“Puzzling.” “Sordid.” “Audacious, provocative, and titillating.” Those descriptors might very well apply to this week’s box office sensation, but that’s not what this post is about. All of these terms (“Sordid” comes from the Institute Manual) were used to describe the tale told in Genesis 38.
Just in case your Primary teacher, um, forgot to mention this one, here’s a brief recap (and don’t zone out or you’ll miss the illicit sex): By Leah, Jacob fathers Judah, who then marries Shuah, a Canaanite. They have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries Tamar but dies (slayed by the Lord for his unspecified wickedness) without fathering children by her. Following the practice of Levirate marriage (if a man dies without progeny, his widow is to marry his brother and the children of that union are considered the children of the deceased man; see Deuteronomy 25:5-10), Tamar is married to Onan. Onan, not willing to create a child who would take away his inheritance rights, chooses to spill his seed instead of impregnating Tamar.
(Which means, incidentally, that the real “sin of Onan” or “onanism” is not to masturbate, but rather to choose to violate the law–and betray one’s deceased brother–in order to preserve one’s inheritance. This doesn’t mean I disagree with the Church’s teachings about masturbation [I don't and, please note, I'm not interested in discussing them on this thread]; it just means that there is a lot more going on here than the traditional reading of this story suggests.)
Onan is then killed by the Lord for his wickedness. Apparently, Judah blames Tamar for the deaths of his sons. He tells Tamar to wait at her father’s house until Shelah is grown and promises that she can then marry him. As the years pass, it becomes apparent to Tamar that Judah will not keep his word.
Instead of remaining a pariah for the rest of her days, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She dresses up as a harlot and waits by the side of the road. She then becomes pregnant–by Judah! When he finds out about her pregnancy, he wants her burnt. The only reason this doesn’t happen is because Judah gave “the harlot” his signet (the ancient Israelite version of a driver’s license, or what he uses to establish his identity) as a promise of future payment–and Tamar produces the signet and says plainly, “By the man, whose these are, am I with child.” At this point, Judah acknowledges that the signet is his and says, “she hath been more righteous than I,” which is a rather backhanded compliment when you think about it. (Judah has married outside the faith, raised [at least] two wicked sons, wrongfully accused his daughter-in-law of his sons’ deaths, lied to his daughter-in-law, refused to keep the law of levirate marriage and, of course, had sex with a prostitute. Not too hard to be more righteous than that . . .)
We might dismiss this story as just another star in the constellation of Old Testament weirdness save one thing: The Gospel of Matthew. Modern readers generally do that Gospel a great injustice by skimming over the genealogy with which Matthew begins as if it were just a collection of facts. Matthew (or whoever wrote it) wasn’t an idiot; he didn’t begin his gospel with a boring list. He began it with a selective portrait of the progenitors who made Jesus. That genealogy is the topic for another post (it is fascinating in what is included and how it includes what it includes, I promise!). Just note that Matthew mentions five women who are Jesus’ ancestors. And they aren’t Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, either–those women aren’t mentioned at all.
But Matthew does mention Tamar. Matthew, who verily easily could have left Tamar out of the genealogy, didn’t. He deliberately chose to have the reader think about Tamar as we begin the story of Jesus. So we not only have to ask ourselves, “Why is this story in the scriptures in the first place?!?” (the word ‘edifying’ is not the first one that comes to mind) but “Why did Matthew want us to think about Tamar as a precursor for his story of Jesus?” These are complex questions with no facile answers. I’ll sketch out some possibilities but refrain from rendering a verdict; to be honest, I’m not quite sure what the best answer is myself.
Here are some theories to explain why this story is in the scriptures:
(1) Note what the very next story is: Joseph, although manhand-, uh, make that womanha-, no that’s not quite right, let’s try: personhandled by the boss’s wife, flees in order to preserve his personal purity. That’s a pretty stark contrast to Judah, who not only was willing to have sex with a prostitute, but was hypocritical enough to want his daughter-in-law killed for having extramarital sex. Tamar was waiting by the roadside for Judah, but she didn’t exactly grab his clothes and beg, as Potiphar’s wife did. The message seems to be: regardless of circumstances, we get to choose our response to temptation. This is a good lesson.
(2) Note that Judah wanted Tamar burnt, not stoned (the usual penalty for adultery). Why? Follow the footnote! Leviticus 21:9 explains that stoning is the usual penalty for adultery, but burning is the penalty when the woman involved is the daughter of a priest. (Interesting that the daughter of a priest would be held to a different standard.) Remember that Judah’s wife was a Canaanite, which means that his three sons were of mixed blood. None of them has seed. It is only those who are a part of the covenant line–Judah and Tamar–who can produce the heir. (Of course, this line of reasoning may partially excuse Judah for refusing Tamar Shelah, but only if keeping the line pure was his motive. I doubt it was, but that’s just me.) Message: it is important to keep the covenant line pure. This is also a good lesson.
(3) Note that while Tamar’s means were, uh, unorthodox, the result is that she claimed what was rightfully hers: progeny through Judah’s line. Do the ends justify the means? Maybe. I don’t know. But note that Onan was killed for refusing this of Tamar, while Judah wasn’t killed for sleeping with a prostitute–perhaps because of the mitigating circumstance that he “owed” Tamar seed (in a pinch, the father could substitute for the brother in a levirate marriage). I’m a little uneasy about this, but there you go. Message: progeny are so important that a, shall we say, slightly roundabout means of obtaining them can be justified, much as Nephi’s unorthodox means of obtaining the plates was God’s will. Scripture is important; progeny is important. This is also a good lesson.
(4) Tamar has twins. This is unusual. Rebekah also had twins. Tamar and Rebekah have other unusual things in common: both deliberately deceive a patriarch in order to ensure that the covenant line proceeds unencumbered by the unrighteousness of the patriarch. (I realize that there are other–many other!–readings of Genesis 27; my point here is to sketch out one possible reading that makes for interesting parallels between Tamar and Rebekah.) There may be a message here about the importance of the covenant line being so great that something normally unthinkable–deceiving a patriarch!–can be justified. Just in case you missed that point in Genesis 27, here it is–writ large!–in Genesis 38. Preserving the covenant line is so important that things normally unthinkable can be justified if neccesary. That, too, is a good lesson.
So much for that. Now, I promised thoughts on a larger question: Why does Matthew deliberately call to mind Tamar’s story by way of introducing his story of Jesus? But I am not going to deliver. Yes, I am like unto Judah promising Shelah and then flaking out. This post is already too long, and I just realized that we cannot meaningfully discuss Tamar’s role in the genealogy without considering the other women who are included. And those stories will take a while to sketch out, too.
So, I’ll promise (Judahlike? Only time will tell . . .) posts on the following:
(1) the other women in the genealogy
(2) the role of women in the genalogy
(3) other neat stuff in the genealogy