38 1 It was about that time that Judah went down, away from his brothers, and settled alongside an Adullamite named Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua, and he took her and came in to her. 3 She became pregnant and bore a son, and she called his name Er. 4 She became pregnant again, bore a son, and called his name Onan. 5 Once again, she bore a son and called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she gave birth to him.
6 Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, a woman named Tamar. 7 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.