I was tossed back into my memory when a friend mentioned he was translating the story of Judah and Tamar from Hebrew to English for his class.
Genesis 38 is a hard narrative. Preaching it in a homiletic class as the only female among at least 10 males in undergrad? Yeah, even harder.
I had chosen this passage because it was something the men were shying way from, possibly because of how difficult it was to turn the story into something positive. How would you even make this story of this …caliber… into something that can glorify God?
I worked hard to try to figure out how to use that passage as a way to point to God.
I finally had gotten to a point where I felt comfortable with my message, then it was my time to preach to the class.
I choked. My professor could attest to the deer-in-the-headlights panic I had going on. It was so bad that my mouth was flapping but no noise was coming out. To add to the fear, he was taping the disaster. It was so bad he was about to get up and shut off the camera, when I finally started to talk.
I got through it, eventually.
I just had this fear that every thing I had studied, every thing I prayed about, and every thing I had written and practiced was wrong. Not only wrong, but horribly wrong. Because of the topic and the importance of what the story means to the greater narrative, I was terrified of getting it wrong. Sure, some of that terror was that I would be laughed at by these guys but I ultimately I was concerned about twisting the Scriptures.
How do you talk about the twisted story of a man having sex with a woman whom he believes to be a prostitute, but who is actually his daughter-in-law? How do you find the grace of God in such a passage?
His fingerprints are all over it. It took me awhile to get pass the ick factor, then anger at Judah, to eventually see how God worked in such pair of unrighteous people.
First of all, we must realize that Tamar actually went through a correct lawful plan. Culturally (and Biblically) to keep the inheritance in the family, when a brother’s wife is widowed without a son, another brother must marry and lie with her till she gets a son. A son was the only way Tamar (whose husband Er, was killed by God because he found him wicked), would be able to be cared for in her old age, as well as be able to stay on the family land, not to mention to keep Er’s name alive. She did not have money of her own nor did she have land. She would have been sent back to the care of her father because she had no son.
This is why God provided the widows the provision of a brother-in-law providing a son that would take the husband’s name, so that the land would still be in the family and the widow would be cared for (This became law in Moses’ time which is a few hundred years later after this story).
So, Judah at first, followed the rule of the land. He ordered his second son Onan to do his duty by the family and provide his sister-in-law with a son. But, wickedness seemed to have ran in Judah’s family. Onan’s deceit is detailed in rather non-conservative wording. Once more God struck down one of the brothers. Judah’s remaining son was still too young to do his duty, so Tamar was sent back to live with her father until such a time as Shelah was old enough to hopefully provide Tamar with security.
But, Judah was concerned that Shelah would be killed as well. So even though his son was old enough, Tamar was never called back to her rightful place. Judah who had recovered from his wife’s death, went traveling to check on his flock.
While he was away from home, Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. Judah had failed her and his duty. She went up to where he was sheering his sheep and disguised herself as a prostitute. Tamar did not do it to be ‘loose’ or even to gain money.
Tamar did it to make sure Judah fulfilled his promise. Judah did it because of lust.
Judah did not question her about her identity nor attempt to look beyond her veil. Judah slept with his daughter-in-law unwittingly, but he still did it.
While he promised to pay her with a young goat, she asked for proof that he would bring the goat back. He gave her his seal, cord, and his staff. These are very distinguishable in what they look like, basically he was giving her his driver’s license, social security card, and his birth certificate as proof that he would come back and pay her. She got pregnant. Judah attempted to get his pledge back by sending a young goat with a friend, but she had disappeared.
Three months after Tamar got pregnant, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law as accused of prostitution. He ordered that she be brought before him and burned to death for her sins. As she was coming to Judah’s land again, she sent his seal, cord, and staff ahead of her, saying that she was pregnant by the man who they belonged to.
He was shamed and said that she was more righteous than he.
Judah never slept with Tamar again.
Tamar ended up giving birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah.
Later in the genealogy of Christ we see that Perez became a grandfather of Jesus Christ.
What is so important about this story? Why is it important to know that not only is Tamar, Jesus’ grandmother, but to know about Perez’s and Zerah’s conception? Why must we muddle through this sordid tale? What is the purpose?
What I came up with is that ultimately, despite our human failing and brokenness, God’s plan will still come into fruition. He works inside us and through us despite ourselves. God needed a son from the Judah tribe for the genealogy of Christ. Out of the 12 tribes, only Judah’s is considered worthy of the title of king (King David comes from this tribe). Jesus Christ, while heavenly royalty needed to have the human realm’s lineage of royalty as well. He gained this aspect through Judah’s tribe.
So God used a woman accused of prostitution and a deceitful father-in-law to gain the necessary blood for his son to be born with. What was the purpose behind it all?
While I do not know God’s mind, to me it was a story of redemption and hope. As are most of the stories in the Bible.
We see Judah and Tamar at the worst moments in their life, and still God uses them.
We see children born out of an unsavory moment between two people, who ended up carrying on the Judah line to the birth of Christ.
God works in the broken human to get his will done.
Judah and Tamar- their story is hard to swallow. It makes us uncomfortable, but still it was important enough to have in the Scriptures. It is not the worst story by far, but it is still hard to deal with.
There is a purpose to it’s existence and we must enter into the story and wrestle with it to see the glory and grace God provided.
God’s mercy is everlasting and overflows even the seemingly horrifying moments in life. We just need to train our eyes to see it.
That is what walking with Judah and Tamar taught me.