Sunday’s sermon: Tamar: Woman of Misplaced Degradation

Text used – Genesis 38

If you’d like to watch or listen to this sermon, you can find the video from live worship on the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco website: http://www.oronocochurch.org.

  • Before we get started this morning, let me give you just a little reminder.
    • 2 weeks ago → started our summer-long sermon series on women of the Bible
      • Expressly and intentionally chose Bible stories we don’t hear often or stories that are widely misunderstood so we could get better acquainted with the wide array of women whose stories enrich our holy Scripture
      • First story (2 weeks ago) = Hagar
      • Took a break last week for our service of re-gathering/healing
    • Today = back into the fray with Tamar’s story
      • Quick clarification: there are 2 Tamar’s in the Old Testament → not the same person
        • Today’s story = Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah
        • Other Tamar = King David’s daughter (also not a pretty story but not one we’re going to tackle during this series → read more in 2 Samuel 13)
      • I think it’s pretty clear why Tamar’s story isn’t exactly a Sunday school story. → Carolyn Custis James (American Christian author, blogger, commentary contributor, and adjunct seminary professor at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia) puts stark words to our aversion to Tamar’s story: When we [modern readers] read [Tamar’s] story in Genesis 38, the word “prostitute” leaps off the page and colors everything else we read or think of her. That one word says it all. Without a pause, the judicial gavel comes crashing down with a thud, and we become incapable of seeing that she is dealing with a complicated situation. Instead, with a single blow Tamar is tried, convicted, and sentenced with no possibility of parole. Never will I forget the awful words of condemnation that thundered from the pulpit of one pastor. “Tamar corrupted the line of Christ!”[1]
        • Going to delve a little more into the ins and outs of what she said there (esp. the bit about Tamar and the line of Christ) BUT I think it’s safe to say that if there was ever a story in the Bible that made it abundantly clear how difficult it was to be a woman in Biblical times – how truly subject women were to the whims and fickle choices of the men in their lives – it’s Tamar’s story.
    • So let’s hunker down into Tamar’s story a little bit more. → a few things we need to understand/remember as we talk about Tamar: 1) Levirate Law, and 2) plight of women not familially tethered to a male in ancient Israel
  • Let’s begin with Levirate Law because that has everything to do with this complicated story of Judah and Tamar.
    • MOST BASIC: Levirate Law had to do with inheritance (both material belongings and ancestral name/heritage)
    • Carolyn Custis James (in Lost Women of the Bible): In ancient times, a man’s name lived on through his sons … To die without a male descendant was to be erased from history. The ancient world had an emergency plan to save a childless dead man from extinction. In Moses’ day, it was formalized as the Levirate Law (levir is Latin for “a husband’s brother”) … According to this ancient custom, if a man died without a child, his brother would marry and impregnate his widow. The son born from this union inherited the name and estate of the deceased.[2]
      • Not a cultural law exclusive to the people of Israel → found in a wide array of other ancient civilizations including Greeks, Moabites (hence Ruth’s story), Persians, Hindus, and Assyrians (among others)
    • Tamar’s story → Levirate Law is both what causes all the trouble for Tamar in the first place AND what saves her in the end
      • Levirate Law causes all the trouble:
        • Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er → Er is considered “immoral”[3] by God and dies → after Er’s death, Judah tells his 2nd son, Onan, to fulfill his Levirate duty with Tamar → but (text:) “Onan knew the children wouldn’t be his so when he slept with his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, so he wouldn’t give his brother children”[4] → This is the first part of the trouble that comes to Tamar because of the Levirate Law. You see, Onan knew that if he produced an heir with Tamar, that heir would be considered his brother’s child – Er’s child – not his and would therefore inherit the portion of his father’s estate that a firstborn son inherited, namely a double portion. However, with no heir from the line of the firstborn son, that inheritance went instead to … Onan! Not exactly prime motivation for Onan to do the right thing by Tamar according to the Levirate Law.
        • God is not impressed with Onan’s selfishness so he dies, too → leaves Judah with just one remaining son, Shelah → And again, according to Levirate Law, Judah should also have made an arrangement between Shelah and Tamar to produce an heir for Er. But instead, Judah decided to reneg on Shelah’s Levirate obligation. And he did so in quite the contemptible, cowardly way. → Judah tells Tamar that Shelah will marry her and fulfill his duty when Shelah “grows up”[5] → sends Tamar back to her father’s house in the meantime
  • But, as Scripture says, “a long time”[6] goes by, and Judah neglects (refuses?) to send Shelah to Tamar. And this is where the part about the plight of familially untethered women comes in. You see, at this point, Tamar is stuck in this nebulous, untenable place in society.
    • Tamar was married → as a woman, she’s no long her father’s responsibility
    • Tamar is widowed → clearly cannot be the responsibility of a husband who is deceased
    • Tamar has no children → And in a society that is solely based on patriarchy – on men being the sole providers – Tamar has essentially been left with no one to provide for her – food, shelter, protection, etc. And time, for Tamar, is not her friend. She knows her father cannot live forever, and without a husband or sons to take care of her, when her father dies, she will be reduced to begging on the street.
  • Levirate Law weaves it’s twisted and complicated way back into this story → provides both more trouble AND ultimately redemption
    • TROUBLE: Backed into a cultural corner, Tamar resorts to disguising herself as a prostitute to entice her recently-widowered father-in-law, Judah → demands payment from Judah before the act (payment Judah promises = young goat) → Tamar requests 3 personal items (seal, staff, and cord) as collateral so she can identify him if he should neglect to send payment → Judah later sends a trusted neighbor and friend with his payment but this neighbor cannot find Tamar → result of this singular encounter: Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah à Judah discovers this pregnancy and publicly accuses Tamar of being a prostitute (not realizing that she was the prostitute he himself had slept with) and declares, “Bring her out so that she may be burned!”[7] → Tamar has her moment of revelation when she produces Judah’s own personal items when she names the father of her unborn child
    • And finally, we come to the redemption – text: When she was brought out, [Tamar] sent this message to her father-in-law, “I’m pregnant by the man who owns these things. See if you recognize whose seal, cord, and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She’s more righteous than I am, because I didn’t allow her to marry my son Shelah.”[8]
      • Heb. “righteous” = very particular, meaning-heavy word that carries connotations of being right (as in correct) but also being justified, being declared innocent (with implications of the declaration being public, widely known/knowable) → both legal and spiritual implications wrapped up in this word
  • You see, with this one act, Tamar not only redeemed herself and her deceased husband’s name. She also redeemed Judah’s lineage, an act that carries serious historical weightiness.
    • Let’s talk about context for a second – find today’s story sandwiched in the middle of Joseph’s story at the end of Genesis And it’s in the context of the two halves of Joseph’s story that we find the real redemptive power of Tamar’s act.
      • Begin of Joseph’s story: as Joseph’s fed-up and frustrated brothers plot to kill him, Rueben is the brother who suggests they throw him down into the cistern instead of killing him (Rueben’s secret intent: coming back later to save him) → Joseph approaches his brothers → they tear off his new cloak and throw him down into the cistern → Judah’s bright idea: “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites.”[9]
        • Heb. reveals just how shrewd and calculating Judah is – Heb. “gain” = profit, yes, but profit by unjust means and violence → illegal profit, profit that cuts away at a life
      • So Joseph’s brothers haul him out of the cistern, sell him to passing slavers, bloody up his coat with goat’s blood, and present it to their father, Jacob, telling him that his beloved son, Joseph, is dead. Jacob is beside himself with grief while hundreds of miles away, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt.
        • Directly after that scene = today’s story about Judah and Tamar
      • End of Joseph’s story (after Judah’s eye-opening interaction with Tamar): when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking relief from the famine and they find Joseph in power but fail to recognize him → Joseph, wanting to test his brothers, frames the youngest brother, Benjamin, (his father’s new favorite son) and threatens to keep him in Egypt as a slave → In the midst of the chaos and high-running emotions of this scene, it’s Judah who begs for Benjamin’s life. It’s Judah who offers to sacrifice his life as well as the rest of his brother’s lives to stay with Benjamin – to save this youngest brother. It’s Judah who guaranteed to their father, Jacob, that he would bring Jacob’s beloved youngest son home safe again.[10] It’s clear that Judah truly has had a change of heart. He’s had a come-to-God moment. He has, indeed, been redeemed – redeemed by Tamar.
        • Carolyn Custis James: God works through Tamar’s bold actions to rescue her dead husband from extinction and her utterly lost father-in-law from a destructive downhill slide. … We stand in her debt – for the family line she was fighting to save was the royal line that ultimately led to Jesus. God chose a marginalized Canaanite woman to put the power of [God’s] gospel on display, and to advance [God’s] redemptive purposes for Judah and for the world.[11]
    • You see, from the line of Judah through the twins that Tamar bears comes the house and lineage of King David, and from the line of King David comes … Jesus. That’s the other reason that Tamar and this troublesome and thorny story is so important.
      • 1st of Mt’s gospel = long list of Jesus’ lineage (lots of those “so-and-so begat so-and-so”s) → in that lineage you find a whole lot of men BUT only 4 women are included: Ruth, Bathsheba, Rahab, and … Tamar
        • All Gentiles
        • All “questionable women” in some cultural sexual regard
        • And yet they’re all deemed righteous in God’s eyes.
    • Heb. “righteous” is not a word that was used lightly – Carolyn Custis James: Righteousness belongs to God and is the comfort of [God’s] people. … [God] sets the standard for what is right, and when [God’s] people bear [God’s] image, they do what is right, too. No Old Testament person, especially someone from Judah’s background, would ever thoughtlessly apply “righteous” to a Canaanite, like Tamar. The word simply means too much. … [Yet] according to the Bible, Tamar was righteous. She sided with God and did the right thing.[12]
      • Judah’s own words: “”She’s more righteous than I am”[13]
  • A lot of lessons Tamar can teach us today
    • Teaches us about both the power and unexpectedness of redemption
    • Adds a new layer to that phrase “You never know the burdens someone else is carrying” → reminds us of the danger of judging someone else’s circumstances and choices
    • Speaks a powerful message about victim blaming → pervasiveness and ugliness of victim blaming in our society has been brought more and more into the forefront since the Me Too movement went viral back in 2017: shed light on the stories of thousands of women who have suffered sexual harassment and abuse, shed light on the way that all of these women have been made to feel responsible for their own victimization
      • By relatives and “friends”
      • By co-workers and bosses
      • By mentors and educators
      • By pastors and priests
      • By marginal acquaintances and even strangers
      • Clearly, Tamar was the victim in this story. From the moment her first husband, Er, died, she was subject to the whims and frustrations, the fickle choices and sexual capriciousness of one male in-law after another. Her choices were not her own. Her future was not her own. At many points in the story, even Tamar’s body was not her own. And yet, even in the midst of all of her pain and struggling, it is Tamar who is righteous. Justice belongs with Tamar. Virtue belongs with Tamar. Vindication belong with Tamar. Righteousness belongs with Tamar. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Carolyn Custis James. “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 31-32.

[2] Carolyn Custis James. Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 106-107.

[3] Gen 38:7.

[4] Gen 38:9.

[5] Gen 38:11.

[6] Gen 38:12.

[7] Gen 38:24 (emphasis added).

[8] Gen 38:25-26a.

[9] Gen 37:26-27a.

[10] Gen 44.

[11] James, “Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute,” 48.

[12] James, Lost Women of the Bible, 113-114, 115.

[13] Gen 38:26a (emphasis added).

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