This is an interpretation that came to me a couple years ago when I was reading this particular Torah portion with my husband. I told it to him at the time, and a couple other people afterwards. They all thought it was extremely interesting, but I’ve never told anyone else. And when I mentioned to D that I was going to make it the subject of this blog post, his response was, “Are you sure? You’ll really be putting yourself out there if you do.”
Which doesn’t do a lot for my confidence ( :p ), but yes. … I’m sure. Typically I read an entire Torah portion through before deciding what to write about, and I don’t have much trouble choosing an angle/topic most of the time because one thing in particular will stand out. And for this one, this is it.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Our portion is Vayeishev (Gen 37-40), meaning “and he dwelt.” And it introduces us to the most blatantly Messianic figure in Genesis – Joseph.
So many things about Joseph’s life foreshadow Christ. He was conceived by divine intervention; was the beloved of his father; was envied, betrayed and sold into the hands of Gentiles by his own brethren; was believed to be dead when he was actually alive; attained to great power and influence in the Gentile world, but was unknown/unrecognised by his own when they saw him; conducted himself impeccably, wisely and faithfully in all matters he put his hand to, and saved many lives; tested/sifted his brothers to know what was in their hearts, and wept over them; and finally, he was reconciled to them when they confessed their sin and acted with repentance before him.
Consequently I was surprised to hear many people giving Joseph flak over the years for how he behaved as a teen. … Literally without exception, I’ve heard him being labelled as an arrogant young tattle-tale who was basically asking for it, and needed (or deserved) to go through the humbling that he got in Egypt, because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep his mouth shut – bringing a bad report of his brothers to his father, and asking them to hear out his dreams in which they paid homage to him.
I mean, I suppose one could say that these things point toward him being full of himself, and a snitch. … Or at least tactless. But then one could say the same of Jesus. He did many things that could be (and were) construed the same way: He called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, His brethren, and enraged them; He forgave people’s sins and spoke of Himself in grandiose terms sometimes; He was a stumbling stone and rock of offence, just as Joseph was to his brothers. … But what they had in common in this respect, was the fact they actually spoke the truth, both about themselves and the people around them – and this was what made others angry.
So for better or worse, I’m not inclined to vilify adolescent Joseph as I’ve seen some preachers do. … Instead, I tend to see him as an extremely honest personality with a penchant for telling the truth – sometimes bluntly, but usually out of the innocence of his heart. Or at least, that’s my opinion.
But anyway, the extreme closeness with which Joseph’s story parallels the Messiah’s is what led me to interpret the account of Judah and Tamar the way that I have. … You see, for quite a long time, the placement of Genesis 38 puzzled me. The chapters of Genesis 37 and 39 onwards are about Joseph’s life and experiences; so why would Scripture suddenly interrupt its chronicle with a completely unrelated, rather disturbing, and seemingly irrelevant story? … So many things must’ve happened with Joseph’s brothers after they sold him into slavery; why did the Bible record this account of Judah in particular, and at this particular point?
I knew enough about the intentionality of God to believe that this could not be random. All Scripture is inspired by Him, and written under the guidance of His Spirit. But any attempt that I made to penetrate the why and wherefore of this chapter was unsuccessful – until I had a thought: if the Bible from Genesis 37 onwards is about Joseph… could the story of Judah and Tamar somehow be seen as a part of the flow of that narrative?
Then I looked at the chapter again, and had another thought: what happened between Judah and Tamar occurred during Joseph’s absence from his family. So if Joseph is a type for the Messiah… could this story somehow be a prophetic look into what would happen with Jesus’ brethren – Judah, in particular – in His absence?
When I thought that, some things clicked into place. And I preface this by saying that what I’m about to write is my own understanding of one possible, non-literal reading of the story of Judah and Tamar. It doesn’t mean that I’m right, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m wrong. … It’s simply what I think. And people are free to consider its merits, or not, as they wish.
So. The chapter begins by telling us that after Joseph was sold in Egypt, Judah went to live apart from his brothers. He married the daughter of a Canaanite, and had 3 sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. And the Scripture says, very simply, that Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so God killed him. Then Onan was commanded by his father to produce an heir for his brother, but he disobeyed, and was killed as well. Nothing more is said about them, apart from the fact they were both supposed to take the same woman, Tamar, as their wife – and she, in my opinion, is the central character of the story.
Scripture holds no record as to Tamar’s origin. In stark contrast to Judah’s own wife, whose father (Shua) and nationality (Canaanite) are both given in the word, we know nothing about Tamar’s family, tribe or nation. … In this sense, she’s like Melchizedek, whom Hebrews 7:3 describes as being “without father, without mother, without genealogy.” The silence of this omission, in my opinion, speaks volumes about the significance of Tamar as a spiritual type, and she has a tantalisingly meaningful name to support that theory – a name full of Biblical symbolism and identification.
In Hebrew, Tamar (תָּמָר) means date palm, or palm tree, and can also denote uprightness, which is a quality characteristic of the palm. In Psalm 92:12, the righteous are likened to it, and from ancient times, it’s been a symbol of peace, fruitfulness, triumph, and eternal life in the Middle East. The date palm was also a recognised symbol of the kingdom of Judea – so much so, in fact, that when the Romans captured Judea and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian celebrated the conquest by minting the Judaea Capta, a special bronze coin that depicted the Jewish state as a weeping woman beneath a date palm.
So, d’you see the picture that’s emerging? If Joseph is a type of the Messiah and Judah represents the Jewish people, who is Tamar? … Well, in my opinion, I think she personifies the church – or more specifically, the remnant of Israel, the body of true believers in Yeshua since the time of His first coming. … I believe the story of Judah and Tamar is basically a picture of the relationship between non-believing Jews and Yeshua’s disciples, both at the time of Christ and during the end days.
Tamar was supposed to be married to the firstborn of the family of Judah, and I believe that this is symbolic of what was supposed to happen when the Messiah first established His church. If the cream of Judea’s religious and political leadership had known the time of their visitation (and welcomed it), Messiah’s followers would’ve remained wedded to the Jewish nation, so to speak, and produced the holy offspring of spiritual revival (or “times of refreshing”, as Peter put it). … However, Judah had mingled with the nations and borne offspring who reflected the spiritual and cultural decay of their time – children who were half-Canaanite, as it were – and they did wickedly as a whole, rejecting Messiah and incurring the judgement of God which came in the form of the Roman invasion, which crushed them in 70 AD.
After the death of Er, Onan was obligated to take Tamar by levirate marriage and raise up an heir for his brother. However, he didn’t like the fact that the child would not be his, so he withheld his seed from Tamar. And this, in my opinion, is a parallel to the way the Jewish nation continued to remain hard-hearted toward the followers of Yeshua even after their exile and captivity. They knew that any acceptance of Christians in their midst would give credence to the claim that Yeshua was Israel’s Messiah, and while this would’ve constituted true glory for Judah since it’d be an acknowledgement of their right and promised King, many of the religious heads also knew that their own leadership would be challenged and subject to change. So for centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem, they continued to reject and persecute Jewish believers, thereby perpetuating the error committed by the leaders of Yeshua’s day. And when Christianity was Romanised and elevated to imperial power, a long and bloody persecution of the Jews began that lasted well over a millennia.
Now interestingly, after the judgement of the first two sons, Judah tells Tamar to go and stay in her father’s house and remain a widow, awaiting the time when his third son, Shelah, would grow up so she could marry him. And a long, empty period ensued where Tamar had no contact whatsoever with the family into which she was supposed to be married. And this, in turn, is similar to the way believers of Jesus have been separated from the Jewish stock of their faith for a very long time, even up to the present day, with Judah steadfastly refusing to bring a woman whom he believes is a curse back into his household.
Now in saying all this, am I denying that the Jewish people have suffered terribly at the hands of those who’ve professed Christianity for at least the last thousand years? No. Heaven forbid. Scores of books have been written about the subject, documenting the murderous anti-Semitism that’s infected the body of Christ and caused much stumbling, bloodshed and horrific suffering to the Jewish people over the centuries (a good book to read on this is Our Hands Are Stained with Blood by Dr. Michael Brown). … But it is also a truth that Scripture often focuses on what it wants to say to the exclusion of other accompanying realities because there’s a point it’s trying to make – one example being Zechariah 12:10-14, which prophesies that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will one day mourn over the revelation of their rejected Messiah, with no mention of the fact that many of them would’ve been stumbled by historical experience and traditional teaching so that they were, through no direct fault of their own, blinded to Him.
… Likewise, I think the story of Judah and Tamar reflects a specific aspect of the relationship which Christians have had, and will have, with the nation of Judah, because it has a prophetic message that it’s trying to deliver. And the relevance of this message is becoming increasingly apparent, in my opinion, with the rise of the Messianic movement over the last few decades, and the way that a good number of Messianic Jews and missionaries are being treated, right now, in Israel.
You see, the Messianic movement is really a movement on the part of both Jewish and Gentile Christians to reconnect with the Hebrew aspects of their faith. It’s Tamar wanting to be married to the family of Judah for the third and final time, after her first two aborted attempts. … Even the names of Judah’s sons in Genesis 38, in my opinion, are telling in this regard.
In Hebrew, Er (עֵר) means protector; awake, watchful, watcher, guardian – it’s a strong name, and aptly describes the generation of the Pharisees that were looking for the Messiah and simultaneously trying to safeguard their nation’s interests and keep it from being destroyed by Rome (though unfortunately, because of their hard hearts, they achieved the exact opposite result). Onan (אוֹנָן), on the other hand, is more ambiguous… some say it means strength or vigour, but the great Sephardic rabbi Nahmanides (Ramban) wrote that it carries the connotation of complaining and sorrow, which is also an apt description of the state of the Jewish people after their second exile in 70 AD. And the name of Judah’s third son, Shelah (שֵׁלָה) has a disputed root, but some say it means request, plea, entreaty or prayer – which is what Scripture says the Jews in the last day will be doing when they plead for God’s salvation, and for the coming of the Messiah, when Jerusalem comes under attack once again. … This is the generation, in my opinion, whose maturation Tamar has been waiting for.
And incidentally, the story of Judah’s 3 sons also reminds me of Zechariah 13:8-9, which says of the people of Judah and Jerusalem in the last day,
“And it shall come to pass in all the land,”
Says the Lord,
“That two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die,
But one–third shall be left in it:
I will bring the one–third through the fire,
Will refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.”
… Is this last third which will remain in the land the generation of Shelah, who’ll be refined and tested, but survive, unlike the other two thirds of his brethren? It’s striking to me that the 144,000 sealed of Israel in Revelation 14 are described as virgins, having known no women, because we know from Genesis 38 that Judah kept Shelah from marrying (he was afraid that if he gave Shelah to Tamar, he would die like his brothers; and if he tried to arrange a marriage for him with another woman, Tamar would’ve protested and claimed her right to be Shelah’s levirate wife, which he refused to let happen).
But admittedly, this is just a passing thought, the veracity of which I don’t have the capacity at present to check; so I’ll leave it there for now.
Getting back to the story, we see after a long time that Judah went to Timnah to oversee his sheep shearers, and Tamar took the chance to disguise herself as a prostitute on the way so she could conceive by her father-in-law. And when her pregnancy began to show, it was reported to Judah and he commanded that she be brought out and burned. And when I read this part of the story, I can’t help thinking of the various news articles that’re being published about the way Messianic believers are being treated in Israel right now. Here’re some examples:
Bomb raises fear of Jews persecuting Jews
Messianic Jews Singled Out in Israeli Town
Ongoing Persecution of Messianic Jews
Israel Orders Deportation of Jews for Jesus Missionary
Yeshua Campaign Causes Buzz in Southern Israel
It’s a known fact that many Messianic Jews (though not all) believe in remaining attached to their Jewish roots. These believers, who rightfully belong to the house of Judah, are being put through the fire of persecution by other members of the same house because they’re considered idolaters for worshipping Yeshua (and we know that idolatrous Jews are called harlots in Scripture, which is precisely what Tamar disguised herself as; and harlotry is what she was accused of when her pregnancy became visible) – not only that, any fruit that these believers are bearing is considered spiritually illegitimate.
Because of this, there’s also a growing number of closeted believers within the ranks of traditional Jewry who believe in Yeshua but choose not to publicly declare it, opting to remain in their Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. And there’re Jewish (and even Gentile) believers who ostensibly convert to Judaism, but secretly retain their faith in the Messiah so they can live in non-believing Jewish communities. … In short, we’re seeing a burst in numbers right now of Yeshua followers who’re visibly pregnant with a faith that’s distinctly Jewish (and coming under fire for it), as well as those who’re willing to unite themselves to Judah by deception because they so desperately want to be part of the Jewish nation. … In my opinion, they are all Tamar.
But here’s where things get really interesting. To protect herself, Tamar persuaded Judah to leave, as a pledge, his signet, staff, and an object called פְּתִילִים (pethilim) with her while he fetched payment for their time together. It’s unclear what that last item is exactly; the word is typically translated string, cord, thread or cover in Hebrew, whereas the Septuagint renders it as a small necklace or pendant, and Targum Onkelos translates it as cloak or scarf/kerchief. But whatever it is, we can deduce that it was a personal item worn by Judah, and collectively, these articles symbolised his authority, identity and power. And I believe that this part of the story pertains to the future.
… I think there will come a time when things will come to a head for Tamar – when she will be called to give an account for herself and face an ultimate judging of who and what she is before the people of Israel. And I believe that when that moment arrives, she will produce signs of authority, identity and power that Judah cannot mistake – signs which he will recognise are not alien to the faith of Israel, but native – signs which will cause him to look at Tamar with new eyes, recognise her true nature, and confess with his own mouth: “She has been more righteous than I.” … And this is just my own speculation, but perhaps this revelation is the catalyst that will cause the people of Jerusalem to say, “בָּרוּךְ הַבָּא, בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה” (blessed is He who comes in the name of YHWH). Though, again, I emphasise that this is just my own speculation – only time will tell how things actually unfold.
But in her union with Judah, Scripture records one last thing: Tamar produced twin offspring who were named Perez and Zerah (פֶּרֶץ and זֶרַח), which respectively mean “breakthrough” and “brightness” or “shining”. And I believe that this conclusion is prophetic of what will happen when Tamar’s pregnancy does come to full term – whatever happens, the end result will be the twin fruits of victory and glory: in other words, total vindication for those who’re of the faith of Yeshua.
… Neat, right?
Now as I said, this is just my own reading of the story. I think you can see why those who’ve heard it consider it interesting, but I want to stress again that because this is not something which can be plainly and directly understood from Scripture, I will not say that it’s absolutely correct, or flawless an interpretation (though I won’t readily concede, on the other hand, that it’s wrong either). I’m just writing it down here for others to read, and they’re free to think about it as they wish.
I was also supposed to do the next portion, Miqeitz (Genesis 41-44:17) this week, so I’m going to post something on that next, but it won’t be very long given the limited time I’ve had for blogging in the last fortnight or so. But I think this post provides sufficient food for thought as it is, and things should be back to normal by next weekend.
Shalom all, and thanks for reading~