A disturbing Interruption (Genesis 38)

Our Sunday Night Church studies have been taking us through the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. The story begins in chapter 37 with Joseph telling his brothers about his dreams, being given a beautiful coat marking his father’s love for him and then being sold into slavery. However instead of continuing the story with Joseph’s service in Potiphar’s house, chapter 38 interrupts the flow with the disturbing story of Judah and Tamar.

Judah marries a Canaanite and has three sons with her. He gives the first in marriage to Tamar but he is evil and God strikes him dead. Onan the second son is given to her in a levirate marriage but knows the offspring won’t be his and so allows his semen to spill onto the ground. God sees this as sin and he dies too. Judah, presumably unaware of his bedroom habits seems to see Tamar as the cause of curse on his family and so doesn’t give the third son to her.

A little while later, Judah’s wife dies. He heads off to the sheep shearing and along the way meets a prostitute. He goes with her and leaves his staff and seal as proof of his promise to pay. However, his servant is unable to track her down. He then gets news that Tamar is pregnant from prostitution. He demands her execution. She then produces the staff and seal. He is forced to admit she was more righteous than him. She gives birth to twins. However, whilst the midwife identifies the son who will be firstborn as he produces his hand (tying a cord around it), there’s a last minute twist and the second baby comes out first.

Here are a few of the things we learnt from this story.

  1. We learnt a little about character

Judah is blind to his sons’ evil. He looks for the problem outside of the family. Of course this reflects the problem that his children are like him in their behaviour. His own lifestyle passes on a legacy. It is disturbing to see that Tamar knew exactly how to catch her father in law out. She knew that he would be tempted. There’s at least an implication here that he had form. What reputation do we have?

  1. We saw something of human tragedy

Judah’s sin leads to him being outed and shamed as a fool. He is left to look ridiculous in the story. That’s where we always find ourselves when we pursue our own desires instead of God’s.

  1. We enjoyed the twists and turns of the story

Shakespeare loved the fun he could have by introducing twins into his comedies. I think he got that from Genesis. We’ve already met one pair of twins in Jacob and Esau. Now we meet a second pair. Like the first pair we are surprised as the younger triumphs over the older. This reflects another part of the story. Why is Judah focused on here? Well, from now until the end of 2 Samuel, there’s going to be a question -which family line do we follow.

You would expect it to be the firstborn line – but no Rueben is not going to provide the promised blessing of Genesis 12. Our eyes turn to Joseph, the righteous, saviour son. Maybe it will be his line, or possibly through Benjamin who he protects. It can’t be Judah’s line can it? Judah is deceitful, sexually immoral, murderous. Yes, surely it must be down the other side of the family. Then a king emerges through Benjamin’s line, it’s Saul. Yet, no, just like the midwife we have been fooled, the true king emerges from Judah’s line, a younger son, David. Through him comes the promised Messiah, Christ.

  1. We discovered more about being part of God’s deep comedy

We have been learning to use tragedy and comedy in their technical senses. A comedy in Greek and Shakesperean literature is a story with a happy and glorious ending for the protagonist. This story is a mini-comedy. It starts with death and childlessness but finishes with children, heirs and vindication.

This fits into the overall Biblical narrative.  The whole story is one of deep comedy, it starts with humans made in God’s image who fall into sin but are restored to life through Christ. It finishes as Shakespeare would appreciate with a wedding feast as the church is portrayed as the bride of Christ.

We were asked to consider “Where do you fit in the story?” Is your life a tragedy. Is it heading to the sad and tragic ending of hell? Or are you part of the deep and joyful comedy that finishes with the wedding feast of Christ? Are you looking forward to heaven? Do you know that although you have been exposed as a sinner and a fool that in Christ your guilt is forgiven and your shame is covered?