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I was listening to Genesis 37-38 the other day and there was a striking verbal parallel between the narrative in which Joseph's brothers sell him and deceive their father Jacob and the narrative in which Tamar deceives Judah into sort of fulfilling his obligations to her.

Genesis 37:31-33 (ESV)

Then they took Joseph's robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, "This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not." And he identified it and said, "It is my son's robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces."

Genesis 38:25-26 (ESV)

As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, "By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant." And she said, "Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff." Then Judah identified them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah."

What is the purpose of this connection? It seems unlikely that the parallel is being drawn between Joseph's brothers and Tamar as the presenter of these items. Is the parallel between Joseph and Judah, whose items are being identified? If so, what are we to understand by this connection?

Or perhaps is the connection between Judah and Jacob who are identifying them and were both in some way deceived? (Though, Jacob is deceived through his act of identification, while Judah is made undeceived through his.) What would the author be indicating in this case?

  • Disclaimer: This is a comment not an answer. You don’t think it’s just emphasizing a reoccurring theme, Abraham deceives Pharoah and Abimelech, Ismael (born of an Egyptian) taunts Isaac; Isaac deceived Abimelech, Rebecca deceives Isaac; Jacob deceived his father and Esau, Laban deceived Jacob; Judah deceived his father, Tamar deceived Judah? Finally ends with the deceived Joseph coming clean and forgiving those who deceived him. – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 24 at 3:29
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The Jewish sages have also recognized this literary connection, and have explained that it serves to highlight the "Measure for Measure" punishment that has been exacted on Judah for selling his brother Joseph. "Measure for Measure" is in fact a very common motif across the bible (the clearest example of it is in Exodus 4:22-23, cited below).

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן' אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לִיהוּדָה' אַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ (בראשית לז, לב): הַכֶּר נָא, חַיֶּיךָ שֶׁתָּמָר אוֹמֶרֶת לְךָ (בראשית לח, כה): הַכֶּר נָא. (בראשית לז, לג)

R' Johanan said, "The Lord said to Judah, 'You said, 'Please identify [it]', I swear to you (lit. 'by your life') that Tamar will say back to you, 'Please identify [it]'." (Genesis Rabbah, 84:19)

According to R' Johanan, the purpose of employing similar verbs in the Tamar narrative as in the enslavement-of-Joseph narrative is to bring to the reader's mind the same verbs Jacob's sons used to let their father know that his son Joseph was dead, in hope that the reader will recognize this connection and see the "Measure for Measure" that is exacted on the offender (as the same words הכר נא are being used) and learn from this that no sin escapes the divine judgement; and that every sin, no matter how small, will eventually come back to bite the sinner in his face.

Judah as Joseph's guardian

The reason why Judah is singled out for this, still remains unclear. Perhaps he was considered most accountable and responsible for Joseph's welfare, and for that reason the most blameworthy of all. Support for this understanding comes from Gen. 43:9; 44:16. Judah takes it upon himself to guard Benjamin and even makes himself surety for Benjamin. And again later, Judah features as the spokesman for Benjamin. Perhaps, for this reason (that he was considered the family's guardian), Judah was considered most responsible for Joseph's enslavement as well.

Evidence for this can be found in the narrative of Joseph's enslavement itself; for the only two brothers who advocate for Joseph are, Judah and Reuben. Reuben was obviously advocating for his little brother as he was the firstborn and it was his duty to watch over them all, but Judah's response comes as a surprise. But if we accept that Judah was considered the second-in-command guardian then it makes more sense. This also explains why in the mind of the biblical authors Judah's failure to save Joseph would've justified a "Measure for Measure" punishment, as is manifest in the Tamar narrative.


"Then tell Pharaoh that this is what the LORD says: ‘Israel is My firstborn son, 23and I told you to let My son go so that he may worship Me. But you have refused to let him go, so I will kill your firstborn son!’” Exodus 4:22-23

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