Monday, June 07, 2010

Racy Bible Stories

Fowlers Toad
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
I missed the sermon a week ago, and it sounds like a good one. It was from our beloved Jay, proving once and for all that men CAN preach.

The biblical passage (Genesis 38) is a strange one, at least to modern ears. It involves "good" prostitution, seed spilling and justice for the oppressed. Preach on, Jay...

For those of you who, after hearing the passage and reading the title of my sermon, are concerned that it is going to be X-rated, rest assured that it will not be inappropriate, PG-13 at most.

I recently read the book How to Read Literature like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster. The chapter titles are very witty, and include When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare… and the following chapter, …Or the Bible. Other examples include It’s All Political, If She Comes up It’s Baptism, and He’s Blind for a Reason You Know.

The title of Chapter 16 is It’s All about Sex… and in this chapter Foster argues that before D.H. Lawrence, one could not write openly about sex and therefore sex was always hidden in the text whenever the author wanted to write about it, which he claims was often the case.

In the very next chapter, which is titled …Except for Sex, he argues that if the author actually writes about sex that it is really about something else entirely. I am inclined to agree with Foster’s argument and say that Genesis 38 is not really about sex.

If I were preaching a sermon from this text anywhere other than Jeff Street I would preach from Tamar’s perspective. I would talk about how Tamar, as a marginalized woman in a precarious situation, took matters into her own hands. I would expound upon her subversive acts and how her actions resulted in justice and renewed hope for her survival. But alas, I am preaching at Jeff Street, and I believe that we do a good job when it comes to being subversive, working for justice, and reaching out in love to those on the margins of society.

So, rather than preach from Tamar’s perspective, I am going to ask that we focus our attention today on Judah...

The season of Easter recently ended and I was originally to preach during Easter but our latest flood postponed my preaching this sermon until today. It is during Easter that we talk about and think upon resurrection and rebirth, and rightly so. But I believe that God has always been in the business of rebirth and I hope to show how the Old Testament story of Judah and Tamar is a wonderful example of rebirth and new life.

In the first verses of this passage we learn that Judah marries a Canaanite, Shua’s daughter, and they have three sons; Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er is old enough, Judah arranges a marriage for him to a woman named Tamar. We are informed that Er is wicked and God takes his life before he and Tamar can produce children. Judah then tells his second son Onan to “go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law.”

This levirate marriage, as it is called, requires that the brother of a deceased man who has died without producing children is to marry his brother’s widow. The firstborn of the marriage is to be the dead brother’s child and heir and thereby would continue the brother’s line and name.

Securing an heir and continuing the brother’s line and name was not the only purpose of the levirate marriage. As Susan Niditch writes, “The law must have also saved young childless widows from economic deprivation and from a sort of social wilderness, no longer under her father, but having no husband or son to secure her place in the patriarchal clan.”

Throughout the Old Testament we find God commanding the Hebrew people to help and care for the stranger, the other, the ones who have no power to care for themselves. This is one of the laws that God has in place to ensure that care is given to the widow. This is one of God’s laws that help to ensure justice.

Onan takes Tamar as his wife but has no desire to share his inheritance with what would be his dead brother’s son, so when he has sex with her he practices the primitive birth control coitus interruptus, thereby formally fulfilling his duty but ensuring that Tamar does not become pregnant.

This displeases God and so God also takes Onan’s life. I want to take a minute to address the instances in this passage that state that God took both Er’s and Onan’s lives. We understand God to be one who is life giving rather than one of death. It is important to understand that the narrator is not trying to teach us about the nature of God, but rather about human responsibility.

Since God’s hand was seen in nearly everything by the original audience, they would have easily accepted this reasoning for the deaths of Er and Onan. An example of this is when you hear someone respond to a tragedy by saying that “It’s just God’s will,” which for the record, I believe is bad theology. What is important here is to understand that the statements of God taking these two lives are not commentary about God, and to draw any conclusions about death as God’s will would be a mistake. Rather, these statements should be understood as elements of the story that help to illustrate the importance of doing God’s will, which always includes justice.

Now, back to Judah…his next move should have been to give Tamar to Shelah. But having lost two sons already, perhaps he is wondering if Tamar is the problem. So, rather than risk the life of his third son, he sends Tamar back to her father’s house and tells her that when Shelah is old enough to marry he will send for her. We know, from our knowledge of the ending of the story, that Judah has no intention of keeping his word. Tamar is Judah’s responsibility and he acts irresponsibly.

By sending Tamar back to her father’s house, Judah has practically sealed her fate. She now has no inheritance rights and is not free to remarry, as she is technically engaged to Shelah. Her future welfare is in jeopardy.

We are not told how long Tamar has been back at her father’s house when we learn that Judah’s wife has died and the required time of mourning has passed. Whatever the length of time, it has been long enough for Shelah to grow old enough to be married. Tamar realizes that Judah is not going to allow her to marry Shelah, so she does the only thing she knows to do; she outwits her father-in-law.

She takes off her widow’s clothing, disguises herself, and sits at the gate or entrance of Enaim where she knows Judah will pass on his way to shear his sheep. As planned Judah sees her and comes to her and asks to have sex with her. She asks him what he will pay her and he replies that he will send her a kid (goat).

She must have been laughing to herself, knowing that she was going to have his kid, but not a goat. (The pun is there even in the Hebrew and actually there are many other word plays in this narrative). She demands collateral, and anxious to fulfill his desires, Judah agrees to give her his “signet, cord, and staff.” The signet and cord were his seal or signature and his staff would have been individualized. These were items of identification, his driver’s license and credit card, so to speak. The next time someone asks you for two forms of ID, think Tamar and Judah.

After receiving his two forms of ID she has sex with Judah and conceives. She then proceeds to put back on her widow’s clothing and heads back to her father’s house. Judah sends his friend Hirah back to Enaim with a kid (goat) to pay the prostitute. The townspeople tell Hirah that he is mistaken, that there has been no prostitute in Enaim.

When Hirah comes back still in possession of the kid, Judah states that he has upheld his end of the deal, that he has kept his promise. He tells Hirah not say anything else, lest he become a laughing stock. Little does Judah know that Enaim is not Vegas and that what happens in Enaim does not necessarily stay in Enaim. I would also point out that Judah considers it important that he has kept his promise in paying the prostitute but seems to have no concern that he has no intention of keeping his promise to his daughter-in-law.

Once Tamar starts to show, word gets back to Judah that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. When he learns this he is outraged. Tamar, being engaged to Shelah, is prohibited by law to marry or have sex with anyone else. It is obvious that she is guilty of adultery, which is punishable by death. Judah immediately calls for her to be brought out and burned to death, despite the fact that the usual means of death for adultery was stoning and that burning was saved for severe cases that included adultery by daughters of priests.

Judah was so angry and his indignation was so strong that he pronounced her sentence without giving her a trial or even a chance to speak.

As Tamar is being brought out to be burned to death, she plays her trump card. She sends word to Judah that whoever owns these things is the father of my baby, and she pulls out his signet, cord, and staff. When Judah recognizes these things as his own, he immediately states that Tamar is more righteous than he is because he refused to give her to Shelah as he promised and as was his duty.

The story ends with a joyous resolution to Tamar’s crisis; she gives birth to twins. Their birth is an unusual one in which the baby who initially reaches his hand out, withdraws it and his brother actually comes out first. They are then given the significant names Perez, which means breakout or bursting forth and Zerah, which means rising sun or a dawning.

So what is it that we have to learn from Judah? Before answering this question it is important to note that the narrator places no moral judgment upon Judah for his having sex with a supposed prostitute which was in actuality his daughter-in-law.

The narrator makes it clear that what Judah has done wrong is to not keep his promise and fulfill his duty of giving Tamar to his youngest son Shelah. Judah’s daughter-in-law is his responsibility and by not acting responsibly he places both Tamar and the community in jeopardy. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, Judah’s sin is of looking after private interest at the expense of the community...

But all this changes after Tamar exposes Judah as the culprit and he admits his guilt in not giving her to Shelah. His confession leads to change. In verse 24 he is condemning Tamar to death, employing conventional understanding of morality and righteousness. In verse 25 he is presented with evidence of his guilt. And then in verse 26 he declares that Tamar is more righteous than he is; which employs a new and radical understanding of righteousness. At least a new understanding for him, but I would dare not say new to God...

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that we at Jeff Street, both individually and collectively, do a good job caring for the marginalized and working for justice, and doing these things through acts of subversion when need be. But if we are completely honest, we would have to admit that sometimes we find ourselves in Judah’s sandals, and are guilty of looking after our own interests at the expense of others.

Maybe we keep quiet when we hear another person being demeaned because of their color, or sexual orientation, or religion, or size, or any other reason, because we are afraid of what others may think about us. Maybe we degrade someone else because they do not act kindly or justly; failing to see them as the child of God that they are. Finding it much easier to criticize and put down someone rather than to pray and work towards a change in their lives.

Maybe we, like Judah, do the right thing the first time, and maybe even the second and third times, but then at some point out of fear or unwillingness to take another risk fail to do the right thing again. Be sure that God’s love for us is NEVER dependent upon our doing the right thing, but often another person’s well-being is.

So let us continue to follow Tamar’s example of bravery, subversion, and demanding justice for ourselves and others. But if we find ourselves to be like Judah and jeopardize the well-being of others, either by what we do or by what we fail to do, may we freely admit when we are wrong and may it serve as an impetus for change in our lives, as it was for Judah.


At 6/9/10, 9:36 AM, Blogger Robert said...

I am an editor for which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I'm sure our baptist audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

Robert Wright

At 6/10/10, 3:00 PM, Blogger Dan Trabue said...

Your BAPTIST audience? They might be inclined to throw us out with the baptismal water, if they're like many Baptists we've known! (Just kidding. Sort of...)

I'll email you, Robert. Thanks!


Post a Comment

<< Home