A Sermon for Covenant
“Tamar, the Blessed Transgressor”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
August 3, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
She is a force to be reckoned with, that Tamar. Not your ordinary woman; not your ordinary widow. She is clever, cunning, courageous. She is one of those women we don’t quite know what to do with. Her story doesn’t show up in the lectionary, and probably not in Sunday School either, although her name appears in the lineage of Jesus in the book of Matthew. If it weren’t for Matthew dredging this name, this woman, back into our consciousness, we might be content to just leave this one alone. It’s uncomfortable to read about semen in church. And that’s just how the story begins . . . it gets shockingly more twisted as the plot unfolds.
But let’s start all the way at the beginning, when Tamar was just an innocent young woman given in marriage to Er, son of Judah. Er, apparently, was so wicked, God struck him dead. We don’t know the nature of his wickedness, thus we do not know if his death came to Tamar as a tragedy or a relief.
In those days a woman’s wellbeing was entirely dependent on her husband, thus the death of a husband meant the death of a woman’s security and provision. Then again, if Er’s wickedness included cruelty towards her specifically, then his death may well have been a mercy, her only way out.
Now this next part is really hard for our modern minds to embrace, but a custom at that time was that if a man died before an heir was born, his brother was tasked with impregnating the wife so as to carry on the family line and produce a son who would receive the inheritance. This was supposed to be a way of watching out for the family and for the widow, but you can probably think of some reasons Er’s brother wasn’t too keen on this arrangement. Thus he, shall we say, failed to followed through.
For this, God struck him dead. It didn’t take Judah long to sense a pattern emerging among the sons who slept with Tamar, and so with son number three, Judah postponed sending him to Tamar, for fear he would lose yet another one. Of course, Tamar was in no way responsible for the demise of the guys. They behaved wickedly all on their own, but it was easier for their father to blame and fear Tamar than to take a closer look.
Judah postponed sending Shelah, while promising Tamar they would get married once he’d grown older. Only, Shelah did grow older, and Judah did not keep his promise, which was bad. Very bad, for a widow in that time really had no other recourse. I know, with such bad behavior, we’re all expecting God to strike Judah dead too, but (surprise!) this guy lives, and then the story gets really juicy.
Judah lives, but his wife doesn’t. (I mean, no divine retribution this time. I think she was just old.) Anyway, she passes, Judah mourns for a while, then heads off to shear the sheep. On the way, he sees this woman with a veil over her face, whom he presumes to be a prostitute. He requests her services. She complies.
Fast forward three months. Judah catches wind that his daughter-in-law, Tamar—the one he already suspects is some sort of death-dealing witch—that very same one is pregnant. Pregnant, rumor has it, because she has played the whore.
Without a minute’s hesitation Judah responds with business-like efficiency: “Bring her out and let her be burned.” His words are quick, cold, and unflinching. Perhaps he is glad for a reason to be rid of her for good. Perhaps he is so steeped in this tradition that says any women who misbehaves sexually deserves death that he doesn’t think twice.
Then as she is being brought out to be burned, she sends word to Judah (apparently he didn’t stick around to watch). She sends word that the child within her is his, and she has his signet, his cord, and his staff from that night to prove the whole thing.
Judah is forced to face the fact that Tamar’s whoredom, as it’s been called, involved him. Moreover, the reason she needs a son so desperately is because he has failed to keep his promise in providing her a husband.
You can imagine this scenario being so shameful to Judah that in a raging panic he would try to cover it up, make excuses, accuse her of lying, burn her anyway—get rid of this terrible mess as quickly as possible. But he doesn’t. He acknowledges that the items she possesses are his and he says, out loud, “She is more in the right than I.”
For all his flaws and failures, props to Judah for that, for owning his part, for saying that line. He could have gotten away with denial, but confronted with the truth, he surrendered to it.
I want to zoom in and examine this line delivered by Judah: “She is more in the right than I.” Tamar? Right? Or, at least, more in the right? Dressing up like a prostitute and sleeping with your father-in-law is rarely the sort of thing we applaud, but, admittedly, this whole story has been a bit out of the ordinary . . .
Was Tamar’s behavior commendable? At first glance we may find it appalling, but maybe being more appalled at a woman’s sexuality than at her subhuman status says more about us than it does about Tamar. Maybe we should be appalled at ourselves for getting our priorities so confused that we could lose our compassion for the plight of the downtrodden. See, just when we think we’ve got life neatly figured out, along comes a story that turns things on a head.
Am I saying Tamar’s actions were okay? Mostly I am just agreeing with Judah—she was more right than he. I’m saying the ones who excluded her and misjudged her to begin with did far more damage than she. I’m suggesting it would have been sin of another sort for Tamar to remain silent and do nothing.
There are a number of Scripture passages and Bible stories about predictable obedience, but another thread running through our Bibles and our histories are the stories of necessary transgressions. The prophets, for example, consistently challenged the status quo. Prophets in Scripture weren’t called to predict the future but to critique the present, and they were always saying shocking things, like Amos when he reported of the Lord, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals, I will not look upon.” What is this? Worship and offering were exactly what God wanted, so the people thought. But the prophet continues, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Of course if ever there was a righteous rebel, it was Jesus. He transgressed all over the place: healing on the Sabbath, dining with sinners, touching the lepers. Then think Peter and Paul, welcoming the Gentiles into the fold. Peter, having the vision to eat unclean animals; Paul, making it his mission to preach to the Gentiles.
This lineage of inspired nonconformity continues well past the Scriptures. More recent examples include the first abolitionists, who dared to believe the status quo of enslaving another human being was not okay, despite the verses in the Bible that tell a slave to obey his master with fear and trembling. There were the first woman suffragists, who dared to believe they were equal to men; there were the nonviolent resistors who fueled the civil rights movement.
It would be so much simpler if everything stayed clear cut and obvious all the time, because if we dare to transgress a norm, how do we know that we’re not leaving the right path, going off the deep end, or excusing sin? How do we know we aren’t making a grave mistake by leaving the crowd? How do we know?
Bottom line: we don’t know. It is risk and it is trust to step blindly forward, pulled by an unconventional wisdom, by an inkling of an insight. It is risk to step into the unknown, uncharted, and unexpected, to allow yourself to dream there is another way than the one set before you. Can you think of such a risk in your own life? Are you being tugged to think differently, act differently, believe differently than you did before? That fear you feel about it means your faith is still pumping; you are being called deeper into the love that casts out fear. Fear always rears its ugly head when it is about to be cast out . . .
There is no growth, no maturing, no innovation, no discovery without risk. Risk often feels like transgression. Perhaps it feels like a transgression of how you’ve always dealt with things or how you’ve always thought about yourself and the world. Maybe you are called to transgress the outward image you’ve so carefully constructed; maybe you are drawn to transgress against popular opinion.
I do not know to what transgression the Spirit beckons you. All I know is that risk is required if you want to make a dent in this world. This is never rebellion for rebellion’s sake, but rebellion as the way home. It is waking up to see beyond the rut. It is the way we find ourselves and find our God, by leaving the common trail in pursuit of the higher good, the better way, the truer voice.
The way I see it, Jesus’ greatest act was a defiance. The Scriptures say, “He was obedient to death, even death on a cross,” and he was, but then again, he totally wasn’t. He died all right, but then he lived. He followed the road all the way to Golgotha and a tomb, but then he diverted. Unlike the rest of us traditionalists, Jesus rejected the norm and refused to stay dead. He defeated death and the very laws of nature.
Sometimes faith is about suspecting when the rules needed to be broken or when a rule needs throwing out altogether. Sometimes we misunderstand faith to be an acceptance of black and white when what we experience is not black and white. We experience a talented female preacher or a godly gay man or a hard-working homeless person, and these experiences contradict the definitions we’ve been given. We think faith requires us to deny what we see and trust what we’ve been told. But that isn’t faith. Faith is stepping into the gray, into the fray, into the contradictions and paradoxes and challenges. Faith is listening to a deeper wisdom. Faith is having the crazed dissent of a prophet, the flagrant originality of Jesus, the bold obstinance of an abolitionist, knowing we may be wrong, but ever-open to the risk of learning and growing and changing.
Only four women are mentioned by name in the lineage of Jesus, and Tamar is one of them. We might be tempted to say she got in the lineage despite what she did, but practically speaking, she got in the lineage because of what she did. No action, no babies. Tamar took a huge risk; acting as she did could very well have led to her death. She did not know the outcome before she began, but ahead she went, discontent to stay at home and waste away.
Here was a woman who absolutely defied convention in a most creative and shocking way, and something of her passed through the generations and into Jesus. Apparently this connection between her and the Savior was strong enough to make her name worth mentioning among a long list of fathers. This grandmother of our faith with a complicated past and the tenacious daring to overcome—from her would come the man who overcame death on behalf of all who’ve been cast aside.
I found myself thinking about Jesus’ own mother, how her life was tied up in scandal—yet another woman pregnant out of wedlock—but it was this nature-defying, propriety-upsetting, alarming and astonishing birth that would change the world. I found myself speculating: What if Mary’s song was a family song, passed down through the ages from woman to woman? She sang, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations shall call me blessed . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has remembered his mercy.” I can hear those words on Tamar’s lips too, can’t you?
The most exhilarated souls in all the earth must be the souls saved from the bondage of oppressive expectations, thereby freed up for miracle and for mercy. May our souls magnify this God of wonder and surprise; may our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. Amen.