Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Vayeshev

Torah:Genesis.37:1-40:23.Haftarah:Amos 2:6-3:8

‘Be sure your sin will find you out…’

When I was in junior school, I had a pretty unblemished record (due, I have to admit, to the fact that my crimes and misdemeanours remained undiscovered) and I was promoted to the high office of ‘monitor’. A badge announced my position to all and sundry, and I was proud of my new role. Pride, according to the Book of Proverbs, comes before destruction and that certainly happened in my case.

Following a sports’ day, we were instructed not to go home through the park even though, for me at least, going through the park was the shortest way home, so that’s the way I went. I was seen, and the next morning the headmaster stripped me of my monitor’s badge. After some weeks of good behaviour I looked like a reformed character so I was reinstated to my former position only to have it taken away a few weeks later after I made a rude gesture to a teacher.

I learned the hard way that with power and position comes responsibility. ‘To whom much is given, much is required’. After two strikes I was out, and I was never restored to the post of monitor.

‘You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth,’ says God to the prophet Amos, ‘that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2. Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, 1988). Israel was ‘singled out’ not because of their merits but by the grace of God. Abraham and his ‘seed’ were called to be a blessing to the nations and as the history of this uniquely blessed people unfolds throughout the Bible, we see them being called to account for their iniquities and failures to live up to their high calling.

The Bible is remarkably candid about the failings of some of its leading figures. I don’t know of any other religious book that is so honest In chapter 38, for example, just as the story of Joseph is about to pick up steam, the unedifying account of Judah is inserted with no apparent context. Why does this chapter of shame appear here? Perhaps it is there to draw a contrast between the older brother Judah and Jacob’s youngest son Joseph. Judah leaves his brothers and fails to be the moral beacon Abraham’s descendants were meant to be while Joseph, being sold by his brothers into slavery sets an example of what a true Israelite should be.  

In chapter 38, the patriarch Judah lives among the Canaanites and becomes like them. He becomes the father of two evil sons. Er, of whom we know nothing except that he was wicked, is killed by God. Onan, who refuses to continue his brother’s bloodline, is also struck down. God had chosen the family of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations of the world, so Onan’s refusal to propagate the nation is open rebellion against God and the tikkun olam, the ‘repairing of the world’.

Judah promises to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar when he is of age but he appears to have no intention of doing so; he’s afraid the same thing may happen to Shelah as happened to Er and Onan. Tamar, who is a Canaanite, has not forgotten Judah’s vow and she takes the matter of continuing Judah’s line into her own hands. She poses as a cult prostitute of one of the many Canaanite fertility gods, and when the widowed Judah sees her by the side of the road, he takes advantage of the situation. Fulfilling the obligation to raise up children for his son Er is the last thing on his mind; he doesn’t even know who the woman he is hooking up with is.

Three months later, when the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, in a display of self-righteousness, he demands that his daughter-in-law be put to death only to find out that Tamar is more in the right than he is. When it is time for her to give birth, she bears Judah twins who replace his two dead sons: Perez and Zerah. In a way similar to what happened with Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, the first is last and the younger inherits the place of the firstborn. Zerah should have been the firstborn because his hand was the first to appear but through a breach birth his brother Perez, which means ‘breach’, took his place.

It is difficult to believe in the light of this chapter that, as some rabbis claim, the patriarchs were all Torah observant. In Genesis 38, the patriarch Judah marries the daughter of a Canaanite instead of one of his own relatives, he fails to promulgate his family line and thus obstructs the coming of the Messiah, he not only engages in an illicit union with his own daughter-in-law but also does it as an act of worship to a false god. And yet, in spite of Judah’s moral weakness, his catalogue of sins and his lack of righteousness, God’s work of tikkun olam is not frustrated. God is still at work.  

The Midrash on chapter 38 says, ‘Judah was busy taking a wife, while the Holy One, blessed be He, was creating the light of Messiah: thus, AND IT CAME TO PASS AT THAT TIME, etc.’ The note in the Soncino Talmud says: ‘From the union of Judah and Tamar of which this chapter treats the Messiah was ultimately to spring.’ Midrash Rabbah, LXXXV, Soncino Press, 1977).

God even used Judah’s lust and Tamar’s duplicity to preserve the line from which the Messiah would come. Christians are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus and at this time of the year they read passages from the Tanakh and also from the New Testament. Among the New Testament readings is the first chapter of Matityahu Levi’s account of the life of Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew, which begins: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.

Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar…’

Matthew and the first followers of Jesus, all of whom were Jewish, recognised that God had been at work to the point of using Judah and Tamar without approving their union. Judah was ‘called to account’ for his iniquities, not least for the callous way he sold his kid brother into slavery.

If Jews in the second temple era – a period when according to the Talmud, they were ‘occupying themselves with Torah’ – could recognise Messiah, why can’t Jewish people today? And if they don’t, how will they of all people escape being ‘called to account’ for such iniquity?


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