It is often noted that the four women mentioned in Saint Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus are all in some way disreputable. The four are Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and ‘Uriah’s wife’ (unnamed otherwise by Matthew in 1:6, but Bathsheba of course). The only four women mentioned in the line of Judah and Jesus, prior to Mary, include one prostitute (Rahab), one Gentile woman who dressed up as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law (Tamar), a Gentile (Ruth), and an adulteress (Bathsheba).
While the fact of all four being in various ways ‘off’ is often noted, it is less often explained. Perhaps the fact is meant to suggest, to the reader (or even to Saint Joseph!), that the unexpected conception of Jesus is simply part of a well-established pattern.
In the case of Tamar and Ruth, there is, in addition to the mention of Tamar in Ruth 4:12, an inner connection between their stories in the way those stories assume and use, but also ignore and essentially discard, the Levirate law. In the case of Tamar in Genesis 38, the Levirate law requires that a male relative of a man who dies without issue, as does Tamar’s husband, Er, provide the widow a son to carry on the name and to inherit the property of the deceased. In fact, in the end Judah himself will be tricked into impregnating his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and the twins that she bears him seem to displace entirely Judah’s two older sons, Er and Onan, as if their generation were simply skipped over. Er and Onan have a surviving full brother, Shelah (Genesis 38:11; I Chronicles 2:3-6), but he also seems entirely displaced by Tamar’s twins. Under the Levirate law, Judah is merely the twins’ grandfather. In Genesis and the rest of the Bible, however, Judah, the twins’ biological father, is also treated as their legal father.
Likewise, the narrative engine in Ruth seems to be the Levirate law, by which a surviving male relative of Ruth’s late husband is to raise up a son to carry on the dead husband’s name. But it is not until well into the book, 4:10, that the reader learns whether Ruth’s late husband was Mahlon or Chilion, which does not suggest that the purpose of the Levirate law is very important in fact. Moreover, the son conceived by Ruth and Boaz, Obed, is never referred to other than as Boaz’s son. The Levirate law, in the cases both of Tamar and Ruth, seems central to the story, but in the end is entirely passed over. A student of Saint Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament law will not be surprised that this turn of events is already embedded in and foreshadowed by central Old Testament narratives.
Orthodox Christians, we might say, find that the Tamar and Ruth stories illustrate central facts about the relation between law and gospel. Likewise, I think orthodox Christians will tend to avoid the deficiencies that tend to crop up in historical-critical readings of these narratives.
One such deficiency concerns the importance of the story of Tamar. The story of Tamar may seem superficially to divert attention from the story of Joseph and his brothers in which Genesis 38 is embedded. In fact, most historical-critical scholars treat chapter 38 as just such an interruption (so Richard Clifford & Roland Murphy, ‘Genesis’ in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990, p. 38). One notable scholar goes so far as to assert that
Every attentive reader can see that the story of Judah and Tamar has no connection at all with the strictly organized Joseph story at whose beginning it is now inserted. (Genesis: A Commentary, Gerhard von Rad, revised edition, 1972, p. 356)
By way of arguing that the chapter is an interruption some note that in the later chapters of Genesis there is no sense of Judah’s separation from the rest of his clan as appears in chapter 38.
This misreading of Genesis 38 is breathtakingly wrong. Few themes so clearly permeate Genesis as those of sibling rivalry and of reversals of fortune among siblings from generation to generation. Concern with the relative places of Jacob’s sons, particularly of Judah, of his three older brothers (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi), and of his two youngest brothers (Joseph and Benjamin) runs throughout the book from Genesis 29 onward. Genesis 38 is central to the question of which descendant or descendants of Jacob will end up ‘on top’ in the reversing fortunes among the rival sons and grandsons of Jacob. That is, Genesis 38 fits squarely in Genesis’s interest in sibling rivalries and the relations of older and younger siblings.
If that theme is central to the whole of Genesis, to the whole of the Old Testament, and ultimately to the whole of the Bible, another important theme weaves Genesis 38 into Genesis on a finer and more intimate narrative level. That theme is the use of clothing to deceive elders and relatives. The idea that chapter 38 is an extraneous interruption into a smooth narrative development is absurd. On the contrary, chapter 38 is part of an artful pattern that weaves together tightly all of the Jacob stories in Genesis.
The pattern concerning clothing begins in Genesis 27:5-17, where Rebekah plots with her favored son, Jacob, to deceive Isaac, her husband and his father. In this scene the son will deceive the father by the tricky use of clothing, namely by dressing up in Esau’s garments. We might also note, since this too will be an element in the Judah/Jacob and Tamar/Judah stories, that kids appear in the story. In Genesis 27 Jacob and Rebekah are successful in their deception of Isaac.
It seems, however, that there is a price to pay for success as a deceiver: the deceiver will be deceived. In chapter 37, the successful trickster, Jacob, is himself tricked and deceived by his sons, who also use clothing to perpetrate their deception. The point of the deception, of course, is to persuade Jacob that Joseph is dead. To achieve this end, the other sons, led by Judah, dip Joseph’s robe in a kid’s blood (37:31f.). The Hebrew terms for Joseph’s robe and for Esau’s garments in 27:15 are different, but the deception by use of clothing and a kid is parallel. Jacob in chapter 37 is like Isaac: a father deceived with a son’s clothes by another son or other sons.
Likewise, in the case of Judah and Tamar, the previously successful trickster, a father and patriarch, is successfully tricked in turn by a member of the next generation, though in this case by a Gentile daughter-in-law, rather than by a son. Otherwise important parallels hold: Tamar deceives by use of clothing, namely by disguising herself in the garb of a prostitute (38:14), and a kid appears in the story (vv. 14, 20, 23).
While the tricking of Judah by Tamar ends the clear cases of elders deceived by clothing, the failure of Joseph’s deceptive brothers to recognize him in Egypt when they meet him in chapter 42 does involve clothing, it seems. Joseph not only speaks to his brothers with an interpreter (42:23), but he also had already ‘shaved himself and changed his raiment’ when he was first presented to Pharaoh (41:14). Deceivers are, perhaps, easy to deceive themselves, and in any case many years have passed since Joseph and his brothers were parted.
In the first edition of the Jerome commentary (1968), Eugene H. Maly generally follows the historical-critical line that Genesis 38 is an interruption in the narrative flow of the Joseph story, but he admits that the chapter does
…agree with the psychological context; Joseph’s temptation by the Egyptian woman (ch. 39) provides a parallel to Judah’s temptation. Moreover, the disappearance of Joseph focuses the interest on Judah, who will become the principal object of the divine blessing because of the older sons’ failure to merit it (cf. 49:3-7). The rest of salvation history, therefore, will center on the tribes of Joseph and Judah. It is this more universal historical outlook that prompted the author to place the narrative here. []
Maly here anticipates later and better studies of Genesis (as well as older and better ones), which are more interested in broad narrative themes than in chopping of the text into supposed sources and forms. Maly notes the Bible’s shift in emphasis to Judah and Joseph – though we might better say to Judah, Joseph, and Benjamin. In fact, the line of Joseph will form a patriarchal dead-end eventually, while Genesis 38 outlines an early stage in the main line of promise which survives the decline of the heirs of Rachel. If Genesis is about God’s education of Abraham and his descendants, then chapter 38 is about the education of Judah, the ancestor of David. The story of Judah and Tamar is closely integrated into the whole of the stories of Genesis, Joseph, and the Old Testament. In fact, as Leon Kass writes, ‘both the story and its position in the unfolding drama make perfect sense.’ []
 In The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. ‘Genesis’, pages 7-46. Page 39. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as ‘Maly’ with page number.
 The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago, 2003. Page 526.