Sermon preached on Genesis 38 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/8/2013 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Tamar: “She is More Righteous Than I”
We continue today our sermon series on key women of the Bible. And so we come to this passage and consider the life of Tamar. Now this might be a bit of a shocking and maybe even a strange Bible passage to you. It might be asked, “Why study a passage like this?” Well, of course, the simple answer is it is in the Bible. God has told us all that Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for our growth as a Christian. That includes this chapter about Tamar and Judah. But even more than that can be said. This is not just another passage in the Bible. It’s one that gets referenced on multiple occasions in the future, for what it represents. This chapter represents the preserving of the line of promise, preserving of the tribe of Judah, the kingly line among Israel. And it preserves ultimately the line of the Messiah, King Jesus, who is the greater son of Tamar and Judah. And so we see Tamar and her two sons born to Judah are mentioned in 1 Chronicles, showing how the tribe of Judah was preserved through this. In the book of Ruth, in Ruth 4:12, some similarity is drawn between Ruth and Tamar, and her womb is blessed that it might bring forth offspring like that of Tamar and Judah. Ruth goes on to show that King David comes from that line of Ruth and her kinsman redeemer Boaz; Boaz who traces his line back ultimately to Tamar and Judah as well. And then when you get to Matthew chapter 1, the genealogy of Jesus is listed, and Tamar is one of 5 women mentioned in that list. It was not normal to list a women in a genealogy and so the fact that she is mentioned in the Messiah’s genealogy reminds us that there is something so noteworthy about Tamar and this story that Matthew found it necessary to mention her. Consequently, despite some of the shock value of this passage, I felt it necessary for us to consider this passage. So far we’ve studied the wives for each of the patriarch, Sarah wife of Abraham, Rebekah wife of Isaac, and Leah and Rachel wife of Jacob. Jacob’s twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel, that great nation promised to Abraham. But one of them, the line of Judah, would be the one through which Jesus would come. And so it seems fitting, as the rest of Scripture does in multiple occasions, to reflect on how God brought Tamar to be the matriarch for the line of Judah and ultimately for the Christ.
Let me state the importance of this chapter in another way. As we consider the importance of this passage, we might recognize that at first it seems a bit out of place in Genesis. Chronologically, it is in the right place. But when you are reading Genesis at this point, it seems at first the story is all about Joseph. Quite a number of chapters in Genesis are about Joseph. About how his brothers, Judah included, sell him to Ishmaelites and how he ends up a slave in Egypt, but ultimately rises to power in Egypt. In the end, Joseph is used by God to save his brothers from famine and death. This strange chapter is in the middle of that larger story about Joseph, and seems to interrupt it. God must have thought it important then, to have it included it in what otherwise seems to interrupt the Joseph narrative. And yet, though it seems to interrupt the Joseph story, it’s like what we said, it’s actually still continuing along the larger story of the Bible. It’s still progressing the story of how the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would be born. And so ultimately we realize it’s the other way around. If anything, the story of Joseph is interrupting this larger story about the line of Jesus. And yet that’s because Joseph would be saving his brothers, including Judah, through that story. Joseph is used by God to save the people of God, including the line of Judah that would bring forth Jesus. But before Jospeh could even do that, first there is yet another risk to the line of Judah. A risk that even Judah seems to put upon himself in some way. That story is recounted in today’s chapter and Tamar is center stage in this story.
Well then, as we dig into this chapter, let me make sure we understand an important cultural and historical practice that is at work in this passage. Some of what might be shocking to some people as they read this passage, actually is not intended to shock us. And that is what is related to this practice known as the levirate law or the levirate custom. This is something pretty foreign to our western culture and so we have to be careful not to unfairly judge their social and familial practices, especially if the Bible does not condemn those practices. Basically, back then if a man was married and died before having any male heir born to him, it was his brother’s duty to take the wife of his dead brother and have a male child with her. The child born in that situation would be considered the heir of the deceased brother, even though biologically that was not the case. The inheritance of the deceased brother would then be passed down to their heir who was raised up on his behalf.
This was an important and honorable custom back then. Not only that, it actually later became formally instituted as a command by God for the nation of Israel. This is Deuteronomy 25:5-10. It was seen as especially important for Israel living in the Promised Land because they wanted to make sure the deceased maintained their inheritance in the Promised Land. This provision looked to secure that inheritance. Another practical benefit of this was that it became a way for a widow to be cared for. Back then, women were cared for first by their fathers when they are growing up, and then by their husbands. However, if their husband then later died, their grown children were to care for their widowed mother. Now if the husband died before the wife had any children, she’d not yet have any children to care for her. She would surely have at least some difficulty remarrying too since she was no longer a virgin. And so this was a well respected way to also provide care for the woman too.
This practice of the levirate system was very honorable, and we see that honor even in the way Deuteronomy’s later provision allowed for a brother to refuse to do this duty. If the brother refused, there was a process by which the elders first were to try to dissuade him. But if he persists then the wife of the deceased brother in a formal ceremony was to remove this brother’s sandal and spit in his face, and he would be publically shamed because of his unwillingness to raise up seed for his dead brother.
And so this levirate practice was well respected at that time. As mentioned, it was later codified in Israel’s civil laws in Deuteronomy. But obviously here way before then, it was already a common practice and culturally considered to be the right thing to do. In fact, several ancient near eastern law codes from the time of Tamar and Judah also codify this practice. And in fact, the Hittite law code, section 193, specifically describes this practice, and that would have been the right time and the right general area for Judah and Tamar. I’m not saying that they were bound by that code, but it reflects the common practice for sure. And what is very interesting, is that Hittite law code lists a sort of order of priority by which family members were to perform this duty. In other words, it says that first it’s the responsibility of the brothers of the deceased to take up his wife and produce an heir. But interestingly, it says that after that, the next person in line to perform this duty was the father of the deceased. So, in our passage for today, that would be Judah. After that the Hittite law code listed other more distant male family members who were to otherwise assume the responsibility. Now to be fair, we don’t know if a Hebrew would have normally placed the father of the deceased in this priority list. We don’t know. But clearly from the Bible we see that the Jews understood the provision in Deuteronomy 25 to apply beyond just the brothers of the deceased. The example for that would be the book of Ruth. Ruth is married by Boaz in fulfilling of this levirate law duty. Boaz was not a brother but a more distant family relative. And before Boaz did that, he told Ruth there was a closer relative who would have the first right to perform this duty with her. That man refused and got the sandal-removing treatment. But it shows that even among the Jews they saw a principle here with the levirate law that extended beyond the immediate brothers of the deceased onto other male family members, with some prioritization based on closeness to the deceased man.
What that tells us then, is that of the several shocking things in this passage, we should probably not add incest to the list. Don’t get me wrong, certainly some Christian commentators thought that was part of the sins in this passage. Calvin thought so, for example. It’s possible that’s a concern here, but I’m not convinced it is. It would be easy for the passage to spell that out, if so. It might be an implied concern. But common levirate practice of that day would say that Judah as the father-in-law was next in line to fulfill this duty if the brothers didn’t. And Judah, surely, in light of this, says that Tamar was more righteous than he in what she did. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to shock us here with Onan’s failings and how Tamar got Judah to fulfill this duty, and Judah’s willingness to go to a harlot in the first place, etc. Let’s just make sure to get shocked the way the text intends to shock us, instead of being shocked unnecessarily because western culture has decided it does not have need any longer for the levirate system. In fact, there are some cultures today that still practice the levirate custom.
So then, with that explanation, this is what we see going on in our passage for today. Judah finds his firstborn son, Er, a wife. This is Tamar. However, God strikes Er down for being evil. The result is that Er, the firstborn, has no heir yet. So then, Judah gives Tamar to his second son, Onan, to do this levirate law practice. That’s what Judah says in verse 8, to do the duty of a brother-in-law for her. As we said, that would bless both Tamar and also Er even in his death. All is good up to that point. But then Onan doesn’t fulfill his duty properly. He acts like it visibly to others, but in secret he works against it. That was verse 9. So God saw this wickedness and struck him dead too. This levirate principle is again mentioned in verse 11 when Judah mentions to Tamar that his last son Shelah would be the one then to do this brotherly duty, once he got old enough.
Well, this leads us then to our second point for today. Having mentioned the levirate law practice and seen it at work here, let’s turn to our second point. Our second point is two examine two key deceptions listed in this passage. The first deception is that done by Judah to Tamar. You see, at this point, he’s supposed to have Shelah do his brother-in-law duty and produce a son with Tamar. Judah tells Tamar that this is the plan — once Shelah is old enough, he says. Instead he sends her back to her father’s house. This is surely a bit of shame, in some sense. Sent back, two men later, no child, not able to move forward in life really, instead just having to wait now as a widow for Shelah to grow up a little more. Notice even her garments in verse 14 and 19 — widows’ garments. At this point, Tamar’s in a place of sorrow, uncertainty, and probably a little shame.
But the real problem comes in that Judah is not honest about his intentions. Look at verse 11. Though Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father’s house and wait for Shelah to get old enough, he obviously didn’t have any intention to give her to Shelah. For verse 11 says that inwardly he was afraid that Tamar was bad news! Judah had her given to his first son and his second son and they both end up dead. Now Judah’s afraid that if he gives her to his last son, that he might lose him as well. Judah’s greatly concerned here, but he doesn’t openly reject Tamar. If he did, that would surely bring shame upon himself. We see he is concerned with things like shame, because in verse 23 that’s why he doesn’t keep looking for the harlot to repay her — lest he be laughed at. And so, instead he handles the Tamar situation this in a deceptive way. He promises her one thing, but clearly he does not intend to fulfill it. By the time verse 14 rolls around, Tamar can clearly see that Judah had not followed through — Shelah was grown up, but she still hadn’t been given to him. Of course, this was the convenient thing for Judah to do, based on his fears. He didn’t want to give Shelah, but remember what we said about someone not going through with the levirate practice, that it was seen as a shameful thing. If he openly refused Tamar of her rights here to the levirate practice, it would be shame surely on Judah. So instead he engages in this deceptive maneuver. Sadly, it leaves Tamar in a bad place and surely transfers shame that would be on him onto her in some sense instead.
But then in light of all this, there is another deception. This one now goes the other direction. This one is Tamar deceiving Judah. As mentioned, her logic was probably something like, well if Judah won’t have Shelah do his duty, then the next in line for this duty is Judah himself. But she surely figures he wouldn’t openly do this either, so she plans a deceptive way to try to make it to happen. So she waits until its clear Judah is not fulfilling his promise, and then she acts. She deceives him with this guise of harlotry. But in the process, she secures his seal, and cord, and staff, as proof that he is the father of the child that would come through this. Surely there was a tremendous amount of risk to pull this off, and there was no guarantee she’d even end up pregnant through it. Her very own life is at risk at several points through it all. We see that in the end when she’s accused of harlotry at the end and Judah declares her death sentence. Yet, amazingly, it all worked out in the end. Her deceptive plan works; she gets Judah to unwittingly do his duty. And she ends up pregnant and safely gives birth even to twin boys.
In our third point for today’s message, I’d like to turn to consider the comparative righteousness of Tamar and Judah, and ultimately of their offspring. This point springs from Judah’s comment in verse 26, where he says that Tamar is more righteous than he. A lot of the righteousness here is surely connected with their regard for raising up offspring for the line of promise, or lack thereof. With Judah and his righteousness, we can see some development here. At first, he shows the good desire to propagate the line of promise. He takes a wife (though not commendably a Canaanite wife), and has three children. He then finds a wife for his first born, Tamar for Er. When Er dies, he calls Onan to do his duty as a brother-in-law and raise up an heir for Er. But after that, things go downhill. He lets his sort of superstitious fear halt his efforts to promote his line. His false blame on Tamar that she was responsible for Er and Onan’s death was not only wrong and presumptuous, but it resulted in him taking this action that put his family line in limbo. It seems he wouldn’t give Tamar to Shelah with his concerns about Tamar, but he couldn’t really marry Shelah to anyone else while he had promised Tamar to be given to him when he got old enough. So what would come of the future line? Would it die off with Shelah because of Judah’s failure to act? Of course, when Judah does unwittingly act to impregnate Tamar himself, he does so unknowingly, but rather engaging in the unrighteous act of being with a harlot, having fallen prey to her seductions. So, Judah’s righteousness is not highlighted. Ironically, you can argue he does the righteous thing by doing his duty to Tamar, but he didn’t even realize it. It was Tamar’s deception that led him unwittingly to do the right thing.
On the other hand you have Tamar. We don’t have a statement of what her motivations were in all of this. We can speculate. But at least from Judah’s perspective, there was righteousness driving her actions. What then were here actions that were keeping with righteousness? Well, the pursuit that keeps Er and ultimately Judah’s line active, is certainly right. If she had not, the very line of the Messiah would be threatened. And surely she chose the right family to identify with. Though she had been sent back to her father’s house, her efforts served to secure here a place in the family of Judah and in the line of God’s promise. She seeks her sorrow and shame to be replaced with the honor of being a part of this family. Her children then receive the inheritance of Er, the firstborn, and she is secured in that family and line.
And yet, the end does not justify the means. We said that back with Rebekah and Jacob. We’ll see in a later sermon the much more commendable approach of say Ruth, who had a similar need for a kinsman redeemer via the levirate practice, and she had opportunity to seduce Boaz into forcing his hand, but she did not. Ruth handled the situation righteously without deception. Tamar went the deceptive route to secure this good thing. And yet in that, Tamar shows she really does fit right into this family. Though she married into it, she’s a true Israel, full of guile and deception like the best of them. Even Judah had engaged in this — he took part in the lie to his father Jacob to make it look like his brother Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Others in this family line also had the same inclinations of guile and deception: Jacob, Rebekah, Laban, etc.
And so Tamar and Judah both show some righteous inclinations, marred with sin. Though, Tamar according to Judah, had a righteousness that was more than his. But we thank the Lord that the offspring that ultimately came from them was more righteous than both of them. I’m talking about Jesus, of course. Their greater son, Jesus would not just be more righteous. He’d be perfectly righteous. And that would qualify him to be the promised savior and redeemer. And so then, this is again the same kind of lesson that we’ve seen in these patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith. People so much like us. People that God chose to redeem, but you can’t say it’s because they earned it or deserved it. Nor can you say that they brought about God’s promise of salvation through their effort. Yes, they are involved along the way. But God shows again and again with these matriarchs and patriarchs that God would save in spite of them! Or maybe we could say, because of them. Because they need saving. Because even their best deeds of righteousness are but filthy rags. And so this encourages us because we can relate. That’s us. And that is why we are encouraged that God saves through circumstances like this. Turn and believe in Jesus, and you will be saved.
To further drive home the gospel today, I’d like to observe another aspect of how this passage helps us to reflect on Christ. Tamar in her actions serves as another type of Christ. Remember, a type of Christ is one who has some aspect that is like Christ, but also shows how they fall short of being Christ. Here, Tamar is one who saves Judah and his line. But how did that come to pass? By first someone else’s sin being imputed upon her. Judah falsely imputed the cause of Er and Onan’s death upon her. Of course we know that she was innocent. If anything it was God showing kindness to Tamar by freeing her from these wicked men in her life. But Tamar had to suffer the shame at least in Judah’s eyes of being responsible somehow for their death. They were really dead for their own sins, but Judah imputed that upon her. Well, in light of that imputed sin that caused her to act in a way that ultimately redeemed Judah and his line, not to mention vindicating herself. And this enabled the real savior to ultimately be born who would save both of them and us. Now she accomplished this “salvation” for Judah and her of course in a less than fully righteous way. But this certainly causes us to look forward to Christ. Christ who would have others’ sins imputed as well on him. Our sins! And he would take on the shame of the cross and die in our place, in order to bring about our redemption. Like Er and Onan we all deserve to be struck dead for our wickedness. It’s grace that God didn’t strike down Judah when Judah treated Tamar so wickedly by sending her to wait and grow old with no son. But the reason any of us are spared from being struck down is because of grace; grace through Christ; that Christ allowed himself to be struck down by God on the cross. Bearing our imputed sins himself. When we believe in him, we then find forgiveness for all these sins. We are then redeemed and have eternal life. Christ did all this, taking on our shame, so that our shame would be removed forever.
So then, in closing is there any final application I can give us from this passage? Well, sure there are plenty of moral imperatives and lessons we can take from a chapter like this. We could learn things like not to falsely condemn others like Judah did with Tamar about why Er and Onan died. It’s a temptation to come to hasty judgments when we don’t know all the facts. Let us not do so! We are also reminded not to withhold from others what we are obligated to give. Tamar should have been given to Shelah. Judah unrighteously held her back in a way that kept him from taking on shame if he had overtly denied her, at her expense. Let us instead give to those what is there due. Another application is to check our fears against reality. Judah had this fear that Tamar somehow was bad luck for his sons. That was not the case. We need to challenge our fears for so often they are not warranted and can get us to do the wrong thing as we can be blinded by our fears. We can again say that we should not deceive in order to get what we want — the end does not justify the means. Lastly, in all of this, look to act in good conscience before God. Do what’s right even when others don’t treat you right. Seek out righteousness and trust God for the results.
So we could point to these several moral applications that come from this. And I do. Take those with you today. But I especially want to leave us today with the application of encouragement. God overcomes the shame of our sin by this greater, most perfect, righteousness of Christ. This is what we’ve seen today. The application is to be encouraged. To lift up your head and smile in the face of whatever brokenness, sorrows, and trials you might have in this life. Live in the confidence of his love and that he will care for you and show you kindness and his faithful to you to all his good word. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.