Judah, Joseph, ‘Chastity’, and Authorial Intent

Most LDSs who have actually read Genesis 38 and 39 have undoubtedly had the thought, or heard the thought, that the juxtaposition of these two chapters teaches important lessons about chastity (see the OT SS manual, where this is made explicit). After all, in the former we have Judah’s wicked sons, the second of which (Onan) ‘spills his seed’ and dies because of it, and then Judah himself is trapped by his penchant for a prostitute. In the latter, we have the righteous Joseph who, unwilling to sleep with his owner’s wife, is thrown into prison because of his refusal, only to rise to second in command of all of Egypt and save Israel. Indeed, Genesis 38 clearly interrupts the Joseph story that began in Gen 37, thus the redactorial insertion, given the topic and putative lexical connections, appears to be the result of someone having seen a connection in these two texts. As James Kugel points out (see pp. 25ff.), even two prominent scholars (Robert Alter and Jon Levenson) have argued on linguistic grounds that these chapters were deliberately put in this order: “A few recent scholars have suggested that the story’s insertion was not the act of a mindless redactor, but a deft move by someone who established, or at least saw, a number of subtle connections between the Joseph saga and the Judah-Tamar episode.”

Kugel rightly challenges each of these linguistic connections and then puts forth what I think is the correct theory: that there was no demonstrable intent to juxtapose these stories. Rather, a compiler, who had before him the task of splicing together traditions of different origins (think of making one narrative out of the four Gospels), put these two chapters together, or rather interrupted the Joseph saga, because the story of Judah and Tamar couldn’t go anywhere else chronologically. It couldn’t go before the Joseph story because that story begins with a young Judah, and in the Judah-Tamar story Judah already has married sons. It couldn’t go afterward because the Joseph story ends with the sons of Israel in Egypt, but this story takes place in Canaan. So the only option left was to put it right in the middle (see Kugel 29), and the break at the end of chapter 37 seems the best place to have done that. If Kugel is correct, as I take him to be (see my thoughts and argument for a compiler here, here, and here), the “lesson” on chastity is one that readers draw out, and not one that was “meant” by any author (leaving aside the fact that I don’t think either story has anything to do with chastity as we have come to prescribe it.)

Do we care? On the one hand, I see us being very concerned with what the authors intended and saw (try telling a seminary class that Isaiah didn’t see Jesus or our day), and on the other, as I argued in my last post, we’re encouraged to draw meanings apart from their scriptural context. Do we, then, have anything invested in the juxtaposition of these chapters? What about in the compilation of the narrative from diverse sources?

16 Replies to “Judah, Joseph, ‘Chastity’, and Authorial Intent”

  1. I have certainly seen many teachers using context when it suited the idea that they wanted to teach, and completely ignoring it when it changed the meaning they wanted to convey (consider, for example, the common LDS reading of John 5:39 as an injunction to find eternal life in scripture study).
    I think that LDS have some investment in the juxtaposition of Gen 38 and 39, especially considering that many LDS think that both chapters came from the pen of Moses himself. The OT student manual you mentioned would have to be edited if the view were changed. But this is Gen 38 and 39 we’re talking about, not the Book of Mormon or the Gospels. I think most members of the Church wouldn’t care much because this is from the OT. In fact, most members would probably say, “There’s a story about Judah before the one about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife? Huh, cool. Wait, it’s about what??”

  2. Well, I think it is a big stretch to use the Judah/Tamar story to teach chastity. If the two stories do have a common theme it is in the wonder and (dare I say) charm of how God brought about the chosen people, Israel.

    But I usually side with Kugel, and agree that the placement of Judah and Tamar probably has more to do with chronology in the collection than with grouping supposed connections.

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. I have also heard the idea that these chapters help to establish the loss of the birthright of Israel’s older sons through sin. (sorry, no reference)
    Reuben-ch 35-sins with Bilhah
    Simeon-ch 34-deceives and kills the Hivites
    Levi-same as above
    Judah-ch 38-marries a Canaanite, sleeps with daughter-in-law
    all brothers except Reuben-ch 37-conspire to kill Joseph

    Do you think this was a possible intention of the compiler?

  4. I’m siding with BiV here: there was an important point in telling the story of Judah (and Reuben, Simeon and Levi), and that was to juxtapose their injustice with Joseph’s undying sense of justice. I agree that it is not a lesson on chastity per se, but more like a lesson on keeping covenants.

    I guess I’m just feeling that the question you (or Kugal) don’t address is this: Why did the compiler feel the need to include the Judah/Tamar story at all?

  5. I agree with Steven B that this Judah/Tamar story is included to inform the reader of the history of Israel, although I would add that this story is probably most important because it establishes the lineage of King David through Judah.

    The issue of chastity should be contextualized, however. This story is one of several instances in the OT that refer to the very ancient Near Eastern cultural practice of Levirate marriage (Levirate coming from the Latin ‘Levir’, meaning ‘husband’s brother’ — in Hebrew called ‘yibbum’ — not in any way related to the word ‘Levi’). See, for example:


    According to this tradition, if a man leaves his widow childless, she is supposed to marry her husband’s brother in order to ‘raise up seed’ in his stead. (In the event that his brother is not available or he has no brother, she can marry other close male kin. It should be noted here that the marrying of close male kin other than the brother was later disputed by the Rabbis, but that’s another posting.) The purpose of this tradition was related to inheritance law: Land traditionally passed from generation to generation through the male line, so it was important that a woman bear at least one child within her husband’s family in order for his family to maintain land rights.

    (You can see instances of this later in the OT. Inheritance law is why, for example, Zelophehad’s daughters approached Moses at the time that the Israelites were settling the Land of Canaan and dividing it up according to tribe [see Numbers 27: 1-11]. Their father had died without producing a male heir, so Moses inquired of the Lord and was told that daughters could now inherit the land in the event that there were no sons. But later this statement is qualified [in Numbers 35:6-10] — the daughters of Zelophehad are to marry men within their own tribe, so that the land apportioned to each tribe of Israel does not end up changing tribes through marriage.)

    So if a childless widow, the sole inheritor of her estate, were to marry outside her husband’s family, that estate would pass to another man’s children. Levirate marriage compensates for this problem.

    There are several other instances of this practice in the OT. Ruth and Boaz, for example, are often considered a type of Levirate marriage. In the NT, when the Sadducees come to Jesus (see Luke 20:27-38) and ask what will happen in the afterlife to a woman who marries seven brothers in succession but still remains childless, they are referring to a (rather improbable) instance of Levirate marriage.

    (I should also note that if a man does not want to marry his brother’s widow or vice versa there is a ceremony discussed in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 that releases them from this obligation. Generally speaking it is considered most appropriate in modern Orthodox Judaism to perform this ceremony, transliterated ‘khalitzah’, rather than enter into a Levirate marriage.)

    So, given all of this context, the whole issue of the Judah/Tamar situation is (hopefully) clarified a bit. Judah was supposed to marry Onan because she was a childless widow. He refused. She waited for the second brother to grow up. Judah does not arrange the marriage between her and Shelah. Tamar then raises up seed to her dead husband through the next close male kin, Judah. This is why Judah states in Genesis 38:26 “She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son.” When the following line states ‘and he knew her again no more’, the text is reinforcing the fact that Tamar had fulfilled her legal obligation to bear a child to that family.

    Sorry that this post is so long — there is a great deal more that could be said. Hope this context helps — but I think, given all of the above, that this is not intended as a law of chastity tale. The only reason I have heard that makes sense to include it at all in Genesis is that it is the story of the line of Judah, ancestor of David and Jesus.

  6. In my mind there is no connection between the two stories, except that they explain how things got to be the way they are. There were no negative consequences to Judah because of his relationship with Tamar. Apparently because of his obligation under the Levirite law. Judah’s transgression in this instance is his failure to keep his word and provide Tamar with a husband who would then provide him with grandchildren and heirs as Freddie has pointed out.

  7. BiV and Brian J,

    I’m not saying there’s no point to the story. Just that a) it is impossible to tell what the compiler thought, and that b) it’s probably not important what the compiler thought because he was merely stitching together in the best order possible a narrative from several sources that had come down to him. If I did the same with the gospels, I probably wouldn’t leave anything out, and it wouldn’t really matter what I thought about them (except that they are authoritative enough to be included in a narrative important to me).

    As for why the story exists in the first place, it’s not because of birthright issues. The birthright issues really only come up with Reuben and Simeon, not Judah. There is no censure by Jacob for what Judah did. Freddie’s right to say that the reason for this story’s existence seems to be to provide details about the lineage of David, which seems to be a major point of Ruth, too, which, as Freddie notes, also seems to reflect a levirate problem.

    Thanks for thoughts, all.

  8. Jupiterschild –

    One last thing –

    I wanted to acknowledge that the discussion had gotten pretty far afield of your original posting by the time I got to it, and I know my addition didn’t do anything to steer the conversation back to your questions re: redaction and compilation. I agree with you that the Gen 38 story was inserted to maintain some kind of chronological integrity.

    I looked over your previous postings (I just discovered this blog for the first time today.) It’s great to see someone working with the DH – I haven’t seen many LDS folks dealing with biblical source criticism before, but maybe I just haven’t known where to look. Keep up the good work.

  9. Do we, then, have anything invested in the juxtaposition of these chapters?

    It will be interesting to see if using this as an example of the issues you raised in the previous post will work better than engaging them directly as you did.

    In any case, I think juxtaposing these two characters to make a “moral” point is less problematic when we’re open to the likelihood that such was not the intent of the author. Although that raises other complexities in terms of our relation to the past (i.e., what kind of historical relativisms to do we allow?).

  10. Freddie,

    Thanks for the props. I have found the same thing with regard to LDSs and the DH. Do you blog regularly? It’s something I’d like to change. (You can also see my exchange with Julie M. on this topic at Times and Seasons.) I’m curious to know your background and what you think about the wider question of the DH.

    smallaxe, you’ve correctly seen my increasingly pragmatic orientation. I think you’re absolutely right that we run up against an interesting conundrum when we admit (which we should) that it’s best to leave the author out of it. On the one hand, we become more open to diverse possibilities in reading the text. This severing of intent is partially what led to feminist and other readings of the text. But on the other, as you say, what kind of historical relativism then becomes permitted? To what extent do we need the author to be a normative voice, one that knowingly speaks to our day?

  11. Didn’t Levenson point out that perhaps the real reason for the ordering is to point out the growth and development of Judah? I may be misremembering, but in “The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son” I thought he made the point that through these experiences, Judah was now prepared to understand what it meant to lose a son, and the role he plays in the remainder of the Joseph cycle is more meaningful because of it, especially his actions in Gen 43-44. Sorry my memory isn’t better, if it matters to anyone I could go look it up.

    This resonates with me much more than the chastity question. It’s a much more fulfilling idea IMHO, and resonantes well with Judah becoming the dominant figure opposite Joseph. (It’s not clear that the text considers Judah unchaste in any way.)

  12. Secco,

    You’re absolutely right, (your bread has not dried out, as your name might imply…) Levenson connects some of the themes in Gen 38 to the broader Joseph story and argues that it is this episode that teaches him about many things–the danger of childlessness, which he comes very close to, the act of substitution (he would offer to substitute for his brother at the end of the Joseph story), etc. And while we’re on it, he also gives an ancient pedigree for the comparison of the two attempts at seduction (one Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman).

    Much as I hate to disagree with Levenson, however, I think these are ingenious but are the result of careful reading and not necessarily actual historical connection between the two narratives. I do think that Levenson’s great strength is his eliciting of these sorts of themes, and the only quibble I have is with what he says about the process of redaction. In a way, the thematic links, whether they were intended or not, are what I’m interested in from a phenomenological perspective. What is it about the redaction, composition, juxtaposition of texts that draws a response from the reader? I don’t think this is about right and wrong interpretations so much as it is an exploration of how dependent we are on the process/intention behind the composition.

  13. OK, so now you’ve piqued my curiosity: isn’t the point that the redactor/composer chose to compose and insert the Judah story — covering decades of time — just at this location in the narrative deliberately, in order to elicit our response? What is it about Levenson’s observation of these linked themes that you don’t like? It certainly seems to as plausible a rationale for ‘authorial intent’ as the chastity link, much more so IMHO. Are you saying that Levenson has ‘discovered’ something that the original author (Moses or whoever) didn’t actually intend? If so, on what basis are you dismissing this assignment of intent? Because an alternate theory is better? What would that be? Surely not the chastity point as you yourself point out, no? Enquiring minds want to know :-).

    It’s interesting that it takes a Levenson to find these thematic links. Is this *really* good subtlety in storytelling by Moses, so good that it takes a Harvard professor to elucidate the layers of meaning? If that’s the case, what is the ‘average’ reader supposed to be getting out of Gen 38? If the reaction to most readers of the Genesis to the question, “Who were Tamar and Onan” is any gauge, it seems that the average reader has missed any point at all and barely remembers/registers the story, other than perhaps to recall the Judaic lineage of David.

    Sort of seems like the kind of thing the Allegorists and Philo would love…

  14. I think Levenson himself makes the point that these stories were never meant to be put together originally, or at least they have different developments antedating their insertion. I don’t think that linked themes, especially when done as subtly as Levenson points out, are enough to show actual historical connection, i.e., that they were composed or inserted with each other in mind. I guess what I’m saying is that, as you rightfully say, the fact that it takes the ingenuity of a Harvard professor who happens to be writing a book on the loss of the beloved son to draw out the fact that Judah is losing his son and substitutes for his son the way Judah would later offer to substitute for his brother indicates these stories don’t have a clear connection one to the other. I think there’s no way to tell intent, and, in the absence of clear linguistic links (beyond hakker-na and yarad, both of which are relatively common), I think it’s much safer to say that these were put together because they couldn’t go anywhere else, and not because the redactor had some theological purpose in mind. Of course, neither of these things can be proven, but in light of what we know of the redactor in general, I think it’s safe to say that chronology was the overarching principle. Other connections would be a side effect of this.

    I think, by the way, that the composer and the redactor are completely different people, separated probably by centuries. The redactor was likely working after the exile, when the Persians were requiring each subject nation to come up with their own law book. The composer, on the other hand, was almost certainly working long before the exile, and when you figure in the likely oral component of composition, we’re talking at least a couple centuries before the exile. So there could have been a connection in the distant past between these stories, especially around the theme of the loss of the beloved son, but this is not brought out in any special way by their having been spliced together. I hope I’ve answered your questions. Let me know if I’ve created more confusion.

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