Vayeshev: How Judah became the leader of Israel

December 15, 2022

Chapter 38 of the book of Genesis, which falls right in the middle of this week’s Torah portion Vayeshev, recounts the story of Judah and his family. The question we will deal with today is: Why is this story here?

Just to be clear, I am not asking why this story is in the Bible. Rather, the question is why this story is recorded right here, between chapters 37 and 39 of Genesis. Allow me to explain.

Chapter 37 ends with Joseph’s arrival in Egypt after the sale.

The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward. – Genesis 37:36

Then, after chapter 38, the Judah story we are discussing, chapter 39 begins as follows:

When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. – Genesis 39:1

Chapter 39 continues with the story of Joseph’s time in Egypt from his arrival there and onward.

To sum up, chapter 37 ends with Joseph’s arrival in Egypt. Chapter 39 picks up the story of Joseph right where chapter 37 left off. There is no gap in time between the events in these two chapters. Chapter 39 is the immediate continuation of the conclusion of chapter 37. Chapter 38 interrupts this narrative. Which leads us back to my original question; why is this story here?

You might be thinking, “Well, maybe this story is here because this is when it happened?” The problem is that this is impossible. Allow me to explain.

Chapter 38 begins as follows:

About that time Yehuda left his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah; – Genesis 38:1-2

After telling us that “At that time” Judah met and married his wife, the narrative of chapter 38 then goes on to record the following series of events:

  • Judah’s wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to their first child, Er
  • Judah’s wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to their second child, Onan
  • Er grows up and marries Tamar
  • Er dies
  • Onan then marries Tamar
  • Onan dies
  • Tamar is told to wait until Judah’s third son Shelah grows up and is old enough to marry her
  • Judah’s wife dies
  • Tamar waits until Shelah grows up, but Shelah does not marry her
  • Judah mistakes Tamar for a prostitute and has relations with her; Tamar becomes pregnant
  • Tamar gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerah

Now, the Bible does not tell us exactly how long this story took to play out. We are not told the ages of the participants. That said, we can assume that at minimum, this story lasted approximately 2 decades. To illustrate the point, chapter 38 begins before Judah met his wife and then describes how two of Judah’s sons from that wife grew up and married Tamar. What is the bare minimum for just this part of the story? How old were Er and Onan when they married Tamar? But chapter 38 doesn’t end there. We then have a delay of a number of years, presumably, while Judah’s third son grew old enough to marry Tamar as well. This is followed by Judah’s eventual union with Tamar leading to the birth of two more children.

To answer our question, we must remember Judah’s role in the sale of Joseph. The other brothers originally wanted to kill Joseph. It was Judah who came up with the plan to sell him instead.

Then Yehuda said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. – Genesis 37:26-27

This is the first time in the Bible that we see Judah speak or take any leadership role among the sons of Jacob. While at first glance Judah’s conduct here appears commendable, after all, he saved Joseph’s life, the Jewish sages were critical of Judah. The rabbis explain (Bereshit Rabbah 85) that we see from Judah’s words to his brothers that he knew that what they were doing was wrong. Therefore, Judah should have stopped the entire plot against Joseph and brought Joseph back to Jacob safely.

To put this another way, the other brothers may have justified their conduct in their own minds. They were ready to kill Joseph. But Judah’s conscience bothered him. He knew what they were doing was wrong. And yet, he didn’t end the plot completely. Not wanting to put himself at risk by protecting Joseph from the other brothers, he failed to take full responsibility when he saw injustice being committed.

Then we read the story of Judah and his family. We read of Judah first failing to take full responsibility for Tamar. Judah did not fulfill his commitment to her to give his third son Shelah to her as a husband. We then see Judah slip into immoral behavior, thinking Tamar was a prostitute. But then the story takes a critical turn.

When Judah thought Tamar was a prostitute, Judah gave her his cord and staff as collateral until he could send proper payment. After it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, Judah, not knowing that he was the father, ordered Tamar be brought out to be put to death for her immorality.

As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Yehuda recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Sheila.” And he was not intimate with her again.– Genesis 38:25-26

Notice that Tamar did not say, “Judah is the father.” She merely presented the cord and staff and asked Judah to identify the owner. Had Judah decided to protect himself from shame, he could have easily denied ownership of the items. But this time Judah took responsibility. He admitted guilt and humbled himself, recognizing not only that he was wrong to sentence Tamar to death, but that he was wrong in withholding Shelah as well. Not to mention the embarrassment he incurred by being exposed to all as having solicited the services of what he thought was a prostitute.

After this story, throughout the rest of the book of Genesis, it is Judah who is the unequivocal leader of the sons of Jacob. It is Judah who takes responsibility and at risk to his own life to save Benjamin. And it is Judah who is eventually blessed with the eternal kingship of Israel.

I’d like to suggest that the words, “At that time,” at the beginning of Genesis 38 refer to the end of the story. In other words, in the wake of the sale of Joseph, Judah decided that he would never again shirk responsibility, even at risk to his own life and honor. Then, when confronted by his own guilt in the Tamar situation, Judah publicly repented and took full responsibility, regardless of the damage to his own reputation. Genesis 38 interrupts the Joseph story because Judah’s personal development was a direct result of Judah’s own feelings of guilt in the wake of the sale of his brother.

Genesis 38 is the story of the emergence of Judah as the leader of Israel, and forefather of the royal line of David. The Bible teaches us that the prerequisites of this leadership are humility, admission of one’s own guilt before God and man, and doing what is right regardless of the risk to one’s own status and even one’s own life.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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