The stories of Judah and Joseph are interwoven in a way that may be designed to highlight the contrast between these two men. Joseph’s story is in Genesis 37 and Genesis 38-50. Judah’s story is right in the middle at Genesis 38.
Judah left his brothers and hung out with Hirah the Adullamite, evidently a land where there were Canaanites living. This seems to either be a bad move on Judah’s part or is indicative of his nature of less-than-faithfulness. Remember Abraham was insistent that his servant not take Isaac away from his territory, and choosing a wife from the wrong peoples was an act of resentment for others.
So, in this land far away from family and faith (a pilgrimage not unlike the college departure that so many make), Judah falls in love with Shua’s daughter. They have two sons: Er and Onan.
I think Judah’s parenting skills may have been a bit on the weak side, because Er was evidently so evil that God put him to death (Genesis 38:6) before he’ d even had a chance to conceive a child with his wife Tamar to carry on the family. In the custom/law that was Levirite marriage, the next youngest brother (Onan) would take Tamar as his wife, care for her, and continue the family lineage in the oldest son’s honor. (Judah spoke of this as his “duty to her” in Genesis 38:7).
Onan knew this child wouldn’t be his, but it would be his responsibility. His late brother’s name would get the recognition, but he would have to pay the price. So, he was “generous enough” to go in and sleep with Tamar, but not “generous enough to actually be a father. (Sounds like something off a Judge Judy or Jerry Springer episode, doesn’t it?)
“What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also.”
Most folks focus on this story as the Lord punishing a sexual sin, but I think the context indicates that’s not really the case. I think the Lord’s displeasure was directed more at Onan’s unwillingness to show true love and dedication in fulfilling his duty to his dead brother and a widow AND his willingness to enjoy no-strings-attached gratification instead than just his sexual activity.
Judah himself (the father who originated this plan) doesn’t really want to demand responsibility and accountability from his sons either. He encourages Tamar just to live in his house as a widow and forget about the whole husband thing. He promised Shelah, the next son, “someday” “when he grows up.” In reality, he was making a promise like the sign you see in a restaurant, “Free Drinks Tomorrow!” He had no intention of honoring his word, because he was thinking already that his next son might die too. Maybe he would have been better off if he’d thought about the fact that his son’s wickedness was the problem, not being the husband of Tamar.
Some time later, after Judah’s wife dies and he’s done grieving, and takes a good old fashioned road trip to visit his friend, Hirah the Adullamite. After all, he’s the guy that Judah moved away from his brothers to see in the first place!
Tamar, now quite a bit older and still single and unloved got wind of the road trip, and decided to get some revenge. She was no dummy. She noticed that Shelah was now old enough to marry, but he hadn’t been given as her husband. She took off her widow’s clothes (I wonder what those were like?) and put on a veil (that evidently looked much different than widow’s clothes) and sat by the road, giving the appearance of a roadside prostitute.
Who would be her first customer? None other but her draft-dodging double father-in-law, Judah! She’s smart again, asking for deposit before rendering her services.
After Judah leaves, he sent the price for her services by his friend Hirah, so that he could get his deposit back. Hirah reports back that nobody knew of a shrine prostitute in those parts, so they could say they had tried, never mind worrying about paying that goat anyway. (Incidentally, Judah’s sin is compounded by the fact they thought she was a temple prostitute. He engaged in physical idolatry!)
Three months later, when Tamar turns up pregnant after supposedly living as a widow under Judah’s care, Judah is indignant and calls for her execution as an adulteress. (Hypocrisy, anyone?)
On her way out, she announces to the crowd that she’s pregnant by the owner of a seal a cord, and a staff: the clearest identifiers in the ancient world of Judah, their rightful owner. Judah hadn’t reported them missing. He had no other alibi. Her story was true, and there’s nothing he could do about it. Judah finally sheepishly admits, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”
How different would this story have been if Judah would have just done the right thing? Judah didn’t seem to learn this lesson. The text indicates (Genesis 38:26) that he didn’t sleep with her again, but it doesn’t indicate at all that he made good on his promise to give Shelah to her!
If Judah had done the right thing and remained with his brothers, he never would have met Hirah, or Shua’s daughter. If he’d done the right thing, I’m going to presume that his children would have turned out more pleasing to God — and more willing to do the right thing and care for others. If Judah had done the right thing, he never would have been put to public shame by sleeping with his daughter-in-law.
Joseph, on the other hand, has every opportunity to do wrong, but he seeks out the chances to do right. He gives a bad report of his brothers. He tells what God has shown him in dreams (even though nobody likes it!). He does his best in Potiphar’s house, resists Potiphar’s wife, does his best in prison, and even helps his captors out and ultimately preserves his whole race…all because God used him when he did the right thing.
Maybe it’s a bit simplistic, but how much better would we be if we just did the right thing? (James 4:17)