Genesis 38

October 3, 2005 | 42 comments
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“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

42 Responses to Genesis 38

  1. Mike B on October 3, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    What? No takers on a post wrought with sexual intrigue and deceit? While this has nothing to do with this post, I am reminded of how David continued throughout the centuries to be “honored” despite his downfall (House of David, Son of David, etc.).

  2. Katherine on October 3, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you, Julie. I am especially looking forward to the posts you promise. I had never considered Jesus’ geneology interesting before, and now I am intrigued.

  3. Susan on October 3, 2005 at 9:25 pm

    I’m waiting too. I love Genesis.

  4. Amira on October 3, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    Yes, thank you Julie. I’ve always found the choice of women mentioned in Matthew’s geneology interesting.

  5. J. Stapley on October 3, 2005 at 9:44 pm

    Is it still called Levirate marraige when we refer to the ante-Mosaic practice?

  6. Julie in Austin on October 3, 2005 at 9:46 pm

    J. Stapley,

    Not entirely sure what you mean by that?

  7. Ben S. on October 3, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    Stapely: Yes. Levir is simply Latin for brother-in-law, so the term still applies. The Mosiac law, as with many other things, simply formalized what had been a pre-existing cultural “law.”

  8. J. Stapley on October 3, 2005 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks. My OT is pretty weak…all this time, I thought it had something to do with Levi. :)

    And to the topic, could the story of Lot’s inter-familial prgeneration be viewed in a more sympathetic light when one regards this primacy of “seed?” I don’t know about you, but I find the malleability of the comandments in all these stories deeply troubling, regardless of any emphasis one can tweeze out.

  9. Dan Barnes on October 3, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    I think the unusual women mentioned by Matthew may have been a backhanded attempt to make Mary look “ok” to the locals. Apparently in an attempt to smear Jesus after his death, the opposition attacked the character of Mary, at one point even naming the Roman soldier who was the father of Jesus. Matthew may have been playing up to the Jewish crowd by naming some …..hmmm… interesting woman from the Jewish past.

    He was so deliberate in naming interesting women, and making a Geneaology that contained numerology (3-14′s, steps of the Temple???) something was going on other than naming progenators of Jesus.

  10. Ben H on October 3, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    : )
    I’ve been itching for someone to bring this up for a long time. Nice development of readings, Julie!

    Who hath sinned, that this man was born blind?

    Perhaps we should read this genealogy as a preemptive scriptural repudiation of the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary? (only half kidding)

  11. Mardell on October 3, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    Julie lists this in Judah’s sins, ” Judah has married outside the faith…”

    So whats wrong with getting married outside your own faith?

  12. Concierge on October 3, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    Ah, the women of the bible – many nameless, faceless. Liz Curtis Higgs can get many started on this quest. We all know of Eve…You must post on Potiphar’s wife; Lot’s wife, the woman at the well, Delilah; Sapphira, Rahab and of course Jezebel. You needn’t limit yourself to the OT – don’t forget Michal or the sinful woman in Luke. There is more – the medium of En Dor, Jael, the adulteress that Jesus saved with grace (story used by the Prophet in Saturday’s GC talk). Athaliah, Bathsheba, Herodias, and you just touched on Tamar the widow. Lastly, the bleeding woman in Mark that was healed by touching the smallest part of Christ’s garment (a picture in our RS room BTW).

    But back to Tamar – and how thankful we all for her!!! I think we should attempt to tease out Heavenly Father’s purpose for placing Tamar and Judah in the direct lineage of Christ. As for coming to understand the other women of the Bible – valid. They each teach about the life and Gospel of Christ. And it’s not only the spiritual – we also learn the temporal. Case in point: Without the adultress story, we would not know that Jesus was schooled in writing. Delilah allows us to peek into the meaning of Orthodox Jews and their covenant not to cut their hair. Oh, there is so much! I’m excited to hear the rest of your story!

  13. Concierge on October 3, 2005 at 11:53 pm

    Keep in mind that the name Levi is also the lineage of the Israelites that were second in line to the priests (the Cohen tribal lineage). This is a vast tome meant for another post – the lineage of both tribes and relation to the lost tribes of Israel/patriarchal blessings. It also gets into the possibility that the Cohen line is most pure in Africa (Zimbabwe) and that those peoples might be the descendents or lineage line of the 144,000 (I need to verify that number) exalted priests yet to come. While this is known and celebrated in the Jewish world, it’s still fodder for FARMS to sort through I have a feeling.

  14. Katie on October 4, 2005 at 12:04 am

    Julie I think the key to understanding why Matthew includes Tamar in the genealogy, (as hinted at the end of your post) is in the other 3 women he mentions as well. All 4 (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, Rahab) are in some way “sexually irregular.” That is, these women all had sexual relations and dealings that are somewhat out of the norm. Ruth lays at Boaz’s “feet” (quite sexually daring), Bathsheba is brought to David’s bed and we know the rest, Rahab is a harlot who is also a hero. So Matthew is setting us up for another sexually irregular woman–Mary, who gives a Virgin birth.
    These women were also all Gentiles, who somehow found a way to infiltrate the House of Israel. Matthew is then introducing a new conception of Israel: it is not just a place for high-powered Jewish men, but will include women and Gentiles too!

  15. Julie in Austin on October 4, 2005 at 12:09 am

    Re #11–

    Uh, Mardell, if that was a joke, quit horsing (ha) around.

    If it wasn’t a joke, I have a thread you should read. . .

  16. Max Wilson on October 4, 2005 at 1:08 am

    Bathsheba was a Gentile? And I’m not so sure about Tamar, either; I had a Hebrew/Old Testament professor who thought that the “burning”/”daughter of a priest” thing might perhaps indicate that Tamar was a descendant of Jacob, too. Given the endogamous nature of things back then I wouldn’t be surprised. Of the four women mentioned, only two are for-sure Gentiles AFAIK.

    There are some other interesting parallels with the Joseph story, too, in Genesis 37. Both involve deceiving a patriach (Jacob and Judah, respectively). In both cases clothing plays an important role in identifying someone–Joseph’s torn coat, Judah’s staff and signet. The verbage, the word “know”: “know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no” vs. “Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.” “Discern” here is the same word as “know,” in Hebrew. In one story Judah is the deceiver, in the other the deceived.

    Kind of interesting, and probably deliberate given that they’re in consecutive chapters.

    Max Wilson

  17. MahNahvu on October 4, 2005 at 3:09 am

    “Why is this story in the scriptures in the first place?!?”

    Perhaps the reason that this delightful tale has been passed down for so many years is that it is utterly charming!

    “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.”

    There are some who believe that Judah viewed Tamar (in costume) as a lay cultic prostitute. If that was the case, Judah’s visit to a hierodule at that time of the year would have been considered a predictable, ritual act. The fact that he sent his friend Hiram to deliver the promised payment seems to indicate that Judah was not ashamed and made no effort to keep the encounter a secret.

    “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.”

    I doubt that Judah was concerned with keeping the “covenant line pure.” After all, he did arrange to have his second son, Onan, fulfill the levirite obligation. But it is true that Tamar would not have been relieved of her marital obligation and declared a widow until both her husband AND father in-law, Judah passed away. So Judah knew that he also had a levirite duty, even if it be the last resort.

    When you speak of “the heir” you appear to be referring to the special rights that are normally given to the first born son. All the sons inherited, but the first born (Er, in this case) received a double portion. If Tamar bore a son through the levirite union, that son, with the double inheritance, would become the leader in the patriarchal community and she would have social prestige and economic support. If we recall, Onan wanted the special inheritance for himself, which is why he “spilled his seed.”

    “Judah wasn’t killed for sleeping with a prostitute”

    I’d say no one even batted an eye.

  18. Adam Greenwood on October 4, 2005 at 8:20 am

    A sensitive and thoughtful post, Julie in A., echoed by senstitive and thoughtful comments, y’all.

  19. LisaB on October 4, 2005 at 8:22 am

    Cute nod to the “other” thread, ladies.

    Aw, Julie! This was on my list of posts to write for FMH!!! (A series on individual women from the scriptures and church history.) Well, I’ll be sure to link you from there.

    Some speculations about why this (and other stories about autrocious behaviors) are in the scriptures:

    1) It happened
    2) Just because it happened that way doesn’t mean it was God’s will
    3) The good news is that the gospel is for all of us, regardless of our beginnings, regardless of the crap all around us
    4) To demonstrate that Christ can overcome every circumstance of birth (think Prayer of Jabez). In order to do that, he needed to have some of those same potentially horrendous birth circumstances (adultery, abuse, prostitution, even incest) as part of his mortal ancestry. It had to be in his genetic and cellular inheritance in order for the atonement to be of effect in sanctifying even the worst of circumstances and situations for our good.

  20. LisaB on October 4, 2005 at 8:25 am

    Oh–I forgot one. To demonstrate that we are all “the weak things of the earth.” That even leaders of nations (and congregations, and the church as a whole) are imperfect, but that even this fact cannot halt God’s work. (actually, this is related to 4) above)

  21. Athena on October 4, 2005 at 10:20 am

    Julie,

    Thank you for the post. It has been some time since I have thought about this story and others like it, but I have always thought that in cases like these, where the women of the covenant line seem to be forced into “sexually irregular” (thanks Katie!) or deceitful actions to preserve that line (by actions like Judah’s), they are in some way acting out a type of preordination….or a correction of preordination gone awry.

    That is, the convenant line must be preserved, and these women are choosing a more…shall we say problematic path in order to accomplish the greater goal (echoes of Eve, anyone?). The birthing and raising of children is woman’s special province, with the stakes seemingly much higher for the women of the covenant line, requiring them to make much more difficult (and sometimes bizarre) choices in order to accomplish that sacred responsibility.

    I think the emphasis on naming these women reflects some sort of acknowledgment of the active participation women have had in the preservation of the covenant, now that the law is about to be fulfilled, and perhaps cues the much more visible role of women in the New Testament?

    Sorry if I make no sense, my head is stuffed like a mushroom….

  22. Mike on October 4, 2005 at 10:27 am

    The reason these stories are in the scriptures is because they are TYPICAL of human experience. I would suggest they are not the least bit unusual. Ask a police officer or a nurse in an urban city emergency room, or a family court clerk. How many people can you name that act no better than Judah or Tamar in a modern context? Quite a few if you think about it. And these moral atrocities do have dire consequences for future generations. Old Testament weirdness comes closer to real life as I see it than any other part of the scriptures. When a people try to santificy themselves as we are doing, sometime we forget where we have come from.

    If we really knew our own family history and not just the version that has been spiffed up for the moral instruction of future generations, I think most of us would be surprized to find this same kind of crap more often than we could imagine. And it might explain why we have some of the weakenesses and tendencies, even if we are not consciously aware of specific episodes.

    Personally I would rather read about Judah and learn my lessons from the likes of him than from similar events in the lives of my more recent ancestors, some of whom were part of what is to me a heroic story of the Restoration and personally acquainted with Joseph Smith (while you are writing articles about women in the Old Testament, consider parallels between them and the wives of Joseph and Brigham and Orson and Parley and all the rest).

    This accurate and realistic perspective of life is a crucial part of the Redemption, and we are all in need of it whether we remember or know about it or not. The morally and genetically whole or those who think they are whole have no need for the Physician. Thank you all for your thoughts and willingness to struggle with this material. What is more outrageous to me is when we conveniently skip or ignore Gen 38 and the rest of the material in our sacred lexicon like unto it.

  23. marvmax on October 4, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    I agree with LisaB points, but especially with 3 and 4. These are great points that the Lord can and does use those who are trying to serve him regardless of race.

    When I was on my mission I was talking to a lady about polygany. I don’t remember why, but in the course of the conversation I feel I was inspired to tell her that the Lord must have approved of polygany because he chose this line to come through out of all of the lines that he could have chosen. At that time I only rememberd Bathsheba (It is interesting in the Matthew account that they don’t really even name her just saying that she was the wife of Urias). Since then I have looked at these other women as signs of Gods love and forgiveness for all people.

    By the way Darias Gray gave a talk at FAIR this year and he says that Tamar, and Bathsheba might have been descendents of Ham, which would only reinforce the sings of Gods love for all people.

    Looking forward to further thoughts from Julie.

  24. Mike Parker on October 4, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    Ben S. (#7): Levir is simply Latin for brother-in-law, so the term still applies. The Mosaic law, as with many other things, simply formalized what had been a pre-existing cultural “law.”

    Also keep in mind that Genesis was written by the same author(s) who compiled the other four books of the Torah, so the events in Genesis are seen through the lens of the Mosaic Law. The story of Judah and Tamar underscores, to the then-contemporary reader, the Law’s requirements on levirite responsibilities.

    The same thing happens with the story of Noah. He’s told to bring two of every animal and seven of every clean animal onto the ark. No prior discussion of clean vs. unclean is given; the reader assumes that Noah is under the same restrictions codified in later portions of the Torah.

    Considering the scriptures in the context of how they were received and understood at the time of their writing solves a lot of these types of issues. (This goes for the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as well.)

  25. anonymous t&s poster who doesn't want to offend darius gray on October 4, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    marvmax #23: “By the way Darias Gray gave a talk at FAIR this year and he says that Tamar, and Bathsheba might have been descendents of Ham, which would only reinforce the sings of Gods love for all people.”

    I saw Darius Gray’s presentation, and I think he went way too far. His basic thesis was that anyone in the Bible who wasn’t an Israelite was Black. I spoke with several other people afterward—one of whom is an expert in the Old Testament and connected with BYU—and they felt the same way too.

  26. Mark B. on October 4, 2005 at 12:34 pm

    It is interesting to see the women mentioned in the genealogy in Matthew: Rahab, Tamar, her who had been the wife of Uriah.

    Perhaps one purpose was to teach a counter principle to “the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children”. If the Son of God, the Anointed One, could come from such a line, then there’s hope for us mere mortals.

    The writers of the Constitution established a similar principle: No attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood.

  27. Aaron Brown on October 4, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    Am I just imagining things, or has J. Max Wilson returned to the Bloggernacle, as predicted?

    Aaron B

  28. Kevin Barney on October 4, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    From the ancient Israelite perspective, Tamar was a great heroine for her actions. It is hard for modern LDS to see it that way, because sexual irregularity seems to trump everything else in our world view. So we ignore this story in our lessons. But I think it’s a great story, and thanks Julie for going down this path.

  29. Julie in Austin on October 4, 2005 at 1:45 pm

    Wow! Such interesting comments–great insights–from so many of you. Thanks!

    I’m more motiavted now to follow through on my plan to write those other posts, knowing what great insights to expect from the comments. Great ideas all around.

  30. Katie on October 4, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    Max-

    Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the HITTITE. He most likely married a fellow non-Jew, but I it is possible that she was a Jewess. More probable however was that she was a Gentile.

  31. NFlanders on October 4, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    Aaron– welcome to two days ago. “Max Wilson,” a.k.a. Maxamillian Wilson is not. J. Max Wilson. I know this because “Max Wilson” has been commenting since before JMW left, and JMW took pains to distinguish himself from MW.

  32. gst on October 4, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    When JMW does return, he’ll be like Gandalf the White. Except with a puppet.

  33. Kurt on October 5, 2005 at 8:26 am

    This chapter is a compliment to ch. 34 in that it serves as a warning to men of Israel. Here we have Judah moving away from his brothers and taking a Canaanite wife. His sons end up being louts whom God curses and kills, presumably because they are raised with Canaanite traditions rather then Hebrew ones. Ultimately, Judah reneges on a deal to his daughter-in-law Tamar to fulfil the levir’s duty. She then pulls a fast one on him by posing as a prostitute and getting him to lie with her. When he finds out she is pregnant he condemns her, only to find out that he is in fact guilty of far more.

    Thus the chapter is a morality play indicating once again that consorting with Gentiles, particularly “daughters of men” in this case, is a bad idea and leads to nothing but trouble. Judah’s exposure to Canaanite culture ends up degrading his character such that he fails to observe the levir’s duty, is willing to solicit prostitutes, and hypocritically condemns his daughter-in-law for allegedly sleeping around.

    One thing worth noting is the interplay between Judah and his friend Hirah. Judah kept company with this “Adulamite”, obviously not an Israelite. Note in all three references to
    Hirah (v. 1, 12, 20) he is explicitly labeled “Adulamite”. Why so emphatic? To emphasize he is not Israelite. Hirah is involved with Judah’s harlotry with Tamar, and even goes to redeem the pledge. He must therefore at least tacitly approve of this kind of behavior, he may well in fact encourage it. Also, note each time Hirah is referenced the text is dealing with Canaanite women. Hirah is persuading Judah to act like a Canaanite, and Judah is not persuading Hirah to act like an Israelite and worship the Lord. So, the moral of the story is to not keep company with worldly people who get you into trouble. Thus, it is another warning
    to Israelites about their Canaanite neighbors.

  34. Julie in Austin on October 5, 2005 at 11:28 am

    Kurt–

    Excellent insight. Thank you.

  35. Madera Verde on October 5, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    I have yet another interpretation. It seems to me that this is a Christ story.
    On a general level, the house of judah is under condemnation for rejecting Tamar, with whom they are bound with covenants (In other words not living up to their covenants with her). Because of her actions the condemnation is lifted, and also Judah’s heart is softened as his wrath is turned away.
    More specifically this is a prophecy of the last days. The house of Judah (Jews) will reject their rightful “spouse” by rejecting Christ. They will be punished for so doing. Christ however will come unto them in the garb of false religion (Symbolized by a prostitute. An apt symbol especially for O.T. symbiology) and because of that when he comes again and presents the signs of who he is/was the house of Judah will repent and reject him no more saying, “Thou art more righteous than I = Thou art the holy one of Jacob”

    If you accept that interpretation the important point for us, because we already know from other scriptures about that particular act of the 2nd Coming, is that other religions in fact can help people come into Christ, despite their being false on some levels. We can see that is true by considering modern examples, but its good to see that sort of thing in the scriptures.

  36. jimbob on October 5, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    “(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.)”

    I won’t go any farther with this than to say that I don’t disagree, but that I don’t agree either. It could be that Onan’s real sin was masturbation. Or, it could be that the Lord was angry at his failure to follow his father’s counsel. It could be any number of things Onan probably did wrong in Genesis 38. But I think that the masturbation explanation by itself is as plausible as any other and fault no one for saying so, and am a little surprised that you reach that conclusion so quickly.

  37. Julie in Austin on October 5, 2005 at 2:33 pm

    “But I think that the masturbation explanation by itself is as plausible as any other and fault no one for saying so, and am a little surprised that you reach that conclusion so quickly”

    Ack–I said I didn’t want to discuss this, but the masturbation explanation is less plausible in context:

    Genesis 38:9: “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.”

    It is far more likely that this is coitus interruptus than it is that he is masturbating in the same room as his wife. Please let this be the end of this discussion.

  38. Kurt on October 5, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Onan’s sin was that he wanted to have the fun, but didnt want to give his brother children per the levir’s duty. If he would have rejected the levir’s duty on the grounds of principle, then he wouldnt have gone and had the fun. The result is sexual immorality. Thats the entire underlying premise of all of the stories that deal with Israelites mixing with Canaanites: Lot marries a Canaanite woman and has slimy daughters, Dinah hangs out with Canaanites girls and gets raped, Judah lives with Canaanites and takes a Canaanite wife and ends up doing all sorts of nasty things, and his sons are nasty too. Thats the entire point of the cautionary tales, to warn Israelites to not intermingle with heathen idolaters.

    The connection to other things, which Julie has no interest in discussing, has more to do with the Roman Catholic notions of “wasting seed” than the Gen 38 story. Since we dont subscribe to RC stuff, then we can ignore the whole “Onanism” thing from their POV.

  39. jimbob on October 5, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    For the record, you said you didn’t want to discuss the “Church’s teachings about masturbation.” I didn’t bring any of those up. To the extent you had a more expansive, but uncommunicated, view of what you were prohibiting, then I apologize. Perhaps the best way to not have comments on it is to not bring it up in the first place; your post is complete without that doctrinal assumption anyway.

  40. jimbob on October 5, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    Kurt (#38):

    I’ll repeat what I said to Julie. I think that’s perfectly plausible explanation, but don’t think the scriptures definitively indicate what Onan’s sin was or was not. Thus, that your assertion is laid out as fact, as opposed to starting “my interpretation is that…” is a little misleading.

  41. Julie in Austin on October 5, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    jimbob–

    You are right that I should have been clearer that I didn’t post this to encourage a discussion about *anything* having to do with the m-word. So no apologies necessary. I apologize for not being clearer.

    Because you haven’t provided any data to support your position while Kurt and I have explained why ours fits better given the context, I’m not sure how else to respond to you.

    (And did I mention that I didn’t want to talk about this (grin)?)

  42. jimbob on October 5, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    That’s a rather mixed message. Do you want me to or not talk about it? I’m okay letting it drop if you would rather this didn’t become an uncomfortable threadjack for you or anyone else. It’s not my first time discussing the various doctrinal views on this subject, and I think I know where most of the arguments go on this, so I don’t need this for intellectual stimulation any more than you do. Let me just state my conclusion: once again, while I think your understanding of that passage is perfectly supportable, I also think the obvious ambiguity in the scriptures as to Onan and his sin leads to many perfectly supportable conclusions. I tend to side with Kurt’s interpretation on this, but, as I stated, don’t have anything against anyone who wants to say that God’s punishment was for (a) Onan masturbating; (b) Onan trying to effect a primitive form of birth control; (c) Onan having sex for fun only; (d) Onan not fulfilling a personal commandment from God; (e) Onan not fulfilling the a personal commandment from Judah; (f) Onan not fufilling the traditional Hebrew role of taking care of family after the death of a brother; (g) Onan not following through on a promise he made to either Judah, or his brother, or Tamar; (h) some combination of the forgoing; and (i) a host of other explanations. What I’m saying is that I don’t think that either you or Kurt have any explanation that doesn’t rely wholly on your interpretation of what happened there. I’ve never seen an authoritative explanation on this issue (although some GA’s have speculated on it, mostly in the 19th century). As a result, all explanations on this issue usually don’t go any farther than a well-meaning eisegesis. Accordingly, I have become agnostic on this passage: I don’t know what the truth of it is, and don’t think that anyone else can either. And maybe most importantly, I think whenever someone is telling you what this passage means, s/he should start the explanation with, “in my opinion” so as to not mislead anyone that there is a consensus on this issue.

    All that said, I find it odd that on a web site where neither discussions on the increase of feigned lesbianism or sleeping with your father in law while pretending to be a harlot are taboo, a doctrinal discussion on masturbation still elicits an “ack.”