Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Abravanel observes that chapter 38 digresses from the Bible’s main storyline of Joseph,
training a spotlight on Judah. Why the interlude, Abravanel asks?
“And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his
brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.”
“And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren” provides key context and
chronology for Judah’s departure. It took place after the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. The majority
of Jacob’s sons were keen to kill Joseph, and had issued a death warrant. Present at the legal hearings,
Judah argued convincingly against capital punishment. As a result, Judah saved Joseph’s life. Selling
Joseph into slavery was the best outcome Judah could manage.
Stylistically speaking, the Bible should have followed up chapter 37 – dealing with the sale of Joseph –
with chapter 39, as it pertains to Joseph’s arrival in Egypt. It would read smoothly. Instead, we find
Judah’s story. The interjection comes from left field, per se.
Abravanel gleans three lessons, sharing them with Bible students:
1) Historically, Israel has two distinct kingly lines. One gets traced from Joseph through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The other hails from Judah, through Perez. Now, Joseph’s sons were born to his Egyptian wife. Hence, that line should not be viewed as legitimate or worthy of the throne. In contrast, Judah’s son’s pedigree ranked, well, royal. It attests to Tamar’s merit and piety, a woman of valor born to righteous Shem, as the Jewish sages taught.
2) The story of Judah highlights his greatness. “And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren…” Judah wanted nothing to do with his cruel brothers who sought to murder Joseph, their innocent brother. Though he eked out an arrangement to spare Joseph’s life, Judah could not reconcile himself with his brothers’ cold-heartedness. Besides, Judah could not bear to see Jacob’s anguish. Abravanel inserts a caveat. Despite Judah’s hard feeling for his brothers, he regularly visited Jacob, showing filial piety.
3) Finally, the story of Judah was written in Scripture for posterity. Bible students, for all time, will see divine providence at work. Here is how. For the ancients, infant and child mortality was commonplace. However, none of Jacob’s children or grandchildren died prematurely, as the Creator kept a vigilant eye over them. The two exceptions were Er and Onan, sons of Judah and his wife Bat Shua. They both died young, as the Bible relates in our chapter: “And Er, Judah’s first born was wicked in the sight of God. And God slew him.” Onan also brought sudden death upon himself: “And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of God. And he slew him also.”
To summarize, Abravanel learns that the story of Judah, though stylistically out of place, imparts
important information that Bible students need to know.