The bible is filled with these “little gems” like today’s reading. But that’s one of the things I love about the bible; it doesn’t try to put a pretty face on our history (as God’s people, this is OUR history!) In fact, it seems to relish in revealing the ugly side of characters, from Cain’s murderous anger to Noah’s drunkenness to Abraham’s lies to Jacob’s shiftiness to Joseph’s arrogance. And that allows me to identify so much better with these people than if they were spotless ideals.
So, Tamar. Yeah. Stepping out of the story of Joseph for a moment, we look at this incident in the life of Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers and the son through whom God’s covenant is passed. It was common custom that when a brother died leaving a childless wife, their brothers had to give her a child to continue the family line (Deut. 25:5-6). So when Er dies, Onan must give Tamar a child. But realizing that Tamar’s child would inherit instead of him, he refuses, “going through the motions” for the sake of image, but refusing to honor his duty. When he is struck down, Judah decides that Tamar is at fault (bad luck, cursed, whatever) and so to save his only remaining heir, he forces Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s house. This would mean shame for her, living as a widow with no family, but Judah didn’t care. So Tamar takes matters into her own hands.
Is there a model character in this little story? Not Judah. Not Tamar. Not Onan. And yet, God’s covenant, His promise to His people (remember Gen. 12?) is passed down through Judah. And when you look at Jesus’ lineage in Matt. 1, he takes special care to point out that Tamar is Jesus’ ancestor through Joseph! That which most people would find shameful in their history God accentuates through Matthew.
It is way too easy and even expected in our culture to gloss over difficult truth, history, or beliefs. If we don’t like one of our personality traits, or family members, or past activities, we just ignore it or even lie about it. I love working with the Millenial generation in my ministry because that is not something they will stand for. Truth matters to them far more than to the Boomers or Gen X. For a Millenial, the greatest failure is to break trust, not to be weak or to screw up. There is grace in this, and its a grace the bible assumes. So be honest about life and yourself, even to yourself. And lets recognize that God can use our failures and darkness to bring His light into the world. Now that’s grace!