Here it is. Why in the name of all that’s moral and good would I preach about Genesis 38 this Sunday? Well… because God’s message of love is actually much greater than morality and “goodness” AND I’m writing a book on fiber in the Bible. Each week, I’m researching a story that involves fiber, writing a draft chapter for the book and a separate sermon on the same fiber story. Writing to preach and writing to be read in silence are two very different types of writing. The sermon is a bit more euphemistic than the chapter, believe me. Here’s the semi-scrubbed version of the very gritty Bible story found in Genesis 38.
This is not a popular Bible story. If you’ve heard it before outside of a Bible study I led, it was probably just part of the story. It’s not something most pastors would want to preach from the pulpit. There’s not much spiritual edification in its words. It interrupts another story that’s more “decent.”
So the story goes that Judah’s sons were married to a woman named Tamar under the guidelines of Levirite marriage. If the first son died (and he did because he was wicked), then the next son had to marry his wife, but any children born of their union would be credited to the original husband, the older son. This helped with issues of inheritance and birthrights. The issue with Levirite marriage (beyond the possible yuckiness of marrying your brother-in-law or sister-in-law) was that these folks were tribal, and it was hard to justify raising a kid that wouldn’t be your own.
Judah’s son Onan is married to Tamar, and because he doesn’t want to give his brother a son, he onanized. Let’s just leave it at that. God didn’t like Onan’s onanism, so God smited Onan, and Tamar was now a black widow in Judah’s sight. He had lost two sons while they were married to her. He was not going to put his third son, Shelah, in her clutches.
Tamar gets sent home to “wait” for her next husband which Judah actually has no intention of providing. She’s a woman without status in her world. She’s a young widow (twice) with no children. She has no one who is required to provide for her, and she will have no one in the future if she remains childless. She could even have been considered somewhat dangerous because no man had overt responsibility for her behavior, although we later learn that Judah has authority over her life and death if she is caught behaving in ways he didn’t like.
The third son (Shelah) grows up to become a man, and Tamar is not invited back into Judah’s household to marry him. Then Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, passes away, and Judah grieves.
And here’s where the tale gets really weird and even less familiar. Judah gets over his mourning in time to head out to a massive sheep-shearing in Timnah, a ways away from his home. He takes his buddy Hirah with him. This was probably a time of feasting and revelry with the shepherds and others who cared for the sheep. They were heading out on a road trip to celebrate.
Tamar hears it through the grapevine that her father-in-law is on his way to Timnah, and she puts into motion a simple plan that will possibly provide her with a change in status. Tamar takes off her widow’s garments and puts on some color and a veil. She goes to sit by the road in a place Judah is sure to pass, and when he sees her, he stops. He’s a widow; she’s dressed like a prostitute. They strike a deal.
Although he leaves her with his staff and signet, those symbols of his identify are given to this (in many ways) identity-less woman as a substitute for the real cost of the tryst: a goat. The goat could provide potential income and/or security for this woman by the road, but it is actually what the Hebrew law considered incestuous relations between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar that will provide her with a future.
When Judah’s servant tries later to find the Judah’s “prostitute,” he finds that the place Judah named is not a red light district, so to speak. They hardly want to make a huge deal out of finding her. Judah then discovers through the grapevine (maybe even the same one that provided news of his imminent arrival near her home) that Tamar is pregnant with some man’s baby. Judah is ready to have her burned, but she is able to produce his seal and staff and the festive activities of his road trip with Hirah are brought to light.
This is an important, though often delicately overlooked story of the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes up again in the New Testament. Tamar is one of the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ. Women were seldom named in Jewish genealogies contained in the Bible, so these names in Matthew stick out, especially considering that Matthew’s gospel was most likely written by a Jewish author for a Jewish audience. There, almost at the beginning of the tale, is Tamar’s name because one of the twins born to her and Judah’s interaction on the side of the road would become the line through which Judah’s heirs were traced. After all, his first two sons had died while married to Tamar.
This means that both the morally-questionable, promise-breaking, prostitute-buying Judah and the rule-breaking, incest-making, risk-taking Tamar are ancestors of King David and of Jesus.
In attempts to squeeze spiritual guidance out of this story, the content and depth of the story are overlooked for matters of moral fiber. The first part of this story has been used as a moral warning against birth control or… other things. Or it was used as an explanation of Levirite marriage, even though original hearers/readers of the tale would have understood the concept.
When we call the Bible a guide for morality, we are surely revealing that we have never really read it. I remember my Old Testament professor telling us that she drove past a church one day who had on their sign that the “Bible times are not the way things were. They are the way things should be.” She had to pull over and let her nausea pass. I’m not knocking or disrespecting the Bible in any way. It is God’s holy word. But it may not reveal what we think it reveals. It’s deeper than simple morality tales. It simply is not a book full of tales of the way things should be.
There’s a lot of bad stuff going down when considered from the moral perspective of today, but also from the laws that defined morality in the time of its writing and/or telling.
People were murdered, hospitality was withheld, genocide happened, rapes were committed, and many, many laws were broken by people we consider heroes of the Bible. The stories don’t always read like “bad people did this and they were punished.”
We may hear that the Bible champions morality, but the people in its pages were real people like us, with moral fiber that sometimes unraveled, with problems that we couldn’t surmount alone, with more issues than National Geographic. The Bible is not really a book with saints marching across its pages. It’s about real people and their real relationship with God as they understood it. To consider it as a collection of morality tales is to diminish its worth.
The story of Judah and Tamar can hardly be labeled as a morality tale (because no one was behaving themselves), but that does not mean that it lacks spiritual truth. What comes to my mind again and again in contemplation of this story is sacrifice. Tamar sacrificed her time, possibly her dignity, and any pride in keeping the law by choosing to share herself with her father-in-law. She may have only come out of the encounter with a goat. Instead, God’s will was worked through this audacious, law-breaking woman and she became a named part of the line of David and Jesus. Because of her boldness, we have her story in scripture. She wasn’t one of the thousands of women who stood unnamed next to their named husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. I mean look at Judah’s wife, daughter of Shua. What was her name? Who knows? But we know Tamar’s name.We know her name because she was bold enough to take action. She trusted in God and God’s promises to her. She trusted enough to act. She trusted enough to sacrifice parts of herself she held most dear to get the promise God had given her through the rite of Levirite marriage.
We all make little sacrifices all the time. We sacrifice our wants for our needs. We sacrifice our needs for others’ needs. We sacrifice for our children, for our spouses or partners, for our family, for our friends.
But what about the really big sacrifices, the life-changing ones? The bold, get your name out there kinds of sacrifices? The “I love you God, and I’m gonna put myself out there for you” sacrifices? I am not challenging anyone to knock over a convenience store, stroll the streets as a prostitute to see if someone will trade them a goat and a future for his satisfied need, or sleep with their father-in-law. Most of us aren’t called to sacrifice our good names or clean records for God’s will to be done, but Tamar was. We are often called to sacrifice what we consider our personal dignity. And maybe we have been, are being asked, or will be asked to do something in love for God or for the good of the world that is a bigger sacrifice than we’ve considered making.
When we’re prompted to go bold, when we’re asked to do something BIG, we can remember Tamar, who, when she had nothing less to lose, gave up her pride for an encounter that almost cost her her own life by a morally-lapsed father-in-law. Her boldness, her sacrifice, mattered. It continued God’s plan for her and for generations after her. It made her scripture-worthy, genealogy-worthy, worthy of being named.
Trust in what God has promised you. Trust that God is behind you, in front of you, beside you, and around you. Trust that evil and immorality do not, ultimately, win… in the Bible or in real life. Trust that God’s truth is deeper than morality. Trust enough to do. Trust enough to sacrifice even what you hold dearest in yourself to see God’s will done for this world. Amen.