In Chapter 37 of Genesis in this week’s Parashah, Vayeshev, the brothers (except Reuven) sell Joseph into slavery. The last verse of Chapter 37 says, “The Midianites, meanwhile, sold [Joseph] in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward.” If the Torah were a movie serial like “The Perils of Pauline,” we would expect Chapter 38 to detail Joseph’s life in Egypt.
But Chapter 38 does no such thing. Chapter 38 recounts the marriage of Judah, the marriage of Judah’s oldest son Er to Tamar, the death of Er, the Levirate marriage of Er’s brother Onan to Tamar, the death of Onan, and the refusal of Judah to give his youngest son, Shelah, to Tamar in Levirate marriage. Tamar, like most women in the Torah, is obsessed with having children, and she hatches a plot to disguise herself as prostitute and seduce Judah, her father-in-law. Judah is successfully enticed, and after the tryst, Tamar demands payment. Judah says he will send a kid, and in the meantime Tamar demands collateral, which Judah supplies.
After a time, Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant, and accuses her of adultery. At the abbreviated trial, Tamar holds up the items of collateral, and she says, “To the man these belong I am pregnant.” Judah recognizes the items, and he publicly proclaims, “She is more in the right than I, because I did not give my Shelah to her.” Tamar bears twin sons.
Chapter 39 resumes the Joseph narrative: “When Joseph was taken down to Egypt . . . .” What is the point of interrupting the Joseph saga with Tamar-Judah episode?
There are a lot of scholarly articles written about this question, and I skimmed some and I read some. Stripped to its basics, the interruption has a lot of meaning.
In Chapter 37, Judah engineers the plot to sell Joseph to the slavers, and, presumably, he invents the story that Joseph was torn to bits by a predator animal. Judah is a bad man.
In Chapter 38, he does not give his son Shelah in Levirate marriage to Tamar as he was obligated to. Judah continues to be bad man. When he hears that Tamar is pregnant, he accuses her of harlotry, and without an explanation condemns her to death. Judah continues to be a bad man.
When Tamar confronts Judah with the truth, he recognizes that he has acted badly, and he says that she is more right than I. Judah has a moral epiphany.
Judah acts on his moral epiphany later in the Joseph story. Joseph frames his brother Benjamin, and consigns Benjamin to jail. Judah steps up and thinks of his father, that he didn’t think of his father when he sold Joseph to the slavers and he didn’t think of his father when he concocted the story about Joseph’s being torn to bits by a predator animal. Judah says their father would die if Benjamin were not to return home, and offers himself in place of Benjamin.
Without Chapter 38, we would have no idea that Judah learned morality. Without Chapter 38, we would have no idea where Judah learned morality. Chapter 38 is integral to the Joseph story, and it is in the right place.