Bereshit 38 is the only chapter in the last third of Sefer Bereshit in which Yosef is not mentioned. The chapter interrupts the story of Yosef's sale, and instead of recounting his experiences in Egypt, turns to focus on the figure of Yehuda. The chapter tells of Yehuda's marriage to Bat Shua and the births of his children: Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, but dies prematurely without progeny. His brother, Onan, performs an incomplete act of yibbum, as he weds Tamar in a levirate marriage but refuses to consummate it. He, too, is punished and dies, making Yehuda hesitant to offer his third son, Shelah, to Tamar. This leads to Tamar's desperate ruse in which she tricks Yehuda into sleeping with her and siring her two children.
Why does the Torah deem it important to share all these details of Yehuda's personal family life? If the story were absent from Tanakh, would we have felt that something was lacking? Moreover, why is the story placed where it is, completely interrupting the drama of Yosef's sale?1 What light might the story shed on both the character of Yehuda and the larger Yosef narratives?
Yehuda's wife is identified as Bat Shua, the daughter of an "אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי".2 Does this suggest that, despite the efforts taken by Avraham and Rivka to ensure that their children not marry Canaanites, Yehuda for some reason did not share their concerns and nonetheless married an indigenous woman?3 Moreover, if the Torah later prohibits intermarriage with Canaanites, referring to their actions as "abominations", how can it be that Yehuda, one of the founding tribes, did not find this problematic? A similar question might be asked about Tamar's ethnicity. When choosing a spouse for his son, did Yehuda turn to the local Canaanite population, or import a woman from afar? The text's silence on the issue makes us wonder if Tamar's ethnicity was simply not a matter of concern for Yehuda. [For a full discussion of these issues, see also Did Yaakov's Sons Marry Canaanites.]
Reneging on a Promise
After Yehuda's son, Onan, dies, Yehuda is somewhat reluctant to give his third son, Shelah, to Tamar in levirate marriage. He, thus, asks Tamar to return to her father's home and wait until Shelah matures. However, the story suggests that years pass without Yehuda acting to fulfill his promise, effectively leaving Tamar with the status of an agunah – a woman chained in marriage, but with no husband, and no freedom to move forward. How should Yehuda's actions be evaluated? Why does he not take responsibility and either free Tamar, or give her his third son in marriage? When making the promise, had he never intended to follow through with it?
According to Vayikra 20:12, having sexual relations with one's daughter-in-law is a capital crime. How, then, are we to view Yehuda's, albeit unintentional, consorting with Tamar?4 In light of the fact that the Davidic monarchy and Mashiach descend from the union, the question is of significant import. Is it possible that the Davidic line began with an illegitimate act, or might the relations have been permitted under the circumstances?
A second question relates to the nature of Yehuda and Tamar's ensuing relationship. After recognizing that he was the father of Tamar's children, the verse states: "וְלֹא יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּהּ". Does this mean that Yehuda never again had relations with Tamar, or that he did not cease to consort with her? Either way, is his action worthy of praise or of censure? If he stopped the relationship, was that because it was prohibited, or despite the fact that it was permitted? If he continued the relationship, was this because it was legitimate, or despite the fact that it was inappropriate?