Genesis 38 and 39 tell an interesting story when read back-to-back. The families of Judah and Joseph will become the two most prominent clans in the nation of Israel. Joseph’s children will receive the blessing that normally would go to the firstborn son, which Reuben lost because of what happened in Genesis 35:22. Judah’s family, which will include David and Jesus, will become the Messianic ruling family.
“The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son; though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph)” (1 Chronicles 5:1-2)
So the families of these two brothers, Judah and Joseph, will become preeminent among the nation of Israel. But in Genesis 38 and 39, we see them on two very different tracks.
In Genesis 38, a spiritual leader (Judah) claiming high moral standards becomes involved in sexual sin, yet is outraged by someone else’s sin. The young woman involved is callously victimized by a man of power. In Genesis 39, a young man (Joseph) faces sexual temptation from a woman in a position of power over him. His response is a model for all Christians, yet he suffers punishment for “doing the right thing.”
In Genesis 38, as in the equally horrific incident described in Genesis 34, God is not mentioned at all. There is no mention of God playing a part in Judah’s decision to strike out on his own, to befriend and go into business with a man named Hirah, and then to marry a Canaanite woman. Judah doesn’t build any altars, he doesn’t pray, he doesn’t ask God for guidance or help – despite the fact that he was one of God’s chosen people. This could explain why Judah was open and vulnerable to sexual temptation and sin. His was vulnerable because his everyday life had very little to do with God. He had no urgent sense of the Lord being involved in his life. Unfortunately, this is not unusual among many Christians today. We go through life relying on our own insight and intuition and pretty much ignoring God until things get rough.Things quickly (but not surprisingly) turned bad, and then went from bad to worse. Judah showed himself to be a hypocrite who demanded standards of morality from others that he was not prepared to apply to himself. Instead he rationalized his behavior. Judah’s thought processes probably went something like this: he had recently been widowed, and he had just happened on this prostitute during sheep-shearing season. His circumstances and sexual desires were different than those that led to the kind of immorality that he spoke against. His hypocritical standards, therefore, allowed him to involve himself in what he indignantly condemned in others. He chose casual sex with a woman he thought was a roadside prostitute, yet he was horrified to learn that his daughter-in-law was involved in what appeared to be casual sex with strangers. We can only imagine his shock and dismay on discovering that he was the one whom Tamar was involved with on the day when he chose to act on the “special circumstances” that set him apart from others.
Judah made the common mistake of assuming that what he had done in private, away from home, anonymously, would remain secret. His relationship with God clearly wasn’t central in his life. As a result, he didn’t have much to lean on when sexual temptation appeared in the form of a nameless prostitute sitting in the gateway of a town far from home. But, as bad as this story is, there is a hopeful ending. Judah confesses his sin, and recognizes that Tamar is more righteous than he (Genesis 38:26).
For the first time ever, perhaps, the tough, moralistic, hard-nosed leader has a taste of what Jesus called a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” He finally came to understand that it was what God thought of his behavior that really mattered. At last he becomes spiritually sensitive. He recognizes his own need to live righteously, and confesses his failure. And there is a hopeful ending to this story. Tamar is included in the genealogy of the Jesus. She gave birth to twin boys, one of whom, Perez, became an ancestor of Christ.
Sexual sin, it should be pointed out here, and as is obvious by how this story ends, is not the unforgivable sin. Failure in this area can always be forgiven. The Lord can even redeem our bad choices if we, like Judah, honestly admit our sin, turn from it, and begin to press in to the Lord.
In Two Brothers: Joseph, we see how Joseph suffered for doing the right thing. Moralism does not save. Christianity is about admitting our sin and our complete inability to stop sinning on our own, and turning to the only One who can save us from our sin – Jesus.