“At that time, Judah left his brothers . . .” –Gen. 38:1

From Genesis to Revelation, biblical authors love to allude to God’s previous saving actions, to compare and contrast characters, and to remind us subtly of previous episodes. This episode begins with an explicit reference, “At that time . . .” The previous episode related how Joseph had been sold by his brothers into slavery. So this episode begins “at that time,” immediately after the previous one.

And then we read, “Judah left his brothers.” The alert ancient listener or reader of this narrative already begins to see the parallel actions of Judah and Joseph, and thus the connection between the two episodes. In the previous episode, Joseph is first sent to find his brothers, that is sent to join them, and then–at Judah’s urging–was sold away and left his brothers. In both of cases, Judah’s actions lead one brother to leave the rest. This episode about Judah, the author is telling us, should be compared and/or contrasted with the previous episode, and perhaps even with the next. And this comparison will only become more explicit and detailed as we go along.

If you think this makes too much of three words, consider this: the author had no need to mention Judah leaving his brothers. He could have simply told us Judah traveled to another place, or that he left to find a wife, or simply that he found a wife. But the author mentions that Judah left his brothers, and at that time, no lessWhat was Judah going to do, take ten brothers with him hunting for a bride? Not likely. Given the care with which the biblical stories are crafted, the words “left his brothers” are included because they indicate something significant.

After this opening, in five terse verses Judah marries; his (unnamed) wife gives birth to three sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah respectively; and enough time passes so an adult Er marries Tamar.

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

That’s a devastating biography, and it’s all we know of Er. Custom requires that the deceased Er’s next of kin marry Tamar, so that she can have a son–sorry, in that culture daughters don’t count–to carry on the name of the dead husband. Judah complies.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.

With his elder brother Er, dead, Onan takes the place of the firstborn. That means he will receive a double portion of his father’s possessions, when Judah dies. But if Onan gives a son to Tamar, that child would inherit the double portion, not Onan. Duty or not, it is not to his material advantage to give Tamar a child, which explains his actions. By denying her as he did, he also humiliates Tamar. He is cruel as well as greedy. No wonder:

 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Only a slightly longer biography for Onan, and more disgraceful. For both Er and Onan it might be said, as in Shakespeare’s MacBeth it is said of the treasonous Thane of Cawdor that, “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Judah apparently does not know the particulars. From this perspective, he has given two sons to be Tamar’s husband, and both have died. Note the irony here. In the previous episode, Judah and his brothers led Jacob to believe he has lost a son. In this episode, the evil behavior of Judah’s offspring has cost him two sons. Only one son remains, putting Judah’s legacy in jeopardy.

If Shelah should die, Judah would be left without heirs. Alarmed at this possibility, he makes an excuse, that his third son is too young to marry, and tells Tamar to go back and live with her father. No doubt she views this as a particular repudiation. Twice widowed, Judah neither provides for her a husband, nor releases her to marry again. Instead, he sends her back to  her father’s household as a dependent, rather than helping her become mistress of her own home.


And here we encounter a fascinating feature of biblical stories, something scholars call type-scenes, and we can think of as story frameworks. Every culture and literature has these. For example, in westerns it might be that a new sheriff comes to town. We can construct a whole plot based on that. Or in romantic comedies, we have the classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. The stories built on these basic frameworks can vary a great deal, and our enjoyment and appreciation of them grows as we discover how the characters and plot developments meet or contradict our expectations.

The Bible has at least half a dozen of these, but at this point in the story of Tamar we begin to recognize a familiar one:

The Barren Woman

The barren woman story framework has already appeared prominently in the book of Genesis. First we have Sarah, the wife of Abram, who is advanced in years and has no children, but who then miraculously conceives a son, through whom the promise to Abram will be fulfilled. Rebecca has a similar situation. She and Isaac are married for 20 years before she conceives, and then she is blessed with twins. Her son Jacob will eventually give his new name, Israel, to God’s chosen people. Rachel also is barren for many years, making it the third generation in a row in which the wives of the patriarchs have had fertility problems. Rachel does eventually conceive and gives birth to two sons, one of them Joseph who will deliver Israel from famine.

That brings us to Judah and Tamar. By this time, Judah’s step-mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all had been a central character in a barren woman story, and each had given birth to a son who became an instrument of God’s saving actions. And now we come to Tamar. The barren woman framework alerts us that she may well be a figure of importance.

The ancient listener, hearing this story for the first time, recognizes the significance of the barren woman framework, and is alerted to look for comparisons and contrasts. A major contrast to the previous examples can be seen in Tamar, who is not barren because of her own infertility, but because the men in her life have failed or denied her. Differences like this keep the story familiar yet fresh and interesting–and they also hint at the eventual outcomes. This difference in the locus of infertility tells us, Make a note: this reversal will be a major theme of the story.

With that in mind, several questions arise: Will God enable Tamar somehow to give birth to a significant son? How will this be accomplished or frustrated? What will be the significance?

Those answers, and more, will be revealed as the tale unfolds.

Next time: Ambush

Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.