This week we're in parashat Vayeshev. This Torah portion brings us into one of the richest narratives in Torah: the beginning of the Joseph novella. But just as the Joseph story is getting rolling, we pause for an interlude which contains an entirely different story, the story of Judah and Tamar. Here's a refresher in case you can't remember how this one goes:
Judah (one of the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery) parts ways with his brothers, marries, and has three sons. The first son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar -- but Er dies before a child can be conceived. So Judah does what was apparently commonplace at that moment in time: nudges his son Onan into levirate marriage.
(What's levirate marriage? It's what happens in the Biblical paradigm when one brother dies childless: the other brother is obligated to marry his brother's widow, and if their marriage produces a son, that son is considered the child of the dead brother both legally and spiritually.)
Onan doesn't want to produce a child under these circumstances. Inheritance laws of that era mean that he and his future children would take a major financial hit, and this kid wouldn't even be considered his! So he practices a form of birth control, spilling his seed on the ground. (It's worth noting that in Torah, the sin of onanism isn't masturbation, it's wasting the opportunity to father a child through levirate marriage.) Because of his sin, Onan dies, too. At this point, Judah doesn't want to marry his third son to Tamar, because she's starting to seem to him like a bad-luck charm. And the third son is too young, anyway. So he sends her back to her father's household.
Sometime thereafter, Judah's wife dies, and after he's finished mourning he goes up to a different town to get his sheep sheared. Word reaches Tamar of her father-in-law's plans, so she discards her widow's cloak and puts on a veil and stations herself on the road at a place called petach enaim, which might mean "the entrance to [the town of] Enaim," or might mean "the opening of the eyes." But when Judah finds her, his eyes are distinctly not opened to the truth of what's in front of him -- he fails to recognize her (on account of the veil), so he hires her for a night. Afterward, he offers her a goat in payment. Tamar, shrewdly, asks for his signet ring and staff as collateral. Later, when he tries to send the goat as his promised payment, no one knows anything about the woman he describes, so he shrugs and keeps the goat.
Three months pass and it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. This is an insult to the memory of Er and Onan, and to Judah by extension, so Judah demands that she be brought out and burned. (This is, by the way, an excessive punishment even by ancient near eastern standards -- even at its harshest, Torah does not command this. Perhaps we're meant to see Judah as a bit of a hothead.) But Tamar discreetly sends back his ring and staff, saying, "The man to whom these belong is the father of my child." Judah, suitably chastened, never bothers her again. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Jewish tradition will later hold that the line of King David descends from Perez.
What are we to make of this story? And why is it inserted into the middle of Joseph's tale?