How Do People Change?
Last week we noted that in the movement to the Joseph story in the book of Genesis God’s overt interventionist tendencies seem to change. In Genesis 37 you don’t even find the words God or Yhwh or “El Shaddai”.
The baggage of God’s chosen family is on full display. The family tradition of favoritism has yielded bitter fruit. Joseph’s murder by his brothers is interrupted by Judah realizing there is more profit in slavery than fratricide.
As is typical in the book of Genesis God’s world-blessing-project seems once again not only in jeopardy but also possibly irresponsible. Who would try to save the world through THIS family?
Lifestyles of the Bronze Age Rich and Famous
Genesis chapter 38 seems like a strange break in the story, but as we will see it is an important part of the author’s larger framework. As is often the case parts of this story likely don’t follow chronologically from the Joseph story but the author is filling us in on Judah’s character.
Judah left his brothers and took up with a man named Hirah. When he saw his daughter Shua he took her and had three sons with her, Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er was old enough he took a wife for her named Tamar.
Judah here seems to be the first of the patriarchs that gets wives and sons in the normal way others in that place and time did. There is no barrenness. There seems to be no particular destiny, no meeting at a well, yet anyway. God seems absent. Judah is just going about his business.
Er Was Evil and Yhwh Killed Him
This is exactly the kind of verse that will get a lot of people excited. I’m not revealing any big secret that God in the Old Testament has a reputation problem in contemporary America and this is exactly the kind of verse that confirms people’s worst fears. Here we have the big bad god beating up on poor Er.
I think it is fair to say a number of things about this verse that might help us.
1. Common Religion: This was a common way of speaking and thinking in that time and you can find similar voices and critiques of that voice in the Old Testament itself. Consider Job’s friends. Job’s friends all imagined that Job’s misery was because of some secret evil he had done. Most of the long book of Job deals with this subject and the conclusion of the book Yhwh supports Job and sides against his friends who take up the common religion.
However Er died, either because he was young, or because he was miserable, or perhaps some strange circumstance surrounded his death, the author of the book notes his death as the judgment of God.
Jesus too famously critiques this kind of thinking with the man born blind and tells his disciples it is so that God’s work might be displayed in him.
So maybe part of why the story is told this way is simply because this was how stories were told.
2. Common Evil: God kills Er because he’s evil and we get upset. We also get upset if God doesn’t kill evil people. If God had killed Hitler wouldn’t world history have been better? Was Er worse than Hitler?
An interventionist God is always in trouble with us. If God does something we don’t like we’re upset. If God doesn’t do something we thought an all good, all powerful god should do we’re upset. What this means is that we most trust the god we imagine ourselves to be and doubt and judge all others. Unfortunately for us, little judgers of existence, we’re not God and outside of the circles we have power over the universe seems not to care much for our judgments and pronouncements.
Judah the chapter before sells his own brother into slavery. Isn’t this evil? Was Er’s evil worse that Judah’s? Was Er’s evil the worst evil in the world at that time? Given the fact that Er wasn’t a genocidal dictator or emperor destroying whole cities (not an uncommon thing in that age and time) I doubt Er had the power to be the most evil person in the world. Why spare Judah, Egyptian and Mesopotamian tyrants and kill little Er?
3. Our Hubris: The truth is we don’t know and can’t know why the text drops this statement on us. Most cultures would probably read it and not think a thing of it. We stumble across it and imagine that God must answer to us for Er’s death. Because no reason is given we assume there must not have been a good reason. If the reason given were “Er used to sneak into the tents of unsuspecting children and sexually molest them at night. He was caught by the father of a child and beaten to death” we might say “Oh yeah, that sounds just.” No story is told, we’re not invited to judge.
Your Dead Brother’s Honey-do List
For most of us this seems absolutely icky, a violation of family trust but it was very common in the ancient world. It probably made sense for both the economic future of the woman and her sense of self-worth and self-importance.
In the ancient world a man’s status and sense of self worth might be derived from his wealth, his power, the size of his family. For a woman in the ancient world her ability to bear children was a huge part of her identity. We see this again and again in the Old Testament. Rachel says “give me sons or I will die”. When Hannah’s husband in 1 Samuel asks “am I not worth more to you than 10 sons” the answer to that culture was an obvious “NO”. Sons were everything to them. I’m not saying it was right, just that it was.
So Onan was responsible to impregnate Er’s wife Tamar. The next story is more famous than Er’s and more curious. It seems Onan would be somewhat intimate with Tamar but never finish the job. He “spilled his seed on the ground”. This of course launched a thousand jokes and some strange names for primitive birth control and masturbation.
Men knew how to not impregnate women and if you read the Jacob story you’ll see the women complaining about not getting their time with the human stud. Who knows what Onan was about, but what he was not about was loving his brother, taking care of his sister-in-law, or his cultural obligation to family. Onan won’t father a child if the child will be considered his brother’s. Onan would of course have to raise him, care for him, but his son’s property through Tamar would not be considered of his line, but rather of his brother’s. Onan is selfish. He won’t share his seed with Tamar. According to the cultural norms of the day Onan’s “seed” was not his own, but belonged not only to him, but to his brother.
The LORD now takes Onan’s life because he is evil but this time we know what Onan did. Onan failed to love his brother or his sister-in-law has he should, even if we wonder about the physical expression of that love.
Judah still has son number three named Shelah. I wonder how this story plays in Australia. Is this like a boy named Sue?
Shelah is too young to pick up where Onan left off so Judah stalls. Tamar goes back to her father’s home, a hit to both her financial future and her status. It becomes clear to Tamar that Judah, who didn’t have any trouble taking Shua for his own wife, and taking Tamar for Er and Onan’s wife, isn’t about to let Shelah go to bed with her. Judah it seems is perhaps practicing his own brand of folk religion thinking that maybe Tamar is cursed and God is killing whoever sleeps with her.
The story also notes briefly that Judah’s wife has died. Why does the story note this? Is Judah more randy than normal and susceptible to seduction?
Tamar then dresses up like a shrine prostitute, veils her face and waits in an area with a name connection to “two wells”. Careful readers of Genesis seeing “man, woman, well” know that important children won’t be far behind.
Judah sees her, assumes she’s a prostitute because her face is covered and bluntly asks to come into her. The price he offers? A goat.
Again, careful readers will also begin to realize that Genesis is tying the stories together. It was with a goat and clothing that Rebekah and Jacob fooled Isaac who could not see. It was with a goat and clothing that Judah fooled Jacob who didn’t see what really happened to Joseph. Now Tamar is fooling Judah with clothing and a goat is again involved.
Judah in that moment doesn’t happen to have a goat on him, so he gives her some pretty important symbols of identity, his seal, his cord and his staff. This would be like not having cash for the hooker and giving her a social security number instead.
After they complete the transaction Tamar takes off the veil and puts her widow clothing back on and returns to her father’s house.
Judah, looking to pay his debt and retrieve the keys to his kingdom sends buddy Hirah back to make the exchange. Hirah can’t find the woman and Judah is embarrassed by his foolishness in turning over what he had.
In three months word gets to Judah that Tamar has “played the prostitute” and is pregnant. Judah’s sentence is swift “bring her out and let her be burned”.
Tamar of course produces the seal, the cord and the staff and Judah is caught in his own trap. Tamar is more than exonerated, she is declared to be “more upright than I”.
Through this deception, through this “evil” done by Tamar and Jacob twins are again conceived, and the younger Perez, will supplant the older.
Is there Gospel Here?
So what we have is a guy here, who is supposed to be part of God’s new project to save the world, but he seems to be the worst kind of guy. He sells his brother into slavery. He seems to not care too much for the death of his sons, he’s superstitious about his daughter-in-law and so he shuts her out. He likes to sleep with prostitutes and winds up sleeping with his daughter-in-law. When she gets pregnant by him he off the cuff demands that she be burned for her crimes. He makes Charles Barkley look like a role model.
How We Can Be
The decisive moment in the story is of course the confrontation of Judah by Tamar. Tamar has been wronged by Judah, she deceived Judah and through her deceit showed Judah and the world the truth about him. What would Judah do?
While Tamar’s life would have been spared, what is significant here is Judah’s change. This is actually a turning point in the story of the sons of Jacob. What is amazing is that there is no angelic dream, no great covenant speech by El Shaddai, in fact the only way Yhwh seems to show up in this story is to kill Judah’s two sons for their evil. Yhwh, however, does not kill Judah for his evil. What Judah does is change.
It would not be unusual for Judah to not take responsibility for what he had done, to try to justify the wrong he did to Tamar on all counts by blaming Tamar or God. It would not be unusual for Judah to try to cover the whole thing up. This is the kind of thing we often do.
The Mystery of Election
We’ve seen God’s election working overtly in the story of Genesis multiple times. God chooses Abram and Isaac and Jacob not based on their moral performance. We don’t really know why he chose them. Their election has been overt and usually came before any life transformation. With Judah we see a quieter, subtler, more mysterious witness to election. How can the same Judah who sold his brother into slavery and covered it up against his father now come clean before what he did to Tamar? Where did he find the courage and moral integrity to own up to this? We don’t know.
Should we appreciate, admire and praise Judah for this? Yes. Did it also come from God? Yes.
There are multiple questions we can’t answer. Why Judah and not Er or Onan? All three of them had dealings with Tamar but only Judah turns. Why? We don’t know.
A Salvation Story
This story is a salvation story. God somehow moved in Judah’s heart to change him. God did it quietly. God didn’t take any credit for it. As the larger story of Israel’s sons unfolds we’ll see the fruit of this bringing good things to the broader family.
Tamar is of course the hero of the story. It will not be the last time a gentile girl rescues God’s project from self-imploding because of the moral failures of the important and powerful men. She did it in what would seem to us to be a very immoral way and a very shrewd way. Tamar will be remembered as a mother of Jesus in Matthew 1.
Without giving too much away the end of the book of Genesis is about how God saved the world from a famine. Judah will now be part of that story.
I don’t always like listing and labeling lessons but I think I will today.
1. Don’t count out God’s surprising, rescuing, election both among the people who are publicly identified with his mission as well as those who are outside the approved religious establishment.
God uses what from all accounts would be pagan Tamar and her common cultural idolatry (finding her identity through childbearing) together with Judah’s unsanctified superstition, lust, misogyny and selfishness to engineer a confrontation whereby Judah must self-identify as a sinner and praise his cultural inferior as being his moral superior. Why God saves Judah to bring about Perez and not Er or Onan or even Shelah we can’t answer.
2. Just because God doesn’t seem present, or his people aren’t bringing him into the picture in a good way, don’t imagine he isn’t working.
This lesson runs through the whole Joseph story. We’ll revisit it again and again.
3. The gospel works powerfully to bless and to heal this world when we recognize our sin and evil and do right by those we’ve wronged.
Even though Perez is conceived in a way that seems uncomfortable and unlovely, God uses the entire incident to move his mission forward. Judah himself is transformed and his transformation will result in important consequential things down the road as well as in healing the relationships with his brothers. From this moment forward Judah will begin to develop the capacity to live “you well-being at my expense” and this will prove to be instrumental in what God will do.