Biblical Portraits: Judah (2)

We continue drawing our biblical portrait—continue watching Judah on these pages. We have seen that, by placing the story immediately after the sale of Joseph, the Torah lets us know that the stories are connected. Before a reader delves into Joseph’s saga and follows the transformation of Joseph’s character, Scripture shows us the transformation of Judah’s character. In chapter 37, in the midst of all the horror of the brothers’ crime, we witnessed the amazing authority that Judah’s voice had: it was according to Judah’s suggestion that Joseph was sold. This authority, God’s special gift to Judah’s tribe, was evident even then, but it is here, in the story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38, that we see the real fruits of God’s work in his heart. The transformation of his heart and his character.


We might remember that Judah departed from his brothers and that midrash explains it by the fact that the brothers blamed Judah for the sale of Joseph. Without seeing this connection between the stories, the beginning of chapter 38 sounds almost awkward. Why, all of a sudden, does the Torah find it necessary to tell us about Judah’s marriage to some Canaanite woman (we are not even given her name, she is “a daughter of Shua”) and about the birth of his three sons from this marriage? And then we read:

Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.[1]

Let us pause here! Usually we see this story as the story of “Judah and Tamar” and completely forget the huge tragedy that befell Judah. There are no words to express the sorrow of a father whose two sons die one after another. Moreover, the Torah emphasizes that they did not die a natural death, but rather that “God put them to death” (וַיְמִתֵהוּ יְהוָֽה׃). This expression is very unusual—we seldom find it in the Torah. What was going on there? Was it a punishment? Was there a connection to the story of Joseph?

Throughout Joseph’s saga, we discover different hints suggesting this connection. For instance, when later we read that two sons were born to Joseph in Egypt, the picture becomes almost graphic: The one who was responsible for the crime, loses his two children, while the one who was victim of the crime, has two sons born to him.

It becomes even clearer when we ponder the strange words of Reuven as he tries to convince Jacob to let Benjamin go with them to Egypt:  Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.”[2] These words sound so bizarre:  after all, Reuven’s sons are Jacob’s grandsons – why would Jacob kill his own grandsons?

However, if in the eyes of the brothers, the death of Judah’s two sons was God’s judgment and punishment for not bringing Joseph back, then we can understand that Reuven is in effect saying: I will bring him back – and if not, I am prepared to pay the price.


Before proceeding any further, let us introduce some legal terms that will help us better understand the situation. According to the Levirate law (from the Latin Levir brother in law), a brother was obliged to marry the widow of his deceased brother, and a son born of this union was considered the son of the dead man. In Hebrew, such a union was called yibum. We read about it in Deuteronomy:

If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her.[3]

Later, the brother could refuse yibum by making a public declaration through the ceremony of chalitzah (Deut. 25:5-10). In earlier ages, however, yibum probably could not be evaded: a man was obliged to marry the widow of his brother. So, when Judah’s first son, Er, died childless, Judah’s second son, Onan had to marry Tamar by the law of yibum. When the LORD took his life also, according to the Levirate law, Judah’s third son, Shelah (whose very name שלה means “hers”), had to marry Tamar. Judah knows his responsibility to give Tamar his third son, and he tries to avoid it.  Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers.”[4]

Judah doesn’t want Shelah to marry Tamar, and he thinks that if Tamar is removed from the house, Shelah’s duty to marry her will become less pressing as time passes.  As a result, he leaves Tamar aguna, עגונה‎‎, literally “anchored” or “chained” —a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage. The classic example is a man who has left on a journey and has not returned, or has gone into battle and is missing. An agunah has no husband – yet, she cannot marry another man, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since she first became an agunah. The situation of agunah is extremely difficult – and it’s what we need to keep in mind as we enter the most intriguing part of the story.


To be continued…

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[1] Gen. 38: 6-10

[2] Gen. 42:37

[3] Deut. 25:5

[4] Gen. 38:11



About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Lisa Bari

    I’m so curious about the choice of visual above this blog. Wondering why it was chosen since it’s the Rastafarian representation that Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the Messiah and will come again.

  2. Dot Healy

    How very interesting Julia, to see these profound connections between the two stories. I look forward to the next post.

  3. Andre Alexander

    This is most enigmatic. At the time Judah, Moses wasn’t alive yet and the law was not given yet. Also Deuteronomy hasn’t been written yet.

  4. Ronald E. Early

    very good, yes most fail too consume the word but mirly read it.

  5. Fred Reo

    So to marry or take to wife. Really means to come together to perform a duty .Not that they are to remain together.That makes sense.