Not everything we encounter in the Bible is pleasant. Some of it is difficult to understand. Some of it seems even repulsive. Some of it doesn’t appear fitting for Scripture. This business with Judah and Tamar is one of those we might prefer were never written down. Not only is this subject matter disturbing, but what is the value of recording this? What is the meaning or the purpose behind this story? What is really happening here is a matter of cultural responsibility and ethic. Lineage was very important. Carrying on the family line was a top priority. It was important that men had children to carry on their name and their land. Ensuring the provision and posterity of widows, as well, was important and of societal concern. When a man died without children, he left no one to protect his property and no assurance for the care of his widow. It fell to the next closest kin to carry out this responsibility (the “goel”) in the name of the deceased. (This is also the backdrop of the story of Ruth.) In Tamar’s case, Er was apparently an evil person whom God struck dead. His next brother had the responsibility of providing Er an heir, but he selfishly and deceitfully refused this. God took him as well. Judah promised his youngest to Tamar to provide an heir for Er, but never intended to follow through on this. So, she took matters into her own hands and brought a son for Er. This is why Judah says she was more righteous than he.
Joseph proves the very opposite of his elder brother. He is noble, honest, and righteous even in the worse of circumstances. And he is chosen and favored by God to be the one through whom he continues his promise to Abraham and his plan for the world. In captivity in Egypt, God blesses Joseph, bringing him to a powerful house, giving him a powerful position, making him successful in all he does. Joseph remains faithful to God and maintains great integrity – even when he is accused of assaulting Potiphar’s wife, even while he sits in prison. Unlike Job, Joseph never complains about his unfair circumstances. He never cries foul against God. He never pretends to be blameless and unworthy of any trial. Joseph accepts the hand he is dealt with grace and humility and faithfully carries out his position with integrity. He honors God in every way he can.