Genesis 38 interrupts the climax of the Joseph narrative with another tale: Judah and Tamar. Switching protagonists is surprising enough, but the tale itself shocks us. We’re hardly given time to process the strange cultural practices of the ancient Near East, prostitution, deception, and the sudden death of those who displease God before we’re returned to Joseph’s struggles in Egypt.
The story is additionally confusing because it seems to lack a hero. Judah uses Tamar, as his two sons did—though he at least acknowledges his actions. Tamar uses her wits and risks her life to secure a future for herself, but she does so through deplorable means.
Attempts have been made to justify the characters and put it all in perspective, but there is no neat packaging. The characters in this story face dire circumstances and a unique cultural context—one that is nearly impossible for modern readers to understand. But we don’t need a lesson in ancient Near Eastern cultural studies to see that they are fallible, and that they exploit others for their own ends. And we don’t need a history lesson to be able to identify with them. An honest look at ourselves reveals our own sins—subtly deplorable, and respectably wrapped.
So, why is this story in the Bible? Why this tale of woe? Surprisingly, there is a hero. As we read, we see that God also uses people for redemption, not exploitation. Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, is one in a long list of names that will lead to the birth of Christ. Through unlikely characters like Judah and Tamar, God prepared a way out of the sin that defined us.
Just like these characters, we are unlikely recipients of His favor.