Genesis 41:37–45

41  37 Joseph’s words seemed good to Pharaoh’s eyes and in the eyes of all his servants. 38 Pharaoh said to his servants, “Could we find another like him, in whom there is a spirit of a god?” 39 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since a god has made all this known to you, no one is as discerning and wise as you are. 40 You will be over my house, and your word will be obeyed by all my people. Only by the throne will I be greater than you.” 41 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I give you authority over all the land of Egypt.” 42 Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, had him dressed in linen clothes, and he put a golden collar around his neck. 43 He had Joseph ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they called out before him, “Abrekh! / Attention!” In this way, Pharaoh installed Joseph over the entire land of Egypt. 
     44 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh. Without you, no man shall raise a hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” 45 Pharaoh renamed Joseph, Zaphenath-Paneah/God-Speaks-and-Lives, and gave him Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On/Heliopolis.
     Then Joseph’s influence went out over the land of Egypt.


Joseph’s take on Pharaoh’s dream landed well. They saw a change in climate before it arrived. Not every people will give credit to dreams when the pressure of constant profit blinds them to its first source—nature.

The very set-up of an autocracy (revealed in many different political structures, including democracy) is always looking for that one person who can run things to “my” benefit. This can lead to remarkable leaders who come to such a time as theirs. It can also lead to mountebanks and scoundrels who steal from each and every sucker.

Pharaoh cuts to the chase and says the one who solved his dream shall be the one to solve the revealed problem.

Again, Joseph-the-Administrator rides to save-the-day. Joseph leaves from playing warden to playing prime minister. We are not told about Potiphar and whatever demotion this might mean for him (and his wife).

In place of his embroidered cloak, Joseph now has a fancy ring, fine linen clothes, and a golden collar that lifts up and sets off his handsome face. He rides in the limousine of his day with escorts sirening his presence. His word becomes law in the land.

Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, and now Joseph becomes Zaphenath-Paneah (G*D Lives and Speaks Here). [Note: This interpretive meaning of Z-P identifies Joseph as G*D—a dangerous equivalency.

A wife is given him who is not from Mesopotamia, but On (later names Heliopolis—a place where the Sun is worshiped). Joseph is set at the center of Egyptian life. Will he be unassimilated and returned to his family of origin to become its center?

Genesis 41:26–36

41  26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears of grain are seven years. The dream is one. 27 The seven lank and ugly cows, arising after them, are seven years. The seven empty ears of grain, scorched by the east wind, are seven years of famine. 28 It is just as I told Pharaoh: what God is about to do has been shown to Pharaoh. 29 Seven years are coming of great abundance throughout the entire land of Egypt. 30 After them, seven years of famine will arise, and all the plenty in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will ravage the land. 31 The abundance will be forgotten because the famine that follows will be so very heavy. 
     32 The repetition of the dream occurred to Pharaoh twice means God has determined it so and is hastening its arrival. 33 “So, Pharaoh should find a discerning and wise man and give him a central place in the land of Egypt. 34 Then Pharaoh should appoint overseers of land and enlist the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty. 35 Collect all the food of the good years that are coming and pile up the grain under Pharaoh’s hand as provisions for the cities and keep it under guard. 36 This food will be a reserve for the seven years of famine in the land of Egypt that the land will not perish in the famine.”


Joseph’s assessment of there only being one dream takes disparate symbols and lines them into linear time. It would make no difference if the dreams were about seven animals, seven plants, or seven heavenly stars. The importance is what “seven” refers to. Joseph sees the number in terms of time. Time is a mechanism of control whereby we move toward a claimed “center.”

Readers might suspect that it has been seven years since the time Joseph is placed in a pit by his brothers. Here is a vision of a next seven years until the whole of Egypt is thrown into a pit of famine. Joseph’s experience of failure in having his proclaimed good-time-for-him continue-to-roll may sensitize him to acknowledging the need to figure out how a present blessing might have life to it beyond a moment. What actions of his might have led him to the center of his family—beyond his claiming in the crassest of terms that he would be that center?

Of interest is a question of how many times we need to receive a message before it catches our attention. Some say there need to be seven different presentations before an event clicks in, and we will attend to it. Some say more; some say less. Whatever the number, there will also be a follow-up question about responding.

If television is watched, how many exactly-the-same commercials are seen in an hour’s program? Is the watcher then programmed to buy? Are they put off and committed to never buying? What makes the difference?

Here, Pharaoh’s dream is not really for him but a way to bring Joseph back into the story. At question is leadership in the tribe of Jacob’s sons. Is Joseph’s potential in Egypt going to help his first dream of sheaves gathered around him? Will his interpretation of Pharaoh’s twice-told single-dream and action based on it lead him back to Jacob, Reuben, Levi, Judah, …, and Benjamin? Will it lead them to him here in Egypt?

Genesis 41:1–26

41  1 After two years of days, Pharaoh dreamt. He was standing at the Nile, when out of the Nile came seven cows, fair to look at and fattened, grazing on the reeds. Then, another seven cows came up after them to the bank of the Nile. These looked terrible, scrawny, and stood beside the first on the bank of the Nile. Then the foul-looking, emaciated cows ate up the seven fair and fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up. 
     He went back to sleep and had a second dream. Seven ears of grain on a single stalk were fat and healthy. Then, seven ears of grain, measly and parched by the east wind, sprouted after them and the scrawny ears swallowed up the seven full and fair ears. Then Pharaoh woke up and woke up to the dream. 
     In the morning, his spirit pounded, and he summoned all of Egypt’s soothsayers and his wise advisors. Pharaoh recounted his dreams to them, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.
     Then the chief wine steward spoke to Pharaoh, “Today I recall my prior error. 10 Pharaoh was furious with his servants and put me under arrest by the commander of the royal guard—both me and the chief chef. 11 We both dreamt a dream one night, he and I, and each of our dreams needed its own interpretation. 12 A Hebrew lad, a servant of your chief steward, was with us. We recounted our dreams to him, and he interpreted our dreams, giving us an interpretation for each dream. 13 Each interpretation came to pass: I was restored to my position, and he was impaled.”
     14 Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph. He was quickly brought from the dungeon. He shaved, changed clothes, and came before Pharaoh. 15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I dreamt a dream, but no one can interpret it. I have heard that you only need to hear a dream, and you know its meaning.”
     16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “Not I! God will answer Pharaoh for your benefit.”
     17 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream, I was standing on the bank of the Nile. 18 Seven fat and fair cows arose out of the Nile and grazed on the reeds. 19 Then, seven other cows, wretched, gaunt, and foul-looking clambered up after them. I’ve never seen such disgusting cows in all the land of Egypt.20 Then the bony, spindly cows ate up the first seven, fat cows. 21 They entered their bellies, but no one could tell for they appeared as sickly as they first did. Then I woke up. 22 I went to sleep again and saw in my dream seven ears of grain on one stalk, full and healthy. 23 Then, seven hardened and scraggly ears, parched by the east wind, sprouted after them. 24 The thin ears swallowed up the healthy ears. I told the soothsayers … none could tell me the meaning.”
     25 Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dream is one. God has announced to Pharaoh what is to happen. 26 The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears of grain are seven years. The dream is one.


Two years after being forgotten by the wine steward, Pharaoh has a dream that seems to have gotten the better of all who were consulted about its meaning. Such intractable mysteries take on a life of their own. They are talked about in multiple settings.

At some point, the wine steward heard Pharaoh rehearsing his dream. The wine steward’s experience in the dungeon, his dream there, and Joseph were recalled by him. In this time of perplexity, with all the regular avenues of interpretation turning out to be dead ends, the wine steward risks disappointing Pharaoh one more time and being thrown back into the pit of the dungeon. He speaks, beginning with his own past troubles and how stepping outside regular interpretive channels heralded an interpretation that came to pass.

The wine steward overstates his case as Joseph’s interpretation was revelatory, not causal.

With nothing left to lose, Pharaoh follows the lead of his wine steward and calls for Joseph. After making himself presentable by shaving (an Egyptian fashion, not his bearded Canaanite tradition), Joseph comes into the presence of the Pharaoh to hear what he has been puzzling over for awhile.

Joseph’s first act is to distance himself from blame, in case Pharaoh does not like what he hears. Joseph places G*D in the position of responsibility for interpretation.

Joseph’s first work is to simplify the dreams for the different images to all fit together in an over-arching storyline that might be of benefit to Pharaoh. If Pharaoh can see an advantage, Joseph may also be able to take advantage and benefit himself by leveraging himself to a larger central location than the administrative core of the dungeon.

Genesis 40:1–23

40  1 After these events, the wine steward and the chef for the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief wine steward and the chief baker, and he put them under arrest in the house of the chief of the royal guard in the dungeon where Joseph was imprisoned. The dungeon warden assigned Joseph to wait upon them. 
     After they had been under guard for some time, both of them dreamt a dream one night, and each man’s dream had its meaning—wine steward and chef of the king of Egypt who were imprisoned in the dungeon. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were frowning. He asked the Pharaoh’s officials who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces dejected today?”
     They answered, “We’ve dreamt a dream, but there’s no one to interpret it.”
     Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Tell your dreams to me.”
     The chief wine steward recounted his dream to Joseph: “In my dream, a vine was right in front of me, 10 and on the vine were three tendrils. Then it budded, blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. 11 I took the grapes and crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s palm.”
     12 Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three tendrils are three days. 13 In three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand like you did when you were his wine steward. 14 Keep me in mind when it goes well with you. Kindly remember me to Pharaoh and bring me out of this house. 15 For I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this pit.”
     16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was for good, he said to Joseph, “And in my dream, there were three baskets on my head. 17 In the topmost basket, there was all manner of baked goods for Pharaoh, but birds were eating from the basket on my head.”
     18 Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. 19 In three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head from off you and impale you on a pole, and the birds will peck your flesh from you.”
     20 In three days, it was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he made a great feast for all his servants. Before all of his servants, he lifted up the head of the chief wine steward and the chief chef. 21 He restored the chief wine steward to his stewarding, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s palm once again. 22 But the chief chef he impaled, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 But the chief wine steward did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.


Success for Joseph is not contingent upon location. In Canaan, among family—his dream indicates success. In Egypt, among a new family—he experiences promotion. In response to a demotion to a dungeon—he manages the other prisoners.

In his role as acting warden, Joseph watches two recent prisoners, Pharaoh’s wine steward and chef.

Each has a dream that puzzles them. As they frown in concentration to figure out the significance of their dream, Joseph asks them to recount their dream.

In Egypt, dreams are so significant that schools of interpretation are established, and people treat dreams as factual (not fake reality) that need a “scientific” explanation. Joseph posits, from his monotheistic heritage, that G*D will reveal a dream’s meaning with no need for a degree in dreamology.

The chief wine steward takes Joseph up on his assertion and relates his dream.

“Hooray! In three days you’ll have your job back. Tell Pharaoh about me when you are back on the job.”

Encouraged by this response, Pharaoh’s chef relates his dream.

“Woe! In three days you’ll be food for the birds.”

The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday. A feast was held, and the head of both the wine steward and the chef were lifted up. The head of the wine steward was once again held high as he served Pharaoh. The head of the chef was held high by a pole as food for the birds.

Each dream proceeded to come true, as Joseph said. Note that there is nothing miraculous about these interpretations as Joseph had come to know the steward and chef as well as being in a position to know other scuttlebutt such as Pharaoh’s birthday and leaked information.

However, Joseph’s hope of coming to the attention of Pharaoh and being lifted out of this pit of a prison found no immediate satisfaction.

Genesis 39:12–23

39  12 She grabbed him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled outside. 13 When she realized that he had left his garment in her hand and run outside, 14 she called out to the people of her house and said to them, “Look! My husband brought us a Hebrew to mock us. He came to me to lie with me, but I called out in a loud voice. 15 When he heard me raise my voice and call out, he left his garment beside me and fled outside.” 16 She kept his garment beside her until his master returned home, 17 and she spoke to him the same: “The Hebrew slave came in to me, the one you brought us, to play around with me; 18 but when I raised my voice and called out, he left his garment beside me and fled outside.”
     19 When his master heard his wife’s words, “Things like this are what your slave has done to me,” he became incensed. 20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in the prison where the king’s prisoners were held. 
     While he was in jail, 21 YHWH was with Joseph and extended kindness to him and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. 22 The dungeon warden placed in Joseph’s hands all of the prisoners in the dungeon. Whatever had to be done there, he did it. 23 The prison warden saw to nothing under Joseph’s supervision, because YHWH was with him and whatever he did, YHWH made succeed.


Potiphar’s wife is as cunning as Joseph. With household member’s gone, she acts. Not only does she say, “Come in to me,” she grabs and holds on to his tunic until Joseph wriggles out of it and flees. Calling out until someone comes, she explains that her husband brought this foreign Hebrew to ridicule loyal Egyptians by teasing them with their sexuality. She goes on to declaim her innocence and show Joseph’s garment as proof he had taken it off to lie with her.

Keeping the garment close to her until her husband returned, she retold her story, complete with physical evidence in her hand.

Twice, Joseph had garments taken from him; twice, Joseph had lies told about him—his “death,” his “honor.”

Potiphar becomes angry with Joseph. They both had a good thing going until this claim of sexual misconduct. As a result of Potiphar’s anger, Joseph is thrown in prison, another pit, a dungeon. Even if it were a white-collar prison with water and food, it is, nonetheless, a pit.

G*D, it is claimed, still favors and protects Joseph as he befriends the warden and demonstrates his ability to manage the other prisoners. Just as with Potiphar, Joseph finds the lever of power—enhancing those in power. In this case, Joseph is able to remove the drudgery of wardening from the warden. As long as the warden could coast, Trusty-Joseph became the acting warden. Once again, Joseph moved to the center of his situation and proved an excellent administrator.

At question is what Joseph is learning that will bring him to the center of tribal leadership. Does G*D smoothing your way give a false sense of accomplishment and set up privilege that is for self alone?

Genesis 39:1–11

39  1 Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh, chief steward, an Egyptian man, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down.
     YHWH was with Joseph so that he became a man of success while he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that YHWH was with him, and with everything he did, YHWH made his hand succeed. Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. He put him in charge of his house, and everything belonging to him he placed in his hands. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he had, YHWH blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake. YHWH’s blessing was upon everything he had in house and field. He left everything that was his in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, paid no attention to anything except the bread he ate.
     Joseph was fair of form and pleasant to view. After a while, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Lie with me!”
     He refused, saying to his master’s wife, “My master has no concern with anything in the house while I am here. Everything he has he has placed in my hands. He is not greater in this house than I and has withheld nothing from me except you, his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” 
     10 She continued to coax Joseph, day after day, and he refused to listen to her, to lie by her, to be with her.
     11 It happened one day that he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house were in the house….


Plots have a way of thickening.

Joseph was brought to Egypt as a commodity. Presumably, he was bought for more than the 20 pieces of silver for which he was sold. Perhaps the Ishmaelites earned half again what they paid and brought his price the betrayal level of 30 pieces of silver? The dreamer of being the main “sheaf” is well out of his expected center.

One way back to the center is to become indispensable to the center. The author(s) of Genesis record that Joseph became a successful servant. He learned the levers of power in this Egyptian context. The author(s) claim that YHWH stood behind Joseph and was the source of his success. We are not told that Joseph understood this source of his growing success.

His learning paid off. After some time, he was put in charge of Potiphar’s house and all in it.

Joseph’s master understood that which benefited him and how Joseph seemed to have a golden touch regarding the administration of resources. It didn’t hurt that he was good-looking. Joseph is described in the same words that were used of his mother, Rachel. Beauty, according to cultural norms, is a resource and power that gives opportunity. It may have been Joseph’s looks that first caught his master’s eye.

It is this same beauty (like his embroidered tunic) that raised Joseph up, and that will lay him low.

His master’s wife was part of the household. She initiates a proposal for a sexual encounter different in purpose than the one Tamar set up. Potiphar’s wife is the one who says, “Come in to me.” Joseph has an extended excuse to counter the short command.

At question is the use of authority. Joseph, as a male servant, carries more weight than Potiphar’s unnamed wife. 

Day after day, this request and rebuff went on. Joseph became cunning in his avoidance of these encounters.

One day, of course, when no one else was around, words became action….

Genesis 38:24–30

38  24 About three New-Moons later Judah was told, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has played-the-whore, and what’s more she is pregnant from whoring.”
     Judah said, “Take her out. Let her be burned!”
     25 As she was being taken out, she sent a message to her father-in-law, saying. “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant,” she said. And she said, “Do you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are?”
     26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I am, for I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.
     27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he was drawing his hand back, out came his brother, and she said, “What a breach you have made. So this is how you have burst forth!” And he was named Perez/Breach. 30 Afterward, out came his brother, on whose hand was the scarlet thread. And he was named Zerah/Shining.


It appears that sending Tamar back to her father does not move her from the authority of Judah. When he learns that Tama is pregnant, the immediate charge is that she conceived by way of prostitution (one of a few ways women on their own could survive).

In an instant, Judah pronounces judgment in only two Hebrew words: “take-her-out!” “that-she-be-burned.” For Judah, there can be no extenuating circumstance. This provides the excuse Judah needs to pay her back for the deaths of Er and Onan, and to further protect Shelah.

As Tamar was taken out to be burned, she appeals her case by sending the seal, cord, and staff to Judah with the message that she was with child by the owner of these items.

Judah recognizes them and stopped the proceedings with the recognition that her right to a child by a son of Judah has been met by Tamar’s going to the source—Judah himself. If Shelah is withheld, Tamar is still family and cannot be put to death.

Remembering this interruption may have come before Judah interceded on behalf of Joseph-of-the-Pit, readers may store this self-awareness and ability to see more than his own righteousness as positive leadership qualities.

Again we have a twin story and issues of who is firstborn. Zerah-of-the-Scarlet-Thread parallels Esau the Red—firstborns who are displaced from their position.

Jacob secures his blessing through the trickery of Esau and Isaac. Perez overtakes Zerah in the process of his being born and bursts through. As Jacob’s grandson, Perez becomes the one through whom will come (spoiler alert) the kings of Judah—particularly David and a non-king named Jesus.

Such is the strange story of Judah and Tamar, and levirate marriage. Responsibility to the larger family is not an easy lesson for Judah.

Genesis 38:12–23

38  12 After many days passed, the daughter of Shua, Judah’s wife, died. After the mourning period, Judah went up to his sheepshearers, he and Hirah the Adullamite, his friend, to Timnah. 
     13 Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” 14 So Tamar took off her widow’s garb, covered herself with a veil, covered herself, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim/Two-Wells on the road to Timnah. She had seen that Shelah had already grown up and had not been given to him as a wife.
     15 Judah saw her and took her for a whore, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned aside to her by the road and said, “Let me come in to you,” for he didn’t know she was his daughter-in-law.
     She said, “What will you give me for coming in to me?”
     17 He said, “I personally will send you a goat kid from the flock.”
     She said, “Only if you give me a pledge until you send it.”
     18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?”
     And she said, “Your seal, your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.” 
     He gave them to her, went in to her, and she became pregnant by him.
     19 Then she arose, left, took off her veil, and dressed in her widow’s garments. 
     20 Judah sent the goat kid by the hand of his friend, the Adullamite, to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, but he could not find her. 21 He asked the men of that place, “Where’s the holy-prostitute, the one who was at Enaim by the road?”
     But they said, “There has been no cult-harlot here.”
     22 He went back to Judah and said, “I could not find her and the men said, ‘There’s no holy-harlot here.’”
     23 Judah said, “Let her take them, lest we become a laughingstock. I did send this goat kid, and you could not find her.”


After a long while, Judah’s unnamed wife died. After the prescribed time of mourning, Judah is “consoled,” unlike Jacob, at the end of the previous chapter. And he is off to the festivities around sheep-shearing time.

In theory, Judah has not had sexual intercourse during his time of mourning and is likely anticipating lively goings-on in Timnah.

At this same time, Tamar hears of Judah’s itinerary and took off her widow’s clothes to put on a veil and other attractants.

All of Tamar’s activity is based on her having seen that Shelah was grown, and Judah had not called her to return as Shelah’s wife or to otherwise have him impregnate her on behalf of Er and Onan. Tamar will not let this situation rest—her reputation and future security depend on bearing a son.

Tamar’s plan includes sitting at Enaim, which means Twin Wells. From past stories, readers know wells to be places of betrothment—a starting place for sons.

Judah only recognizes veiled Tamar as a temple prostitute. Anticipating a good time, Judah advances his timeline. With no beating around the bush, Judah says, “Let me come in to you.”

Bargaining ensues over the whore-price. Not having a goat kid on him, Judah leaves promissory tokens of his seal, its cord, and his walking stick.

Judah did enter Tamar, and she conceived. Afterward, Tamar took off her veil and was regarbed as a widow. Still later, Judah sent a kid back to the well to retrieve his goods, but the temple prostitute was nowhere to be found.

Judah let it go and didn’t pursue it, lest he be accused of poor dealing—giving his ID, its holder, his staff, and his seed for a fleeting moment of pleasure.

Genesis 38:8–11

38  8 Judah said to Onan, “Come in to your brother’s wife; do a brother-in-law’s duty and raise up seed for your brother.” Onan knew the seed would not be his so when he came in to his brother’s wife he wasted his semen on the ground, so as to not provide seed for his brother. 10 What he did was evil in the eyes of YHWH and YHWH put him to death, too. 
     11 Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until Shelah, my son, has grown up.” He thought Shelah would die as well, like his brothers. So Tamar went and stayed in her father’s house.


Whatever it was that displeased YHWH about Er, his death led to additional displeasure. If this is simply a pattern of changing second-born to first-born status, it didn’t take the nature of second-borns into account. They are not all striving to be first.

Onan was not pleased to be told he was to enter his brother’s wife, in his stead. Readers are not told if Onan was resistant to his tribal obligation to multiply or if it had something to do with his relationship with his brother. It is also unknown if Onan had something against Tamar and desired to remove her status and security that would be enhanced with a son.

Whatever led Onan to resist this cultural task of being a sexual proxy, his strategy was to enter Tamar but leave before leaving a child behind. Today we would call that coitus interuptus. In ancient days, Rashi described it as “threshing within, winnowing without.”

Whatever Er had done to displease YHWH, this decision by Onan also displeased YHWH. Result: YHWH causes Onan to die.

With Brother One dead and Brother Two dead, Judah sees a pattern and acts to protect Brother Three, his youngest and, now, only son. Putting one and two together, Judah proceeds to protect Shelah from the Black Widow, Tamar.

Judah forces Tamar into a form of disgrace by sending her back to her father’s household. It didn’t aid Tamar to have Judah explain that she was only going back home until Shelah, son three, was old enough to serve as proxy for both Er and Onan. It didn’t take much to figure out Judah was never going to send for Tamar. Judah was not going to put Shelah in what seemed to him to be direct danger.

This interlude is to reveal a comparison between the leadership of Joseph and that of Judah. Focusing on Onan is a side trail. Judah and Tamar will continue to be the main storyline.

Genesis 38:1–7

38  1 It was about that time that Judah went down, away from his brothers, and settled alongside an Adullamite named Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua, and he took her and came in to her. She became pregnant and bore a son, and she called his name Er. She became pregnant again, bore a son, and called his name Onan. Once again, she bore a son and called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she gave birth to him.
     Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, a woman named Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of YHWH, and YHWH put him to death.


The story of Judah and Tamar (Chapter 38) comes as an interruption of the story of Joseph. Since it doesn’t fit any better anywhere else, given its 20-year length, we might view it as a parallel line of inquiry into leadership within a family. We have heard several short stories about Reuben and will listen to a much longer story about Joseph. For now, the focus is on Judah. It may be helpful to consider this an antecedent to Joseph’s story that brings background information, rather than an interruption.

It is first noted that Judah “went down” from his brothers. This is the same designation that is used for going to Egypt even though it is used here to designate going from the highlands to a lower elevation. It is the separation from family that is at issue here. All along, there is a question of the purity of the family line and whether or not to assimilate.

Away from family, Judah settles by a Canaanite. The danger is that Judah will lose track of his brothers, which is the very appeal he makes to save Joseph from death at the hand of his brothers.

We do not hear of Judah taking a wife, only that he took an unnamed woman (known only as her father’s daughter) to bed. Readers do not hear a reason for Judah’s relationship with Shua’s daughter, like that of Jacob’s appreciation for Rachel’s loveliness nor of Shechem’s power over Dinah.

All we know is that Shua’s daughter bore three sons to Judah—Er, Onan, and Shelah.

In keeping with the difficulty evidenced by firstborns, Er is described as being inherently and thoroughly evil. YHWH puts Er to death for no given particular but a state of being such as the pre-Flood people. [Note: Er’s name returns as the name for a son of Shelah as a way of carrying on the family (1 Chronicles 4:21). Somehow multiplication redeems an unfruitful son and returns him to the genealogy.]

Er is not so labeled until after Judah arranges for Tamar to become Er’s wife, and there are no offspring. With Er’s death, the scene is now set for an investigation of Levirate marriage to carry on a family’s “seed”—an extension of the overriding expectation to multiply and to be fruitful.