Chapter 38 of Bereishis, the story of Yehudah and Tamar, is a somewhat jarring interruption to the Yosef story that raises questions on more than one level. The obvious issue is the actions of the people involved. Let us set that aside and take the text as it is, and deal with a more global issue — the interruption this story poses to the Yosef narrative. Why is the Yehudah story stuck in the middle?
I. Two Perspectives
Rashi answers this question twice, which itself raises a question. On 38:1, Rashi writes (Sharfman 1949 translation): “Why was this section adjoined here and it interrupted the section of Joseph? To teach that his (Judah’s) brothers removed him from his rank when they saw the grief of their father.” In other words, the acts in the prior verses directly led to Yehudah’s predicament here. That is why this story interrupts the Yosef story at precisely this point.
On 39:1, Rashi writes: “(The Torah) returns to the first subject. But it interrupted it so as to adjoin the downfall of Judah to the selling of Joseph, to tell (us) that because of him (Joseph) they brought him down from his greatness. Also, so as to adjoin the account of the wife of Potiphar to the account of Tamar…” Here Rashi gives two different reasons why the Yehudah story interrupted the Yosef story, both different from the one he gave previously.
Until recently, most commentators said something along the lines of the first Rashi — that the Yehudah story interrupted the Yosef story for chronological reasons. However, over the past 30 years or so, biblical scholars have come to another conclusion that I think is more in line with the second Rashi and the midrash that underlies both of his comments.
Both of Rashi’s comments are based on Midrash Rabbah 85:2:
Why is this section connected to that one? R. Elazar and R. Yochanan. R. Elazar said: In order to adjoin a decline to a decline. R. Yochanan said: In order to adjoin an “identify” to an “identify”. R. Shimon Bar Nachman said: In order to adjoin the act of Tamar to the act of Potiphar’s wife…
According to this midrash, the Yehudah story has certain textual similarities to the passages that come before and after it. That is why it was placed where it was. Those who are familiar with midrash will recognize that the intended similarities are not just linguistic but also thematic.
Modern commentators have adopted approaches that expand (probably unknowingly) on these ideas in generally two complementary ways. The first, and perhaps main, answer of modern scholarship to this problem is to say that the Yehudah story is not an interruption to the Yosef story but adds to it by providing a contrast and emphasizing some of its themes.
The deceit of the brothers is highlighted by Yehudah’s experience. Tamar’s deception of Yehudah is a parallel to the brothers’ deception of Ya’akov (emphasized by the words “haker na — identify”). The goat in whose blood Yosef’s coat was dipped to deceive Ya’akov was even used by Tamar to deceive Yehudah. This not only emphasizes the brothers’ guilt but is also a fitting punishment for Yehudah’s role in the brothers’ deception.
The passage further shows how Yosef was not entirely free of blame for the animosity his brothers had for him. Yosef’s inability to separate himself from the identity assigned him by his clothing, even to save himself, is contrasted to Tamar’s removing her widow clothes in order to change her fate. She did not allow her clothes to define her. (Cf. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, pp. 5-12; Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis vol. 2 pp. 363-365; Yishayahu Leibowitz, Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading, pp. 146-147.)
All of these points serve to explain and emphasize elements of the Yosef story. This is all a connection to the prior section. There is also a connection to the subsequent section.
Tamar’s seduction of Yehudah can be contrasted to the unholy attempt by Potiphar’s wife (although the midrash uses this connection to justify the actions of Potiphar’s wife). Potiphar’s wife withholds Yosef’s clothes in order to accuse an innocent man while Tamar withholds Yehudah’s items in order to prove the truth. Tamar attempts to continue her dead husbands’ name, thereby giving him honor, while Potiphar’s wife attempts to dishonor her husband by cheating on him. There is also the contrast between Yehudah’s response to immorality and Yosef’s. Yosef runs away from it at great personal cost while Yehudah seems to willingly embrace it. These points also serve to highlight elements of the Yosef story, but the future story and not the past. (Cf. David W. Cotter, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry, Genesis, p. 285; James Mckeown, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, Genesis p. 167.)
Additionally, the change in Yehudah that is evident in his confession of “tzadekah mimeni — she is more righteous than I” is crucial for the Yosef story. This is the turning point for him in which he changes from the one to suggest that the brothers sell Yosef to the one who will admit that they were wrong. Without this story within the story, it would be difficult to understand the later actions of Yehudah. (Cf. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, pp. 178-180, cited by Cotter, pp. 277-278.)
One scholar shows the importance of this chapter to the Yosef story by mapping out the entire story as follows:
A. Trouble between Joseph and his brothers (37:2-11)
–A’. More trouble between Joseph and his brothers (37:12-36)
B. Sexual temptation involving Judah (38:1-30)
–B’. Sexual Temptation involving Joseph (39:1-23)
C. Joseph interprets two dreams of prison mates (40:1-23)
–C’. Joseph interprets two dreams of Pharaoh (41:1-57)
D. Brothers come to Egypt for food (42:1-38)
–D’. Brothers again come to Egypt for food (43:1-44:3)
E. Joseph has some of his family brought to him (44:4-45:15)
–E’. Joseph has all of his family brought to him (45:!6-47:12)
F. Prospering in Egypt: Joseph in ascendancy (47:13-26)
–F’. Prospering in Egypt: Blessings on Jacob’s sons (47:27-49:32)
G. Death of patriarch: Jacob (49:33-50:14)
–G’. Death of patriarch: Joseph (50:15-26)
(David Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, p. 59, cited in Cotter, p. 267)
This literary map of the story connects the Yehudah story with the subsequent section. Another approach links it to the prior section:
A. Joseph and the family strife he incites (37:1-36)
–A’. Judah and the family strife he incites (38:1-30)
B. The descent and ascent of Joseph (39:1-41:57)
–B’. The descent and ascent of the brothers (42:1-47:27)
C. Blessings: Joseph (47:28-48:22)
–C’. Blessings: all the brothers (49:1-28)
D. The end for Jacob (49:29-50:14)
–D’. The end for Joseph (50:15-26)
(Cotter, p. 268)
IV. A Different Story
Either way, we can see how the story fits in well with the overall structure. However, there is another aspect to its inclusion. All of the preceding shows how the Yehudah story fits into the Yosef story. Above, we said that modern scholars have two ways of dealing with the Yehudah story. One, as we just saw, is explaining the story as enhancing the Yosef story. However, there is another way.
Recent scholars have changed the entire discussion by denying that there is a Yosef story. The way they see it, there is one big Ya’akov story — the toledos (generations) of Ya’akov — and both Yosef and Yehudah are a part of it. The Yehudah story explains how Yehudah had difficulty continuing Ya’akov’s family until Tamar took control and the Yosef story tells how Yosef, who as a slave automatically lost the rights to his children to his master, became a free man and was able to continue Ya’akov’s family. If the larger story is one of Ya’akov, then the question of why Yehudah’s story interrupts Yosef’s goes away. (Cf. R. Elchanan Samet, Studies in the Weekly Torah Portions, second series, vol. 1, pp. 192-194 [abridged English translation]; Cotter, pp. 263-266; Wenham, pp. 364-365, 369.)
Setting this last point aside, we can now see why Rashi connects the Yehudah story to both the section before and after it. There are thematic links that connect the passage to the passages surrounding it on both sides.