Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The First Dysfunctional Families (3): Righteous, More or Less

Psalm 11
John 4 (Samaritan woman, kids)
Genesis 38:6-30 (message)

There are several things that we need to address, by way of background, that will help us approach this difficult passage.

First, the context: this story serves as an interruption in the Joseph story. In chapter 37, Joseph, he of the “technicolor dreamcoat”, is sold into slavery by his brothers, particularly by Judah. The story of Joseph concerns inheritance law and the question of which brother will lead the next generation . . . and Judah and Joseph were the rival heirs apparent. No wonder Judah leaves his family for a while. Now, by the time the Joseph story ends, Judah has a radical change of heart about what it means to be faithful to family, but that is not the story for this week.

Second, “levirate marriage” and inheritance law. The tradition from Moses is that if a firstborn son dies married but without an heir, then the next son takes the brother’s widow as wife and the firstborn of that union replaces the dead firstborn son in the father’s will. Got it? The custom is at the root of a peculiar question posed to Jesus by the Saducees (Mark 12:18-23). They asked about seven brothers, all of whom died (in age order), all of whom married the widow of the first brother, and none of whom left an heir. Their question: In the resurrection, whose wife is she? The question was peculiar because the Saducees didn’t believe in resurrection anyway and because the case they cite is so extreme as to be ludicrous. But, they end up quoting from the Tamar story, “raise up children for your brother” (Genesis 38:8), not just from the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). No wonder Jesus’ response includes the line, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God”. Tamar’s story doesn’t end with barrenness but with twins. (See J. Gerald Janzen, 1993, Genesis 12-50: Abraham and All the Families of the Earth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 155-156.)

Third, this is a great place to be reminded of John Wesley’s comment “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.” Tamar is the one who is faithful to the family, to the demands of the levirate custom. She is the one who builds up Judah’s family. She is the “more righteous” one. But the social context is broken and it is so difficult to read holiness, righteousness, in the story. While the mission of the church remains focused on “making disciples”, we cannot overlook the “transformation of the world”. Jesus addressed social structures in his own time, and we can do it now.

Fourth, place names in the story. Judah, at the beginning of the chapter, in the few verses we did not read aloud, “goes down” to Adullam. This place name is used in reference to only one other person in the Bible story – David, the future king of Israel and, amazingly, the future heir of Tamar by Perez (Genesis 38:1, 1 Samuel 22, 2 Samuel 23, Janzen 151-152).

Also in those opening verses, Judah’s third son, Shelah, is born in the town of Chezib. The name for that town means “deceive, lie”. Deceit is a prominent feature of the story ... Judah lying to Tamar about promising Shelah to him, Tamar deceiving Judah and sleeping with him (Janzen, 152-153).

And it is in the town of Enaim, a name meaning “twin wells”, that Tamar sleeps with her father-in-law Judah and becomes pregnant . . . with twins!

Tamar: Sex worker or Holy one
The most interesting piece of language in this story is the two different words used for prostitute (Janzen 153-154). One word is the term focused on sinful behavior, on faithlessness to vows. That’s the word used whenever Judah interacts directly with Tamar (Genesis 38:15, 23). “He thought she was a prostitute.” “Your daughter-in-law has been a prostitute and is pregnant as a result of prostitution.” Tamar as sex worker, as faithless to vows, as dishonoring the family, as risking the inheritance of Judah and Judah’s firstborn.

But another word is also used, a word often translated “temple prostitute”. It refers to women (mainly) who represented the fertility goddess. While this sexual practice was clearly condemned in Israel’s tradition, this story occurs before that clear condemnation, it occurs in the context of accepted (though certainly awful) behavior – sex that has some veneer of worship and prayer. Now, God has designed sexuality to connect with worship and prayer, but always in covenant faithfulness, not with temple prostitutes.

This separate word, translated in many of our Bibles as “temple prostitute”, is the word Judah uses when he talks about what he has done. “Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?” (Genesis 38:21-22). Tamar is “just” a prostitute, a faithless woman; but he has put a veneer over what he has done. How often do we gloss over our sin, dress it up, make it look just a little better than it truly is? This separate word means, literally, “holy one”.

Of course, what Judah doesn’t know at the time is that he is the truly faithless one, and Tamar is the much more holy one. God – not the goddess – is working through Tamar and her risk. But God is working in spite of Judah and his sexual appetite.

Once he discovers the truth, once he is confronted by Tamar’s evidence, he speaks the truth: “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26). She has been faithful to the family, she has been loyal to the clan, she has risked her life and welfare for the future of her people. Even in this broken social context, this dysfunctional family system, it is clear that Tamar is “more righteous”.

Judah: Confession, not Comparison
Judah’s path to redemption only begins in this story. He makes a confession, but it involves a comparison. Ever make a confession like that, or receive an apology like that? Usually, it sounds a little like this: I’m really sorry that you did such an awful thing and made me mad. It is confession, but it is also blame. To give Judah credit, his confession, “She is more righteous than I” blames himself more than her. But true confession has no comparison at all. It isn’t about the other person, it simply tells the truth about who we are, what we have done.

But, what of Grace?
On the level of social holiness, this story reminds us of the unique power of the powerless. Tamar finds a creative way to accomplish what is necessary for her and her family, even though she has no power in the system. [Story of girl with abusive step-dad and the flushing toilet.]

Jesus loves the powerless.
Luke 4:18-19 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Tamar shows up in the end of the book of Ruth. Ruth and Boaz are married and the elders of the town give them a blessing, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). It is a fitting blessing, because Boaz himself is a descendant of Perez, the firstborn of Tamar to Judah. And Boaz’ great-grandson, another descendent of Tamar, is King David himself (Ruth 4:18-22). In the Gospel of Matthew, Tamar makes an appearance in the family tree of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:3).

If such grace can come from such dysfunction, then there is hope for every one of us, for all our crazy family stories, for all our skeletons in the closet.

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