Why is Genesis 38 In Our Bibles?
In Genesis 37 we’re introduced to the tense family dynamic between Jacob’s children that culminates in Joseph’s betrayal and enslavement. The final verse of the chapter tells us that he ended up in Potiphar’s house, and Genesis 39 picks the story up from there.
But between these two chapters is one that can feel unnecessary. Despite the presence of one familiar face from chapter 37 (Judah), this strange chapter seems to needlessly interrupt the Joseph story. So why is this chapter in our Bibles?
The first thing we need to be aware of is that Genesis 37-50 isn’t primarily about Joseph but about Jacob’s family as a whole (37:2), because it is through his sons that God will bring about his plan of salvation. And despite coming up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery, Judah has an especially important role to play in that plan which is why an entire chapter is devoted to him.
The chapter begins with Judah looking like a lost cause. For reasons unknown, he’s separated from his brothers (v. 1) and goes to live with the Canaanite Hirah and his family. He then does what is frowned upon in Genesis and marries a Canaanite woman (Gen. 24:3; 26:34-35; 28:1). His unnamed wife gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. He takes a wife for Er named Tamar, but due to Er’s wickedness, God put him to death.
To continue Er’s line, Judah commanded his son Onan to produce offspring through Tamar. Onan knew that if Tamar produced no son, he and Shelah would receive a greater inheritance, and so out of selfishness and complete disregard for his deceased brother, Onan doesn’t fulfill his responsibility. He too was put to death.
Now that he’s lost two sons, Judah assumes Tamar must be the problem, not the wickedness of his sons. As a “solution”, he tells Tamar to return to her father’s house until Shelah is old enough to marry her. But after some time later it became clear to Tamar that Judah was never going to fulfill his promise to her, and so she took matters into her own hands (v. 14).
Knowing where Judah was headed, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, met him on the road, and slept with him. For payment, Judah promised her a young goat, and gave his signet, cord, and staff as a pledge of that payment. When he returned with the goat, asked where the “cult prostitute” was, and was told there never was one (Tamar had fled by this point), he realized he’d been duped and decided to save face by pretending it had never happened.
Let’s pause for a second here and take stock of Judah’s character. He had sold Joseph into slavery, abandoned his father and brothers and married into a Canaanite family (showing contempt for God’s promises to his family), turned a blind eye to his sons’ wickedness by blaming Tamar, made her a promise he never intended to keep, and then showed his willingness to sleep with a prostitute. On top of all this, once word reached him that Tamar was pregnant, he had the audacity to be morally outraged and demanded that she be burned alive.
That’s when a turning point happened for Judah. Upon finding out that he had gotten Tamar pregnant, he pronounced her “more righteous than I” (v. 26), recognizing that her drastic actions were a result of his own sin in not giving her his son Shelah. Moreover, Tamar’s devotion to him and his family stood in contrast to Judah’s abandonment of his own.
While Jacob’s three eldest sons had shown themselves unfit for leadership (Gen. 34:1-31; 35:22), Judah eventually emerges as the true leader of the family who cared deeply for his father and brothers. And Genesis 38 shows us how this change started. In confessing his sin and acknowledging Tamar’s devotion, Judah began to change from being a man who would sell out a brother to a man who was willing to die for one (Gen. 43:8-9), a quality that would be instrumental in bringing the family together in Egypt.
Despite the low moments of his life, Judah is a reminder that no one is beyond redeeming or being used by God to accomplish his purposes. Perez, one of twins that resulted from his encounter with Tamar, was an ancestor of David, who in turn was an ancestor of Jesus, the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5). As commentator Joyce Baldwin writes, “In the providence of God the lineage of Judah fulfilled God’s purpose, which had of necessity to bear with human sinfulness in order to redeem it. That God saves by grace and not by merit needs to be writ large so that all may read and understand.”