A recent post, “Learning about Mahanaim from Joseph’s life,” encouraged us to stay aware of God’s invisible camp surrounding us while we live out the good and bad events of our own physical camp here on earth. This perspective is derived especially from the literary structure of Joseph’s life story in Genesis 37-50, which is presented as a series of twos. Perhaps to remind us readers to keep a Mahanaim (two-camp) mentality regarding our own circumstances.
This post will attempt to show how Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) which seems to interrupt the narrative about Joseph’s life beginning in Genesis 37, instead enhances it.
Judah’s sexual temptation is juxtaposed with Joseph’s sexual temptation so the reader is invited to compare the two. Once again, we see a dualism: two brothers, two differing responses, and God at work behind the scenes to redeem the consequences and accomplish His purposes.
The central point of Chapter 38 is Judah giving in to temptation and having sexual relations with Tamar, and Tamar has the evidence—Judah’s staff, seal, and ring (38:18). The center of chapter 39 is that Joseph resists temptation and his seductress is left holding his coat, which she uses as evidence to falsely accuse him (39:12).
First, observe some CONTRASTS between Judah and Joseph. Verse 1 - Both had separated from their brothers, but Joseph’s was a forced separation; Judah’s was his choice. He married a Canaanite wife and had a Canaanite best friend. Thus Judah identified with the Canaanites more than with his fellow Israelites, the chosen people of God. The reader is left to wonder if any of Jacob’s sons will prove worthy to carry on the Covenant.
Another contrast involves Judah’s declining morality as he lived among the Canaanites, compared to Joseph’s increasing integrity among the Egyptians.
For example, Judah discounted his sons’ wickedness that caused their deaths and then deceived Tamar into thinking she would marry his third son when he came of age. Judah had no intention of following through, lest he lose all three of his sons.
Then Judah had a “one-night-stand,” whereas Joseph resisted Mrs. Potipher’s sexual advances “day after day” and tried to avoid her (39:10).
Both chapters also COMPARE the two sons of Jacob who are most important to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Both brothers suffered the loss of valuable personal property: Judah’s staff, ring, and seal, which became the catalyst for making him face the truth, and Joseph’s coat, which became the catalyst for causing his master to believe a lie.
Both chapters have dramatic reversals orchestrated by God. This is where Judah’s transformation begins—the pivotal point for him becoming the inheritor of the Covenant and progenitor of the Messianic line.
Judah had learned Tamar is pregnant and orders that she be brought out and killed. When she shows Judah’s staff, ring, and seal, what are his choices? He could have insisted that not only was she a harlot, but also a thief: “I wondered who took my things.”
Instead he says, “She is more righteous than I.” He in essence confesses that he is wrong (when he could have insisted that he had been wronged), and he repented, as shown by the fact that he “never knew her again (38:26).”
Judah’s choice restored his worthiness, resulting in the covenant seed passing through his line. As proof of his transformation, he later offered himself as a slave in Egypt in place of Benjamin (44.33).
The dramatic reversal for Joseph is that his integrity left him with no choice and no reward. He went from top dog in Potiphar’s house to the bottom rung of the prison ladder, where Psalm 105:18 says they hurt his feet with fetters and he was laid in irons. Yet the ultimate result of Joseph remembering that “the Lord was with him,” was his exaltation to rulership in Egypt.
Both men suffered adversity and humiliation. Judah brought it on himself, but it worked as his wake-up call. Joseph’s adversity was totally undeserved, yet necessary for God’s overall purposes in getting the Hebrews to Egypt in order to preserve their identity and fulfill the prophecy of Genesis 15:13.
Finally, both men’s dramatic circumstances resulted in ultimate blessing from God: Joseph’s two sons, not Judah’s (or Reuben’s), received the double-portion blessing of the firstborn, that is, both became tribes of Israel. Whereas, Perez, one of Judah’s illegitimate sons from his union with Tamar, became the bloodline of Messiah.
What lessons can we derive?
Bob Deffinbaugh’s article, “The Skeleton in Judah’s Closet” states: “Many Christians are being taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What can they possibly say about this chapter in that regard? And who of us would want to believe that God’s purposes were contingent upon our commitment and consistency? Nothing could be further from the truth than thinking that God is somehow limited by man’s sinfulness.”
The consequences of our own evil choices can be permanent, but God can redeem them for good, especially when we confess our sin and repent. Whereas the consequences of evils done to us, while overwhelmingly painful, can result in blessings when we remember God is with us and He is in control. Nothing can touch our camp without first going through His camp. Mahanaim!
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 Rueben forfeited the right when he slept with his dad’s concubine, Bilhah (Genesis 35). Simeon and Levi misused the sign of the covenant (circumcision) for the evil purpose of revenge on Hamor and Shechem (Genesis 34). Later, Levi is reinstated to a position of blessing (the priesthood) when his descendants disassociate themselves from the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:26).
 Many biblical scholars point to Judah’s willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the sake of his brother Benjamin’s (43:9 and 44:33), as what made him deserving to pass on the Covenant, but Dr. Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis points to the choice he made in 38:26.