Where Pastors Fear to Tread

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.

53 thoughts on “Where Pastors Fear to Tread

  1. Stirring post and application here Ann. I do cut Judah some slack with the third son, after all, he buried the last two.
    For the most part, I agree with your perspective on churches missing the mark in love. But having served in a lobby area for several years, I’ve seen many people come to church to ‘meet their needs’ but not necessarily worship or seek God.
    Over the years, youths left the church where they attended as kids citing, “the church is full of hypocrites” etc. What they don’t want to say is that they wanted to live with their b/g friend, club hop, etc without pesky accountability.
    But still your points are valid. In my time of deep need, I was very alone. It hurt, but I just believed that the Lord was hemming me in to totally depend upon Him. But it taught me to be more sensitive to suffering brethren.
    Well, sorry to go on so long!
    Thank you Ann for taking us to Genesis with a lesson for us today. ⚘

    Liked by 2 people

  2. All valid points, Lisa Beth. Unfortunately the people who try to use the Church (and individual Christians – I’ve been there.) tend to sour us on being open to the needy in general. We get tired of being burned, so we put up asbestos walls and may well miss the person who really might have benefited.
    I would cut Judah some slack, too, not wanting to lose his last son. The irony is his condemning her for getting her needs met in such an appalling way, when he might have met the need in a way that was acceptable (in those days). To his credit, he saw the irony and his own guilt and confessed it right away.
    The ultimate irony, of course, is that this is the lineage of the sinless Son of God!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, good one! That’s a beautiful application of the Judah/Tamar story. I’ve never thought of it that way before!

    Most churches are just imperfect and flawed because there are people there! Laughing, but last week I went and visited my hubby’s church with him, which is the “church of no people,” this hiking spot overlooking the mountains. He is all wrong about that, but it was very cute, very thoughtful, and I had a lovely time.

    There are some who have really suffered at the hands of misguided and downright wicked people, sometimes in the name of religion, and my heart really goes out to them. I have to trust that God will reach them someday and to remember the story of Judah and Tamar.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You did a great job with this post. It is actually one of my favorite narratives in the Bible. Way back in 1994 I wrote a short story on this for the magazine I write for. I also noted how Judah redeemed his character by the way he conducted himself when Joseph and his brothers confronted Joseph.

    I thought your application at the end was a valid one. Excellent post!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, David. Our Sunday school class is studying Genesis, and last Sunday we covered this chapter – and I was home with C0vid! 🤦 I’m excited that we’re into the story of Joseph now. Judah does seem to have varying seasons of good and bad attitudes.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Annie I am reading the bible chronologically again this year and just finished this very passage! It’s one of those “I struggle to understand” passages, but your explanation of legitimate needs been met by illegitimate means is a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This passage is one I usually never understand. I have looked at it and like you said skim over it and do not dwell on it. I have always thought if we keep looking to man to meet our needs, we are more often than not met with nothing but disappointment. As a church, we are to try and be there for others but We try to fill in the shoes of the provider and hence end up disappointing people. Maybe we need to focus on being there for others but gently leading them to rely on God by building that in them so that they have that firm foundation. So when people from church let you down which is usually bound to happen as we are not perfect, it does not steer them away from Christ.
    She was wronged and she turned to illegitimate ways to right her situation. I really like your explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! This is really thought-provoking. We so often think of legitimate needs as being the need for money, food, clothing etc – not acceptance, affirmation and genuine friendship and warmth. Thanks for challenging my thinking!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Ann, thanks for writing about a not-so-well-known passage. In a similar vein, my wife and I have talked about how we’ve never heard a pastor preach on the last three chapters of Judges!

    Yes, sometimes the church fails in this regard; on the other hand, people outside the church are quick to do the finger-pointing as well. Jesus said in John 6:39, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” This is true now as it was then.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re right, Keith, there’s plenty of blame to go around. None of us are “righteous,” just varying degrees of depravity. 😕 Just saying, let’s look to what we can change in our own behavior and attitudes, so God can use us. The world will probably still call us self-righteous hypocrites, I just want to make sure I don’t deserve that label. That’s enough of an assignment to keep me busy today! 🙄
      P. S. I’ve never heard a sermon on any of those Judges passages, either. Can’t imagine why… 😏

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Bruce. I don’t know if people realize how important it is to be welcomed. Our family was traveling, and on Sunday morning I was the only one who went to visit a local church. The sermon that day was on welcoming strangers, and I thought,”Boy, did I come on the right day or what?” After the service I stood smiling expectantly as everyone walked right past me and out the door. 🤦

      Liked by 2 people

  9. This passage was referenced in a couple of sermons I have heard. But the focus has been on your ‘favorite’ story of Joseph. The notation in the sermon was to contrast Judah’s unrighteousness (and all his brothers’) with Joseph’s self-restraint against Potiphar’s wife. Reuben was passed over for the firstborn’s ‘double-portion’ because of his sin with his dad’s concubine (Genesis 35). Simeon and Levi were skipped because of their deceitful and violent behavior that caused Jacob to be ostracized in Canaan (Genesis 34). Judah was immoral as you noted. Each of the boys was unrighteous in relation to Joseph in selling him into Egypt. So when Jacob blessed his sons, he elevated Joseph with a ‘double-portion’ by ‘adopting’ Ephraim and Manassah, Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that, C.A. Sounds like a good message. It still amazes me that Judah and other unsavory people are in the lineage of God’s sinless Son. If anyone doubts God’s power to do miracles – look what He has had to work with (us) and what He has accomplished anyway!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. My Sunday school class was talking about it this morning, and it occurred to me this story is a foreshadowing of the day the Pharisees brought Jesus the woman caught in adultery, ready to stone her. The message was the same: you condemn her, but you’re not sinless, either. Judah heard the message loud and clear, even though Jesus wasn’t there in the flesh..

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Can I be honest, Annie, and say this was hard to swallow? But easier because it came from you. I hear your heart. I want to receive the message.

    Jesus, where my heart has been proud or hard, please soften it. Where I’ve judged unfairly, please correct me (gently, please). Thank you for the areas I’ve already grown in by your grace. Thank you that by your grace, I’ll continue to grow. Amen.

    Much love to you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my, Sara Jane, I was bracing myself for a rebuke! (Usually when someone says, “Can I be honest?” I know pain is likely to follow.) I admire your willingness to be vulnerable, and that the Lord blessed you for it. I cringe when people are rude and then say, “I’m just being honest!” To speak the truth in love is something believers need to aim for. To be like Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” We’re not told what happened to her, but I tend to think she received His gentle admonition and followed Him from that day on.
      Thanks so much for your frank and encouraging feedback. Blessings!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no! LOL. I’m sorry I scared you there for a second. I do try to be honest, but hopefully not in a rude and disrespectful way. Of course, I know I mess up and it comes across that way sometimes. What I truly meant was that your message was difficult for me, convicted me, and pointed out how much I need to grow. And pride doesn’t like to grow. If that makes sense. But I know you’re not condemning me with your post. It was kind and true. And that makes the message easier to bear. Oh, goodness! I hope we’re cleared up. LOL. I love reading your blog. You often add a twist I wouldn’t think of, and you’re brave and speak the truth boldly yet with so much grace! I’m (hopefully) learning from you. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Very much an interruption of Joseph’s story. This odd event just drops in our laps as we are focused on the life of Joseph. It almost feels like an edit, to drop-in this quick story where it doesn’t seem to belong. At the same, it’s intentional to be placed there. In doing so, among other reasons, I believe we learn that we can expect ugliness to appear on the journey toward a holy life. So glad you brought this up, Ann. God’s grip – Alan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Alan. Yes, we were discussing this story in Sunday school yesterday, and the fact that it was put where it is for a reason. Judah’s deplorable failure is followed immediately by the incident with Potiphar’s wife, where Joseph acts with utmost integrity.
      (Have you noticed a similarity between Joseph’s situation and the Garden of Eden? “You may eat of any fruit in the Garden except that one.” “My master hasn’t withheld anything from me except you, because you are his wife.” Similar scenarios, different responses, different outcomes.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Spot-on application, Ann! Though the primary mission of the church is to proclaim the good news of salvation through Jesus, people sometimes need to experience love, acceptance, and assistance before they’re ready to trust in Jesus. Lord, help me take note of every opportunity to minister, to be a part of the transformation process. Thank you, Ann!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I recently read a thread on why people left the Church. While some of the reasons were ‘legitimate,’ some made it quite obvious that the ‘reason’ was just an excuse for those individuals to leave the Church. They were just waiting for one. I don’t think that’s fair to then go and blame the Church. But, you’re right – not all Churches are perfect. And those that ARE, are not perfect for all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Goldie. Not everyone leaves the Church for legitimate reasons. Just as any other passage in the Bible, this one offers an opportunity for self reflection. If the shoe fits, kick yourself with it, and make the necessary adjustments. If not, no need to wallow in false guilt. As always, prayers for discernment can go a long way in guiding us through individual situations.
      Have a blessed weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thought provoking, and challenging. Yes, as a pastor I don’t believe I have ever preached on this story, although I have always emphasized with Tamar. I believe you’re right, everyone needs love, and that is what always draws people to Jesus, we need to be that love—to all. If denied, it will be found elsewhere, right or wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hope Chapel Foursquare Church in Red Lodge MT. I have however, just stepped down from the pulpit for a season. After 20 years of bi-vocational ministry I was overdue for a sabbatical. And I strongly feel the Lord pulling to minister to, or from, another community. So I will keep working construction, loving on my many grandkids, build my new home in Bridger MT, and wait on the Lord. And oh yeah, keep blogging. 🙂

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  15. I understand. Our pastor was asking this morning, with reference to Jesus’ call to be “fishers of men,” where is our “fishing hole”? Who are “the fish”? Glad you’re out there shining your light and casting your nets. 🙂👍

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