Over the next several weeks we will be reading the unfolding and dramatic story of Joseph. In the midst of the drama of Joseph being sold into slavery and Judah telling their father that Joseph is dead, we are abruptly apprised of another drama unfolding; the story of Judah and Tamar.
While there is much speculation as to the inclusion of this story in the text as well as its juxtaposition there is nevertheless much we can learn from its inclusion. One of the purposes of Torah is to serve as our spiritual map and a guidepost on how to live. One of the lessons derived from the Judah – Tamar story as well as the Joseph story is the recognition of situational ethics. These ethical dilemmas are presented to us in a multitude of ways beginning with the sale of the Esau’s birthright to the stealing of Isaac’s blessings to the deceit of Tamar.
Another lesson learned from these tangled events is understanding that the unfolding of our spiritual history was earmarked by trailblazing, breaking down accepted normative practices such as primogeniture, and devaluing pedigree. Evidence of this comes not only in the Jacob – Esau story but also with the supremacy of Judah over the first born Rueben even though Judah breaks from his family and marries a Canaanite who is absolutely forbidden.
Balance and counterbalance, mida k’neged mida, the ying yang, is another lesson we take from this chapter of Genesis. Our Torah is teaching us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can’t always anticipate the nature of the reaction, when and how, but we are assured that it will happen. Jacob is deceptive in his dealings with his brother and Laben in return is deceptive with Jacob. Jacob’s questionable reaction to the news of the slaughter of Hamor and his tribesmen after the rape of Dina is met with news that Joseph his favorite was killed by a wild animal as told to him by Judah. And Judah deceives Tamar and is in return deceived by Tamar.
But with all that was said the Text also teaches us that ultimately there is reconciliation. After the Great Deluge there is reconciliation through Noah, and when that isn’t complete there is further reconciliation through Abraham and his progeny. While Jacob may have lost his direction at times, in the end he is focused, directed and on message. And his sons, although they lived their developmental years in antagonism, guilt and recrimination, in the end there is reconciliation with Joseph as well.
The Text too, by abruptly inserting the story of Yehudah and Tamar in the midst of the Joseph story establishes the foundation for the Davidic line (Beit David) as early as Genesis by registering the ascendance of Judah. The stage is set for the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and Jacob that the Kings will come from the loins of Abraham and Jacob and through Judah even though he married a Canaanite, is the fourth son, not the favorite, has character flaws and produces twins from the unholy union with Tamar, a Canaanite.
Perhaps it can be said that Jacob was the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. He had an uncanny talent of setting son against son by pointing out their flaws and letting them be known to the siblings. It was no wonder that Joseph became the scorn of the other ten brothers. Unfortunately, Jacob never learnt from his mistakes in this regard. At the very end, when he was blessing his sons, he included the two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Menasheh) as equals to his sons. In so doing Jacob perhaps unknowingly set up another polarity, this time greater than any of the others.
Through Judah came the original kingdom, which split after Solomon. The ten tribes that split off (the northern tribes) were referred to as Beit Yoseph and Ephraim (Zechariah 10:6-7) and the southern tribes were those of Judah (Beit David). Ephraim, the progeny of Joseph laid claim to the kingdom because they believed that it was Joseph who rightfully deserved the mantle, being Jacob’s favorite and not Judah who was fundamentally flawed.