Monday 24 May 2010

The Grace of Exposed Sin (Genesis 38)

"I am sure that God is bringing good out of evil every single day"
Mark Ashton, 3 March 2010

Genesis 38 is one of those chapters you probably skipped in Sunday School. It's a story about sinful actions, selfish desires and God's judgement. No one comes out looking good in this chapter. Yet, to much of our embarrassment, there it is. In the bible, to be read, in church, in our homes, and applied in our lives. What on earth do you with Genesis 38?

Answer? You read it and marvel: at how amazing, gracious and loving is the God of the bible, who brings good out of evil, every single day.

1. Judah

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
(Verses 1 to 5)

The story revolves around Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel, and picks up from the previous chapter where Judah and his brothers have just sold one of their younger brothers, Joseph, into slavery. In fact, selling Joseph was Judah's bright idea. The brothers simply wanted to kill Joseph. But Judah thought, why not make a quick buck while they were at it? So he suggested that they sell Joseph, their own brother, to a gang of slave traders en route to Egypt.

So Judah isn't what you could call, a nice guy. But by the end of this account, we will see how God convicts Judah of the wickedness of his own sinfulness and brings him to the point of repentance for his actions.

Chapter 38 begins with Judah marrying a local pagan girl and having three kids. Already, this looks bad. Judah's father and grandfather were not allowed to take a wife from among the local Canaanite women, for fear of being enticed into ungodliness. Isaac and Jacob, Judah's dad and granddad both got wives from the distant home of their forefathers. But here Judah doesn't consult his father Jacob. Judah is a guy who makes up his own mind, thank you very much - in choosing his best friend (a man named Hirah the Adullamite, who will play a key role in Judah's sin later on), and in choosing his wife (a Canaanite woman named Shua). The brevity of his encounter with Shua and his marriage to her, suggests that Judah is a man who decides his own path and acts on his own impulses. He marries Shua and lays with her. As we read on, notice how Judah is constantly giving instructions to others. He expects to be obeyed, yet displays no willingness to submit himself to his own father, or even to his own conscience.

2. Tamar

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death.
(Verses 6 and 7)

So, apparently, while Judah feels free to choose his own wife, the rule does not apply to his own sons. Judah "got a wife for Er, his firstborn". But God sees Er's wickedness and kills him because of it. We are not given any details on how Er offended God, but it must have been pretty serious. Not since the earth was destroyed by flood in Noah's time, or when Sodom and Gomorrah was levelled at the time of Abraham, has God visibly struck down sinful man. And even then, these were judgements poured out on masses of people, who had collectively sinned against God. Here, God kills this one individual. It is extraordinary in circumstance, but the uniqueness of the event, hints at the seriousness of Er's wickedness before God. It might be worth comparing him with his younger brother's sin later in verse 10, who also suffered the same fate and was similar described as "wicked in the LORD's sight".

Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother."
(Verse 8)

With the firstborn dead, Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to "fulfil his duty". The request is as crude as it is direct. Judah doesn't say, "Marry Tamar, take care of her, and honour your brother's memory by raising a family with her." There is no hint of marriage. Only the very functional instruction to "lie" with Tamar - literally, to go into her. He doesn't even address Tamar by name - she is "your brother's wife", perhaps appealing to Onan's sense of duty, or even sympathy.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 spells out the Mosaic law of levirate marriage (the word "levir" derived from the Latin word for brother-in-law; the Hebrew equivalent "ybm" appears 6 times in the passage). So, there was provision for this practice among God's people. We will look at how this applies in the following verses.

We studied this passage at Rock Fellowship recently, and as usual, we began by having members read a few verses each aloud. I do pity the brother who struggled to read out verse 9!

But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother.
What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.

(Verses 9 and 10)

Onan refuses to carry out his duty and verse 9 tells us why. Any offspring would not be his. This could mean either that Onan was worried that he own estate would be put at risk - in the scenario that he doesn't have children of his own, any sons borne to Tamar would be in his elder's name and inherit Onan's wealth upon his death. Another possible motivation is greed. With Er dead, Onan now stood to gain the larger portion of the inheritance. Producing an heir for his elder brother would negate this. So, it could either have been an aversion to risk, or Onan's motivation of greed, that led to his refusal to comply with his father's wishes.

But there is another possibility - shame. Onan didn't simply refuse to carry out his responsibility. Rather he deceived everyone into thinking that he did. He still slept with Tamar. But whenever he did, Onan would deliberately take steps to make sure she would not be impregnated. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that Onan's sin was that of masturbation, as described colourfully in verse 9. Such is the use of the word "onanism". However, looking at the context of Genesis 38, what Onan was practising was closer to coitus interruptus.

It is interesting to note that the law of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25 spells out a very peculiar form of punishment for a man who refuses to adhere to the Mosaic code. In essence, the law says he is to be shamed. This is in stark contrast to all the other penalties which involve compensation and payment. In this case however, the widow had the right to publicly humiliate the offender.

His brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
(Deuteronomy 25:9-10)

So Onan wanted to keep up appearances without keeping to his promises, all the while avoiding the shame of public exposure (on himself as well as his future offsprings - who would be labelled the 'Unsandalled ones'); all the while sleeping with Tamar. Notice, that verse 9 indicates that he did this frequently and repeatedly, "Whenever he lay".

However, he could not hide his actions and motives from God. Onan was struck down for his "wickedness".

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." For he thought, "He may die too, just like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.
(Verse 11)

Judah sends Tamar home. On the surface it looks like it is in her best interests. There, Tamar would be cared for in her father's household until Shelah, Judah's son was old enough to marry her. The text tells us, however, that Judah is more concerned about Shelah (what a name to give your kid!), and may not have intended to give him to her. He may have even been superstitious about her very presence, and wanted Tamar to be as far away as possible from his only surviving heir.

Whatever his hidden motives, Judah's words constituted a betrothal. All the more serious, when we consider how his subsequent sin in the following verses, would constitute adultery against his own son.

3. Blind to sin, justified in condemnation

After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
(Verse 12)

Sheep-shearing was a season of celebration - marked by feasting and drinking (Esther 8:17, 1 Sam 25:2-8 - a good day , 2 Sam 13:23-24). As owner, it was also important for Judah to be there with his workers (eg. Laban in Gen 31:19, Nabal in 1 Sam 25:8 and Absalom in 2 Sam 23:24).

However, the celebration would have been at contrast in the wake of the death of Judah's wife, Shua. We find Hirah with him again. Perhaps he was there to console him in his grief. What is clear is, he is there now with Judah on his journey up to the festivities and celebration.

When Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep," she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
(Verses 13 and 14)

Tamar realises that her father-in-law had no intentions of honouring his promise to allow her to marry Shelah. The son was now of age, but Tamar was still in her father's house, waiting. She hears of Judah's journey up to the sheep-shearing celebrations and she lays out her plan to meet him - what she was about to do was planned. It involved a change out of her mourning attire into a "disguise" and a "covering", which translates an expression can also describe the putting on of perfume.

Then Tamar waits at the entrance of Enaim - which means "Twin Springs" or "Eyes". Genesis wants us to notice the irony in all of this: Tamar waits by the place of "Eyes" to capture the attention of a man who would be "blind" to her identity and his own sin.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said,
"Come now, let me sleep with you."
"And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked.
(Verse 15)

Judah is direct in his speech. No sweet-talk. No opening lines. He propositions her, inferring that Tamar is a prostitute from her "covering".

Yet, Tamar herself is direct and unabashed in her reply. She immediately asks for an offer for payment. "What will you give me?" She leaves it to Judah to set the price.

"I'll send you a young goat from my flock," he said.
"Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?" she asked.
He said, "What pledge should I give you?"
"Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand," she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes again.

(Verses 17 to 19)

Judah's offer of a goat is substantial. Proverbs 6:26 mentions a "loaf of bread" as payment for a prostitute's services (going with the ESV's translation of "price" against the NIV's rendering of "reduces you to").

Tamar requests a guarantee of this promised payment; a pledge consisting of Judah's seal, cord and staff; the ancient equivalent of his credit cards and passport. They were personally and specifically identifiable to him. The seal was a small, tubular-shaped and made of clay with engravings on its side (There are examples on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum). This was rolled into wax to leave an imprint of its owner. It typically had a hole in it and the cord mentioned in verse 18 was the rope or string that threaded the seal, allowing it to be worn round the neck.

Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her.
He asked the men who lived there, "Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?"
"There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here," they said.

So he went back to Judah and said, "I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here.' "
Then Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn't find her."
(Verses 20 to 22)

Eager to retrieve his personal property, Judah sends his buddy Hiram with the goat to search for the prostitute. Tamar isn't there, so Hiram tactfully tries asking around for her. He enquires among the townsfolk of the "shrine prostitute", a slightly different term from the one used to describe Tamar in the earlier verses, and more politically-correct one.

It is interesting to see Judah so determined to honour his agreement with a stranger when he has been less than honourable with his own daughter-in-law. The irony, of course, being they are one and the same! Still, it becomes clear that Judah is trying to cover up the matter as quickly as possible. "Let her keep what she has," he says. He is thinking about the seal, cord and staff that he has lost, yet Judah is more afraid of losing face should his encounter be discovered, "... or we will become a laughingstock."

Despite all that has happened, Judah can still justify his own actions. "After all, I did send her this young goat." He did try to honour his part of the agreement, didn't he? His eyes remain closed to his actions at the place of "sight" (Enaim). They will not stay closed for long.

About three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant."
Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!"
(Verse 24)

Judah discovers his daughter-in-law's pregnancy and his immediate reaction is outrage. "Burn her!" he instructs his servants. No need to check the facts, no need for explanations. Tamar has sinned. Tamar should be punished! Again, Judah feels entirely justified in his actions and words.

Verse 24 unpacks Judah's hypocrisy at several levels. Firstly, Tamar no longer lives under his roof. She is under her own father's care and authority. Secondly, Judah has himself recently slept with another woman not his wife.

But thirdly, Judah was quick to mete out a punishment that was so severe, it was reserved for a specific situation in the bible. Burning was only outlined in Leviticus 21 for daughters of priests who had prostituted themselves. You see, the only way Tamar could come close to being guilty of committing the specific sin of adultery, was if she was formally engaged to Shelah. However, Judah himself had taken steps to prevent this from happening. He never intended to let his only surviving heir marry this "black widow", yet was more than willing to keep up appearances, even if it cost Tamar her life. He might even have seen this as the perfect opportunity to get out of the sticky situation.

The real question is: why was Judah so angry? He is so angry that he demands that another person be burned alive as punishment for their sin. Why was he so incensed?

Judah is being religious. He is. He can see sin clearly. Just not his own.

When it is someone else's sin, that's bad. When it is someone else's fault, they need to be punished. And sometimes we need to realise how blind we are to our own sinfulness by simply looking at the last time we lost our temper. Was it over something that we needed to repent first of, before pointing it out to others? And sometimes it is precisely because we know that we are guilty of that same sin, that we are so passionate about it with others - in church, at home, on our blogs and Facebook - it's hypocrisy.

This isn't some of us, it's all of us. One thing the bible does is not just expose our sins, but our hypocrisy and blindness to our sinfulness. And God does this for our good, that we might begin to realise just how messed up we are but how gracious he is. For Judah, he thinks he is fooling everyone around him, by hiding the fact he went to see a prostitute, by living his life his own way but telling others how they should listen to him when it comes to their life decisions, by being hard on the sin of others and laying down the law - but in the end he cannot fool God, and he only fools himself. In such an instance, the one gracious thing God can do, is expose his blindness.

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 recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."

Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.

(Verses 25 and 26)

Tamar lets the evidence speak for themselves. The seal, cord and staff belong to Judah. Judah is guilty of adultery. Judah slept with his own daughter in law!

Now, look at Judah's reply. Notice that he doesn't try to cover it up. Judah doesn't make excuses about not recognising who Tamar was, of the grief he had in being recently widowed - none of that. In fact, he goes one step further. He admits his earlier fault in withholding Shelah in marriage to Tamar.

The scene ought to remind us of another account of adultery and infidelity. In 2 Sam 11, King David took another man's wife to his bed, and tried to cover it up when the woman got pregnant. He killed her husband, brought the girl into his palace, and thought the matter was over and done with. He thought he got away with it. Yet chapter 11 ends with the words, "But the thing David had done displeased the LORD." God saw, and in the following chapter, God spoke.

The prophet Nathan confronted David, not directly appealing to his shame by exposing his sin, but interestingly, by appealing to his sense of justice. In 2 Samuel 12, we read how Nathan told David a parable - of a rich man who stole an ewe lamb from his poor neighbour. David's anger flared up, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Nathan's reply to David? "You are the man!"

Same thing happens here in Genesis 38. Tamar was essentially saying to Judah, "You are the man!"

We see an even tighter connection in the final verses of this chapter.

4. Salvation for sinners

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, "This one came out first." But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, "So this is how you have broken out!" And he was named Perez. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.
(Verses 27 to 30)

The account of the births of Perez ("Break out") and Zerah ("Bright colour"), echo that of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25. A struggle occurs in the womb of the mother. The older brother is displaced by his younger sibling. It is a picture on the one hand, of conflict that is so ingrained in our natures it occurs between the closest of kin. Yet in the bible, it is also a key theme of God's sovereign choice, in blessing the weak, underlining his gracious undeserved mercy in salvation. As with Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, so here Perez in chosen over Zerah.

The birth of twin sons signifies God's mercy over the Judah-Tamar episode. Two sons given for two sons taken. In every genealogy listed on the bible since then, Perez and Zerah are counted as Judah's sons. But the story doesn't end there.

Ruth Chapter 4 ends with a genealogy of King David. Ruth, like Tamar, was a pagan woman. She, too was a widow. And when Ruth gave birth to her son, it was meant to be an adherence to the Deuteronomic law of the kinsmen-redeemer, the levir, who was a righteous man named Boaz. Yet, all genealogies since then, acknowledge Boaz as the true father. The genealogy in Ruth 4 is significant, of course, because it ends with great King David. Yet, notice how it begins in 4:18 "This then is the family line of Perez."

The New Testament incorporates both accounts into the family line of Jesus, the true King, the true Son of David. Matthew 1:3 reads, "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar" and verse 5 reads "Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth".

Four women are notably listed in this line of Kings and important men. All four are unexpected. Matthew doesn't include great matriarchs like Sarah, Rebekah or Rachel - instead, we find Tamar. We find Rahab, a prostitute, the mother of Boaz. Ruth is there as well, a foreign pagan woman from the people of Moab - who was borne of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter-in-law.

And Matthew caps the genealogy of Jesus with Mary. Another girl embroiled in scandal. Whom Joseph married to avoid her being punished for the appearance of having been unfaithful. But from the gospel accounts, we know that Mary had Jesus through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. She was faithful to her vows to Joseph, and in her obedience to God.

Jesus was born to be King. That is what Christ means - it means Messiah, Chosen One - it means God's chosen King. But he was given the name Jesus because "He will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). That is what his name means. Saviour.

And God has brought this great good through great evil. Through a royal family line that is ridden with sinfulness and wickedness, God establishes his king in righteousness and purity. Through a people who would crucify and kill the only innocent man who ever lived, God would bring salvation to sinners, through Jesus' death on the cross.

It's a funny thing that Christians often do when they gather together - they confess their sins, and they ask God show them their sinfulness. Because as believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know we have a saviour who takes our sins, purifies us with his blood, and raises us together with him in righteousness and glory.

Depth of mercy can there be
Mercy reaching even me
God the Just His wrath forbears
Me the chief of sinners spares
So many times my heart has strayed
From His kind and perfect ways
Making clear my desperate need
For His blood poured out for me

Give me grace Lord let me own
All the wrongs that I have done
Let me now my sins deplore
Look to You and sin no more
There for me the Savior stands
Holding forth His wounded hands
Scars which ever cry for me
Once condemned but now set free

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