The Revised Common Lectionary is a commonly used system for preaching. For every Sunday, it gives 4 texts (OT, Psalm, Gospel, NT Letter) from which to preach. This system repeats every 3 years, so that if you preach through it every Sunday for 3 years, you will have preached through the whole bible. Well, almost the whole bible. There are a few texts that don’t show up in the lectionary, and Gen. 38 is one of them.
Tamar is just an uncomfortable story, including God putting people to death, descriptions of sex a little too graphic for comfort, prostitution… and the list goes on. So we don’t tell this story often, and in so doing, we miss an important lesson about righteousness.
We are quick to condemn people who sleep around, but in this story it is the means of righteousness. Tamar marries Er, a wicked man, whom the Lord kills because of his wickedness. This leaves Tamar a widow and childless. Since women in this culture had no means of support besides family, Er’s death was also a death sentence for Tamar. But that’s why we have laws, and the OT law required Er’s younger brother to provide a son for Tamar who could care for her in her old age. This duty fell to Onan, Er’s next younger brother.
But this is where lineage comes to play. Judah’s inheritance (meaning a large portion of all he owned) would go to his oldest son Er. With Er dead, it now would come to his next oldest Onan, unless Er had a son, that is. So asking Onan to produce a son for Tamar was asking him to give up a huge portion of his inheritance. Onan is understandably reluctant and so does what he must but in a way that cannot produce a son for Tamar. This was wicked, so God puts Onan to death as well.
Judah, having lost two sons to Tamar (commentaries speculate whether Judah would think her a witch at this point) decides to “put her away”. He promises her to his last son who is still but a boy, and even when he comes of age, she is not given to him as a wife. So, she takes matters into her own hands to remind Judah of his obligation and restore “the right path” for her life in God’s eyes.
You see, righteousness isn’t always about an individual decision, or about moral behavior. Righteousness in the OT is a large part of Shalom, a restoration of “the way it’s supposed to be”. When we seek Shalom (“peace”), we too seek to put things back to “the way they’re supposed to be”, and sometimes that is harder than it looks.
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