Judah’s Awakening

Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For Er, his firstborn, Judah provided a wife named Tamar, another Canaanite. Er, however, was wicked, and God killed him. According to ancient custom, Onan, the second born, was responsible for raising up children in his brother’s name. What is crucial at this point is Onan’s thought processes. He realized that raising a son for his brother would be extra trouble and an expense to him, and might jeopardize his hopes for his own family. Onan, therefore, performed a rather crude form of birth control so that Tamar would not conceive. God rewarded such selfishness by killing him as well, leaving Judah with only one son, Shelah the youngest. Judah, not wishing to arouse God’s wrath on his only son, promises to keep Tamar in his house till Shelah was of age, making it look as if he would fulfill the obligation. When the time came, though, it became clear to Tamar that her father- in-law would never give Shelah to her. Evidently Judah reasoned that any contact with Tamar would be dangerous to his only surviving son or would at least complicate Shelah’s own hopes for a family one day. Be this as it may, it is clear that Judah and his son Onan were operating with their natural, common sense understanding of their situation, motivated by their own interests.

Tamar understood Judah. She dressed up like a prostitute and waited for him to come by. When he saw her, he “turned in” to her, as he turned toward the Canaanites years before when he left his brethren (Same Heb. verb nāṭâ in Gen. 38:1 with 38:16), and began the bargaining process. Promising a kid from his flock, he left his signet, cord, and staff as a pledge for her favors. When he sent his friend back to pay her and retrieve his things, she was gone. Later, when she is pregnant, Judah wanted to have her burned out of righteous indignation, but she presents the signet, cord, and staff as evidence of the fact that he was the father.

At this point a profound change comes over Judah. It is said that he “recognized” the evidence, a word that links this story with our larger story of Jacob, when he “recognized” his son’s coat (Same Heb. verb nākar in 37:33 and 38:26). For Judah, however, it was more than just a physical recognition, but a spiritual one. Upon seeing, he said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Here is recognition of one’s spiritual state; he saw that he was blind to what he was, that he was in the dark. In fact, he was a lot like his father Jacob, favoring and protecting his youngest son without consideration of the rights of his firstborn. He was essentially selfish, living in his own little world with a Canaanite wife and an occasional prostitute, unconcerned for those around him.

What we have here is a microcosm of our overall story, preparing the reader for what is to come. Jacob and Judah are both unjust fathers. Tamar suffers injustice from her brother-in-law just as Joseph did from his brothers. Family problems are solved through concealed identity: Tamar as a prostitute and Joseph as an Egyptian ruler. Tamar’s life is threatened until she reveals her evidence; the brothers fear for their lives till Joseph reveals his identity and reassures them. Moreover, Tamar gives birth to twins, the second born supplanting the firstborn, much like Jacob over Esau at the beginning of our story and Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh at the end of our story. Finally, both Judah and Jacob become enlightened about themselves, God, and reality. This little Judah story gives the reader hope about progress in the spiritual life in spite of the great odds.

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