Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognized whose seal and cord and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I …” – Genesis 38: 24b-26a
As you may have guessed from the excerpt above, Genesis 38 is both complicated and unsavory. I have never heard a sermon with this story as the Scripture reference, probably for good reason. The Bible has ample passages that are more easily dissected and applicable today, enough to keep pastors preaching for decades without delving into this soap opera. But if you’ve ever set out to read the whole Bible, you’ve probably run across this story early on.
Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, took a wife from the Canaanites and had three sons with her. He got a wife for his oldest son Er, a woman named Tamar. The Bible says Er was evil, so God killed him.
In those days, a widow with no children, in danger of utter destitution, was permitted to have children through her late husband’s brother. Judah told his second son, Onan to lie with Tamar, but Onan denied her a child. God was displeased, and Onan died.
Judah promised to give Tamar his third son Shelah when the boy had grown up. But years passed, and Judah didn’t keep his promise.
Finally, Tamar, disguising herself as a prostitute, seduced Judah, who gave her his seal, cord, and staff as pledge to pay her later. After three months had passed, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law had played the harlot and was pregnant. Judah demanded that she be brought out and burned. But when Tamar produced his pledge as evidence against him, Judah declared, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her my son Shelah.”
When my Michigan prayer partner had just read Genesis 38, she commented on Judah’s last statement. Whatever my friend said went in one ear, picked up speed, and went out the other. This was one of those stories I preferred to skip over, as I didn’t know what to make of it, and besides, it was an interruption of my favorite OT story, Joseph!
I should have been paying better attention.
One evening after a service at our church, I met a pastor visiting from Washington state. We shared a lot of interesting experiences and ideas and ended up praying together. He then asked, “Can I get your input on something?” Amused that a pastor would ask for my input, I said, “Sure,” expecting he just wanted a woman’s perspective. He then told me that he’d been asked to preach the next week on Genesis 38 and had no idea what to say about it.
“Remind me what Genesis 38 is about…?” I asked, cringing. You guessed it: Judah and Tamar. As I silently said a quick prayer, I had a flashback …
My daughter Kelly and I had recently been to a Motor City Pride parade to share the love of Jesus with the participants, where we were warmly welcomed with hugs and tears. This seemed ironic to me, that these “sinners” were more welcoming than some churches I had visited…
Suddenly the Judah/Tamar story made sense to me, including and especially what Judah said at the end.
Here’s a summary of the story without specifics and a summary of how something similar is happening today:
A widow had a need that was legitimate, especially in that day. There was a culturally accepted means to get her need met, but in the end, that means was denied her.
Now out of legitimate resources, the desperate widow turned to illegitimate means. Her father-in-law, the very one who had failed her in the first place, heard about her actions and condemned her to death. When she produced the evidence that he was just as guilty as she was, he declared, “She is more righteous than I.”
Understand, Judah wasn’t saying Tamar was righteous, any more than Jesus was telling us to hate our families when we choose to follow Him. (Luke 14:26) Jesus was saying we should love Him more than our families. And Judah was saying Tamar was less despicable than he was. The reason he gave was not primarily his participation in the adultery, but that Tamar was in the position she was in because he had failed her.
FAST FORWARD TO TODAY: There are people (basically every person on the planet) with legitimate needs; they want friendship, love, acceptance, and belonging. There are legitimate ways to meet these needs, and probably the best way is to belong to a loving, accepting church. But what if the Church drops the ball? If these people are not welcomed into the church, for whatever reason – personality, race, social status, baggage, or various dysfunctions – these people aren’t going to just say “Oh well,” and give up. They’ll find what they need somewhere else, such as a gang, a cult, or the LGBT community. Then, when they have met their legitimate needs by what we consider illegitimate means, many in the Christian community will point fingers at them and condemn them as horrible people, not realizing that the reason they are where they are is because the Church has failed them. This is not to say that what they’re doing is right, it is begging the question: If the Church had done its job and loved and accepted those people, would they have turned out differently? (I’m thinking for a lot of them the answer is “yes.”)
Is your church a welcoming place? Could an individual with any background walk in and be met with smiles? Or would the congregation immediately reject certain people, because they just don’t want to deal with their baggage, or because they’re needy and too much work to take care of, or even because the way that person dresses might be an embarrassment? If so, the Church has no right to condemn them when they get their needs met somewhere else.
Prayer: Jesus, Friend of sinners, forgive us for the times we’ve forgotten that we are saved by grace alone and perceived ourselves better than others. We don’t know what others have gone through, but You do. We yield all judgment to You and acknowledge our own dependence on Your mercy. Help us to pass that mercy on to others, in Your name. Amen.