Chapter 38 of Genesis/Breishit — the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar — is sometimes ignored in the story of Joseph or considered an interruption that, at best, heightens the tension of the “main” story line. But there are important parallels thematically:
The other function of this story seems to be to carry out the major theme of Genesis as we have presented it: continuity and discontinuity between the generations. What is at stake here is not merely the line of one of the brothers, but the line which (as the biblical audience must have been fully aware) will lead to royalty — King David was a descendant of Peretz of v.29. This should not be surprising in a book of origins…
The narrator has woven Chaps. 38 and 37 together with great skill. Again a man is asked to “recognize” objects, again the use of a kid, and again a brother (this time a dead one) is betrayed.
Compare verses 38:24-26 — in which Tamar sends Judah’s pledge to him and asks him to “recognize, please” [ha-ker na] the items — with the brothers asking Jacob to “recognize, please” [ha-ker na] Joseph’s torn and bloodied tunic. (37:31-34).
Also consider links of this story with others relating to ancestors of King David and the messianic line — see, particularly, Lot’s daughters (Genesis/Breishit 19:30-37) and the Book of Ruth.
It is interesting to explore the role of women in these stories. One resource for the Tamar story is “The Harlot as Heroine” by Phyllis Bird in Women in the Hebrew Bible.* This same volume, edited by Alice Bach, offers other essays on women and sexual politics in the bible, including several on the Book of Ruth. (See also notes here on Va-yera and Balak.)
* Please see Source Materials for full citations and more notes.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.