Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 38
by Chelsey Harmon
Genesis 38 has to be near the top of the list of least-preached texts in Scripture. There’s death (by the hand of God no less), sex—both in marriage and outside of it, and lots of things that parents might not be ready to have their kids understand (i.e. parents are too embarrassed to have to be the ones to explain). In ironic paradox, much of the church has tried to shelter itself from any sort of sexual innuendo or discussion beyond “true love waits” in response to our oversaturated sexual culture.
But to let sex and all of its related pieces keep us from this story is to keep us from learning two important things about God’s view of human righteousness. Both Tamar and Judah give us a window into what it means to be right before God.
If you read Genesis 38 as a stand alone story, then Tamar takes center stage as the character of note. Following the comical “trickster” narrative motif, like that of Jacob, we see how the will of God is accomplished in not so pristine ways because of God’s willingness to let us be a part of his work in the world.
In the first half of things, the action is controlled and focused on the men: Judah leaves his family to settle in a new place; he marries and has three sons; he finds a wife for his oldest, etc. Judah’s wife doesn’t even get a name! She’s referred to as “the daughter” of Shua. Er, Tamar’s first husband, dies because of wickedness; Onan only halfway fulfills the task required by Levirate law (Deut 25.5-10) by insuring that there’s no way for Tamar to get pregnant when they have sex. God, unhappy again, puts Onan to death as well. Judah, fearing for his third son—commentators wonder whether or not Judah thought Tamar a witch—orders Tamar to return to her father’s house and wait for his third son to become a man, implying that he will make sure the family keeps the law of God. Eventually, Judah’s wife dies (still no name…); Judah mourns then gets back to living. Hirah, the friend mentioned at the beginning of the story comes back on the scene, implying that Judah’s cycle of lifestyle choices is about to begin again.
But then, there’s a shift in verse 13. Tamar becomes active, and in her taking control, the cycle is not repeated but redeemed. Upon hearing that her father-in-law is in town, Tamar wonders whether Judah is happy to keep her “out of sight, out of mind,” so she takes off the widow clothes she’s been forced to wear all these years, puts on a disguise and sits at the gate of Enaim which means, “opening of the eyes” to meet Judah on the road. While there, she realizes that the promised husband isn’t going to happen. (The text is unclear, but I picture Shelah on this trip with his father. Tamar sees them on the road and it becomes abundantly clear that Judah’s been stringing her along.)
The fact that Judah has no qualms about propositioning a woman for sex should give us some insight into his character (but more on that later). Instead of trusting him for payment—even though it’s not really about payment for Tamar, but about securing what is rightfully hers, namely a family—Tamar has Judah turn over to her three items that signify Judah’s identity as insurance for later goat payment. (This story is meant to have comical undertones to it.) The deed done, Tamar returns home and to the role assigned to her. Judah later tries to make payment through his friend Hirah, but when they find out that there isn’t a temple prostitute in that region, Judah decides to do as he did to Tamar, “out of sight, out of mind” avoid embarrassment by cutting his losses.
Shame finds him nonetheless. He first thinks it’s the shame that Tamar has brought upon his family, though really, his moral footing is shaky at best. When Tamar returns the belongings that identify the father of her illegitimate child, Judah finally recognizes himself as the guilty one, and not just for having sex with a prostitute, but for how he’s treated Tamar all along. He is the one that stands condemned, not she; he is the one who has something to be ashamed about, not her. In fact, Tamar is never condemned for her actions. Instead, because of what she has done, Judah is humbled and sees how far away from God’s will he has gone: “She is more right than I,” he says. And he never has sex with her again, implying that he does not take advantage of her position and status for his own gain but instead respects Tamar and provides for her as family.
The Old Testament concept of rightness or righteousness is not simply a matter of morals; it is better understood as a key ingredient for shalom. When an act in the Hebrew Scriptures is described as ‘right’ it is because that action preserves or grows the well-being of the community. When the word is used as a verb, as it is in Tamar’s case, it means the subject, Tamar, is right before God and before the law. Though we might be tempted to see Tamar’s actions as sinful and shameful, the biblical text tells us that God does not. Tamar and Judah’s union is part of the lineage that leads to Jesus (Matthew 1); the microcosm of well-being for the family of Judah in Genesis 38 leads to the macrocosm of well-being for the world in Christ. It is yet another story about God working for good the plans and events in the lives of his people, no matter the circumstances.
Genesis 38 seems like an odd story in the larger plot of the Joseph narrative, which begins in chapter 37. Genesis 37 establishes the family of Jacob, his twelve sons, and tells us how eleven brothers deceived their father to sell/get rid of his favourite son into slavery in Egypt. Then, chapter 38 covers a twenty-year time period before returning to, and staying in, Joseph’s saga in chapters 39-50.
Why the interlude? First, the story isn’t really about Joseph, but about God keeping his covenant promises in spite of humanity’s boneheaded and self-centered attempts to foil it by pretending they are in control of their destinies. Second, Judah becomes a family leader in the Joseph narrative, and the Genesis 38 passage shows us how God took him from a man who did not care about his family or doing what was right, to one who was willing to fight and sacrifice to keep the family of God together at all costs. Through Tamar, God taught Judah what it meant to do right for God’s people. Trace the character development from the beginning and it’s a rather miraculous journey.
After selling his brother into slavery, Judah abandons his family to do his own thing and basically becomes a Canaanite. He forgets Yahweh and his familial identity. He is a man in control of his own life. He obviously does not raise his sons to live with integrity as two of them are struck down by the Lord for their wickedness. He has no qualms about breaking the laws of God as he abandons his daughter-in-law while simultaneously keeping himself in a position of authority over her. Paying for sex with a temple prostitute (thereby knowingly committing adultery and idolatry) is no big thing to him. In fact, Judah willingly gives up personal items of authority and identity to be able to feed his carnal, selfish desires. Finally, he feels no shame when he demands that his daughter-in-law be put to death for the shame she has brought to his family even though he’s the one that has shamed their family by not leading them in ways of righteousness.
When Tamar returns his belongings to Judah and tells him to recognize to whom they belong, God’s humbling actions all finally click in his mind and heart. God gave Judah over to his sinful ways and Judah indulged until he finally realized how far away from God and his true identity he had gone. Fortunately, God stood at the ready to receive and redeem his story.
Even without a prayer of repentance, we can see that Judah has repented and been redeemed by God in his realization. He has become a new man, marked by the fact that his carnal and selfish desires are no longer the controlling force in his life—the text makes it a point to tell us that Judah never has sex with Tamar again. (v 26) Instead of selfish desires, Judah makes decisions focused on preserving the family of God.
The Joseph narrative shows us this new Judah and God’s plans to use him to do right for God’s people. Judah returns to his family of origin and to the ways of Yahweh; he becomes the family spokesperson in dealing with the leader in Egypt they fail to recognize as their brother, Joseph. When family unity is threatened in chapter 44, instead of letting his brother Benjamin be forced into slavery (as he did with Joseph), Judah is willing to sacrifice himself to keep his family in tact. And in Genesis 48.8-12, Joseph blesses his son on his deathbed, declaring that the “sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” Judah and his descendants becomes a stronghold in the line of preserving and leading God’s people, all the way to Jesus, “the lion of Judah.”
From one quick to abandon the life and people of God, to one who repented and was changed, learning from his life experiences of God’s will and humbled by God’s grace and mercy, Judah became not just one transformed by God, but an agent of blessing for God.
I had a pair of Christian friends get pregnant out of wedlock. At the time of the child’s baptism, the pastor said something to the effect of, “These parents readily confess that how this child of God came into this world is not the way God would have it be. But they are seeking now to live in honour of God, both by getting married because they love one another, and by presenting their child for baptism, promising to raise her to know God and his righteousness.” It was a clear message to not hold them in shame for something they had sought reconciliation with Jesus about, and it testified to the transformational power of the Holy Spirit through individuals and the community as God worked a bad event for the good of his children.
Judah’s realization upon seeing himself in his belongings reminds me of the sort of experience addicts describe as hitting bottom. Sometimes, they hit bottom on their own and seek help, and sometimes it requires an intervention where loved ones try to get them to see how their addictions have changed and hurt not only themselves, but their communities of loved ones. The hope is that such intervention leads to transformation and restoration for the individual and the family. A friend shared his rock bottom moment: having been kicked out of the house by his wife, he sat on the floor of a motel room and finally realized that because of his drinking, his life was as empty as that room; he saw that he would lose his wife, kids, job, and future without God’s help to change and so he prayed and started the long journey of recovery. Looking back now, he sees how God redeemed his addiction and now uses it for his glory, as my friend journeys with others through AA as a leader in that community.
Chelsey Harmon is an ordained minister in the CRC currently pursuing a ThM in Spiritual Theology from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.