God’s Amazing Grace

Genesis 38

When Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his quilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court. The judge asked, “Guilty, or not guilty?” When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, “That’ll be ten dollars — a dollar for every mile you went over the limit.” Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. “You have violated the law,” he said. “The fine must be paid–but I am going to pay it for you.” He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! “That,” said Billy Graham, “is how God treats repentant sinners!” That is how God treats you and me, and it is how God treats Judah and Tamar.

We have to ask a couple of preliminary questions before diving in to this remarkable story. First question: why is this story in the Bible? It is not a very savory story. It is rather embarrassing. In fact, in the 19th century translation of Calvin’s commentary on this chapter, several sentences of the commentary are omitted, since the translators were too embarrassed at Calvin’s use of certain words. To put it in a nutshell, this story is here to tell us about grace that is greater than all our sin. We must remember that Tamar is one of the ancestresses of Jesus Christ. She is mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. It is Judah’s son Perez that is part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The principle here is that Jesus Christ is not polluted by coming into this sinful world. In fact, Jesus Christ, by taking on the sin of the world, purifies the world, rather than becoming polluted.

The second question is this: why is this passage right here in the book of Genesis? Chapter 37 was all about Joseph, and chapter 39 is all about Joseph. What is chapter 38 doing in between these two chapters about Joseph, when this chapter doesn’t even mention Joseph? Many liberal scholars have answered this by saying that the chapter has nothing to do with the surrounding context, and that it was just added in later. But this is false for many reasons. First of all, the whole “Joseph” story is actually called the story of Jacob. That means that the story is about all of Jacob’s sons, not just Joseph. So this chapter very appropriately belongs in this section of Genesis. Secondly, the events of this chapter occur at the same time as Joseph is down in Egypt. So this chapter belongs here chronologically, especially since the Judah story wasn’t as important to Moses as the Joseph story. So the shorter story comes first, so as to get it out of the way, so that we can proceed with the rest of the Joseph story. Thirdly, there are many literary reasons why this story is right here. Judah’s being seduced by Tamar is parallel to Joseph’s resistance to the same temptation by Potiphar’s wife in chapter 39. There is therefore a contrast between Judah and Joseph. Furthermore, this incident will forever change Judah. It would be hard to explain why Judah is so self-sacrificing later on in the Joseph story, if we didn’t know that Judah lost two of his own sons, and that Judah had become much less selfish, and that Judah wanted to preserve Jacob’s youngest son, just as he here wanted to preserve his own youngest son. So that is why this chapter is placed here. The main point of the chapter is that God’s grace is greater than all our sin.

Judah’s sin started when he married a Canaanite wife. Judah married outside the faith. That has always spelled trouble in the past for Esau and Ishmael, for instance. However, Judah is not one to learn from other people’s mistakes. He has to make them all himself. And so, he winds up with unfaithful children who displease the Lord so much that the Lord puts them to death.

Tamar enters the scene as the wife that Judah chooses for his first-born son Er. We don’t know why it was that Er was wicked. But it must have been quite serious, since the Lord put him to death. Interestingly, if you spell Er’s name backwards, you get the word for “evil.” To bring this pun over into English, you could say that Er erred.

What happens next needs a little explanation. It was the custom in those times (not just for Israel, but also for the surrounding nations), that if the first-born son failed to produce any offspring, the next son would take the wife of the first-born son, and raise up offspring for him. This custom is called “levirate marriage,” named because the Latin word for “brother-in-law” is the word “levir.” so the second son would marry the wife of the first-born, and raise up offspring for the dead firstborn son. However, and this is the catch, the son of the levirate marriage would be treated as the first-born. In other words, the son of Tamar and Onan would inherit the same estate that Er would have inherited. That is the main reason why Onan refused to do his duty by Tamar. As long as there was no son for Er, Onan would inherit the rights of the first-born, including the double portion of the estate. But if a son was born to Tamar for Er, then that son would inherit the right of the firstborn. This is why Onan spills his seed on the ground. He practices a primitive form of birth-control, because he is greedy for gain, as well as being very hypocritical. He went through the motions of obedience. By the way, he didn’t have to go through with this marriage at all. He could have refused. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 lays out the rules for this kind of thing: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” There was a way out for Onan, though it involved humiliation. Onan wasn’t willing to undergo that humiliation, and so he gave off the appearance of doing his duty, but he didn’t do it. He thought he could conceal his stratagem from the world. But he could not conceal his strategy from God, who sees all things. God saw and judged Onan, killing him for his sin.

At this point, Judah is thinking that this woman has a curse on her. Judah thinks superstitious thoughts about her. He thinks that if he gives his youngest son to her, then he will be destroyed as well. What Judah fails to see here, of course, is that his sons were killed because of their own sin, not because of Tamar. Because Judah fails to see this crucial fact, he sends her off back to her father’s house. This puts Tamar in rather a bind. She can’t marry anyone else, because she hasn’t been released. She can’t be given to Shelah, the youngest of Judah’s sons, because he isn’t of age. And yet she is a widow. She is in no man’s land with regard to her status. But she stays at her father’s house until the time when Shelah is grown up, and yet she is not given to him as his wife. By this time she knows that Judah never intended to give her to Shelah.

And so Tamar devises a stratagem to raise up children for Er. Now, we are usually too quick to judge Tamar. In fact, she is the heroine of this story. As a matter of fact, before the law was written down in Deuteronomy, it would have been lawful for Judah himself to take Tamar as his wife, since the propagation of his family ultimately depended on him. Many things were permitted in that time period that were later not permitted. Abraham married his half-sister, for instance. Adam and Eve’s children married one another. And here, there is significant evidence that Judah could have married Tamar legally himself. That is why what Tamar does here cannot be called incest. So she is not really to blame here. Judah is to blame, since he put her in this extremely awkward and debilitating position. Another important point to remember is that Tamar waits until Judah’s wife dies. She does not try to intrude on Judah’s turf until the time is right.

Judah is going up to the sheep-shearing at Timnah. Sheep-shearing was traditionally a time of celebration. Tamara realizes that this is her chance to get a son by Judah. It is extremely risky, as we will find out later. That is why everything depends on her being able to procure the identification marks of Judah. In modern terms, she gets Judah’s driver’s licence and social security number. All this for getting Judah to think of her as a prostitute. After she is successful in her venture, she immediately goes back to being a widow. What she really wanted was not the kid from Judah’s flock, since that wouldn’t prove who the father was. No, Tamar needed something to protect her. That is why she is more interested in the pledge than in the gift that Judah promises. She immediately vanishes once she has the pledge. So that Judah will not be able to redeem the pledge.

This all comes to a head three months later when Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant. He thinks (rightly) that if Tamar is still bound to his household, then she must have committed adultery in order to get pregnant. However, Judah doesn’t know the all-important fact that he is the father. Tamar saved the seal and staff for just the right moment when she would have the opportunity to completely vindicate herself. And vindicate herself she does. Judah (notice his hypocrisy here) orders her to be burned, the most severe penalty that adultery could command. As she is being brought out to be burned, she sends word to Judah about the seal, cord, and staff.

What Judah says next is extremely important to understand. Judah says that Tamar is more righteous than he is. Judah is not necessarily saying that Tamar was without sin. However, he does recognize that he is to blame for putting her into such a position. We need not say that Tamar was completely sinless in all of this. She did cause Judah to sin. However, her action does spring from faith. She believed in raising up godly offspring. And in her case, it was especially important, since the Messiah would ultimately come from her line. And that is the punch line of the whole business: Jesus Christ comes from such stock as this. If this isn’t proof enough that God’s grace overcomes our sin, then I don’t what would be proof enough.

What is amazing here is that God changes Judah from being a self-centered selfish man into a compassionate, self-sacrificing man through this incident. God often uses our sin to bring about some transformation like this. If God did it with Judah, then God can do it with you also. You may look just as bad as Judah, on the inside, even if you don’t look quite as bad as Judah on the outside. On the inside we are all sinners, and full of rottenness in our very bones. And yet God changes us through the blood of Jesus Christ to be more like Jesus. This is proof of God’s amazing love for sinners. If we shy away from this chapter, we might miss this great evidence of God’s grace at work in human lives.

God does not treat us as our sins deserve. If we got a great cosmic speeding ticket, God pays for the ticket with the blood of His own Son, and we are free. And then God invites us to the marriage supper of the Lamb! One great big steak dinner! We don’t deserve such attention.

If that is how God treats us, then we have a clear picture also of how we should treat one another. If someone has offended you, even in a big way, your grace should be overwhelming that other person. God is persistent with us in doing this. Therefore we should be persistent as well. It doesn’t matter how long we have been doing it, or trying it, God calls us to a higher mark at which we must aim: perfection itself. We do not forgive our brother only seven times, but seventy-times seven, the clear implication being that we start counting all over again when we reach seventy-times seven. If God’s grace is that great in our lives, shouldn’t we be more gracious to those who hurt us? What they have done to us is nothing in comparison to what we have done to offend the Almighty God. And yet, His grace is marvelous, and is greater than all our sin.

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