Old Testament Tabloid Tale
Bible Text: Genesis 38:1-30 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Please note that today’s scripture is more colorful than most, so the content of the sermon may not be suitable for all ages. Parental discretion is advised.
Today’s scripture sounds like an episode of Jerry Springer, doesn’t it? Our story begins “at that time, Judah left his brothers.” “That time” being ‘after selling his brother Joseph of technicolor dreamcoat fame into slavery.’ Again, Jerry Springer. It’ll be twenty-two years until Judah and his brothers see Joseph again. Today’s scripture is what Judah did in the meantime. He moves out of his parents’ house, gets married to a local woman, has three sons with her, and then marries off his first son to a woman named Tamar. But we’re told Judah’s first son “was wicked in the Lord’s sight.” We don’t know what he did. Maybe murder? Idolatry? Maybe he was an OSU fan? Whatever it was, son one does wrong, and he dies young without kids of his own.
And so shortly after being married, Tamar is left a widow. Now listen carefully if you ever hope to understand this story. In the ancient world, there was no social security, no 401Ks. The retirement plan of every ancient era person was having kids. No kid? No money or food in old age. Second, no kids meant your ancestral lineage died out, which to ancient minds was a terrible fate. That’s why when Judah’s first son dies, Judah immediately tells son number two: “Go have sex with your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” This is gross to modern ears. But in the ancient world, a widow without children would quickly starve, and nobody could continue her and her husband’s lineage. It’s why Deuteronomy 25 has laws on having sex with your dead brother’s widow: in ancient minds, it was the only way to ensure she survived. Note also that “perform the duty of a brother-in-law” in the original ancient Hebrew is just “yavam.” Have-sex-with-your-dead-brother’s-widow-so-she-doesn’t-starve was so morally and socially ingrained that there was a single word for it: yavam. And note that Judah isn’t saying “marry Tamar,” as the King James Version pretends, but literally saying “go have sex with her.” Because Tamar is still seen culturally as the wife of Judah’s first son. If the son two gets Tamar pregnant, that child was legally seen as the orphaned child of son one. And son two would then be free to marry someone else. It’s scandalous today. But in the brutal ancient world, it was a cultural norm that ensured vulnerable women had someone to look after them. But it sure made family reunions weird.
So Judah’s second son, Onan, has sex with Tamar. Yet Genesis says, “But Onan knew the child would not be his.” As the eldest living son of Judah, Onan now gets the largest share of his father’s inheritance. But if Onan gives Tamar a son, that child would get the largest share instead, as legally the child would belong to Tamar and his dead older brother. So Onan obeys the letter of the law meant to provide support for widows—he has sex with Tamar—but breaks the spirit of it, for he *ahem* spills his seed on the ground. Onan deprives Tamar of the child and inheritance owed to her, like someone skipping out on alimony. But worse, he still has sex with her. He’s taking sexual advantage of Tamar, using her for his pleasure, promising if she has sex with him she’ll get the child she needs for inheritance and retirement, and then snatching that away from her anyways. The sin of Onan is not masturbation. Onan’s sin is theft and sexual abuse, using Tamar for sex while denying her the survival lifeline he promised. Which is why Genesis says, “What Onan did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord put Onan to death also.”
In ancient Hebraic culture, Judah is now supposed to let Tamar to sleep with last living son, because he still owes Tamar a child. But Judah fears she’s cursed. Judah blames Tamar for his two sons’ deaths, though we readers know they brought it on themselves. But blaming Tamar instead, Judah stalls her, saying to wait until son three is older. Judah has no intention of letting Tamar near that son. Yet saying so aloud would ostracize Judah socially: rejecting the brother-in-law duty back then was a moral outrage akin to kicking a homeless veteran today. Judah is too cowardly to risk son three so Tamar can have someone to look after her in old age. But Judah is also too cowardly to face the social stigma that openly rejecting her would bring, though at least then Tamar could look for a new spouse. So Judah simply wastes Tamar’s time, as her biological clock ticks down, trapping her in a painful limbo because it’s more convenient for him.
Eventually Judah’s wife dies, Judah goes to a festival, and son three has grown up. Still Judah won’t let Tamar try for a child with him. So Tamar swaps her widow’s garb for a veil—the uniform of a pagan temple prostitute—Judah doesn’t recognize Tamar, and he propositions her. Knowing Judah has broken promises to her twice now, Tamar refuses sex with him until he gives her his seal and staff as collateral, which were objects used for official documents and rituals. Basically, Judah loans a prostitute his social security number and driver’s license, until he can come back with a goat in payment. They have sex and part ways. Judah then returns with the goat to pay his debt, but the prostitute is nowhere to be found. Ironically, Judah was willing to pay the debt of a simple goat to a woman he didn’t know, but he continually refuses to pay his the much larger debt to his daughter-in-law, preferring she starve in shame instead.
But her secret rendezvous with Judah at last gets Tamar pregnant. No longer does she need to sleep with Judah’s sons. The ancient world’s moral demands have been met: the widow has a child to look after her, a claim on her dead husband’s inheritance, someone to carry on her legacy. But Judah doesn’t know he’s the father. He hears Tamar is pregnant despite legally being still married to his dead son, and Judah essentially replies, “Take the whore and burn her to death.” Judah called her “holy woman” when Tamar disguised herself as a temple prostitute, but now that he’s unknowingly got her pregnant, she’s merely “whore” to him. Hypocrisy. Again, Judah doesn’t want her near his sons. But his honor demands he not let her near other men either. Judah keeps putting his fear and pride before Tamar’s survival. She’s still trapped, even now.
But clever Tamar responds to the death sentence by showing him the cord and staff of the one who got her pregnant. Judah realizes he is the father! And at last, Judah—the man who sold his brother Joseph into slavery, whose two sons died for acting wickedly like him, who selfishly continued to deny justice to Tamar—Judah at last relents and confesses, “Tamar is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my third son.” Again, it’s weird to us moderns hearing Tamar called righteous after seducing her father in law. But after her husband passed, all Tamar wanted was what was legally and culturally owed to her: a child to look after her in old age, a claim on her deceased husband’s inheritance, and someone to carry on her lineage. In the ancient world, before alimony settlements, life insurance, and retirement plans… the only way they knew how to do that was by having the deceased’s next of kin get his widow pregnant. I’m not suggesting we do that today: it is disgusting and now needless since we have alimony, insurance policies, and welfare programs. But I can sympathize with the custom’s intent: to protect vulnerable women like Tamar from selfish and cowardly men like Judah and Onan. And Judah himself realizes this, which is why he confesses, “Tamar is more righteous than I.”
But the story isn’t over yet. Two things change. First, Judah is humbled by Tamar here. So when Joseph of the technicolor dreamcoat meets his eleven brothers down in Egypt after twenty-two years, it’s Judah who leads the other brothers, who humbles himself, tries to sacrifice himself to save his brothers, displays repentance for his crimes against Joseph. Since this is the only in-between story we get for Judah, it seems Tamar forcing Judah to repent here prepares him to repent to Joseph down in Egypt, which ultimately is what saves the entire nation of Israel. But second, Tamar gives birth to twin sons: Zerah and Perez. And as Matthew 1 and Luke 3 tell us, Perez is the great-great-whatever-grandfather of King David… and thus is the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. Tamar’s battle to get what was legally owed to her, even if she had to use trickery to get it, helped save Judah’s family in Egypt and paved the way for the Messiah’s birth.
It’s tricky drawing lessons from today’s scripture. Please do not sleep with your in-laws though. I suppose it’s a lesson about fighting for the rights of women. The sin of Onan was abusing Tamar, and Judah himself admits he wronged her. Tamar only tricked Judah because justice was denied her for years. So maybe we learn to do better by women today, to stick up for the rights of those trampled down by others with power and status. Indeed, without Tamar standing up for herself when powerful men abused her, none of Christ’s ancestors would have been born. So women, it’s okay to make trouble to protect yourself. Just don’t sleep with your in-laws. Second, I hope you’ve seen how to handle problematic Old Testament scriptures. When you find a Bible story that seems utterly repulsive today, here is what you do. One: find a study Bible or commentary that explains why folks thought that way back then. Two: adopt that mindset temporarily and imagine what someone back then would learn from the story about God or faith. Three: move back into your modern mindset and see how you can apply that distilled lesson to your own life. That’s what we did with this story about in-law-seduction, and we realized it’s actually a story about justice, which is something that translates time and culture. Finally, we see Biblical characters are complex and imperfect like us. Judah lies and cheats. Tamar tricks Judah into sex. Neither is great. But it shows even big mistakes don’t stop us from having a part to play in God’s mission: these people are Jesus’ ancestors after all. It’s good to remember no mortal is ever 100% good or bad: we’re all shades of gay. Even your worst enemy is still a person, just as mixed up and hurting as you, so have grace for them even as you stand up to them. But again, don’t sleep with your in-laws. I hope we leave with a new appreciation for this often-overlooked bit of scripture. And may God help us to stand up for justice, to find his truth in scripture, to show grace to others… this day and always. Amen.