Was Judah fit to rule? (Genesis 38)

Why interrupt Joseph’s story with the scandal of Judah and Tamar?

Judah is quite the cad in Genesis 38. But why interrupt the story of Joseph with a scandalous story about Judah?

That’s the puzzle for modern readers. As one of them said, All commentators agree that ch. 38 clearly interrupts the flow of the Joseph story (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, NICOT, 2:431).

It makes more sense if we listen to the narrator who labelled Genesis 37–50 as the generations of Jacob, not Joseph’s story. Jacob was setting up his family, and he intended Joseph to rule.

But wasn’t Judah supposed to rule? King David descended from Judah. Didn’t Jacob intend the lion from the tribe of Judah to receive the ruler’s sceptre? (49:9-10)

Yes, but let’s not jump there too quickly. There are issues with Judah’s character, issues that call into question whether Judah is fit to rule. Would you trust a leader who would sell his brother into slavery? (37:26). Genesis 38 gives us more reason to question Judah’s character.


Judah marries a Canaanite (38:2). Be shocked! Jacob was commanded, Do not marry a Canaanite (28:6). Esau realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac (28:8). Abraham made his servant swear that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites (24:3).

Judah’s tribe is compromised from the start. How can they ever be God’s new nation if they meld into the people of Canaan? Can anything good come from this tribe?

If you’re thinking about kingship, they need an heir. Their first son lives long enough to be married off to Tamar, but in God’s eyes he is not worthy of life, let alone reigning. This is blunt: Er, Judah’s firstborn, was bad in YHWH’s eyes, and YHWH killed him (38:7).

Judah really needs that heir, so he asks his second son Onan to produce an heir for his dead brother. Onan is unwilling to take responsibility for Tamar and a son that will not be considered his, so he sleeps with her but ensures she won’t get pregnant. What he did was bad in YHWH’s eyes, and he killed him (38:10).

Judah is now responsible for the care of his son’s widow, Tamar. He has a third son, but Judah fears Shua will die too and it will be the end of his tribe. This exposes the evil in Judah’s heart. He’s unwilling to look after a widow, sending her back to her father (38:11).

Eventually Judah’s wife dies, without any more children (38:12). Is this the end of Judah’s tribe? Has YHWH judged them unfit to live, let alone rule?


Have you been struggling with the patriarchal setting? The males have all the power. Daughters don’t count. Marriages are arranged as if the young ones are pawns on a family chessboard. Widows with no means to support themselves are vulnerable to neglect.

Anyone who uses these texts to promote male dominance has failed to understand Scripture. It’s reporting — not promoting — these values. The world has sunk a long way below God’s creational ideal of male and female caring for his creation jointly and equally (Genesis 1:27-28). We have a long way to go before equality is restored to all humans — regardless of gender, ethnicity, or economic status — in King Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

And even while we’re living under oppressive power structures, Scripture regularly challenges them. That’s Tamar’s role here.

She sees that Judah has no heart to care for a widow. Her life is on hold, trapped in no man’s land for years like an asylum seeker in Australia. She takes matters into her own hands, forcing Judah to face his responsibility.

Putting aside the clothes that define her as a widow, Tamar dresses as a single, setting out to meet Judah where he was reported to be (38:13-14). The disguise is the only way to meet him: he would never willingly hear her grievance. It’s a dangerous choice: he may react badly to being tricked like this.

Judah can’t see her face through the veil. He assumes a woman who placed herself in his path is a prostitute. He propositions her. Tamar knows he’d give nothing for a widow. She asks what he’d give for a prostitute (38:15-16).

What does she do now? She set out to deceive him, and she’s trapped in her own deception. She doesn’t trust him, asking for something as a pledge. He hands over his ID: his seal with its cord, and staff. Whether Tamar intended things to turn out like this or not, she now has enough to shame him. The transaction proceeds (38:17-19).

Afterwards, Judah makes an attempt to pay the “holy woman” as he calls her. A qeḏē·šāh was a woman devoted to a religious shrine, presumably raising funds for a Canaanite god. Fear of ridicule stops him from searching too hard (38:20-23).

Three months later, the shameful event is far from Judah’s mind when he receives the news that Tamar is pregnant. Now he has a reason to be rid of her for good! Pronouncing her guilt, Judah barely masks his relief to be rid of his own guilt — his failure to care for the widow in his family. Bring her out and have her burned to death (38:24).

Did you realize Judah just condemned himself? Tamar is pregnant with the only offspring to continue his family line. If he kills her, he destroys his own tribe.

Tamar is brought out to have her shame exposed. She makes one last-minute attempt to get through to Judah:

Genesis 38:25 (NIV)
As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

What’s your judgement?

What do you make of this mess? Who is guilty here? Is it the man who offers money to the prostitute, or the woman who sells herself? “Both of them!” did I hear you say?

That is not Judah’s judgement. For the first time in this whole sordid mess, Judah takes responsibility. She is more righteous than I (38:26).

He releases her. You know those stories of forgiveness where you release the prisoner, only to discover that you were the prisoner? Well, that’s Judah. If he had not released her from his judgment, Perez and Zerah would never have been born. There would have been no tribe of Judah (38:27-30). Truly, the judgement you give is the judgement you get.

Releasing Tamar from his judgement and taking responsibility for his own failure marks the beginning of a character development in Judah. Joseph will test Judah’s character (42:15-16). Judah will begin to take responsibility for the family (43:8). The one who sold Joseph into slavery becomes a prisoner until Joseph releases him (44:14 – 45:15). Ultimately, Jacob can speak of the ruler to come from the tribe of Judah (49:9-10).

The transformation of Judah’s character begins when he takes responsibility to care for the widow rather than himself.

The kingdom story

Joseph and Judah end up leading the generations of Jacob.

Through Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph will lead the majority of the tribes of Israel, the largest and most fertile regions of the land. His brothers did not want to bow to him, and Judah would have happily sold him into slavery to a foreign power, but Joseph’s tribe ended up being the most powerful political leaders the generations of Jacob ever saw.

Judah, on the other hand, got off to such a rocky start that he almost didn’t survive. Over time, he learnt the value of caring for others more than himself — the heart of leadership. The leader did come from Judah’s line, although David did inherit Judah’s character flaws according to 2 Samuel.

Eventually, both these kingdoms fell: Joseph’s tribes in the north, and Judah’s kingdom in the south. The prophets said they would need a new exodus, like the one God gave them from Egypt where Jacob’s descendants ended up through Joseph.

The New Testament says that Jesus came to complete this kingdom story, resolving the captivity, saving his people from their sins, restoring God’s reign. Remember how it starts?

Matthew 1:1-3 (my translation)
1 The book of the genesis of Jesus, anointed descendant of David the descendant of Abraham. 2 Abraham fathered Isaac. Isaac fathered Jacob. Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah — born to Tamar.

By God’s grace, a saviour descended from Perez, a leader who gave his life to save his people rather than condemn his people to save himself.

What others are saying

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 448:

In many ways the development of this story is similar to the David-Bathsheba liaison (2 Sam. 11). Both focus on an illicit sexual relationship from which a child is born. Both have a period of quietness (3 months here, an unspecified time in 2 Sam. 11) in which the man involved doubtless hopes that the incident is forgotten (Judah) or covered up (David). Both men express righteous indignation when informed of the misconduct of another: Take her out and let her be burned; “the man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Sam. 12:5). Both Judah and David are trapped into admitting their culpability. Finally, when confronted with the truth, both men made public acknowledgments: She is in the right, not I (v. 25); “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13).

Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 310–311:

The narrative contains a radical critique of morality for those who will pursue it. The text makes a judgment about relative guilts. Tamar has committed the kind of sin the “good people” prefer to condemn — engaging in deception and illicit sex and bringing damage to a good family. For a moment, until aware of his own involvement, Judah reacts on the basis of that sort of “morality” (v. 24). In ways apparently congruent with popular morality, Judah has spurned the claims of his daughter-in-law. By his indifference, he has violated her right to well-being and dignity in the community (v. 11). The narrative juxtaposes his prudent but self-serving withholding and her deceptive harlotry.

In that context, a new insight about righteousness comes out of the mouth of Judah (v. 26). He draws an unexpected conclusion. In the midst of this sordid story of sexuality, there is a new understanding of righteousness. The story may give us pause about the usual bourgeois dimensions of sin. What is taken most seriously is not a violation of sexual convention, but damage to the community which includes a poor, diminished female.

John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 668–669:

There has been a long-standing tradition of drawing connections between prostitution and the fertility cults of the ancient Near East. In this view, men would visit the shrine and use the services of the cult prostitutes prior to planting their fields or during other important seasons, such as shearing or the period of lambing. Women who were devoted to the mother goddess Ishtar or Anat would reside at or near shrines and would dress in a veil, as the symbolic bride of the god Baal or El. In this way, it is supposed that they gave honor to the gods and reenacted the divine marriage in an attempt to ensure fertility and prosperity for their fields and herds. Recent research has called some of this assessment into question, and it must be admitted that much of this view depends on reconstruction or inference from texts rather than clear statements in the ancient texts.

Related posts

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

6 thoughts on “Was Judah fit to rule? (Genesis 38)”

  1. Narratively, Genesis 38 offers a foil for the surrounding narrative about Joseph. Jacob squanders away his ring in a style that recalls Esau, while Joseph is entrusted with signatory authority by his boss.

    Jacob the father is altered, too: ground to the dust by famine and down to a few pistachios and almonds (says 43:11); out of stratagems and trustworthy agents, and “all these things are against me!” So little does he know! Eventually he emerges as a man who worships according to Gen 48:15-16, calling God “my Shepherd”, and declaring in Gen 49:10 “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” So he announces a future Messiah who will never, in his travels, be deterred from obeying the Father. That is the prophecy that interests Hebrews 11:21, and I think those physical tokens of authority allude to the sorry adventure of 38:18.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Scott.
      Yes, there’s a lot going on in these final chapters — character development in Jacob too. As you say, Israel’s double-declaration of God is his shepherd (Gen 48:15), the Shepherd and Rock of Israel (49:24) places himself and the generations to come under God’s rule. And yes, that reign is restored to the earth through the lion of Judah.
      So much to meditate on in these narratives.


  2. Thank you Allen for these insights! I learned a lot from this entry. One question: Certainly it’s a signficant that David inherited Judah’s character flaws, but I don’t find it said directly in 2 Samuel, so is it something inferred?


    1. Victor Hamilton (the NICOT quote at the end of the post) draws several parallels between the Judah-Tamar incident and the David-Bathsheba liaison. Not directly stated in 2 Sam, but I think the ancient reader familiar with David would make the comparison when reading Gen 38.
      After the exile, Chronicles focuses on David/Solomon (the idealized son-of-David hope), yet explicitly mentions Tamar (1 Chron 2:4).


  3. In Genesis 38 there is another significant storyline that is often overshadowed by the account of Judah and Tamar; the action of Onan. In verses 9 and 10 we see “he spilt his seed upon the ground” and “the Lord put him to death”. In denominations of (shall we say) a more ‘Victorian’ disposition this has often been used to teach that masturbation is a mortal sin. A more careful reading of those verses shows that Onan’s sin was the same as that of his father – a refusal to accept his social obligations towards his family.
    Similarly in the account of David and Bathsheba, it is not her pregnancy that angered God but rather the plot to get rid of her husband. It is significant that when the Bible refers to Bathsheba it is usually accompanied by “she who was the wife of Uriah”. A rather less-than-subtle reminder that our relationships do matter to God.
    Both Judah and David displeased God but both are in the lineage of Jesus. What does this teach us about the balance between judgement and grace?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s