Skip to main content

The Messianic Reason for the Interruption of Judah and Tamar in the Joseph Narrative

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Tamarajo is an avid Bible scholar who loves nothing more than seeking out the treasures in God's Word and sharing them with others.


Introduction: It's All About the Messiah

Upon return from my prodigal years, I hungered to know more about God and His Word. At this time, my mother invited me to a Bible Study hosted by a friend of hers. My mother's friend started a series of teachings that would study each book of the Bible and discover Jesus in each one of them.

The study took about fifteen years to complete, and I sat on the edge of my seat through each teaching, discovering that Jesus the Messiah was everywhere in the Scriptures.

I made a fantastic discovery that the entirety of Scripture centers around God's plan of salvation through His one and only Son, Jesus, our Messiah. Many times it's easy to miss this primary purpose when we view Scripture through cultural, political, doctrinal, or even personal lenses that distort that message. Everything in the Old Testament is about God trying to bring the Savior on the scene to rescue crooked and wretched humanity that won't cooperate with Him. This story is a perfect example.

"We Interrupt This Program For a Special Report"

This particular study will concentrate on an incident that abruptly interrupts the story of Joseph. Like a special report, it alerts us to something important that we are supposed to pay attention to.

The narrative of Joseph begins with the History of Jacob in Chapter 37 of Genesis.

Now Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. This is the history of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers . . .

— Genesis 37:1-2

And it continues through chapter 47 of Genesis.

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years . . .

— Genesis 47:28

Like the covers of a book, the "seventeens" bind everything in-between them as a united story, including this seemingly disruptive scene.


Judah Sells Joseph

Genesis chapter 37 documents Joseph being sold to Isamaelite traders at the suggestion of his brother Judah. Judah's reason for selling him is that he didn't want Joseph killed by the other brothers who were conspiring to do so.

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.

Now when they (Joseph's brothers) saw him afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him . . .

. . . So Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” And his brothers listened.

— Genesis 37:26

One might expect that this saga would continue into chapter 38, but it doesn't. Instead, the story pauses for an entire chapter that is devoted to a partial history of Judah. Then, in chapter 39, the story of Joseph picks up where it left off as if it didn't even notice the intrusion and continues for another eight more chapters.

Judah is Going Down

This backdrop of Judah selling Joseph helps us understand what Judah did next in Genesis chapter 38.

And it happened that at that time Judah went down from his brothers . . . — Genesis 38:1 (Lexham)

The text doesn't tell us directly why Judah went down from his brothers, but it is most likely related to the entire Joseph incident. "Going down" in Scripture is most often linked with an adverse event. While Joseph is going down to Egypt into slavery, Judah is going down, most likely, to escape his troubles.

Confirming this thought, According to Gesenius1, hidden within the word "Adullam" is the term that means "to hide" or seek refuge." In the cave of Adullam, David, in his distress, seeks sanctuary from King Saul.

David . . . departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. So when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him.

— I Samuel 22:1

Where Judah goes and what he does next is significant.

. . . He (Judah) pitched his tent near (right up until or next to) a certain Adullamite (Canaanite), whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite there whose name was Shua. And he took her and went in to her.

— Genesis 38:2

The first observation of this part of the story has to do with where Judah settles up next to and with whom he becomes cozy. Adullam was a Canaanite. The literal rendering of "pitched his tent near" is more accurately read, "he pitched his tent right up next to a certain Adullamite." Lot does the same in Sodom and includes the same phrasing.

. . . Lot settled in the cities of the plain. And he pitched his tent toward (right up next to) Sodom (Canaanites).

— Genesis 13:12

Both Judah and Lot settle right up next to depraved and or forbidden places linking the two events. Perhaps to let the reader know that had God not intervened at this point in history, a type of Sodom and its destruction would be the forecast for his people, and a Messiah would never be realized.


Judah and the Lineage of the Messiah

The second observation about Judah leaving his brothers and setting up shop in this questionable territory is that Judah took a Canaanite wife.

The "not" taking of a Canaanite wife begins with Abraham, the very first patriarch. He was called out of idolatrous paganism to serve the living God and produce a family line through which the Messiah would come.

. . . your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed (Messianic language) all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

— Genesis 28:14

While Abraham dwells in the land of the Canaanites, he does not want his son Isaac to take a wife from them and commands his servant to go and find Isaac a wife from his people.

I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:

But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.

— Genesis 24:3-4

There is a digression with Isaac concerning his son Jacob. Isaac seems unconcerned about who his sons marry, considering that Esau, Isaacs's oldest, married Canaanite wives to their mother's regret.

And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, like these who are the daughters of the land (Canaanites), what good will my life be to me?”

— Genesis 27:46

Isaac is about to die but has made no arrangements for his son Jacob to marry anyone until a crisis occurs. It is when Esau wants to kill Jacob for tricking him out of his birthright and blessing that Isaac finally sends Jacob to Abraham's family of origin. Rebekah, fearing for her younger son's life, arranges this under the guise of finding a wife to escape Esau's wrath.

And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, you shall not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan.

Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother's father; and take you a wife from there of the daughters of Laban your mother's brother.

And God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people;

And give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and to thy seed with you; that you may inherit the land where you art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.

— Genesis 28:1-4

In the above portion of Scripture, the "fruitful and multiply" statement takes us back to Genesis chapter one with the creation narrative. The connection is that God seeks to create a lineage of people through whom he can bring the Messiah through. Shacking up with depraved Caananites who worshiped everything, but God Himself wasn't going to work.

The digression continues. Jacob finds more than one wife and subsequently has twelve sons. Not much is said about who any of his sons marry up until this event with Judah.

Typically the responsibility of building the family and carrying on the name and messianic seed to the next generation was the right and inheritance of the firstborn. We see a digression here too. With Abraham, Isaac was the firstborn of Abraham and Sarah. Esau was the firstborn of Jacob and Rachel and entitled to this firstborn right and responsibility, but Jacob outwitted him of his birthright and blessing.

Jacob's family strays even further from the pattern. Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, was disqualified from carrying the family forward for sleeping with his father's concubine. Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons of Jacob, were disqualified for murdering an entire village of people over the rape of their sister Dinah. Judah, the fourth of Jacob's sons, is next in line, and it appears that he too is about to crumble.

He is supposed to be building a family to bring forth the Messiah. Instead, Judah marries a Canaanite wife and has three sons, two of whom are described as wicked.

Judah then selects a wife named Tamar for his oldest son to continue a family building process. Notably, Tamar was not a Caananite. (see the video above)

The first of Judah's sons is wicked and dies before an heir is produced. The next son is supposed to replace him, as was the custom in the ancient near east, but he wickedly refused to perform his duties, and he dies as a result. Judah feared for his third son and refused to give him to Tamar.

The transition in the chronicle occurs with Judah going up this time rather than down.

After Judah's wife died, he "went up."

When Judah was consoled he went up to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite, to Timnah.

— Genesis 38:12

His "going up" reveals "a resurrection" in the story. The episode occurs when it seems like it's all about to fall apart in terms of creating a messianic lineage.


God Makes a Way

Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law, continues to carry the vision despite all the setbacks. By pretending to be a prostitute, she tricked Judah into lying with her to become pregnant by him and continue the family lineage.

Judah does not initially recognize that it is Tamar he had "went into" because she wore a veil, as did prostitutes of that time, to disguise their identity. He promised her a kid of a goat as payment, which he did not have with him. She, therefore, requested three things for collateral.

And he said, “What is the pledge that I must give to you?” And she said, “your seal, your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” And he gave them to her and went in to her. And she conceived by him.

— Genesis 38:18

Judah cannot find her to repay her and collect his belongings, each of which identifies him, and out of embarrassment, lets the matter go.

When Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant and in her "third" month of pregnancy, he has no idea that she is carrying his child and orders her to be burned. Tamar does not immediately expose him but asks a question in response.

She was brought out, but she sent to her father-in-law saying, “By the man to whom these belong I have conceived.” And she said, “Now discern (recognize or acknowledge) to whom these belong: the seal and cord and the staff.”

— Genesis 38:25

The same phrase is used in chapter 37, in the original Hebrew text, when Jacob's sons bring him Joseph's torn and bloodied coat and ask him to acknowledge it.

Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine (recognize or acknowledge) it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”

— Genesis 37:32

We might guess from this link that it was Judah who presented the coat to his father. These two connected events show us the tangled backside of sinful humankind's tapestry and how God brought His plan into place through, and despite, messy and uncooperative humanity.

Judah pardons Tamar upon this discovery as well as realizes his neglect in continuing the lineage.

Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.

— Genesis 38:26

Tamar had twin sons by Judah named Perez and Zerah. Judah, Tamar, Perez, and Zerah all end up in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:

Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . .

— Matthew 1:1-2



God foresaw the destruction of His plan to restore humankind to Himself through a Messiah that was yet to come. Had He not interrupted where this was headed, a "Sodom and Gomorrah" was sure to follow. The downward progression of marrying into paganism was about to corrupt the entire program.

The interruption reveals the reason He sent His people to Egypt. It was because the Egyptians would not touch them. They found the Hebrew's nomadic shepherding lifestyle detestable. When Joseph instructs his family how they should speak to Pharaoh, towards the end of the narrative, he tells them to make sure that Pharaoh knows that they are shepherds to secure their own separate space from the Egyptians.

When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.

— Genesis 46:31-44

It is in the womb of Egypt for the next 400 years. His people will be fruitful and multiply to become a great nation just as he promised and foretold Abraham.

It is through this nation that Christ the Messiah will come. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this very idea of a Messiah Savior who would come from Jacob's sons.

Indeed He says,
‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.

— Isaiah 49:6

The backdrop of the story now explained, switches back to Joseph, who becomes the type and Shadow of Jesus the Messiah for the remainder of Genesis. In the end, Joseph discloses the bigger picture.

. . .as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.

— Genesis 50:20

It was for this very same purpose that Christ, the Messiah, suffered and died for us.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.

Credits and sources


Most word studies are derived from the following sources.


© 2019 Tamarajo

Related Articles