I just ran across this post from last fall over at my friend Chad Bresson’s blog, about Genesis 38 and the scandal of the gospel. I was interested, because just this morning I was reading John Currid’s Against the Gods, and Currid points out that Genesis 38, the story of of Judah’s misconduct and immorality with Tamar, serves as a foil to Genesis 39, Joseph’s encounter with the wife of Potiphar.
I love Chad’s treatment of Genesis 38, but what’s catching my eye right now is the contrast between Judah and Joseph. Take twenty seconds to google “Biblical marriage meme,” and you’ll find a number of doubtless well-informed haters reminding us that marriage was abused in good ol’ Bible times, so it should be anything goes today.
Yes. It’s true. Abraham slept with Hagar. Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. David murdered Uriah so he could have Bathsheba. There are directions in the law for taking the widow of your brother, for marrying war captives, for marrying women you’ve raped, and for pairing together your male and female slaves. It does no good to list every weird account of marriage in Scripture indiscriminately and then sit back with a self-satisfied smirk. The question that should be asked is what view of marriage and sex does the Scripture commend?
This is where Joseph shines so brightly. The fact that the account of Judah and Tamar appears in the middle of the longer story about Joseph and right before the account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife says something about both accounts.
First, this is an intentional pairing. We’re meant to look at Judah and Joseph together. Two brothers, two temptations, two responses. As I said, Judah serves as a foil to Joseph. There are, of course, more levels to the story of Judah and Tamar, and Chad has covered them admirably. But the placement of the story at this point in Genesis reveals that, whatever else is going on in redemptive history, Joseph is the main character right now, and he’s drawing everything else into his narratival orbit.
Second, the contrast preaches. Judah condemns his own actions, both by his decision not to burn Tamar and by his statement, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (38:24-26). No one who reads the text well can come away with the impression that Judah is somehow commended for his immorality. Similarly, it is impossible to read the following chapter and conclude that Joseph is not being commended. He recognizes that to sleep with Mrs. Potiphar would be a sin against his master and his God (39:8-9). He refuses temptation steadfastly (39:10). And when push comes to shove, Joseph gets right out of dodge, leaving his coat behind (39:11-12). This last bit, by the way, is an intentional echo of Joseph’s previous betrayal at the hands of his brothers: though innocent of wrongdoing, he is punished, his garments are used in a deception against him, and he is put someplace unfavorable where God gives him success in all he does. The flow of the story itself teaches us that Joseph is to be commended.
There is no doubt in these accounts that, regardless of the social mores of the time concerning sexuality, Judah’s example is to be condemned and Joseph’s to be praised. In the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”