The events described in this chapter overlap with Joseph’s life in Egypt. The timeframe is approximately twenty years which leaves room for what will be happening to Joseph, who was in Egypt twenty-two years before being discovered there by his brothers. Chapter 38 seems like a strange interruption just as the story of Joseph kicks off. Why, we may wonder, does this sordid account stop the action just underway with Joseph?
But as one considers the role Judah will play in redemptive history, the inclusion of this scandalous account makes perfect since. In fact, it serves an important role in the overall emphasis of the final “book” of Genesis. Though most of the action in chapters 37 through 50 will focus on Joseph, it is the redemption of Judah which, in terms of redemptive history, is the greater story. Indeed, even in this account of Judah’s sin, we see the light of God’s grace beginning to break through. Even Judah’s sin will be worked together for the good of God’s wise and redeeming purposes.
God’s grace to use even the worst of sinful deeds toward his redemptive ends is one of the most marvelous truths in all the world. And yet if we’re not careful we may seize upon such good news and employ it as a license for sinning all the more. Such a moral calculus is disastrous. How detestable are those sins committed by professing Christians who imagine that they can mock the holiness of God with impunity.
And yet it is gloriously true that God’s will is not thwarted by even the worst things we do. In his goodness, God brings about what is good and noble and redemptive out of the worst of transgressions. Joseph made this very claim when his brothers stood before him trembling. And what of the cross of Jesus? Is there any more profound example of God using the worst of man for the salvation of man?
It should fill us with joyful wonder that a man who had sinned as Judah had, would find his name inscribed upon the foundations of the everlasting city of God. Where, after all, does God’s grace abound? Scripture tell us: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).