I just finished reviewing the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. When I started going through this chapter I thought it was a strange interruption in the story of Joseph. We had heard about the youth being sold into Egypt in chapter 37, and in chapter 39 we were going to continue to with his service in Potiphar’s house, so why does the narrative divert to a seemingly random and unpleasant story about Judah?
As I came to the end of chapter 38, though, I realized that its placement in the Bible is actually very clever. This chapter is meant to be a companion piece to chapter 39, read together and then compared and contrasted to each other. In each chapter a son of Jacob is being tugged at by depravity and they respond to that temptation in very different ways.
In Judah’s story he elects to leave his father’s house to live among a more carnal people. He adopts their ways, marries one of their women, and arranges for his son to do so as well. He full-heartedly steps into the lewd and filthy world, and as a result endures an icky family drama that is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in the entire Bible. At the end he is further tempted by lust, gives in, and finds himself caught in a trap entirely of his own making. Fortunately, in the final verses we see the first sign of remorse from Judah, something that will develop further when he meets Joseph again in Egypt.
As for Joseph, he also leaves his father’s house to live among a more carnal people, though in his case it is entirely against his will. Unlike Judah, he will not adopt their baser customs. He might be immersed in a society that does not follow the commandments of God, but he himself still will. He will similarly be tempted by lust and he will reject it. This will result in him being cast down in society, but will be a great victory for his soul.
Chapters 38 and 39 are together an examination on different ways that we can deal with all that is base and depraved in the world. We can seek it out and become part of its dirtying cycle, or we can keep ourselves holy, even as all around us is not. We are all invited to partake of the carnal but we can also reject it, and our lives will shift according to our choice.
Fortunately, for those of us who identify more with the story of Judah than of Joseph, the narrative does still provide a ray of hope. Judah stumbles, and he slogged through the gutter for a time, but he also came to see the error of his ways and seems to have turned over a new leaf. We will see his chance for restitution in a few chapters, and there still remains a chance for us as well.