Genesis/Exodus Week 8

“Conflict in God’s Family”: Genesis 37:1–38:30

Francesco Maffei, Joseph Sold by his Brothers (c. 1650).
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The Joseph Story

Every Sunday-school child knows the Joseph story. Joseph, who dominates every chapter from Genesis 37 on (except Chapter 38) is among the more admirable biblical characters. Still, calling this material the “Joseph Story” is not quite accurate. Actually, Joseph is a main character in the ongoing Jacob story (Genesis 37:2). As intriguing as Joseph is in this saga, we cannot lose sight of the larger narrative featuring God’s election of the precursors to God’s people.

Our tendency to lionize Joseph notwithstanding, he is actually introduced in an unflattering manner. He bad-mouths his brothers to Jacob (37:2). Though it was not his fault that he was his father’s favorite, Joseph does little to discourage his father’s partiality. Who can fault his brothers for their hostility (37:3–4)?

Then there are the dreams. Joseph has two, neither of which requires a Freudian analyst. Both suggest that one day Joseph will lord over his family (37:5–9). Naturally, this amps up his brothers’ disdain (37:8). Even Jacob reacts negatively (37:10). Nowhere is it suggested that God induced these dreams. For all we know, Joseph is simply afflicted with delusions of grandeur.

Joseph Heads to Shechem Looking for His Brothers

Jacob reveals that he hasn’t a clue about the dynamics in his family when he sends Joseph to Shechem to check on the other sons. Jacob is so obtuse that he asks Joseph essentially to bring back word about how the flocks and his other sons are doing. Was it not enough that Joseph had already given a negative report (37:2, 12–14)? Jacob seems not to have the slightest inclination that Joseph’s chore will put his brothers over the top.

Then something peculiar happens. When Joseph gets to Shechem, he does not find his brothers. At a loss, he wanders around the pastures. A man sees him and asks, “What are you looking for?” (37:14) Joseph informs the man that he’s looking for his shepherding brothers. He even asks the man where they are, somehow assuming that the man knows (37:16). Fortunately, the man has overheard the brothers (37:17). That is how it came about that Joseph went to Dothan to find his brothers.

The role of this nondescript, nameless man is fascinating. He appears out of nowhere and disappears just as readily. The man defines what it means to be a bit player or an extra. Yet his role is determinative. In fact, the man’s contribution to the story is in starkest contrast to what has been transpiring since the call of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12.

Since the outset of that narrative, God has been involved constantly in one way or another. All of a sudden, in Genesis 37, God seems completely out of sight. That is what makes so suggestive the fact that without this man who sees Joseph wandering around in the field the story would come to a thudding stop. Only when Joseph actually goes on to Dothan do events unfold that are crucial to the outcome of the story. In that light, it is permissible to see in this man the hints of a subtle providence at work. Granted, it is implicit, well veiled, and barely visible.

Nevertheless, it is a key to the story as a whole. The man’s self-consciousness about his crucial role is beside the point. What matters is that at the end of the narrative one looks back at this incident as absolutely necessary to the entire account. If it is to be seen as coincidental, then it needs to be considered a kind of “providential accident.”

The Brothers Plot Joseph’s Death

If Joseph’s dreams are bona fide predictions of a glorious future, what happens when he reaches Dothan compels us to reassess. Even before he reaches his brothers, they are plotting against him. Clearly, his dreams are still sticking in their collective craw. They refer to him contemptuously as a “dreamer” and then plan his murder to insure that his dreams remain ridiculous flights of fancy (Genesis 37:18–20).

Fortunately for Joseph, one of his brothers, Reuben, thinks the plan against Joseph is too extreme. He therefore convinces his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit. But it is a ruse, for Reuben intends to rescue Joseph at an opportune moment. When the brothers comply with Reuben’s counter-suggestion, it is obvious that besides his dreams Joseph’s getting partial treatment from Jacob is another factor in their rage. They strip him of the special garment that Jacob had thoughtlessly given Joseph (37:21–24). Besides Reuben’s efforts on his behalf, the only other break Joseph gets is that the well into which he is unceremoniously tossed has no water in it.

As it turns out, the other brothers also decide against killing Joseph. But that is small comfort in that they have no compunction about selling him into slavery. In their convoluted moral sensibility, they figure that selling him will absolve them of the guilt that murder would have engendered. Some irony is involved in Ishmaelite traders buying and transporting Joseph to Egypt.

This is because the very existence of Ishmaelites is owed to Abraham’s disobedience on his first trip to Egypt where he lied about Sarah. He eventually had a son by an Egyptian maid whom he acquired when the Egyptian king gave him a number of gifts. One of those maids was Hagar, by whom Abraham fathered Ishmael (12:10–20; 16:1–16). In any case, in spite of his grandiose dreams, Joseph is sold and whisked away (37:25–28).

The Blood-Stained Coat

Upon seeing that his plans for rescuing Joseph were thwarted, Reuben figures the brothers have no choice but to concoct a story to explain their brother’s disappearance. Thus, they dip his garment in animal blood, bring it back to Jacob, and ask him whether he recognizes the clothing. Jacob does recognize it and thereby surmises that Joseph was done in by an animal. Jacob is all but overcome by grief (37:29–35). We were right to expect from the outset that Joseph’s actions, his dreams, his family’s reactions, and his father’s favoritism would give rise to conflict.

But we did not expect this scale. This is a sordid episode in the life of the family through whom God is planning to bless all the families of the earth. Sadly, the incident concludes with Jacob remaining inconsolable and the sober statement that Joseph was sold to one Potiphar, a man in the Pharaoh’s employ.

By now we are engrossed. What will happen to Joseph? Is he destined for more misery? What will the family dynamics be now that Joseph is gone and presumed dead? Will Jacob ever discover the truth? Will the brothers be able to hide their conspiracy? Plus, where is God in all this? As we ponder these and other questions we are puzzled that at this point the story takes what looks to be a significant detour.

Detour in the Story

In fact, the transition to Genesis 38 is so abrupt that most scholars and commentators see it as an intrusion. Not only that, few have seen any religious or theological value to Genesis 38. It has long been considered a deservedly obscure interruption to the beloved Joseph story. However, if we take a little closer look we will see that the two chapters not only fit hand in glove, but have something significant to say theologically as well.

To be sure, at a surface level Genesis 38 appears to have no connection with Genesis 37. It features Judah, not Joseph. Further, it does not involve the family as a group. Judah acts alone. But that is our first clue. Joseph is involuntarily away from his family while Judah is voluntarily away. Soon, we will see a few more obvious touch-points.

Judah’s reasons for leaving his family go unmentioned. All we know is that he connects with one Hirah, an Adullamite. He then meets another man, a Canaanite named Shua. Instead of being surrounded by family, as Joseph had been (even in his dreams!), Judah is surrounded by folk outside his family. Judah’s distancing himself from his primary family continues when he marries Shua’s daughter, who is never named (38:1–2).

Judah’s Marriage

What strikes us as odd about Judah’s marriage is how casually he marries someone unrelated to the extended family when Abraham and Isaac went to such lengths to make sure their sons married within the family (24:1–67; 28:1–5). Indeed, when Esau saw how distressed his parents were about this issue he married Abraham’s granddaughter after having already married two Hittite women (26:34-35; 28:6–9). But Judah was unfazed about marrying a Canaanite.

The births of Judah’s three sons reveal other things about Judah’s character. The naming pattern is hardly incidental. Judah names his firstborn: Er (37:3). Judah’s wife names the second son: Onan (37:4). This is unremarkable, for other mothers name their children in Scripture (29:32, 33, 35; 30:11, 13).

But everything is different when the third child is named. Not only does the mother name the third child, this time around Judah is not even in town for the blessed event (38:5; Author’s Note 1). An ominous note is also sounded when we note that the town Judah is in when the child is born is spelled with letters that spell deception. All this reflects Judah’s attending less and less to his family. He has become estranged from his primary family and is now becoming less engaged with his own family.

Reversing this disengagement somewhat, Judah procures a wife for his firstborn: Tamar (38:6). Then, out of nowhere, God shows up to take Er’s life for some unspecified wickedness (38:7). We saw a subtle form of providence in Genesis 37. God’s move against Er is hardly subtle. The narrative does not want us to lose sight of the fact that this is ultimately God’s story.

Aert de Gelder, Judah and Tamar (c. 1681).
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The Tamar Story

Once Tamar becomes a widow, we realize that a bizarre cultural practice lies behind this episode. It is this: when one’s brother dies childless, the next brother is obligated to impregnate his sister-in-law to preserve the brother’s future. This job falls to Onan. But he rejects the custom by practicing birth control (38:8–9). The Lord is displeased with this and ends Onan’s life (38:10). Unfortunately, the next brother in line, Shelah, is too young for brother-in-law duty.

So Judah sends Tamar back to her father to wait for Shelah to grow into a man. But Judah is being deceptive. He blames Tamar for the death of his two sons and therefore tries to remove her for good from the family (38:11). From Judah’s perspective, Tamar has been a destructive element in his household.

Judah’s wife dies after Tamar’s departure. Before long Judah attends to business by going to his sheepshearers in Timnah with his friend Hirah. Tamar learns of this and springs into action. Because enough time had passed without Judah offering his third son to perform the brother-in-law obligation Tamar hatches a plot. She dresses as a prostitute and positions herself strategically in Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah.

As she planned, when Judah sees her he propositions her. Once they agree on a price, Judah proceeds to give her as collateral his ring, cord, and staff, all items that identify their owner. Afterwards, Judah goes on to Timnah and Tamar returns home (38:12–19).

Judah asks Hirah to return to Enaim to pay the prostitute and retrieve his personal effects. Of course, Hirah finds no prostitute [Author’s Note 2]. When Hirah reports this to his friend, Judah decides to absorb the loss, thinking that that would be better than becoming a laughingstock by having Hirah knock on every door in the town trying to locate the prostitute (38:20–23).

Interestingly, at this juncture we note that Tamar was desperate to provide for her future, even if it meant pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law. Conversely, though Judah’s future had come to a standstill, he has no concern whatsoever for his future. His wife is dead. His one remaining son is in marital limbo because of the brother-in-law obligation that hangs over his head. Yet, Judah has no qualms about a dalliance with a prostitute. Onan’s previous act of spilling his semen on the ground is almost symbolic of Judah’s callous disregard for his own future. Yet, as we learn later, his future will be crucial to God’s people as the source of its kings (49:10). The only one thinking about the future in this episode is Tamar.

Three months later Judah is informed that Tamar has become pregnant by prostituting herself. He orders that she be executed summarily. As Tamar is being led to her death, she asks that a package be given to Judah. A message accompanied the package: The man to whom these items belong is the man by whom I am pregnant. Judah’s hypocrisy is exposed, at which point he says, “She is more righteous than I since I did not give her Shelah my son” (38:24–26).

Perez and Zerah Are Born

Tamar gives birth to twins, named Perez and Zerah. Zerah’s line is eventually eliminated due to Achan’s violation (Joshua 7:1–26). But Perez became the ancestor of none other than David (Ruth 4:18–22). That means Perez was also the ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:3). It now dawns on us what Tamar managed to accomplish on that day in Enaim. She saved her own future by having children, but in the process also saved Judah’s future, which in turn saved Israel’s future, which finally in Jesus the Christ saved the world’s future. Whether he understood what he said or not, Judah was quite right: “She is more righteous than I.”

It turns out that Genesis 37 and 38 are about the future of God’s people and God’s eventual plan for all people. That nondescript man who saw Joseph wandering around looking for his brothers put in motion events that would end up saving the lad’s family for the future which God had envisioned. Likewise, Tamar, a complete outsider to the family, took a tremendous risk to preserve her own future — she was close to being executed — but ended up preserving Judah’s, Israel’s, and the world’s future as well. That’s not a bad afternoon’s work! It is amazing what providence can do.

Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 37:1–38:30

  1. Why do you suppose more is not made of what appears to be Joseph’s bratty behavior as well as the ego trip he seems to be on when telling his dreams?
  2. What should we make of the fact that providence is so subtly indicated in Genesis 37? Is that the way providence usually works?
  3. What are the reasons that material such as is found in Genesis 38 plays such an insignificant role in Sunday School lessons or sermons? Should such material be neglected?
  4. Arguably, Tamar does as much for God’s people as anyone ever has. Can you think of other outsiders who have aided God’s agenda in a similar manner?
  5. What Tamar did was extremely clever, but it was hardly moral. Yet her actions saved the day. What should we make of her “the end justifies the means” strategy?


Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Many translations miss the fact of Judah’s absence on the birth of his third son. This is because they translate not on the basis of the Hebrew text, but on the basis of the Greek or Septuagint. In Greek it is impossible to tell the gender of the subject for the third person. “He” or “she” are both possible. But Hebrew is clear. The text says, “He was in Chezib when she bore him.” The “he” is Judah, who is not only out of town for the birth of his third son, but is in a town that means “Liarsville.” The Hebrew text makes perfectly good sense.


Author’s Note 2

There is an interesting change of vocabulary when Hirah returns to Enaim to pay off Judah’s debt. In the story, Tamar has disguised herself as a zonah, or ordinary prostitute. But when Hirah tries to locate her, he asks not whether anyone has seen a zonah, but whether anyone has seen a qedeshah. The latter is a prostitute of a different kind. This sort of prostitute takes part in cultic activities that involve fertility rites. Not only does Hirah use a softer term than zonah (perhaps to make Judah look less base), but by using the other term he actually makes Judah out to be a religious man, at least from the perspective of Canaanite fertility religion.


For Additional Reflection

Read a homily on Genesis 37 delivered at the Friday morning Communion service on campus November 18, 2010, by SPU Assistant Professor of Theology Mike Langford.


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