The Hidden Message

The Opening of the Eyes
We are still in Genesis 38, in this strange and unexpected interruption to the narrative, in the story of Judah and Tamar. We are entering the most interesting part of the story, the “action” of the story, which according to the text happens “a long time afterward”—a long time after the events we discussed last time.
We read that a long time afterward, “the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died” – and when the period of mourning was over, “Judah went up to his sheepshearers at Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite”. Here Tamar enters the picture again: we read that it was told Tamar, saying, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” What did Tamar do upon hearing this news?

Let us remember that Tamar has been agunah for a long time already, for she was considered engaged to Shelah, and although “Shelah was grown she was not given to him as a wife”. After the tragedy she had experienced (twice), it appeared that she would remain childless. However, Tamar decided that her father-in-law’s unfaithfulness would not stop her from having children and being part of God’s family, so she pretended to be a prostitute in order to trap her father-in-law. She “took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place which was on the way to Timnah”.
Most translations read that she sat in an open place. Sometimes, the name of the place where she was sitting is transliterated: “she sat down at the entrance to Enaim.” However, if we read the story of Judah and Tamar in Hebrew – we are struck by the name of the place: בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם BePetach Eyanim – literally: “in the opening of the eyes”. These words are incredibly meaningful and really designate what this story is all about—it is about the “opening of the eyes” of the heart.  At this point, Judah’s eyes are still closed, but they will not remain so. That is why Tamar, God’s unexpected and unlikely tool, is sitting at this place – because God wants to open the eyes of Judah’s heart.

Discern, Please
When Judah saw Tamar, he did not recognize her and took her for a prostitute. As payment for her service, he promised to send her a kid goat, which brings us back to the story of Joseph’s sale in the previous chapter. Do you remember that the brothers slaughtered a kid, dipped Joseph’s tunic in the blood, and then sent the tunic to their father? Moreover, when we saw Jacob deceived by this tunic, we could not help but remember that the same set —special clothes and a slaughtered animal —was also used by Rebecca, and Jacob himself, in order to deceive his father Isaac! It seems that, beginning from Genesis 3, every time we have a slaughtered animal and special garments, it serves as a cover-up for some serious sin or deceit. In this story, however, we will soon see the opening of the eyes. Tamar asked for a pledge: “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?” She asked for his “signet and cord, and staff,” and surprisingly, he gave her all these items.
We learn that through this trickery, Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah: “she conceived by him.” When, about three months later, Judah was told that “Tamar your daughter-in-law … is with child by harlotry,” Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” Tamar was still considered engaged to Shelah, and Judah, as the head of the family, had judicial powers. His decision was both harsh and quick.
But then something very significant happens. When Tamar brings out Judah’s personal items, she says: Discern, I pray thee – הַכֶּר־נָ֔א. In English, nothing strikes us as unusual in this sentence – however, when read in Hebrew, the connection between these two stories—the story of Joseph’s sale and the story of Judah and Tamar—becomes absolutely evident. This expression, הַכֶּר־נָ֔א – “discern, please” or “recognize, please” – appears only twice in the entire Torah, and can you guess where it is first used? Right in the previous chapter, when the brothers bring Joseph’s coat to Jacob and say: “discern please whether it be thy son’s coat” הַכֶּר־נָ֗א – discern, recognize, examine. Can you imagine? In the entire Torah, this expression appears only in these two chapters: Genesis 37 and 38. In the first case, Judah was a deceiver, very likely, he was the one who said these words, because, as we saw, he was a leader among the brothers; now, however, he is the one who is deceived!  Judah’s deception revisits him in his very own words – and it is at this very moment, when Judah hears these words, that his heart is pierced by the recognition—not only by the recognition of his own things, but much more deeply, by recognition of his own guilt. Now his eyes are indeed opened, and he has a true change of heart. He confessed and repented.

Judah’s Confession
We come to the climax of this story – Judah’s confession: “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son.”
We read a beautiful description of this transformation in Midrash: “Then Judah rose up and said: … I make it known that with what measure a man metes it shall measured unto him, be it for good or for evil, but happy the man that acknowledgeth his sins. Because I took the coat of Joseph, and colored it with the blood of a kid, and then laid it at the feet of my father, saying: Know now whether it be thy son’s coat or not, therefore must I now confess, before the court, unto whom belongeth this signet, this mantle, and this staff.”
Of course, Midrash just fills in the gaps that Scripture leaves out. Yet, there is a point not to be missed: Judah did acknowledge and confess his sin. Moreover, he didn’t do it under external pressure: it was his word against hers, and since her social status was incomparable lower than his – a woman, a widow, probably Canaanite – nobody would even pay attention to her word. However, God wanted to open the eyes of his heart, and therefore we witness this profound inner transformation in Judah’s heart.

Why is this story here in the middle of Joseph’s saga? The Torah wants to make sure we know that the Judah who comes to Egypt and approaches Joseph, is not the same Judah we saw in chapter 37, in the story of the sale. This Judah has a completely different character: God had been working in his heart and the eyes of his heart have been opened! Moreover, if you have ever wondered why King David, and also Jesus, came from the tribe of Judah, this story gives you the answer: in a sense,  Judah starts “tikkun olam[1], repairing the world, bringing it back to God’s hesign! How so? We know that in Genesis 3, answering God’s question, Adam points his finger at his wife: she is the one to blame. When God questions Eve, He gets a similar response from her: the Serpent was to blame. After that, the LORD pronounces His punishment – but I daresay Adam and Eve were punished not only for eating the fruit: this blame-shifting was something that distorted creation and moved it off the path God had originally planned. In Genesis 38, Judah becomes the first biblical character to repair it—he takes responsibility for his own deeds and repents. Unlike Adam, who said, “she is the one to blame,” Judah said: “I am the one to blame!” Thus, Judah is the first person in the book of Genesis – and therefore the entire Bible – to confess his sin, take responsibility for it, and change his behavior. He is indeed the confessing one.



[1] These Hebrew words are typically translated as “repair the world”


The insights you read on these pages are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in-depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.comAlso, excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you can get them here.

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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Join the conversation (8 comments)

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  1. Victor Phan

    Your articles is always very interesting and meaningful. This is my very first time to learn about the hidden mesage. My eyes are opened as well. Thank you so much.
    I translated the article into Vietnamese and posted on

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Victor, for your interest and for your kind words. Thank you also for the translation, I really hope the Vietnamese readers will enjoy it!

  2. Troy McClure

    How wonderful is our God!

    Hebrews 4:12
    For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

  3. […] Blum (Israel Institute of Biblical Studies) writes “The Hidden Message” out of Genesis 38. In one of the most perplexing accounts in Genesis (of which there are […]

  4. Carla Gade

    This is so profound seeing Judah’s transformation.

  5. Nick

    HUGE story for sure! Thank you Julia for this teaching. Like Paul, Judah has some wrong ideas in his early “Biblical “ career!

  6. Garold Spire

    Could not jacob’s reply to the question of “what is your name” be considered a confession since G-d knew what his name was so clearly the purpose of the question was not to inform G-d but to cause Jacob to reflect upon his character and behavior towards his brother and the reply an admission of guilt as well as his name? Genesis 32:28

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Garold, I agree, and in this sense, this whole dynamic between his names is amazing, especially if we translate Israel as “Yashar El” – “Straight (of or before ) GOd.