Saturday, January 17, 2015


Judah Gives his Signet and Staff to Tamar
One of the main reasons I like the Bible is that it's such a real book. None of the characters in this book are lily-white, 2-D, cardboard cutouts; they're flawed, messed up people wrestling with life and with God, just like us. This morning I was reading the nasty little story found in the 38th chapter of Genesis, which reminded me of this fact like a 2 x 4 between the eyes.

I'll leave it to you to click on the link I just made in the last paragraph and read it for yourself, but I'd like to point a couple of things out.

Your Sister-in-Law?

First, the marry-your-sister-in-law-so-she-can-have-kids thing can be a bit puzzling (to say the least) to us sophisticated inhabitants of the 21st century AD. But this story takes place in the 21st century BC. It's a window into a time when the main business of life still was just surviving. At this point we'd made some progress but it was quite possible for, if not the entire human race then at least your part of it, to be entirely erased from history. All it took was a particularly bad famine, or a plague, or a family unable to leave any descendants behind when they died.

In that type of society, clinging in many cases to existence by their fingernails, the attitude of women to what constituted success was wildly different from today. 4000 years have gone under the bridge since then. Think yourself into their sandals. They were quite aware that the survival of their community depended on them. In this context, having a system set up to ensure you could produce more humans for your family even if your husband died made sense. Tamar, the heroine in this story did her level best to fulfill her duty to the species.


Second, her original husband, Er, and the replacement husband/brother-in-law Onan, were both
"particularly wretched human beings in the eyes of the Eternal One." And Onan especially, not because of what he's usually accused of, but because his pigheaded selfishness was keeping Tamar from carrying out her duty to the community despite her best efforts. And doing something like this must have been difficult on her part to say the least.

Both of these fellows were so reprehensible to God that he ended their lives. How evil is that?

So who gets blamed in all this? Tamar.

Judah, the very patriarch whose family Tamar is trying to save, decides Tamar must be the problem. She must be cursed or something because his sons keep dying. It couldn't have anything to do with them being particularly wretched guys, could it? So Judah refuses to let her have her rightful third chance, deciding instead to keep this "deadly woman" away from his 3rd son.

Tamar's Solution

Now take a look at Tamar's admittedly illegal but rather creative solution.  Point A, she is absolutely sure, no doubt due to the patriarch's reputation, that if you put a temple prostitute in Judah's path he will have sex with her, no questions asked.  This man, I must remind you, is the direct ancestor of the renowned King David and Jesus of Nazareth himself.

Point B, faced with an accusation of sexual misconduct by his daughter-in-law, Judah shows no sympathy for what he and his sons have put her through, and not a hint that he's even aware of his own hypocrisy as a man you can depend on to visit every woman he meets who does what Tamar is accused of.  Instead, he condemns her to a particularly horrible death, so bad in fact that you hardly see it anywhere else in the Bible: "Bring her out and expose her for what she is, and then let her be burned!"

But Point C, at least he didn't try to cover up the evidence Tamar produced. Maybe I'm cynical, but he could have done that. He was the patriarch after all; his word was law. But no, he finally comes clean: "She is more in the right than I am. I did not keep my word and give her in marriage to my son, Shelah."

A little bit of redemption for the very flawed Judah.  And Tamar was finally able to carry out her duty despite the rather incredible opposition she had to face.

Nobody came out smelling like a rose in this story. It's almost embarrassing to read. You keep asking, "What in the world's wrong with these people?"

And that, my friends, is why I love the Bible.

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