Hinting at Optimism- Joseph, Judah and Tamar

The tale of Judah and Tamar has long been recognised as a deliberately constructed antithesis to the Joseph story. The Torah inserts the narrative immediately after Joseph has been thrown into the pit and directly before his arrival in Egypt. According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 85,2) the 3rd century rabbis Yohanan and Elazar each offered a reason for the story’s insertion at this point.

R. Elazar draws on the principle in rabbinic biblical analysis that if the same word occurs in two different passages it can serve as a hint that the two passages are connected. He suggests that the reason is to contrast the use of the verb to go down in each case: Judah is reported as going down from his brothers while Joseph is taken down to Egypt. Following his sale, Joseph was forcibly taken down to Egypt, the beginning of the most traumatic period of his life. Judah’s descent, although voluntary was equally traumatic; it resulted in the death of his wife and two sons, and the revenge of the daughter in law he had treated so shamefully.

R. Yohanan employs a similar technique of comparing words in each passage. He focuses on the word recognise. Before they throw Joseph in the pit, Judah and his brothers strip him of the special coat their father has made for him. They dip it in goat’s blood and take it to Jacob their father, saying: ‘recognise this, is it your son’s coat or not?’ This was an act of extreme cruelty, pretending to the old man that Joseph is dead. In a parallel fashion, Tamar uses the word recognise to shame Judah. He has slept with her, believing her to be a harlot. When he hears that his daughter in law has become pregnant through a stranger, and not realising that he was the stranger, Judah commands that she be burnt at the stake. Tamar then produces the items that the stranger, Judah, has left with her as a deposit against her fee. ‘Recognise now’ she says, ‘to whom the seal, threads and staff belong.’ Judah recognises that his refusal to marry Tamar to his youngest son has led to this situation, he confesses that she is more righteous than he.

Both R. Yohanan and R. Elazar realise that the Joseph and Judah narratives are mirror images of each other. By failing to save Joseph, indeed by recommending that he be sold to the Ishmaelites, Judah has brought comparable troubles upon himself. The moral of the story is clear.

Descent and recognition are not the only ideas which link the passages. As a slave, Joseph resists the sexual temptations of his mistress. Judah on the other hand goes out of his way to sleep with the woman he thinks is a harlot. Goats too are a motif in each story; Judah promises the harlot a goat kid as payment for her services, he and his brothers slaughter a goat to deceive their father. Both stories have the idea of going out in common; Joseph’s runs out, away from his mistress’s advances, leaving his torn garment in her hand. Tamar is brought out, to be burnt, Judah’s threads in her hand. And right at the beginning of the Judah-Tamar story, Judah enters into a business relationship. The same Hebrew verb (ויט) is used to describe the relationship of kindness that God displays towards Joseph.

But perhaps the most striking, and significant parallel between the two passages is what happens at the end. Tamar gives birth to twins. The first born, Peretz, will become, according the book of Ruth, the ancestor of King David, and by implication the Messiah. Joseph meanwhile becomes ruler of Egypt, paving the way for the eventual Exodus and the giving of the Torah. Both narratives have happy endings.

It falls to the great medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra to try to pour cold water on the chronology. Although the Judah-Tamar story is introduced with the words ‘at that time’. Ibn Ezra shows that the two events could not have occurred contemporaneously. He argues that the Judah-Tamar story must have happened first. We know from other chronologies in the Torah that Joseph was in Egypt for 22 years before Judah and his brothers arrive. It is quite clear from the Judah-Tamar narrative that some time has elapsed before Peretz was born- Judah has already had three other children and ‘the days were many’ before Judah encountered Tamar.  Yet when Judah arrives in Egypt, 22 years after Joseph, he has not only Peretz with him, but Peretz’s two sons as well. Ibn Ezra argues that it would not have been possible for all this to fit into 22 years.

But chronology always takes second place to the message of the Torah. After the Midrash quotes R. Yohanan and R. Elazar’s reasons for the juxtaposition of the two narratives, it presents a third explanation: R. Shmuel bar Nahman said that the juxtaposition was to compare Tamar’s deed with that Potiphar’s wife. Just as the one was for the sake of heaven, so was the other.

Chronology notwithstanding, the two passages are put together because they each illustrate the same idea, from opposite perspectives. We cannot know the ultimate purpose of anything that happens. The best we can do is trust in Nahum of Gamzu’s aphorism, gamzu l’tova; this too is for the good.


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books