Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Strange Interlude

We have seen that Genesis is a conglomeration of stories and fragments from various sources. Most of it likely existed in some form as pre-literate oral tradition before being written down. These have been stitched together into the semblance of a historical narrative, but it's filled with continuity errors, contradictions, impossibilities and absurdities, multiple versions of the same story, omissions and elisions, gratuitous factoids. The story of Joseph, as we noted, seems more coherent and better crafted than most of what has gone before. It was likely the thoughtful creation of a relatively skilled author, rather than a transcript of old campfire tales by a scribe. It is interrupted, however, by the bizarre digression of chapter 38. And I do mean bizarre. As is often the case, the NIV seems to try to sanitize this. I don't read Hebrew, but other translations I have looked at make some of this even weirder.

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
Neither the KJV nor the American Standard Version say that Judah married the unnamed daughter of Shuah; he just boinked her. Note that up till now, it has been shameful for Hebrews to marry Canaanite women, but in this case it seems to be okay with God.

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
We are given no indication of how Er got on the Lord's bad side. This is the first time we have heard of God killing a specific individual, actually. (Yeah, he did destroy most of creation in the flood, then wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah.) Massacring all the men of a town and taking the women and children as slaves, because you suspect one of them of raping your sister, does not warrant punishment. Neither does selling your brother into slavery. But Er's mysterious transgression gets him whacked. 
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
Like much of biblical morality, this is completely alien to contemporary culture. Anybody who actually did "live biblically," shaping conduct to the morality of the Bible, would be in prison or committed to a psychiatric institution. The requirement that a man impregnate his brother's widow was likely compassionate. There was no way for women to make a living or acquire wealth and there was no Social Security. Tamar needs children in order to survive. It is not clear, however, why Onan didn't want to give her any. As the story clearly says, Onan would not have been responsible for any child, so it's no skin off his nose. Something about the motivation is missing. (Later, it seems that men are required to marry their brother's widow rather than just knock her up.) For some reason some people have interpreted Onan's sin to have been masturbation rather than what it clearly is, coitus interruptus. And it is not that, per se, but rather not fulfilling his duty to impregnate Tamar.
11 Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.
12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.
17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.
18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?”
“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.
It's mildly interesting that prostitutes wear veils. It is quite implausible that Judah would not have recognized her nevertheless, but we'll let that go. Note that there is no indication that there is anything sinful about this, on either side of the transaction, until later.
20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”
“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.
Again, NIV seems to be cleaning things up. The ASV glosses what is here translated as "shrine prostitute" as "kedeshah, that is, a woman dedicated to impure heathen worship." According to Wikipedia, however, kedesah literally means "consecrated." It apparently refers to sexual rites in certain cults. As the Wikipedia entry discusses, this is a complicated subject about which the historical truth is unknown. In any case, there is no indication in this story that Tamar was purporting to be anything but an  ordinary prostitute, Hebrew zonah.
22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”
23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”
Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.
Okaaaaaaay. So Judah was going to burn Tamar alive for engaging in prostitution until he discovered that he was the John. So now it's more than okay. So why was he planning to give the woman a goat, rather than burn her alive, until he learned her identity? Prostitution is only sinful if done by your daughter-in-law? BTW does Tamar get to keep the goat?
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.[a] 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.[b]
Babies obviously don't stick their hands out first, ordinarily. Not clear why the midwife tied a thread on his hand in any case. According to Luke 3, BTW, Perez is an ancestor of Jesus. Well, not really, he's an ancestor of Joseph, who was not actually the father of Jesus.  But Luke tries to have it both ways, because Perez is in the line of the Messiah according to Jewish tradition. Anyway, Live Biblically! We return to our friend Joseph and see how things are going for him as Potiphar's slave in our next episode.


  1. Genesis 38:29 Perez means breaking out.
  2. Genesis 38:30 Zerah can mean scarlet or brightness.

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