Agents of God’s blessing are selflessly concerned about others and humbly aware of their own fallibility.
In Genesis 34, Simeon and Levi, because of their impetuosity and bloodthirstiness had disqualified themselves from leadership; in Genesis 35, Reuben—the mandrakes and incest guy—also had been disentitled. The next in line was Judah. And in Gen 37, it appeared that Judah’s brothers had begun to follow his lead over Reuben’s. It appears that in Gen 38 Judah does everything to keep himself out of the reckoning. He is characterized in Genesis 38 by indiscretion and callousness: he leaves his family to marry a Canaanite (38:1–2), breaks a promise and violates the levirate law while blaming an innocent Tamar and returning her callously to her father’s house with a promise he does intend to keep (38:3–11), he consorts with a “harlot” (Tamar in disguise; 38:12–23), sires children incestuously (38:24; an act punishable by death in the Mosaic Law), but is quick to condemn Tamar as a harlot and sentence her to death. Finally, Judah, bested by this enterprising lady (who shows up in the line of Jesus, Matthew 1:3!), confesses to being less than righteous (38:24–30).
But there is more here: as the future leader, both in the continuing saga of Joseph, and among the tribes later on, the text must clarify how the rather unscrupulous and unsavory Judah in Genesis 37 and in most of Genesis 38 would qualify for leadership. Whence this transformation? One does not have to dig too far to see that Genesis 38 is the turning point in the positive evolution of Judah’s character.
Ironically, it is a Canaanite woman, Tamar, who, at great loss and cost to herself, has to educate Judah about marriage and about what it means to be a father, a brother, a husband. Only one with selfless concern for others can be an effective agent of divine blessing to to others. Impressively, only two people in Genesis are labeled “righteous”—Abraham (15:16 and, perhaps, 18:19) and Tamar (38:26)!
Curiously enough, Tamar’s coup de grâce is accomplished with an exhortation not that Judah recognize the paraphernalia he had given her as his, but that he recognize the person to whom those things belong (38:25). In essence, she was asking Judah to recognize himself, thus bringing him face to face not only with his sin and his deplorable treatment of her, but also—and perhaps essentially—with his own identity and responsibility, including his egregious disposal of Joseph and the equally heartless grieving of Jacob (in Gen 37).
Upon being confronted by the incontrovertible proof of his own guilt, Judah declares that Tamar is more “righteous” than he (38:26). Later Judah would use the same root in his confession before Joseph, on behalf of his siblings (44:16): “And how can we justify [make righteous] ourselves?” No doubt, the events in Gen 38 led to Judah’s realization that all was not “right” with himself.
Incidentally, Judah is the first person in the Bible to acknowledge his own sin. Henceforth, he will be portrayed only positively in the remainder of Genesis—the leader of his brothers, the instrument of reconciliation, the exemplar of selfless concern for others, the embodiment of humility: in short, he has become an agent of divine blessing to others. We have a transformed Judah, unselfish, self-sacrificing, deeply concerned for sibling and parent (43:8–9; 44:18–34). Towards the end of the narrative of Genesis 37–50, Judah, in light of his changed life and leadership capabilities, receives Jacob’s blessing that situates him as ruler over his brothers (49:8–12), apparently even over Joseph. Judah becomes, finally, an agent of divine blessing to others, like his sibling Joseph.