Why Is That Story There in the Bible? Judah and Tamar

Our men’s class has been studying Genesis. One of the big questions as you study through Genesis is why on earth is the story of Judah and Tamar stuck in Genesis 38? What makes the location of this story so strange is that it cuts the Joseph story right in half with no obvious connection. It doesn’t seem to advance the Joseph story. It seems like an unrelated aside that cuts away from Joseph, tells us something about Judah and then goes back to Joseph. If you took Genesis 39 out of Genesis you wouldn’t even miss it. The story would be seamless.

Some theories:
Some have proposed that Genesis 38 breaks away from the Joseph story to build suspense. It does and that could have something to do with why it is there. Another suggestion is that it gives us information about Judah’s descendants that will ultimately result in David and Jesus’ births. I think both of those things have something to do with why this story is told but I also think there is more to the placement of the story here than just those two things.

Robert Alter’s Theory:
In studying for this chapter I had a look back at Robert Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative” and he has an excellent exposition of the narrative function of this story as a part of the bigger story line and not just an isolated story with little to no real connection or way of moving the Joseph story along. Alter believes this story is actually extremely connected to the story line and is one essential (rather than disconnected) piece in moving it to the climax where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and all is reconciled in Genesis 45.

So what is Alter’s theory? His explanation requires a small knowledge of Hebrew and I will spare you that part and give you the gist. It is all about covering things up and revealing things. In the preceding chapter, Genesis 37, the chapter ends with the brothers revealing Joseph’s bloody coat to their father Isaac. They allow Isaac to form the conclusion that Joseph was eaten by an animal and don’t reveal the fact that they had sold him into slavery. It is a grand deception, a coverup, a ruse. They are successful in their scheming. In Genesis 38 we learn that Judah had three sons. The oldest married Tamar. He died. The next one, Onan, refused to have children with her in his brother’s name. He died. The third was never given to her. Judah didn’t fulfill his obligation to provide for her or provide children for her through his lineage (presumably his sons). So Tamar tricks him into sleeping with him by disguising as a cult prostitute. He sleeps with her, believing her to be a prostitute. She secures some of his identifying person items as leverage that he will pay her. She becomes preganant with twins, one of which will become an ancestor of David/Jesus. When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant he orders to her to be killed but she outwits him again by revealing his items, which identify him as the father of the children and make him just as guilty. Later on Joseph will also disguise himself to his brothers and his revealing of his true identity, much like with Tamar to Judah, will be a turning point in the story that advances the narrative and brings us closer to the promises of God being fulfilled.

It makes a lot more sense to me to show that a story/narrative is very purposefully located rather than just say it is random, isolated and disconnected from the surrounding narrative. What makes it even more clear in Alter’s book is how he uses Hebrew to show just how specific these and a few other connections really are. I just don’t have the time to put that here and don’t want to make anyone snooze too quickly either.


About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

5 Responses to Why Is That Story There in the Bible? Judah and Tamar

  1. Charlie Sohm says:

    Wouldn’t it have fit in that spot chronologically? If it’s true that the Joseph story would have been seamless if that story were removed, then I would think it probable that the person who compiled the stories into what became the book of Genesis had separate Joseph stories and Judah stories, and then conflated them into a chronological account as best he could.

    • mattdabbs says:

      I should have had chronology as another possibility of its location. I am not sure if we do know it fits here chronologically. It makes sense that it would. The point that Alter makes is the themes that are being emphasized go beyond chronology to something that is not thematically disconnected at all but is vitally important to the broader story. That is a point that was missed by just about everyone before Alter made the connections he did in his book.

    • mattdabbs says:

      I was looking at Walton’s take on this in his NIV application commentary. He says there is a chronology problem with the story fitting here. It is actually pretty obvious when you think about it. Genesis 38 covers Judah getting married, having three sons who grow up and get married themselves and then Tamar having kids by Judah. That is three generations. There is no way all that can fit entirely between Genesis 37 and 39 because Joseph is not captive prior to imprisonment for decades nor is he in jail for three generations. This must have all transpired through the famine, etc. In other words, the events of Genesis 38 actually could be the last events of the book of Genesis chronologically if you look at the rest of the chapters in Genesis and how long they might have played out. Just thought I would share.

  2. According to Genesis 46:12, the events with Judah and Tamar happened before they came to Egypt. The trouble with some of this chronologically is that the book doesn’t give us spans of years. How old was Judah when Joseph was born? We just don’t know.

    I like the narrative theory you present. I’ll have to check out that book you mention.

    I think supposedly disconnected stories are a lot like vestigial organs. We may think they are useless and just kind of thrown in there, but in reality it just means we haven’t figured out why they are there yet.

  3. joey says:

    Yes, I love Alter’s book. It was one of my first introductions to narrative theology.

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