Unexpected Interruption

The Burden of Leadership

We would be back to the story of Joseph now if the Torah itself had not interrupted it! But in Genesis 38, right after the sale of Joseph by his brothers in Genesis 37, we read the unexpected story of Judah and Tamar. This story, in fact, breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative: instead of continuing to tell us about Joseph’s going down to Egypt, the Torah finds it necessary to interrupt itself by telling about Judah separating from his brothers, his marriage, the death of his sons, Tamar’s seduction, and the climax of the story—Judah’s confession.  As a Bible teacher, I asked my students so many times:  why is this interruption  here? What is the message of this story? Nobody has ever given me an answer; many admitted that they themselves had been wondering. And indeed, at first glance, Judah’s tale is not connected at all to the sale of Joseph, and its position in the text seems random and strange. Is it really so?

This is one of the best examples in the whole Torah where we can see those things in Hebrew that have been completely lost in translation – and after seeing these things, all of a sudden, the message of the whole chapter becomes clear. I hope that, after these comments, you will never again wonder why this story is here.

Chapter 38 opens with the words: “It came to pass at that time.” These first words already hint at a connection between the previous narrative and what we are about to read, as this expression is usually used to indicate both chronological and thematic connections. Then we read, “that Judah departed from his brothers”.  

Why did Judah leave?

Let us return to the story of the sale. Have you ever realized that the voice of Judah was decisive in this story? While Reuven had good intentions (but was unable to follow them through), it was according to Judah’s suggestion that Joseph’s destiny was sealed. Even in the midst of this terrible crime, we witness the amazing authority of Judah (for the first, but definitely not the last, time in Joseph’s saga). The burden of this authority was actually the reason why “Judah departed from his brothers”; we read in a midrash that the brothers blamed Judah and said: “You suggested that we sell Joseph, and we followed you. Had you suggested that we set Joseph free, we would have followed you also”.

This authority is evident throughout the whole of Joseph’s saga: all the crucial events in this story happen only after Judah’s voice has been heard! In Chapter 37, Joseph is sold according to Judah’s suggestions; in Chapter 42, Israel lets Benjamin go to Egypt after Judah’s intervention; in Chapter 45, Joseph reveals his identity after Judah’s speech. This incredible authority, God’s amazing gift to this tribe, will remain with Judah always – but Judah’s heart had to change, his character had to be transformed, and it is here, in the story of Judah and Tamar in Chapter 38, that we see God’s work in Judah’s heart.

Two Sons

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! Of those few that remember this story, most remember it as the story of “Judah and Tamar” and completely forget the huge tragedy that befell Judah. Can you imagine 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 sons, 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. And if this message was clear to Judah’s brothers – how much  clearer would it have been to Judah himself! I believe that the whole process of the change of Judah’s heart starts here, with this enormous tragedy that completely changed his whole world.

Legal Background

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, a 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, by the way, שלה means “hers”), had to marry Tamar. Judah knows his responsibility to give his third son to Tamar, 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 does not 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 agunah, עגונה‎‎, literally “anchored” or “chained” —a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage. A 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 an agunah is extremely difficult – and we need to keep that in mind as we enter the most intriguing part of this story…

To be continued…


[1] Gen.38:6-10

[2] Gen.42:37

[3] Deut. 25:5

[4] Gen.38:11

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.com) Also, 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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  1. Gladys

    Thank you very much Julia ,
    I am very concerned for you ,your family, and all of Israel at this time of conflict . May you all be greatly blessed . My prayers are with you all .
    You always teach me so many things and I am very grateful . I am thinking about Tamar’s twins and the scarlet thread and how. Just like Jacob and Esau one supplanted the other . Will you be writing about this in your next blog?
    I am truly amazed that the things within the Bible are tied together in so many ways and there are lessons to be learned from these connections . Thank you again for your wonderful insights .

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for your prayers, Gladys!

  2. Nick

    So, in the divine “scheme” of things, Judah’s two sons, like Aaron’s, are taken to seemingly benefit others-an attention getter for those left behind. ?????
    Truly I always skipped over the death of Judah’s two sons; I always concentrated on his betrayal of Joseph to explain his decision to distract himself with a harlot dalliance.
    Love these stories! Thank you Julia!

    1. Julia Blum

      It’s a really profound connection, Nick, you’ve given me some very interesting food for thought! I’ve never connected between Judah’s sons and Aaron’s sons – and yet, you are right, in a sense, their cases are very similar! Both sets of brothers were used by God that His people can learn some important lesson!