Dr Herbert Carl Leopold wrote an extensive commentary on Genesis in the 1940’s; at the end of each chapter he included a paragraph titled ‘Homiletical Suggestions’, basically how would you preach to a group on this passage. Under Genesis 38 this section has just one sentence which begins: ‘Entirely unsuited to homiletical use…’ In other words, don’t even think about preaching on this.
If you haven’t read Genesis 38 – it may be worth giving it a quick read. If you’ve given it a read, can I ask you a question? Is every part of Scripture God-breathed and useful one way or another? That’s what Paul writes to Timothy, do we believe it? Even with this passage? Right, let’s have a look at what’s going on in Genesis 38.
So we have Judah and his family, they don’t seem like the type of people you’d want as neighbours. Tamar is due to be married to Judah’s firstborn Er but he dies (basically because he’s horrible – for some reason when I read Er, son of Judah, I’m thinking Joffrey, son of Cersei (Game of Thrones…)). Then Judah literally gives Tamar (like she’s an object) to his next born son Onan, and tells him to sleep with her and get her pregnant.
(I’d like to make a quick point here. I remember as a teenager hearing verses 9-10 being used to justify the condemnation of masturbation. If that is the message you get from this passage, then I don’t believe you have read it properly, you’ve just cherry picked a line or two to fit into your agenda! I don’t think this story has anything to say about masturbation at all in fact, it’s about abuse. It’s about taking pleasure for yourself at some else’s expense. )
Onan is asked to provide her with a child and he didn’t want to. Note, he could have refused to sleep with her but he didn’t do that. He thought I may as well have some fun, might as well get some pleasure out of the situation. And then throw her away – child-less, family-less, alone. THIS is the sin I see, not the spilled semen. Again Onan didn’t want to have a child with her – but still slept with her, still used her for his own pleasure (Tamar the object again!)… no complaints there! – and then he dies.
At this point Judah is starting to see a correlation between what happens to his sons and Tamar, so he sends her away to live as a widow. A widow is the most vulnerable woman because it is highly unlikely that any man would choose her as a wife. This is difficult for us to imagine in our society today, but women back then got their protection and provision from their men. A widow was alone. A childless widow had no role or say in society. The custom went that the father of the dead husband was meant to provide for the widow. Not Judah though, he believes that it is Tamar’s fault that his sons are dead and believes that she will be the death of his other sons too. When Tamar figures out that Judah is just going to discard her she takes action.
A while later, Judah comes to Tamar’s town. She has got word of his impending arrival and dressed like a prostitute and covered her face so he won’t recognise her. Judah takes the bait. He thinks she is a prostitute and he sleeps with her (Tamar the object!). He doesn’t have the money to pay her so he leaves his seal and staff (a bit like leaving his phone) until he can get the money. She can identify who slept with her using these item and can use it as evidence against him. She takes it and goes home. Tamar is going after justice. Tamar uses the sexual double standard against Judah.
The double standard is that Judah can have sex outside of marriage whenever he wants but if she does he wants her put to death; she is supposed to be a alone, childless, a widow with no hope or future. Judah is making her a social outcast. He is using his power, as a man, as a father to force her to the outskirts of society. He has the power to help and indeed the custom of the day requires him to help her – remember the father of the dead husband was meant to provide.
In the end, when Tamar confronts him, Judah knows that she is justified in what she is demanding. He says she is just. Note, he doesn’t say that she is righteous… he says that she is more righteous than he is. She might be wrong but he is more wrong than her. He has the power to help her and do what is right, do what is written in the law but he refuses so she acts out. He is more wrong than she is.
There is another place in the bible where this topic is brought up… Hosea 4:14 “I will not punish your daughters when they turn to prostitution, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, because the men themselves consort with harlots and sacrifice with shrine prostitutes– a people without understanding will come to ruin!”
So the men punish their women for immorality, but God says he will have no part in their hypocrisy.
A point Jesus would drive home later on.
Genesis 38 says social injustice is a big sin. When you have what enables you to be included in society -money, education, connections, privileged, etc. When you have those things and you’re not helping others to get those things it’s a big sin. When you exclude people and force people to the edge of our society and beyond… IT IS A BIG SIN. God expects us to help others when we have been blessed and privileged.
You know what though; I think there is an even simpler moral in this story. In fact, I think this moral is in nearly every bible story I have read and that moral is… morals will not save you. This story is all about how the grace of God breaks out. The bible isn’t about just a moral way to live; it’s about how God’s grace covers the immoral. Do you need some evidence to believe that? Look up Matthew 1 there and read.
In verse 3 you will see a woman’s name. It is the first female name in the genealogy of Jesus. That name… Tamar. Tamar is a named ancestor of the King of kings, the lord of lords, Jesus. Tamar had her life back when Judah looked at her and said you are righteous in spite of all your sin. We need to hear Jesus say to us in spite of all your sin… you are righteous. We have to know that kind of love, that kind of grace, that kind of acceptance. When we hear those words…then we are free. Free from sin, free from bitterness and hate, free from social constructs, free from guilt and self-loathing, free from death.