Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Genesis 38:1-40:23


The three chapters in today's reading remind us that the Bible is not children's literature. Its content is sometimes frankly and explicitly sexual.

In Genesis 37 we saw the start of the story of Joseph. Now in chapter 38, there is an interlude. We leave Joseph for a short while to hear the sordid story of one of his older brothers, Judah and, perhaps more importantly, a woman named Tamar.

Judah has three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries Tamar. We don't know exactly what Er did to tick God off. We're just told that he is "wicked" and so God smites him.

We have already noted that in biblical times  women were dependent upon men and  vulnerable in ways that are hard to imagine. Women belonged to men all their lives: first their fathers, then their husbands, and, if widowed, they depended on their sons for support. Women could not own property. A woman on her own had few options.

There was a practice called "levirate marriage." Levirate comes  from the Latin word levir, meaning "brother-in-law." In levirate marriage a childless widow was married to her husband's brother. It was the brother-in-law's duty to have a son with the widow. The son was considered the offspring and heir of the woman's first husband. This had more to do with inheritance and propagation of the family line than anything else, but it provided some measure of social security for the widow. She would be supported by her brother-in-law, and, it was hoped, have a son to support her later.

When Er died, Tamar was married to his younger brother Onan. We know what Onan did to tick God off, but it might not be what you think.

Onan spilled his seed upon the ground.

Onanism is an old fashioned word for "masturbation." It comes from a misunderstanding of this passage. Onan was not masturbating. In fact, I don't know of a direct biblical prohibition against masturbation. If you do, please cite me chapter and verse so I can find what I've overlooked.

What Onan was doing was practicing coitus interruptus. To be blunt, he was withdrawing before ejaculation so as not to impregnate Tamar. I guess he didn't mind the sex, he just didn't want the consequences.

But, I don't think it was the use of a (highly ineffective) method of birth control that bothered God. Rather it was the fact that Onan was shirking his responsibility to his brother, refusing to have children on Er's behalf. What might motivate Onan to do this? Greed. Er's offspring would get a larger share of the inheritance. If Er had no offspring, it was money in Onan's pocket.

So, God smites Onan, too.

Do you think God works this way?

Now, Judah is not too keen on having his sons smitten. He suspects that being married to Tamar is not good for their health, and so he sends her back to her own father's household to "live as a widow" until, he says, Shelah grows up. We have good reason to suspect that Judah never intended for Shelah to marry Tamar. After all, Shelah reaches marriageable age, and Tamar is left sitting in her widow's weeds. No one ever sends for her.

In order to assure her future, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. What she does is bold and desperate, but she had, as we have noted, few options. Long story short, Tamar, in disguise, prostitutes herself to her father-in-law.

That Judah bought sex from a woman he believed to be a cultic prostitute, a functionary of the worship of a foreign god, goes without comment. Soliciting sex is apparently not a problem here. He is convicted, rather, of failing to keep his word to Tamar.

When Tamar is found to be pregnant, Judah is ready to burn her to death as, I suppose, an honor killing. When Tamar reveals that she is carrying Judah's own offspring, he is convicted of his unrighteousness.

Tamar has twin sons. They are remembered as the ancestors of two of the clans within the tribe of Judah.

There are Christians today who say that we ought to live according to biblical principles of male-female relations. Specifically they say that men ought to take leadership positions over women. I have to ask whether granting doctrinal authority to the Bible requires us to recreate its culture. Reading about the horrific treatment of Tamar, and the desperate steps she had to take, makes me glad that I don't live under a patriarchy like that.

In chapter 39, we return to the story of Joseph. No matter how bad things get for Joseph, he is always faithful. God is with Joseph and, in the worst of circumstances, he prospers.

As a slave, Joseph serves in the house of an Egyptian officer named Potiphar. Under Joseph's stewardship Potiphar's fortune increases. But Potiphar's wife takes a shine to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Rebuffed, she takes revenge by framing Joseph. Joseph is tossed into prison. This is about the lowest point that Joseph can reach, but even in prison, he prospers. The warden basically puts Joseph in charge of the place, and everything goes smoothly for the warden.

In chapter 40 we meet two of Joseph's fellow prisoners. They are the Pharaoh's cup-bearer and baker. Both have displeased the Pharaoh. Both have dreams which Joseph is able to to interpret. The cup-bearer's dream bodes well; he will be restored. Joseph asks the cup-bearer to remember him. The baker's dream predicts bad fortune; he will be put to death. Of course, Joseph's interpretations prove true.

But the cup-bearer forgets Joseph.

Compared to his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph is a boy scout. Do you think that God favors Joseph because he is morally upright? Why do you think God chose scoundrels like Abraham and Jacob?

Do you think that God communicates through dreams?


Next: Genesis 41-42

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