I wonder how many people came by seeking out her services-- Perhaps dozens, whom she turned away; or, perhaps only one. But when this one came whom she wanted to see, she must have done everything in her power to make him pause, so that “As [he] passed [her], he turned to her and said, ‘Let me lie with you.’” This man ultimately called for her execution.
Who Was This?:
While every part of the story I have told so far could theoretically happen in today’s world, this isn’t a story that comes from some remote modern country with a barbaric human rights record. [Slowly] This story comes directly from the Bible in the book of Genesis, chapter 38.
Tamar is the name of the pregnant woman ready to be executed. The man who picked her up at the side of the road was her father-in-law, Judah. Yet he didn’t know it was her, because Tamar’s face was veiled, and so it came to be that she tricked him into becoming the father of her child. Tamar was no prostitute, she just played one. And this was all part of her master plan to restore her dignity and honor.
I’m excited to preach about this, but I have to be honest. When I opened up my bible a month ago to figure out what I would be preaching about today, I felt heartsick…but only at first. This was one of the most distasteful Bible stories I had ever read, perhaps more suited for late-night television than a church. How could I possibly preach on this for the first week of Advent season?
The Exegesis in Narrative (Explaining):
Looking deeper, however, I quickly realized that this scripture speaks of something far weightier than the details on the surface. It speaks of liberation and of empowerment, which is what this sermon is about today. In fact, given the situation I’m about to unpack, Tamar’s actions were outright revolutionary. Understanding why Tamar did what she did, however, requires more than just surface-level reading of the scripture. We need to know more of her story, and more about the culture of the time. [Slight Pause]
Tamar’s journey as told in the Bible began when she married a man named Er, a son in the family of Judah. Er died without leaving Tamar a son. Whether it’s just or not by our culture’s standards, a woman’s position in this ancient world depended entirely on her family, and her ability to bear children that carry on that family’s name. Male children. This proved extremely important for the people in ancient Israel who primarily survived self-sufficiently on tribal lands farmed by individual households and clans.
Thus, when her husband died, Tamar must have been very, very worried about the future, because without carrying on her husband’s name, she potentially faced an entire lifetime of dishonor without a potential retirement plan. No son meant no place in society, no future, and little opportunity. Nor could she choose to go marry someone else in another family; she was stuck.
Tamar was well aware that any widowed woman with no son could easily become destitute and struggle to live or die begging for handouts. Fortunately, Tamar had one last hope: a cultural custom called a Levirite marriage. The etymology of the word is Latin, with the Levir simply meaning “husband's brother.” It describes a system found in cultures throughout the world that obligates the brother of the deceased to carry on his family name by bearing children with his wife. It’s very male-centered.
This particular example of Levirite marriage can be found in Deuteronomy where it mandates this arrangement for people in that culture, saying, “In an extended family, if one of the married men dies without an heir, his widow must not marry outside the family. It is her brother-in-law’s duty to marry her himself. The first child born from this union will carry on the name of the brother who died, so that his family name will not be blotted out from Israel.” What a relief, right? (Semi-sarcastic.)
Unfortunately for Tamar, her husband’s eldest living brother Onan didn’t want to perform this duty with her. (Aside: Maybe he was gay.) Instead, when it came time for the baby to be made, Genesis says, “Onan knew the offspring would not be his, so whenever he would lie with her, he would ejaculate on the ground to avoid begetting an offspring for his dead brother.”
Onan soon died, too, however, leaving Tamar with a real problem. With her husband dead, and the brother dead also, she could easily be out of luck. To make matters worse, their father Judah refused to let her become involved with his third and youngest son for fear she would corrupt him. (The passage implies a certain sexual looseness about her.)
So, let me quickly back up and summarize this situation. Tamar lived in a world in a society where she had to bear male children for her dignity and survival. Her husband died. The eldest brother refused to perform his culturally mandated duty to bear a child with her. He soon died also. And to make matters worse, the father of the family, Judah, was telling her she was out of luck.
The Civil Disobedience:
For women in the ancient world, situations like this one often spelled disaster. Tamar, however, would not give up so easily, said “I’m not going to accept this situation,” and cooked up a plan suitable for a modern movie plot. (Recap:) She pretended to be a prostitute, tricked her dead husband’s father into impregnating her, and then ended up ready to be burned alive, bringing us right back around to where I began Tamar’s story.
Only, there’s one part I left out, and that’s that she had a backup plan for this eventuality. That’s what makes Tamar so special, because, when she tricked Judah, she took collateral from him for promised payment: collateral of his seal, his cord, and his staff—all of the most important identifying items for the head of a household. Then Tamar disappeared and kept all three items. Judah said nothing of the loss because of the embarrassment.
Thus, nearing the end when she faced her executioners, Tamar said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these . . . Take note, please, who owns this seal, cord, and staff.”
“Judah recognized them,” finally owning up, “saying, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I wouldn’t let my son Shelah marry her.”
She lived. [EMPHASIS] She also bore twins. Tamar fought for her right to have honor in her society—to have a son—and she won. It takes a special kind of personal liberation and highly intentional planning to do what she did, standing up against her cultural norms. Saying “I won’t accept less-than.” Saying, “I will not die.” Saying, “I am worth something… My family line is worth something.” Today, we might call this kind of empowered counter-cultural behavior civil disobedience—it’s what liberated people do when faced with impossible situations. Civil disobedience, when necessary, is something I know most people firmly believe-in here at University Baptist Church.
The Theological Implication / Lesson:
So, because of her acts of civil disobedience, and because of her unwillingness to accept a no-win situation created by her society and the men in her life, we can learn from Tamar’s faith story and live lives of substance. She may be the Bible’s first Feminist activist. We can see through her story that it didn’t matter how much she stepped outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in her culture, because in the end she was right to do it—and she was vindicated. Her vindication was of her own making, and not a man’s; she knew her worth, stood up for herself, exposed who she had to, and it saved her. Tamar found salvation in knowing her worth.
Just to be clear, I don’t seek to uplift prostitution, because it can be a painful and exploitative trap for so many. What I seek to uplift is Tamar’s strength and her unwillingness to just keel-over and die, but instead do anything she could to fight for her right to exist even though it might step on society’s toes and cost her life. She was an empowered individual who knew her worth, and if we look hard enough her story can show us all our worth as well. Let’s cross testaments!
A Connection with Jesus:
Jesus of Nazareth also knew his worth, and lived as an individual who went out of his way to show people their worth as well. I don’t think I even have to tell this church the kind of company Jesus kept—uneducated fishermen, women of all professions—respected or not, the mentally ill, tax collectors,—you name it. And you know what? He preferred their company, and showed them that uplifting their worth means more to God than uplifting the proud and righteous, because the proud and righteous don’t need it! It’s not the healthy that need a doctor… Jesus was a rabbi to the poor, disaffected, and outcasted people in his world. He took them as his disciples… as he takes us as his disciples.
[Pause and smile.] Did you know that Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew includes Tamar from Genesis—the very same woman we just talked about? Most of us skip over that part when reading—it gets pretty boring. Well, I guarantee you that “so-and-so begat so-and-so” becomes wayyyy more interesting when you know exactly who’s in that genealogy.
This is the first of four sermons in a series about the unusual and important women who show up in that genealogy—each one showing us some symbolic aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry for this season of Advent. These genealogies don’t tend to be literal—and the gospel writers contradict each-other here. So, when we see something as beautiful and shocking as an empowered female figure who bore children in Jesus’ genealogy under “not-so-ideal” circumstances, it’s worth asking why it’s there rather than being satisfied that her inclusion is somehow literal. “As-if” they could truly trace Jesus lineage back that far! And then, why would anybody WANT to include Tamar in that list… unless it meant something special?
I believe Tamar in Jesus genealogy provides coded evidence of two things for those who read between the lines: First, it’s evidence that perhaps the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth weren’t on the “up-and-up,” and perhaps the author of Matthew wants those who are aware of this to understand that Jesus and his mother Mary embody God-given virtue just as Tamar and her sons did. Second, it may foreshadow for us that Jesus’ ministry will radically fly into the face of his culture, just as Tamar’s godly civil disobedience stood against the standards of hers.
Next week, Gayla will also be preaching a sermon in this series about Rahab. She pointed me toward a book in our library by Jane Schaberg called The Illegitimacy of Jesus, which covers some of what I just talked about for anyone who wants to take a look. Ultimately, it seeks to show that there’s biblical evidence supporting the idea that Jesus was born under “less-than-ideal” circumstances—far from the traditional concept of a virgin-birth narrative we see in Luke’s gospel. So much for a traditional advent! [Jokingly] But, this is UBC after all.
What does the story of Tamar, as it relates to the story of Jesus, mean for us? Perhaps it means something different for each person, upon reflection, if we let it. The Bible should do that. [Smile] For me, it shows an interconnected example of hard-won empowerment between the Older Testament and the New.
Tamar knew her worth, and fought for it even in the face of shame and death. Jesus, potentially born disreputably, stood for the value of all people—especially the disreputable. These things all stand positively in the face of established social order. Both are righteous in doing so. And both received honor from God no matter what happened, showing a Biblical grace and an endorsement of civil disobedience in favor of more accepting, loving, pro-human philosophies.
I resound with this message, because my own story includes disrepute, and the need to find my worth again. There was a point in my life where I needed to stand up for my rights and take back what was rightfully mine. The last time I preached, I told part of my personal story about getting kicked out of college for being gay. The part I didn’t tell is that I came back the next year to protest.
After being kicked out I fell ill for a month. I could barely leave my bedroom and I didn’t want to eat. I felt worthless, as I had felt worthless for years, and blamed myself for everything bad that had happened. Even after that month, mentally recovering wasn’t fast or forthcoming. What really helped me onto the fast-track to healing was grace-filled radicalized Christians supporting me in civil disobedience.
I joined an organization that pastor Doug also belongs to called Soulforce. I was one of the first ten people to sign up for a project called the Equality Ride, and together we planned a 2-month bus journey spanning the entire country, confronting anti-gay Christian colleges.
Standing before hundreds of people supporting me on the park lawn in front of the college where I experienced so much pain, my life changed. Colorful signs and banners stood in opposition to the cold brick school behind it. Rainbow balloons and noises of people who knew their worth filled the air. The President of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation spoke, as did George Takai—a celebrity hero for those of us who follow Star Trek. And most of all my family came to support me. While one rally may not have changed a closed-minded institution, this great effort of beautiful civil disobedience changed my life. It also showed others going through what I did their undeniable worth.
Before I started this process of planning and traveling with Soulforce, I felt I was worth nothing. Afterward, I knew I was worth everything. That’s the power of standing in civil disobedience. That’s the power of standing with others. Sometimes you have to stand alone, like Tamar. Perhaps Tamar went through a point in her life where she felt she was powerless and worthless. But then she found grace through empowerment. Perhaps Jesus was ridiculed for being born illegitimately and was made an outcast. But then he found his worth, and taught the world theirs. All of this required a certain level of godly civil disobedience.
Necessary, godly disobedience saved my life from despair. It saved my soul, as I found my salvation again when I found my worth—it’s a worth that Jesus taught me. His life and ministry speak it so loudly. In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t tell everybody to repent and shut up to find salvation—he just tells that to the hypocrites who are oppressing others. To the rest of us, he gives a gentle yoke, he says we’re worth so much, and you don’t have to worry about breaking too many commandments when in fact you’re covered by the grace of a God who believes in you no matter the circumstances you face.
It’s that treasure in a field.
It’s salvation. Salvation in knowing our worth.