sin to be the oldest). Why did the author of Genesis emphasize these stories? What does this pattern or theme teach us about God?

3 Tamar and the Genealogy of Jesus

One of the interesting thing about Tamar is that she is mentioned or listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew along with three other women besides Mary.5

  1. Tamar (Thamar)
  2. Rahab (Rachab)
  3. Ruth
  4. Bathsheba the wife of Uriah
  • Matthew could have written the genealogy without mentioning these women so their inclusion strikes me as important. Why mention these women?
  • What do these women have in common? Is Mary being compared these women? Is Mary like them over some dimension? Does the inclusion of these women tell us something important about Jesus?
  • Potential commonality of the women
    1. Sinners.
    2. Gentile or Foreigner.
    3. Weird marriages
    4. Sacrifice
    5. Initiative
    6. Each with a connection to Jesus or Mary
    7. All God’s instruments in bringing about the “salvation” of His people.

3.1 Sinners

Brown6 mentions that this is the first known proposal or explanation for the inclusion and commonality (it goes all the why back to Jerome).

Does this work? Do all the woman have this in common? Do any of the woman have this in common?

I actually don’t think this one works well. While it is certainly possible to describe each of the women as sinners, it is never the point or the focus of their narratives in the Old Testament. For example, it is certainly not the focus of the Tamar narrative. Judah even admits her relative righteousness towards the end of the narrative (Genesis 38:26):

(26) And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

  • Additionally, most Mormons will reject this possibility because it is rather uncommon for Mormons to read Ruth in a scandalous way.
  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew explicitly mention a group of woman sinners in the genealogy?

    It could certainly point to the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is kind of a cool image: Jesus was sent to redeem his very family. Or in other words, the family of Jesus is a family of sinners both in a narrow genealogical sense and in the broader sense of all of us.

3.2 Gentile or Foreigner

Martin Luther seems to have favored this possibility:7

  • Does this work? Do all the women have this in common?
  • Rahab was a Canaanite and Ruth is Moabite. I think most scholars believe Tamar was a Canaanite. Bathsheba is not a foreigner, but Uriah is at least associated with foreigners by the Hittite label even though his name is a good Israelite name: “The Lord is my Light.”
  • Problems: How does this relate to Mary? She is not a foreigner. Also, all of these women might be better thought of as converts rather than foreigners. On the other hand, Mary probably did feel like an outsider (or foreigner) in some sense of the word at this point in her life.
  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew include a group of women gentiles in the genealogy? What if they are all converts and that is the commonality?
  • Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ universal mission?

3.3 Weird Marriages

Another possibility is that all these women experience strange unions or marriages.

  • Does this work? Do all the women have this in common?
  • Tamar’s marriage with Judah could easily be described as weird or unusual. Rahab was a prostitute so any union involving her would be unusual. Even if you don’t read it scandalously, Ruth’s marriage certainly has something irregular about it (Ruth used her initiative, etc, etc). Bathseba, I can definitely see the weird angle.
  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew include such women? What would this commonality teach as about Jesus or his mission?

3.4 Initiative

Another possibility is that all these women showed great initiative and that initiative ultimately allowed them to play important roles in God’s plan for Israel.

  • Does this work? Do all the women have this in common?
  • Tamar, lots of initiative. Ruth, ditto, Rahab, ditto. Bathsheba, her initiative ensures that Solomon gets the throne. Their stories are all remarkable.
  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew include such women? What would this commonality teach as about Jesus or his mission?

3.5 Sacrifice

The women all sacrifice greatly.

  • Does this work? Do all the women have this in common?
  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew include such women? What would this commonality teach as about Jesus or his mission?

3.6 Each With A Connection to Jesus or Mary

Maybe each apply to Jesus or Mary in a uncommon but important way.

  • Suppose that was Matthew’s understanding of the commonality. Why would Matthew include such women? What would this commonality teach as about Jesus or his mission?

3.7 Salvation

Maybe the point is that all these women were God’s instruments in bringing about the “salvation” of his people. Given the status of women in this time period, this serves to remind the reader that God works for “salvation in surprising ways.”8

  • What do you think of this possibility?
  • Also, does this possibility link with important themes in the book of Genesis?

3.8 Other

Maybe the commonality is simply that they are women and this previews or hints at the role of women in the gospel of Matthew. Women are important witnesses of Christ in the gospel of Matthew.9

  • What do you think about this possibility?


1 What follows is heavily influenced by Robert Alter’s commentary on the Genesis story. For more information see the The Art of Biblical Narrative, 3-12. Also, see Robert Alter’s commentary in The Five Book of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.

2 Cotter, David W., 2003, Genesis (Berit Olam Series), The Liturgical Press , 267. Cotter abridges the structure proposed by David Dorsey in The Literary Structure of the Old Testament.

3 Cotter, David W., 2003, Genesis (Berit Olam Series), The Liturgical Press , 267.

4 Cotter, David W., 2003, Genesis (Berit Olam Series), The Liturgical Press , 267. Cotter is quoting Everett Fox.

5 Tamar is also mentioned in a genealogical list in 1 Chr 2:4 so women are not completely absent in OT and NT genealogies. Still, I tend to think it stands out.

6 Birth of the Messiah

7 Brown, Raymond, E., 1979, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Image Books.

8 Powell, Mark Allan, 2000, “Matthew” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 871.

9 Powell, Mark Allan, 2000, “Matthew” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 868.

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