The story of Judah and Tamar is admittedly an odd one. It is dropped into the cycle of Joseph stories with no apparent connection except for the fact that Judah is one of Joseph's brothers. It is also odd because God is not mentioned and is not explicitly involved in the events of the story. But this curious story is important to us for reason's mentioned yesterday. It is the story of another woman who is robbed of dignity and denied justice. It is another story told from the view of the vulnerable and powerless.
Tamar marries one of Judah's sons, Er. But Er dies without an heir, without a son. So Judah sends his second son, Onan to marry Tamar. This sounds strange to us, creepy even. But in that time and place, this was a practice devised to both provide for the safety of the woman and to maintain family financial security. The point is that Onan and Tamar will have a son and that son, according to tradition and law, will officially be Er's son. He will inherit Er's wealth, ensuring financial stability. Onan will care for Tamar so that she need not turn to begging or prostitution to survive. That is what is supposed to happen. Onan doesn't cooperate (since it won't benefit him) and he too dies. Judah should have sent his third son to take over. But he doesn't. He refuses. In refusing he interrupts the social cohesion of the family and shames Tamar.
Let's pause for a moment to create some context. When we look to the 10 commandments (which have not been given at the time of this story, but were a part of Israel's life when this story was recorded) we see a couple of commandments that remind Israel to value and dignify the vulnerable. In the command to keep the sabbath day, that commandment is explicitly extended to slaves. We might wish that slavery was simply abolished in the commandments. Still, it was ground-breaking at that time to extend a day of rest to slaves. In other words, even slaves were to be treated with dignity. Extending to them sabbath rest was meant to remind Israel that even the slaves had value to God as human beings. We also see the commandment to honor father and mother. Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is not merely a commandment meant to reinforce familial respect, but more expansively, to remind Israel to treat all, including the aged with respect. In other words, once people had reached an age where they were no longer capable of contributing to the family or to the society, they were still to be honored. Their value was not tied to what they could give to the social group. They were valued as children of God and not ignored, abandoned or mistreated. This is the story of Tamar and Judah. Judah violates these commandments by denying Tamar a husband. He is treating her with disrespect and creating a situation in which she could become socially vulnerable. Because she has not, as of yet, produced an heir, she is of no value to him.
In this story, it is not God who appears to dignify the shamed. It is not God who interrupts to relieve Tamar of her shame. Tamar takes matters into her own hands, which makes her particularly unique and heroic. Cunningly she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits for Judah. Judah chooses her as a companion not recognizing her. He does not pay her but offers her his ring, cord and staff as the pledge of payment. Tamar conceived and when she begins to show, Judah is incensed. He still considers Tamar his 'property' and this pregnancy an act of infidelity even though he has denied her a husband. We see the double standard. Judah calls for her to be burned at the stake. She produces his ring, cord, and staff. Judah is revealed both as a hypocrite and as acting unjustly.
Honesty is difficult and painful. It is tempting to ignore our own faults or to wear them as a badge of honor instead of honestly assessing the ways that we need to grow as human beings, as disciples of Christ. Socially, nationally, it can be equally painful to face injustice. Our news this week is filled again with police brutality toward black men. The story of Judah and Tamar reveals the importance of being honest about not only the good in our story but the bad. Not only are we called to be discerning about the grace we receive, but the sin we excuse. We can assess honestly our own sin and the sin of our society because we are loved by God with a love that reveals our potential and empowers us to change and grow and seek new beginnings.