We are looking at some widely-spaced sections of Genesis (Genesis 35:22b-26, Genesis 38:24-26, and Genesis 49:10-12) that all have to do with Judah, the fourth son of Jacob (aka Israel), and his particularly important ancestral story. Particularly important, since Judah is the progenitor of David and the kings of Judah who follow him during the monarchy, which then becomes important for the genealogy of the Messiah. But the story of how that happens is a complicated one, with plenty of human failing all around. Our selected verses skip out a lot of the context; we’ll probably want to fill more of that in for our own study.
This is all part of the focus this quarter on “God’s exceptional choice” of specific individuals and groups to move the story of humanity toward some desirable outcomes – sometimes known as “salvation history.” Aside from that, these are some great stories. So, here are a few notes on these texts:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in the book of Genesis: the first book of the Torah; the record of the earliest genealogies, of the heavens and the earth, humanity, and the people of Israel; the earliest family stories, that culminate in how the people end up in Egypt in the first place, so that they can be liberated from there by God in Exodus. It doesn’t take us long reading through Genesis to stop expecting people to be good – in the sense of virtuous, or wise. Our adjusted expectations will not be violated in these stories about Judah.
Last week, we dipped in to the saga of the family of Israel with Jacob, who sent his family – his two full wives and his two servant-wives, along with all the children – ahead of him across the river Jabbok while he stayed behind and wrestled with “a man,” who might have been an angel or might even have been God or might possibly have been Jacob’s Jungian shadow-side. Judah will have been among those children, one of the older ones.
The harrowing tale of the sons’ birth is told in Genesis 29:31-30:24, and then the story of Rachel’s death in childbirth with Benjamin is added in Genesis 35:16-21. We skip the bloody massacre of Genesis 24, which helps explain why Jacob’s second two sons, Simeon and Levi, aren’t in the running for “most kingly ancestor.” And the account of Jacob’s trip to Bethel. And the first half of verse 22, which may explain why Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, is also disqualified for the “father of kings” role. Clearly, most of Jacob’s sons – with the obvious exception of baby Benjamin – are all grown up by now.
Our first bit of text, Genesis 35:22b-26, sums everything up, with the names of the boys.
Moving on, chapter 36 is the genealogy of the descendants of Esau, and chapter 37 begins the Joseph saga, which is then interrupted by the incredible chapter 38 – where “meanwhile, back in Canaan,” Judah goes down to settle near his friend Hirah [whose name means something like “turned white”] the Adullamite, and marries a Canaanite gal who alone of everyone in the chapter is never named, and then three sons are born, and then the firstborn gets a wife, Tamar, but then lots more stuff happens, down to the birth of Perez and Zerah – and which then picks up again and carries on through the end of the book.
Our second bit of text, Genesis 38:24-26, leaves out most of this story of Judah and Tamar, although it is the climax of the story, when the big character reveal that Tamar is righteous is announced, and she escapes with her life from the whole debacle of ever having gotten involved with this crazy-dysfunctional family, because as providence would have it she is blessed with foresight and intelligence. As well as astounding fertility – especially in the context of Genesis, where the foremothers more often have a lot of trouble getting pregnant.
Moving on, the story of Joseph and his troubles down in Egypt, and his descent into the dungeon (not his fault), and then his ascent to be the right-hand official in the land and the overseer of the massive public works project that will keep everyone from dying of starvation when famine strikes – again, all thanks to God – and the way this pulls all the sons of Israel and finally their families and their father Jacob/Israel himself together in Egypt unfolds in the next chapters.
It’s a wonderful story, as well as a familiar one. It’s undoubtedly important that Judah himself plays a major part in it, being the persuasive voice vs. Jacob in Genesis 43:1-10, which sets the second journey to Egypt in motion, and then again in Genesis 44:18-34, which proves he can think about other people’s welfare for a change, and which cues Joseph’s self-revelation to his brothers in the next chapter.
We shouldn’t forget that Judah is also the one who persuades the brothers to sell Joseph to the Egypt-bound Midianite traders in the first place (Genesis 37:25-28). So whoever plays Judah in the movie of the Joseph story will be up for a nomination for best supporting actor.
Our third and last bit of text, Genesis 49:10-12, is three of the verses of Jacob’s death-bed summation of his twelve sons’ characters and destinies, in which Judah and Joseph both have five verses each, compared to the others’ one or two.
The book ends with the final reconciliation of the brothers, and Joseph’s death, along with a foreshadowing of an ultimate “leaving” of Egypt.
None of these texts are in the lectionary, which shuts the story off with Jacob’s wrestling match in chapter 32, incorporates a few choice excerpts from the Joseph saga – like Joseph’s declaration that “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20), and then quickly jumps ahead to the birth of Moses in Exodus. So we wouldn’t know ANY of this was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary!!! And since Matthew’s version of the genealogy of the Messiah is ALSO something we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary, we won’t even have a chance to say to ourselves “Tamar? Who the heck is Tamar?” when Matthew 1:3 blows past us in church, since it probably never will.
A BIG REMINDER that if we want to know what’s in a book, it’s a good idea to read the actual book. [Bible Content Examinees et al., take note.]
CLOSER READING: Our first text, Genesis 35:22b-26, seems entirely straight-forward – a bit of genealogical punctuation.
Our third text, Genesis 49:10-12, skips the part that gives rise to “the lion of Judah” image, but still gives us plenty of evidence that Judah’s will be the house of kings. The comment about dark eyes and white teeth might seem to come out of the blue, but according to Professor Aaron Demsky at the Torah.com, drawing on the rabbinic commentary and recent scholarship, it is part of a blessing having to do with [abundant] wine production in the Judean hills. Demsky’s explanation makes more sense to me than does the suggestion that this is a commonplace description of a royal figure. There’s literally NO supporting evidence anywhere else in the Hebrew text for that suggestion.
Our second text is torn out of the long, rich story told in Genesis 38. Which, of course, we really ought to read in its entirety, to get the full effect.
There’s A LOT to notice about this text. Here are four things:
The names. Almost everyone is named: Judah (maybe “casting lots,” maybe “prayer”), his friend Hirah (maybe related to “whiteness”), his father-in-law Shua (“cry for help!”), his sons Er (“wake up!”) and Onan (“vigorous”) and Shelah (“quiet, at peace”), his daughter-in-law Tamar (“date palm” – as in, maybe, fruitful), his grand-sons Perez (“breaks out!”) and Zerah (“bright”). Everyone but his wife, who doesn’t get to be called anything but Bat-Shua, “daughter of Shua.” Granted, it’s not unusual for a woman in the Bible not to be named, but in this context, it’s particularly striking, and makes us wonder – what’s going on there?
The role of “going down” and “going up.” This “going down” and “going up” theme began in the last chapter, and will continue through the story of Joseph, but it is working in the story of Judah and Tamar, too. Judah goes down to this Canaanite place where he settles near his friend; Onan is supposed to raise up seed for his dead [evil] brother, but instead he “ruins the ground” with it, which might count as a kind of lowering; Judah goes up to Timnah for sheep-shearing – a significant fact that is repeated; Tamar rises after her encounter with Judah and returns home. Throughout this story, “going down” is inauspicious, while “going up” seems to be promising.
The role of seeing. The disasters that come upon Judah’s sons have to do with what God sees in them – they are evil in his eyes. [We might raise a question about God’s consistency right about here, recalling that Simeon and Levi survived chapter 34.] Tamar sees that Shelah is grown and is not her husband. Judah sees someone at Enaim – oh, look, another name, and one that means “eyes” – who looks to him like a prostitute, and doesn’t see that it’s Tamar, since she has covered her face. Oh, look/behold, Tamar turns up pregnant. Tamar sends the incriminating signet, cord, and staff to Judah with an instruction to examine / discern / regard them – that is, look at them and see whose they are. Which he does, after which he announces that she is more righteous than Judah is.
There are TWO DIFFERENT words for prostitute used in the text. Judah sees a zonah, someone who makes a living from sex. Rahab, for instance, is a zonah. As is the mother of Jephthah in Judges 11. This word seems, possibly, to cover a wider range of sexual activities than our contemporary American term “prostitute,” possibly including some forms of concubinage or long-term relationship. Maybe like the way “we” sometimes use the term “you whore” to mean “you slept with someone other than me for months.” Here, it seems to mean something like what we’d mean by a “hooker.” Later, when Tamar is found to be pregnant, she’s accused of having “played the zonah.”
But when Hirah goes to find the woman who needs to be paid off with a goat, he tells “the men” of the place that he’s looking for a qedeshah, a feminine form of the word qadesh, related to qadosh, “holy, sacred.” As in, a “shrine” or “temple” “prostitute.” In other words, we suppose, someone who engaged in some kind of religiously or cultically significant sexual exchanges, professionally. This seems significant, even if its only significance is that Hirah is trying to save some face for Judah.
There is a fair bit of comment floating around about how “prostitutes wore veils” in those days, etc. etc. – but it seems like most of the evidence for that assertion comes from this text. And I seriously wonder whether the point of Tamar’s covering her face was simply so that Judah wouldn’t recognize HER, as herself. Sitting by the side of the road might have been enough to identify her as a prostitute. That’s often sufficient in our day and age, depending on which road we’re talking about, or maybe what kind of sitting. Although distinctive apparel MAY have played a role, too, then as now. [Or so I imagine, thanks to TV and the movies.]
People often complain about “the Old Testament” being full of “begats.” But the begats can get mighty interesting.
Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; An image of the Timnah or Timnath that these days many people think Judah might have “gone up” to, which is not the same Timna that Samson later “goes down to” in Judges: “Khirbet et Tibbaneh” Davidbena, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons