Seemingly, the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) appears out of place, and is inserted in the middle of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century) asks the obvious question (Genesis 38, 1) -“why is this story placed here and interrupts the story of Joseph?”. Rashi says that “it is to teach that his brothers lowered him from his high position when they saw the grief of their father, and said you told us to sell him and had you told us to return him we would have listened to you”. The story of Judah and Tamar begins “And it was at that time that Judah went down from his brothers” (Genesis 38, 1), and Rashi then is explaining the meaning of the phrase “Judah went down from his brothers”. Rashi understands that Judah went down in the sense that his esteem as a leader of the brothers was lowered in the eyes of the brothers when he did not tell them to return Joseph to their father allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt.
This explanation of Rashi is clearly not the plain meaning of the verse; but, the biggest problem with his explanation is the ending of the story of Judah and Tamar. At the end of the story, Judah does tshuva. The term tshuva, which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition, is often translated inadequately as repentance, but literally means return in the sense of a return to the path of right living. Although the story may begin by Judah going down from his brothers, the story ends with him raising himself up in doing tshuva, and publicly acknowledging his wrongdoing toward Tamar. At the end of the story, Tamar, having been impregnated by Judah, her father in law, gives birth to twins and one of them is Peretz from whom David the King is to be descended – and David the King is the ancestor of the messiah. The story is teaching that the messiah is to come from an immoral sexual relationship. Even if we accept the explanation of Rashi at the beginning of the story that Judah’s esteem was lowered in the eyes of his brothers, at the end of the story we learn that the messiah is to come from Judah’s actions and especially his doing tshuva.
In order to understand the function of the story of Judah and Tamar in the middle of the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of Judah and Tamar must be distinguished from another Biblical story in the Book of Genesis in which the messiah is to be descended from an immoral sexual relationship – the story of the daughters of Lot. The daughters of Lot have child by their father, and the son of the firstborn daughter of Lot is Moav from whom the messiah is to be descended – as we learn from the end of the Book of Ruth in that the messiah is to be descended from Ruth who is from Moav. Therefore, the Bible in the Book of Genesis brings us two stories of immoral sexual relationships from which the messiah is to come!
In the story of the daughters of Lot, the daughters of Lot following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah mistakenly thought that no human beings except them (and their father) survived the destruction – “and there is no man on earth to come in to us in the manner of all the earth” (Genesis 19, 31). Thus, although their action of having children by their father (after getting him drunk) is clearly immoral, their intention was pure – to continue the human species. The daughters of Lot faced a conflict of values – on the one hand, they wanted to continue the human species; and, on the other hand, the only way to do so according to their mistaken knowledge (that no other people survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) was to engage in an immoral sexual relationship. Regarding the daughters of Lot it is possible then to argue that “the ends justify the means” in which case their seemingly immoral action becomes morally justified given their pure intention.
The argument that the ends justify the means is problematic from a moral point of view, and there are those who understand the repetition of the word justice in the Biblical verse “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16, 20) to mean that both the means and the ends must be just. However, it is clear that in the Jewish tradition there are exceptional cases in which rely upon the principle that the ends justify the means. For example, in the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) there is debate whether it is permissible or forbidden to lie for the sake of peace – and, strikingly, the debate is not whether it is permissible or forbidden to lie for the sake of peace but whether it is permissible or obligatory. Both opinions assume the principle the ends justify the means in that the means of lying is either permissible or obligatory for the sake of the greater goal of peace. There are cases that we can imagine in which we all will agree that the ends justify the means such as when a potential murderer is pursuing a potential victim and we have seen where the victim is hiding, and the potential murderer asks us where the potential victim went – I think we will all agree that it is at least permissible if not obligatory to lie and not reveal where the potential victim went.
In distinction to the story of the daughters of Lot, the behavior of Tamar cannot be so justified by the argument that the ends justify the means. Tamar did not face a conflict of values, like the daughters of Lot; rather, she felt that Judah had been unfair to her and had lied to her when he did not give her his youngest son in marriage. Even if her complaint against Judah is justified (and in my eyes it is justified); nevertheless, this does not justify that Tamar deceived Judah in disguising herself as a prostitute in order to have child by him. There was no necessary reason that Tamar needed to have children (as in the case of the daughters of Lot). Therefore, the motivation and intentions of Tamar were not pure (like the daughters of Lot); rather, she was motivated by personal interest in wanting a child and she was caught in a situation together with Judah in which each deceived the other. Judah was aware that the situation was one of mutual deception when he acknowledged his own wrongdoing – “she is more righteous than me” (Genesis 38, 26). Judah does not proclaim Tamar righteous in an absolute sense as she had also deceived him, but he acknowledges that she was in a relative sense more righteous than him – and, thus, there is no basis (as in the case of the daughters of Lot) to morally justify the behavior of Tamar.
If so, what is the message of the story of Judah and Tamar? In the case of the story of the daughters of Lot, the message, in my view, is that there are such exceptional situations in life when we commit wrongdoing, and yet our action is morally justifiable – and the Bible gives its approval of such behavior of the daughters of Lot by suggesting that the messiah is to come from the story. In the case of the story of Judah and Tamar, the message, in my view, is that there are such situations in life when we commit wrongdoing, and even though our wrongdoing cannot be morally justified at all, the result of our wrongdoing nevertheless is ultimately good – and the Bible is teaching in the story of Judah and Tamar that the messiah may come from such a situation.
In my view, the function of the story of Judah and Tamar in the middle of the story of Joseph is to help prevent our misunderstanding the message of the story of Joseph. Without the story of Judah and Tamar we might mistakenly conclude that the immoral behavior of the brothers in throwing Joseph into the pit is morally justified in being part of a larger Divine plan in which the result ultimately turned out good. The story of Judah and Tamar is placed in the middle of the story of Joseph immediately following the throwing of Joseph into the pit by his brothers to teach us that just as the behavior of Judah and Tamar is morally unjustifiable even though the result ultimately turned out good with the birth of Peretz and the coming of the messiah – so, too, the behavior of the brothers in throwing Joseph into the pit is morally unjustifiable even though the result ultimately turned out good in that Joseph ended up viceroy to Pharaoh and was then able to save his family and all of Egypt from famine.
The story of Joseph (as well as the story of Judah and Tamar) is teaching that our subjective human perception and viewpoints are limited, and that what we may perceive as bad may ultimately turn out to be good – and from a religious point of view what we perceive as bad is a necessary part of the larger Divine plan without justifying immoral actions that are a part of the larger Divine plan. The story of Judah and Tamar placed in the middle of the story of Joseph is an answer to the question of Abravanel (the commentator of the 15th century) on the verse (Genesis 45, 8) in which Joseph tells his brothers “And now it was not you who sent me here but God”:
How can Joseph say “And now it was not you who sent me here but God”? Is it not that they (his brothers) with intention sold him in order to do him harm? And, if by chance good came out of the selling, their sin still stands in its place, and a person is judged not by what necessarily follows from one’s actions by chance but by what necessarily follows in its essence and by intention – as what happens by chance doesn’t make a difference (from a moral point of view).
Abravanel assumes here, mistakenly in my eyes, that Joseph intends to morally justify the behavior of his brothers in throwing him into the pit from which he was sold into slavery in Egypt. Even though Joseph is compassionate toward his brothers and encourages them to see the larger Divine plan, nevertheless he does point out to them that they sold him into slavery – “I am Joseph your brother who you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45, 4). Even more significantly, Joseph also points out that their intention was evil – “you thought evil against me” (Genesis 50, 20). Joseph is concerned in the main not with their behavior but with their feelings – “And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves that you sold me here for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45, 5).
Also, after the death of Jacob when his brothers are afraid that Joseph will seek revenge against them, Joseph attempts to comfort them from a psychological point of view regarding their fear – “don’t be afraid; for am I in the place of God?”(Genesis 50, 19). The Bible tells us that he spoke to their heart – “And now don’t be afraid…and he comforted them and spoke to their heart” (Genesis 50, 21). In my view, Joseph encourages his brothers to see their behavior as part of a larger Divine plan not in order to justify their immoral behavior (as Abravanel mistakenly assumes) but in order to comfort them from a psychological point of view so that his brothers can be forgiving of themselves even though their behavior was immoral.