JANUARY 11, 2009

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            To tell you the truth, I was going to skip this chapter in our Genesis sermon series because it does not fit.  It is an intrusion into the story line of the book.  Here we are, well on our way into the last patriarchal narrative in Genesis, the epic of Joseph, and then we stumble upon a rather ugly and seamy story about Joseph’s brother Judah.  It doesn’t make much sense.  What was the author thinking?  In fact, listen to what one biblical commentator said about the thirty-eighth chapter of Genesis.  He said,


            To many readers of the Bible, it must seem strange that this story is inserted in the midst of the narrative of Joseph.  It is like an alien element, suddenly and arbitrarily thrust into a record which it serves only to disturb.  Certainly few people would choose this chapter as a basis for teaching or preaching.


            We are going to be one of the few this morning.  We are going to unpack this chapter.  We are going to take this biblical detour around the story of Joseph, and we will begin with the obvious question.  Why was this story included?  I’ve come up with three possibilities.  You may think of more.

            One possible reason for including this story was to add to the drama of the narrative  While Joseph’s future hangs in the balance ... he’s been sold into slavery and on his way to Egypt ... the author inserts another story line, a story about Judah, so instead of detracting from Joseph’s story, it adds to the drama of it.  Many popular television shows do the same thing.  Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, and Desperate Housewives run several story lines at the same time, switching from character to character, which instead of confusing viewers seems to capture viewers.   Who knows maybe the writers of these shows saw how well it worked here, cutting from one story line to another, in order to build interest and borrowed the technique.

            Or the author of Genesis took this little detour in order to explain how Judah came to be associated with the southern kingdom of Israel.  When the nation of Israel split after the reign of Solomon, the northern kingdom kept the name “Israel” and the southern kingdom took the name “Judah” after the most prominent tribe in the region, the tribe of Judah.  The author inserts this story then simply to explain how Judah first became associated with the southern kingdom.  The author tells us it happened on the heals of Joseph’s being sold into slavery, when Judah left his family and moved to the southern part of Canaan.  Because the tribe of Judah became so important in the history of Israel, the author felt compelled to take this little detour.

            Or more likely the author of Genesis included this because it’s related to the birth of Jesus, because the children of Judah and Tamar go on to be the ancestors of King David, who in turn becomes an ancestor of Jesus.  So, unbeknownst to the author of Genesis the Holy Spirit inspired the author to include this account because it had a direct bearing on the genealogy of Jesus.

            Whatever the reason for this detour, and it may be a combination of all three, it does not alter the fact that this is a strange and sordid story, and to understand it, to make sense of it, we need to understand a custom that was operational back in those days.  The custom was called “levirate marriage.”   The term comes from a Latin word “levir” meaning “brother-in-law.”   We see this explained in the book of Deuteronomy.  Turn with me there in you bible to Deuteronomy 25:5.  If you are using the pew bible it’s on page 177.


            When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.  But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.”  Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him.  If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.”  Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”


            In our day this custom seems beyond bizarre, just as throwing shoes or sandals at an American president seems beyond bizarre, but nonetheless this custom provides the backdrop for the chapter before us today.

            And to refresh your memory, the chapter begins with Er, Judah’s oldest son, marrying Tamar.  For her wedding, I know you women want to know, she wore a satin and tulle gown with a pleated bodice and metallic embroidered lace.  Actually, we don’t know what she wore, I just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.  Unfortunately, they were not married all that long and Er dies before having a son and the author tells us he died from out and out wickedness.  We are not told, however, what he did, or if he ever saw the Er-ror of his ways, but with Er’s death the levirate custom kicks into gear with Judah ordering Onan, his second son to bed Tamar.

            Two things, however, got in the way of the custom being fulfilled.  Two things contributed, in part, to Tamar playing the part of a prostitute to trick Judah into sleeping with her.

            The first thing to get in the way was the behavior of Judah’s second son, Onan.  Onan refused to go along with the plan.  Listen to what he did, one more time.


            Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law; raise up offspring for your brother.”  But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.  What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.


            Before we continue I want to take a little detour of my own.  I want to say something about the significance of Onan’s story in the history of Christendom.  To read it one would not think this story would have much of an impact on anyone save Onan’s younger brother Shelah, which I’m sure had to endure all kinds of teasing having a girl’s name, but this story has had an impact.  It has been used in a most curious way.

            Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has pointed to this story as an example of God’s judgment on the human practice of birth control.  The Roman Catholic Church has argued, rightly or wrongly, that God was greatly displeased with Onan’s interference in the reproductive process, and the lesson, they say, is obvious.  We are to refrain from human forms of birth control. 

            OK, enough of that, let’s return to the story.  I said there were a couple of things which got in the way to fulfilling the levirate marriage custom.  The other stumbling block, in addition to Onan, was Judah’s fear.  Look at verse 11.  After the death of Onan Judah said to Tamar,


            “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” - for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers.


            In other words, Judah feared that Tamar was bad luck, that whoever slept with her had a way of checking out early, so he was not too keen on sending his last son her way.  So he didn’t.  He bought time with the excuse about Shelah’s age, and when Shelah came of age Judah still did not send him to her.

            As a result, Tamar took the situation into her own hands.  She did not want to go through the spit and sandal trick in the town square, so she came up with her own plan.  She dressed as a prostitute, and tricked Judah into sleeping with her on one of his out of town business trips.  And walla!  It worked!  She became pregnant and had a son for her deceased husband.  The purpose of custom was honored.  It took some doing, some ingenuity on her part, but it was finally accomplished.

            And that, basically, is the story.  Is there a lesson, however, to be learned from it or was the biblical commentator I quoted at the beginning of this message correct when he said that this story is inserted into the narrative only to disturb and any preacher in his or her right mind would stay clear of it?  Well, I believe there is a lesson to be learned from it, a lesson which has unfortunately been lost in the spit, and sandals, and spilled semen and the act of prostitution.    Here’s the lesson: Even our worst mistakes and biggest failures can be used by God.

            Think about it.  Think of all of Judah’s mistakes.  Judah sold his brother into slavery.  He lied to his father about Joseph’s whereabouts.  He was unwilling to fulfill the levirate marriage custom by withholding his son Shelah.  He slept with a prostitute.  He self-righteously and hypocritically condemned a woman for the very same sin which he had committed, and yet God turned all this manure into a miracle of God’s grace.  God uses this man, God chooses this man, with all his mistakes, to be a part of Jesus’ family tree.

            Why did God do that?  I believe to make a point people would never forget.  God can use our worst mistakes and biggest failures.  Look at Judah’s confession in verse 26,


            Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”  And he did not lie with her again.


            Judah committed a doozy of a sin with Tamar, yet he confessed it, and through this seamy story God says to us, “No matter the sin, no matter the mistake, no matter the personal failure, if you admit them, if you confess them to me, I will bring something good out of them.”  In Tamar and Judah’s case that person was a bouncing baby boy named Perez who would turn out to be the ancient, human ancestor of Jesus.  Check it out in the “begat” section in the beginning of the book of Matthew.

            I do not know what may be keeping you from Jesus Christ today.  I do not know what failure or mistake is weighing you down, but I do know that God can turn our worst mistakes and failures into something good.  The mistake or failure is not the end.

            As mistakes go, one of mine was not moral as much as financial.  I’m referring to our wine store that we closed in March.  In hindsight, turning a hobby into a business did not work out as we had planned.  Oh sure, we enjoyed our customers, and we enjoyed introducing people to different types of wine, and we enjoyed sipping the wine from time to time, but all in all, we took a financial hit when we closed the doors.  A significant financial hit.  And at times, I think to myself, “Boy, I wish we had never done that.  I wish we had never walked through that door.”

            But then I think about something else.  One of the dumb things we did in operating the store was to open on Sundays.  For the first two years we opened every Sunday afternoon.  After two years, we decided to close on Sunday.  It seemed the right thing to do.  Days after the decision to close on Sundays, literally just a handful of days after, Lowell Iske called and asked if I was available to fill in a couple of times on Sunday in June.  Hart had left for Grand Island and you needed someone to fill the pulpit.  If we had still been open on Sundays I would have said, “No,” but we were not so I said, “Sure.”  I’ll fill in a couple of Sundays in June.

            And the rest is history.  In a roundabout way the wine store led us to you.  If it hadn’t been for the wine store, if the timing hadn’t been what it was I’m sure Trudy and I would not be with you today.  If that had happened, we would have never known what we had missed. 

            One of our worst failures, led us to you.  No matter the size of the mistake or the size of the failure God can use it.

            Ask Judah.  Heck, ask me.