“Wonder Women #1: Tamar”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
July 2, 2017
First Congregational Church
University Baptist Church
Mary Kay, Daniel and I sat down early last week and contemplated what would be a helpful series upon which to focus our energies during these four weeks of combined services between our congregations. We looked at the lectionary readings, particularly the stories out of Genesis. But there are stories that are left out of the lectionary. What about the stories deemed too scandalous for polite church services? Now there’s something that sounded like too much fun to pass up. So we looked at the four women that appear in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. What do they have to teach us? We are calling the series, “Wonder women.”
On Thursday night, I told my daughter that I needed to do some research for this sermon. So we went to the local cinema to watch the latest DC Marvel Blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” It was a visual spectacle, complete with lots of battles, bullets and swords. After the first 15 minutes or so, the all- female cast was supplanted by a 1.5 female cast. And while the film played with the hero’s goal of redeeming the world through superior violence, it never really left it aside.
Becca exclaimed to me that a better role model is not the Goddess in the film, but the real-life wonder women in the film “Hidden Figures”. Well- played, Becca. Well- played.
Theologian Jane Schaberg said that the four women in Matthew’s Genealogy, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba are put in there to point toward the fact that Jesus follows in a long line of outcasts, constantly challenging patriarchy and the status quo. They also remind us that there was illegitimacy in the royal line. These four women are all outcast because of their gender, their nationality and their status. But all four of them are wonder women. They buck the trends and demand to be heard and seen.
As Schaberg wrote, “…each of the women, like Mary, showed initiative or played an important role in the plan of God, and thus they were vehicles of divine intervention.”(The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, 1987, p.21)
Our own Gayla Marty was so intrigued by this that she wrote an Advent liturgical drama with the four wonder women of the genealogy front and center. That’s a Christmas pageant UBC-style.
Since most of the stories in the Bible are about men and across the centuries have been commented on only by men, there might be something missing. As Cynthia Ozark wrote, “we have been listening with only half an ear, speaking with only half a tongue, and never understanding that we have made ourselves partly deaf and dumb.” (quoted in Schaberg p. 4) This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Reimagining Conference. Mary Kay Sauter, Nadean Bishop and many others were a part of that. One of its tasks was to hear with both ears and see with both eyes. And maybe God will reveal something new to us.
So, let’s look at these wonder women, these hidden figures and see what they have to teach us.
The story of Tamar is a convoluted one and really can’t be understood without a little knowledge of the practice of Leverite marriage. This is a part of the Levitical law that retains inheritance abilities even if the family is childless. Lever means brother-in-law in Hebrew. If a man is widowed, it is necessary for his brother’s wife to sleep with the widower. If they conceive, it is the widower’s heir. It was almost like a stud-service. This is all well and good if you have willing parties. In Judah’s family, there were objections to this objectionable act. This alone should give us pause and maybe even some hope. This theme will show up in the story of Ruth, so stay tuned.
If a widow has no offspring, then she has no power. She can own no property and she is left destitute. Judah’s sons were wicked and God slew them. Each had slept with Tamar, so it stood to reason that Tamar was the problem, not the wicked brothers. Judah, not wanting to lose another son, refuses to let him do the next of kin thing with Tamar. Wait until his youngest son is old enough—so like another 15-20 years. So she stayed in Judah’s house, a pariah, a marked women, a husband-killer. Tainted goods. To add intrigue to this, if Tamar did not conceive then the younger brothers would get the inheritance. Poor old Tamar would be left on her own. Sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it?
Papa Judah, the patriarch has no problem with this. His privilege is never in question. He can do whatever he wants. No one will question him, because he has power. Does this sound familiar? Tamar knows this about Judah. So she devises a plan to grant her a place in the genealogy. To give her a sense of power. She takes the initiative and the risk. Tamar disguises herself and hangs out near the place where Judah will be on business. Judah, being the ever-so-faithful husband, enlists the services of one of the temple prostitutes. He pays her for his service, or gives her an IOU—His cord and his ring. These are what you often give in a marriage. Guess what, the prostitute is his daughter-in-law Tamar in disguise. And guess what else? She conceives. It’s kinda incredulous that Judah doesn’t recognize Tamar. I mean come on. But I digress.
Fast forward a few months. Judah sends payment but can’t find the temple prostitute. Such an honest guy. Tamar is pregnant and her surviving brother-in-law accuses her of harlotry. She is brought to Judah to be burned to death for smearing the good family name. Judah and the others call her a nasty woman. Tamar denies being a prostitute. The father of her child promised the world to her. She then produces Judah’s staff and symbol. Judah is caught in the lie. He doesn’t lose his power, but Tamar gains some. She gets her promised inheritance. She points out the flaws in the patriarchal system and gets her and her son in the genealogy of Jesus.
She shows initiative, creativity, resourcefulness and a certain audacity that we ought to emulate. Suspected of bringing curse and shame on the family, instead she uncovers the shame done to her. She brings hope and life. Two sons to Judah for the two that had died because of their wickedness. By the way, all of these sons were mothered, not by an Israelite, but by a Canaanite. The line of David and Jesus is filled with less than pure-blood. Israel came in to Canaan and could have chosen to slay them all or to make friends with them. At least in Tamar’s case, they learned how to make peace with one another.
So what does this have to do with us?
Just this. When have you felt disgraced and outnumbered and outmaneuvered by a system, by a boss, by a co-worker, by a lover? How has it felt? Did the bitterness well up inside you with an urge to get revenge? Did you wish to take up arms? Did you devise a way to get even?
Tamar had very little power, but she devised a way to get not only her revenge, but a trace of her dignity. She mustered all of her power, devised an ingenious plan and took matters into her own hands. She had seen too many of her sisters succumb to a similar fate. They turned their heads to the wall and gave up. I give Tamar kudos for standing up and being counted. For exposing the leader for being a jerk.
She uses the weapons she has available, namely her sexuality, her mind, her available resources. She also could not have acted alone. There must have been some co-conspirators—People who led Judah to her side, people who longed for the truth to set them free. Because if you crack the armor of the system, then more light can get in.
As Jonathan Kirsch writes in his book, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible”,
So Tamar’s sexual ambush of Judah on the road to Timnah was the act of a courageous and resourceful woman who refused to accept passively the fate that the patriarchy of ancient Israel decreed for a childless widow. She was not merely a seducer who tricked her father-in-law into giving her children by playing the harlot. Rather, she was a woman who stood up for her legal rights in the only manner available to a woman of her time and place. (1997, p.137)
Unlike some leaders, when Judah is found guilty, he doesn’t double down or make up things about Tamar. He admits his wrongdoing and tries to make it right. This wonder woman risked everything to save not only her, but her lineage. I want an audacious woman like that on my side, don’t you?
I think of Diamond Reynolds. She was the passenger next to her dying boyfriend Philando Castillo. She had the wherewithal to livestream the aftermath of Mr. Castillo’s shooting and answered the officer who pointed a gun at her with “sir”. That’s a wonder woman.
I think of her five-year-old daughter growing up way too soon telling her to calm down because she doesn’t want her to get “shooted”. Saying, “I’ll protect you Mommy.” That’s a wonder woman.
I think of my own daughters, one at college helping organize a take back the night rally, gathering police and activists and supportive community members together to help make the little town of Morris a little safer for women in abusive relationships. I think of my other daughter, a veteran of many a Good Friday rally supporting Planned Parenthood. She even knit her own pink pussy hat that she wore there just last week. I think of my wife who not only puts up with me, but bravely faces the day as a breast cancer survivor. All are wonder women.
This morning’s Star Tribune carried a story of Native American civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich. She worked to get anti-discrimination laws passed in territorial Alaska in 1945. This hidden figure, this wonder woman will be on a new $1 coin in 2020.
Back at the movie theater last week, the wonder woman character, Diana, was living an idealized life of a princess among the Amazon warriors. Their land included no men. They laughed, they learned many languages, they learned to fight. Even the actress who played Princess Buttercup a generation ago had grown into a warrior general. Diana was the daughter of the queen and was protected. Headstrong and with a wanderlust, Diana needed to know what she didn’t know, what lay beyond her island. She was an adult version of Moana (the sheltered animated Disney princess who would save her people by leaving her island even though her cunning, insight and connection to a power greater than herself). Both became wonder women when they broke from their tradition-bound family structures and set out with a sense of righteous audacity.
There is something to be said for stories that don’t get told—Especially stories that break with tradition, stories that challenge our sense of right and wrong, of whom we should emulate. They balance the triumphant military victories of the warriors with the blindsides of the ruling class. And that gives us hope. We need to hear the stories that were forgotten, left out. For they may show us truth about us.
One final thing. In the last scene of Genesis 38, Tamar gives birth to twins. The first one, Zerah has a red thread placed around his tiny wrist as he was coming out of the womb. Zerah and Perez are born, but Perez (the second born) is named as the ancestor of David. While the oldest is supposed to be the best, the second child is lifted up. But it’s not the first time it happened. Isaac supplanted his older brother Ishmael. Jacob did the same thing to big bro Esau. Judah himself is the fourth-born of Jacob’s 12 sons. Something about tradition and inheritance and the first born has always been a problem. We follow in a long line of people who break with tradition, which is especially good news for those of us who were not first-born. The first- born have a lot of pressure on them. They break in the parents. The second born benefits from all of the parental mistakes that they learned the first time around. They also have someone with whom to compete and confide.
So during this steamy summer month, let’s look at those forgotten stories of these four women. Let’s find what they have to reveal to us. Let’s bring their truths back from the margins—if for no other reason, so that we might have a fuller understanding of not only the Bible, but also our own assumptions about the Biblical record. These stories are in there to show that there is a blessed flaw in the system. And in that flaw, wonder women emerge, demand to be taken seriously and point us in a better direction. Many of these wonder women are in this very room. Thank God.