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?