Tamar: Wondering About Righteousness

Read this: Genesis 38:1-19. Also, if you prefer video, you can watch this.

There are some stories we don’t tell. We know that. Maybe we’ve just come this weekend from family gatherings where there are things that, by some unspoken agreement, everybody knows to keep quiet about. Whether that’s healthy or not is its own question – the reality is, there are some stories (some personal stories, some family stories) we just don’t tell.

That’s true of the stories in the book we call holy, too. The lectionary, that division of the Bible into assigned readings for worship that over three years takes us through psalms and prophets and books of wisdom and law, through gospels and epistles and books of visions, even the lectionary leaves out some stories. And this story for today is one of them. The story of Tamar takes up an entire chapter of Genesis, and we aren’t ever directed to read it. Except…from within scripture itself.

It doesn’t appear on any lectionary listing, but it does appear – a reference to it appears – in the words that open the Gospel of Matthew, the book that opens the New Testament. Jesus is introduced by way of a genealogy that traces him through King David, all the way back to Abraham. It’s significant because David’s royal line is how the people understood God to be making the divine will known; and it’s significant because Abraham is the beginning of the story of Judaism.

Like all the genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, this one is meant to tell us something about who the child is by situating him in a whole series of stories: these are the people he comes from – so this line of ancestors, this blood that runs through Jesus, speaks of origins and of authority.

But Abraham and David are only two of the names in this long list – we’ll read a bit more each week. The end of the genealogy recaps it for us: 14 generations from Abraham to David, another 14 from David to the exile to Babylon, and 14 more from the exile to the Messiah, to the birth of Jesus. Forty-two generations are listed, so forty-two fathers. … And five mothers.

Forty-two generations, and only five mothers. And this genealogy breaks with convention to list even those five. Usually these listings tell of a father, who had a son, who had his own son, who in turn had his son – and the women, the mothers, the sisters, are never mentioned.

This genealogy in Matthew, then, is telling us something new – and those are the stories we’re going to explore this Advent. This week we’re with Tamar. Next week Rahab, then Ruth, then Bathsheeba, and on Christmas Eve, we’ll look at Mary’s story. These aren’t the typical stories that lead up to the nativity, but they are integral to that story; they are woven into Matthew’s telling of it – they’re just, most of them, the kinds of stories we don’t tell in polite company.

So do this: When you hear the story of Tamar, think about the Black Lives Matter movement. Think about protestors who don’t let shoppers into stores on Black Friday because they want to disrupt the economic system. Think about people who have been criticized for their tactics and who say to that criticism, “You think it’s rude that we’re blocking doors to department stores in Chicago’s shopping district? Because we think it’s unconscionable that another black teenager would be shot with as many bullets as he is years old and no one would be held accountable for his murder.” Think about those protestors as you hear this story…

Or think about Talitha Kum, a network of nuns that operates in more than eighty countries, and takes its name from the story where a father comes to Jesus and says “please save my daughter” and by the time Jesus gets there, the guests are mourning already and they say the girl is dead. Jesus says to her “talitha cum” – Aramaic for “little girl, arise!” – and she does. So these women, who’ve adopted that name, dress as prostitutes to infiltrate brothels around the world. Once they’re in, they work to buy back children and adolescents who are being sold as victims of human trafficking. Think about those nuns and their work as you hear this story…

If we can hear those stories as analogous to Tamar’s, then maybe some of the scandal of her story will disappear, and other elements of it will emerge. Here goes:

You read that Tamar was married to a man, Er, who died, and they had had no children. An Israelite custom known as levirate marriage says her husband’s brother should marry her next, and any children that come from that union will be thought of as the previous man’s children. Er had a brother – he had two – and the older one, Onan, came forward, not to marry Tamar but to sleep with her. They also had no children – he made sure of that – so when he dies, she’s alone again, with no one to support her or ensure her well-being.

There’s a third brother that ought to step up next, but by this point, her father-in-law, Judah, has grown pretty reticent to giving his sons to this woman. He stalls. She knows it. She grows older, and her situation grows more precarious. There aren’t many ways for women in the ancient near east to be secure outside of traditional marriage and family structures.

So she puts on a costume. She’s waited years by this point, and it’s clear the family she married into is not going to provide for her. But she hears her father-in-law is coming to town, so she dresses up like a prostitute and sits by the side of the road, the place where one would hire a prostitute, if one was looking to do so. And her father-in-law is. He approaches her without hesitation – not knowing it’s her – and he hires her. Sleeps with her. Leaves, with promises that he’ll pay. She doesn’t trust him to send payment – why should she trust him? – so when he says, “I’ll send you a goat,” she says, “Give me something now – give me your cord, and your staff, and your signet – until the goat comes.” They have this conversation, and he still doesn’t know who she is.

And that – his not knowing, some commentators say, is a real indictment of him; if he can spend this time with her, talk with her, and still not have any idea of her identity, it’s an indication of how little he knew her to begin with, how totally disinterested he has always been in this member of his extended family. But he hands over what she asks for.

And this is smart on her part, because the stuff she asked for is totally identifying. Today, it’d be like if someone handed over their license plate and their credit card and their school photo I.D. He doesn’t think twice about it.

Later he tries to send the payment that he’s promised. He sends a messenger with a goat, and the messenger asks around town, “Where is the prostitute, who sits by the side of the road?” And without exception, everyone he asks tells him, “There has never been a prostitute here.”

And then a few months later, word makes its way to him that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Someone says to him, “she’s played the whore,” and his response comes fast and harsh – he says, “Burn her.” He demands that she be brought to him for this punishment.

And when the men who do his bidding come for her, she hands over the things she’s kept. She sends them back to him, with this totally unnecessary message: “It is by the man who owns these things that I am pregnant.” She says, for added punch, “See if you recognize them.”

And now, for the first time in this story we can say “to his credit” – he is poised. He is caught, to be sure, but given that just minutes ago he was incensed enough to kill her, what happens next is remarkable.

When he is confronted with his own part in this story, his complicity, he drops the demand on her life. He admits, “I wouldn’t give my son to her” and then he says, out loud, “She is more righteous than I am.”

Is that the word you would have used to describe her? Righteous? What…else… comes to mind?

When Judah calls Tamar righteous, it’s because of what she did – not in spite of it. And when he condemns himself, it’s because of what he didn’t do. His fault – the one we should really be concerned about here – is not in sleeping with her, even though that’s where our attention probably goes. His fault is in denying her justice. He had a responsibility to her – to give his third son, or otherwise provide for her – but he feared the consequences of making good on that, and so he withheld.

Judah’s story teaches us that when we withhold ourselves from each other – when we make moves to protect ourselves instead of to provide for one another – we deny each other justice. Those who initially condemn Tamar in this story, her father-in-law included, at the end have to say, “What else could she have done? This was the system we created for her. This was her last option. We’ve denied her justice at every other turn.”

And I wonder, who else could that be said about? …

This story ends well. Tamar gives birth to twins, and they’re both listed in the genealogy of Jesus: his line is traced through the firstborn, the one they called Perez. And that’s the story that the writer of Matthew’s gospel references by including Tamar’s name in his long list of ancestors that introduces Jesus to the world.

This is the Sunday of Hope. And hope is woven all throughout this story.

-Tamar is an outsider, a woman denied justice at so many turns, and she makes a way. And she does it – technically – by being faithful to her tradition. It’s an unconventional way of being faithful, but this woman was determined to survive, and she figured out, after years of being denied justice, she figured out how to get an heir from the family she married into.

Tamar is hope embodied – she is patience and persistence and creativity – she is cleverness and commitment and boldness – and Jesus comes from her.

-And there’s some hope in Judah’s character, too. He is no good – we have no reason at all to like him, except maybe we pity his care for his sons – but he changes. When he’s confronted with the evidence of who he has been, and how he has wronged Tamar, he doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t lie and he doesn’t shame her. He doesn’t use his power to make her claims go away. He just says, “She’s right.” And then he says, “This is where I was wrong. This is how I wronged her.”

So Judah, too, is an embodiment of hope – he is humility and repentance – he is bravery and maybe the beginning of revolution – and Jesus comes from him, too.

The way the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus, people are always on him – accusing him of undermining the tradition, of not being faithful to the teachings, of disregarding the law. And commentators say Jesus counters those accusations by demonstrating a “higher righteousness” – in essence, by proving what really matters, by sticking to the spirit of the law, if not the letter; he upsets their easy judgments by suggesting that they can’t always condemn as quickly as they might want to.

Which leaves me wondering about what else out there might be called righteousness that we don’t, at first blush, label that way. It leaves me wondering what story of scandal, or impropriety, might actually be a story of hope. It leaves me wondering about our own family trees, our own ancestral stories that include those tales we don’t tell, and what sort of redemption those stories actually point toward.

And Judah’s confession makes me wonder, too, about my own life: what sort of evidence would I need to be presented with to convince me that I needed to make a change? How can I offer myself more fully – how can we offer ourselves more fully – to make room for this hope that’s about to be born among us?



Leaning Toward Hope…

From the 32nd chapter of Jeremiah…

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. (So, the story we enter takes place during war time, in the middle of the fighting, and the guy we’re listening to is in prison.)

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”


They said traffic is always terrible in that city, but that particular morning, there was an additional cause for delay – all those kids. There were kids – about one hundred of them, boys and girls, snaking their way through the street like a parade. Some people had lined up on the street and some people were watching out of their windows and some people were asking one another, “What is this?”

The kids wore so much color, that it was like a birthday celebration had exploded on the dusty street. Primary colored shirts and pants – reds and yellows, some blue, some green, all oversized, so lots of room to move – and some of their sandals were worn and torn but others had jewels woven into theirs – these were party clothes.

Most of the kids were walking, almost skipping, but some walked on stilts, and some rode unicycles. It really was like a scene from a circus. And all of them were juggling. Some made it look really easy, really so natural; for others it took more concentrated effort. They threw tennis balls and batons and what looked like giant carnival-game bats into the air, the balls, at least, like five or six at a time, and they threw them under their legs, or sent them out like they were leading them on a string – because it wasn’t just people leaning out of their apartment windows or drivers on their way to work that were watching – there were judges nearby, too, awarding points for endurance and for tricks.

These kids were finalists from their regions, and they’d come to this competition to see if they could win the whole thing, the competition put on the by the Afghan Mini Mobile Circus for Children.

See all this color, all this fun, all this celebration, was winding down the streets of Kabul. I forgot to say that the kids also wore festive, brightly-colored headscarves. Because this parade was in Kabul. In Afghanistan. Where war raged for so long. And still does.

I mean, it’s over, we know. Or we say. And by the end of next year Americans will be home. But those streets still see violence. The children’s laughter of that circus morning, their cheering each other on, those sounds still are not louder than the cries that echo in those streets on other mornings.

But this was the EIGHTH ANNUAL children’s juggling competition. The non-profit that runs the circus – and invites all kids in Afghanistan to participate, if they can keep a certain grade point average in school – that organization was founded ten years ago. That’s two years after the war started. When there was, really, no end in sight. Plenty of opposition, but no end in sight.

It’s almost as if,
The word came to Berit and David from the Lord in the first year of interim head of state Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, which was the second year of president George W. Bush of the United States. At that time the army of the United States and a NATO-led International Security force were besieging Kabul, and beginning a protracted fight against the Taliban. At that time fewer than one third of Afghan children were in school, and the infrastructure to support their education was badly lacking.

Berit and David noticed that both governmental and non-governmental assistance programs were hard at work delivering food, and creating shelters, and other necessities for the people of Afghanistan. But the call they heard was to bring children together and create joyful communities.

The word that came to them was a call to deliver essential education about health and safety and landmines and to create ways for artistic expression to pave roads to survival and to peacemaking.

So they didn’t buy a field, like Jeremiah. They bought what they call “fun-tainers” – shipping containers that they’ve painted red and yellow and blue and green and transformed into rehearsal and performance spaces in local communities. Kids gather there to learn to juggle, or do acrobatics, or sing, or produce radio shows, or even just play. And they bought a center in Kabul that they invite those kids to each year, because it’s in the coming together, when the kids can teach each other, that so much of the learning happens.

It’s as if, even in the worst days of the war, these two prophets heard a voice saying, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. There is a future here, filled with color and laughter and children.”

There are boys, to the side of the judges’ station, engaged in their own competition. They juggle their pins for more than two solid hours. They are in tears from the strain but they do not stop.

Which means – forgive me for how obvious this is – but it means they have been practicing. These kids do not just come together one morning to parade through the street, bringing a bit of joy to a path, and a city, that can also be scary, or dangerous, or sad. They have been working for this moment. They have been juggling in their homes, in their yards, in their classes with the mini-circus. A war has been raging and children have been learning to juggle.

And it just strikes me what a testimony of hope that is. What a statement of trust in the future, to spend your time developing a new skill – one of the boys, a twelve-year-old, says juggling is teaching him about lines and angles, and that will help as he pursues his dream of becoming an architect. What an act of resistance, to war, to violence, to say that the tools these children will learn to work with are tennis balls and performance batons and foam bats.

It does not cancel out the horrors of war. It does not erase them or cover over them and maybe it does it even soothe them. But it does say, in a powerful way, that there is more. It does say, like Jeremiah’s purchase of the field, that no place, however stricken, deserves to be given up on. It does say that people’s lived realities are so much more complex – even in war, which would seem to level and simplify everything – it does say that the truth is people are deep and layered and so much more than we might anticipate, able to hold together the sadness of mourning and the fear of violence and the thrill of learning and the joy of community and the rush of accomplishment and the hope of tomorrow all within their tender hearts.

How do we hold so much? How does the word of the Lord come to us in our pain, in our fear, and ask us to act with hope?

There’s a strange stress in the scripture for today on all the paperwork – sign these documents, put them here, so that everyone knows – the prophet’s way of making sure that there are witnesses to his wild and unreasonable act. If he purchases land, and keeps the deed, and years later returns during peace time to claim it, he’s really done nothing. But if a big sold sign appears on the land during the midst of the siege, if Jeremiah starts to hang out, if he plants a couple of trees around the edge of the property…. People know. They know they have a new neighbor. And when they know that, they know they have a future. What moves in is not just a prophet, but a sign that God loves them and will not let them go.

Where do you see those signs? When you, or those you love, are besieged, how does God’s love come close?

It’s not always in big ways, right? Those of you who know my husband, who know how much he loves our children, might be surprised to learn that he was not always as thrilled about the idea of having kids as he is today. When I found out I was pregnant the first time, I was surprised – this was not something we had been planning on – but it wasn’t long after I saw the plus sign on the stick that I got used to the idea. I rode my bike up to his work and found him and pulled him aside and said, “Hey…” … And his face fell. … For the sake of my oldest child, who may read this someday, I’ll say my husband was not… ready. And he was not ready for a long time. I wanted to talk about names and he was not ready. I wanted us to read books together and he was not ready. I wanted to buy things and he was not ready. It was a scary and lonely time for both of us.

And then one day, about six months into my pregnancy, he came home with a small bag, handed it to me without saying a word. I pulled out these tiny black and white striped knit leg warmers, and a black onesie that said “Chics dig me” in white across the chest.

And I was really torn. … I mean, of course I was offended. I hated the outfit on sight. Even Rick’s protesting that we didn’t know the gender of our baby, so “Chics dig me” couldn’t be seen as a sexist, or even a heterosexist, phrase – I wasn’t convinced.

But it was an outfit for the baby. I don’t know how he understood what he had done, but I understood it as Rick’s act of hope, his way of saying that he trusted in tomorrow, a tangible sign that he was ready to step into this unknown future with me. So, as tacky as the outfit was… I also sort of loved it.

How are we called to be prophetic, to be imaginative, to act in ways that witness to our hope? When the word of the Lord comes to us, in this year, in this place, what does it ask of us? How does it challenge us?

Jeremiah bought a field in defiance of the violence that raged in the land, to say that life would return to that place.

And Berit and David founded a children’s circus in the midst of a hopeless situation, to say that we can create a different kind of future, if we invest in a different kind of present.

And five years ago, Rick brought home that terrible outfit, in spite of his fear, to say he would lean toward hope.

What will you do?