A Literary Analysis of Judah and Tamar

Vayeshev By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Dec 24, 2005 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

By Rabbi Steven Lindemann

Interruption, intrusion, insertion: these are terms often used to describe the placement of the story of Judah and Tamar in the midst of the Joseph narrative (Genesis 38). It is, of course, much more.

Literary analysis notes many verbal and thematic connections to the preceding and succeeding chapters, which mark the episode as more than a convenient device to heighten the suspense between the sale of Joseph and his reappearance in Egypt. The Hebrew root y-r-d appears in 38:1 (va-yered, “he went down”) to tell us that Judah separated from his brothers, and it is used at the beginning of the next chapter (39:1 — hurad, “was taken down”) to relate this to Joseph being taken away from his family and down to Egypt.

Separation is the theme. It touches both lives. Judah is being sensitized to what Joseph must be feeling. Later, he will intervene to prevent the loss of his brother Benjamin. Similarly, the root n–kh–r is found in 37:32 (hakker, “recognize”) where J acob is forced to undergo the pain of identifying (recognizing) Joseph’s coat. Then, in 38:25 (hakker), Judah is made to publicly acknowledge (recognize) the physical evidence of his encounter with Tamar. Deception causes pain and a sense of guilt, which can only be resolved by taking responsibility. Eventually, Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin; he fulfills his responsibility to his father. When Joseph sees this, he is moved to tears. The result is forgiveness and reconciliation. (For a fuller listing of verbal associations, see JPS Genesis, 263–4).

Another common theme is sexual conduct. Joseph and Judah are both caught in compromising situations. Tamar’s playing the harlot is juxtaposed with the licentiousness of Potiphar’s wife. Judah and Joseph each respond with integrity.

This last theme was apparently quite problematic at the time of the Talmud, which actually felt called upon to defend the public reading and translation of this section of the Torah: “The episode of Tamar and Judah is read and translated. P’shita — isn’t that obvious? (No) You might have thought that we should be concerned about the honor of Judah. Kamashma lan — it actually teaches us a praise of Judah since he confesses (Megillah 25a–b).” Our ancestor Judah emerges as a worthy leader.

Thus, Chapter 38 of Genesis is to be seen as part of a greater story that will go far beyond the Joseph narrative. Historians read this parashah and the rest of the book of B’reishit as intertwining tales of two tribal leaders who are the forbearers of the northern and southern kingdoms. But that doesn’t quite capture the suspense in the competition that is also part of the story. Perhaps we should read this as a mystery. Who will ultimately lead the people? Just when it looks like leadership will emerge from one source, an alternative comes forward.

For theologians, however, it all comes together to make one point: these are parallel accounts confirming the hand of God in the destiny of B’nai Yisrael.

Interruption? Intrusion? Insertion? That depends on whose story is being told. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell — in literature or life. What is interruption and what is essential? How do our lives intertwine with others — family, friends, or colleagues? What common themes tie our individual life stories to our national narratives? What makes one individual or another emerge as the leader in a particular age?

On a much more mundane level: the phone rings and the narrative is interrupted. That’s the life of a rabbi. That’s life. There’s more than one meaning in every event and every encounter. God is manifest in each episode, and in the ongoing story.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Steven Lindemann

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Vayeshev are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.