Scripture adapted from “Tamar, and the Long Way Around,” All the Women of the Bible, by M.L. del Mastro, © Castle Books, 2009. (Adaptations in italics)
Pronounciation – Tamar = Tah-mahr, Perez = Puh-rez, Zerah = Zair-ah, Er= Air
Onan = Oh-nahn, Shelah = Shh-lah
My name is Tamar, and my twins, Perez and Zerah, have done me proud – such good boys they always were, and now they take wonderful care of me! Yes, I have everything… but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy!
You see, my first husband was Er – poor Er – he offended the Lord God seriously, that Er died shortly after we were married. Since he had not given me children, Judah, Er’s father, gave me his second son, Onan, so that he could beget an heir on behalf of his brother. But Onan – well! He didn’t like the idea of begetting children who wouldn’t be considered his, but he had no way to refuse. Do you know what that – sneak, did? He’d how you say…wasn’t “up” to the task by the time we went to bed.
He thought no one would know, and I’d be judged barren, but the Lord God knew – and met the same fate that poor Er did…all I wanted was a child to honour Er.
Now, Judah knew he was supposed to give me his third son, who was
still a boy, for a husband, and Judah really didn’t want to, but he wasn’t about to defy the Lord God outright. So what he did was to send me home to my family as a widow, promising me as soon as Shelah was grown up he’d send him to me as husband. And I believed him! So I went off peacefully to wait.
Little did I know that all he wanted was to be rid of me! Judah was terrified that Shelah would die as Er and Onan had – and he might have, if he’d decided to do what his brothers had done – and that would leave him without an heir. There was no way Judah was going to risk having that happen. But of course I didn’t know that while I was waiting.
Ten years passed and nothing happened. I began to get suspicious. I started to get a little frantic. What was I supposed to do now? Suddenly, the way the sun burns the fog away, my blind darkness cleared and I saw exactly what I could do – had to do, if we were all to obey the Lord God.
I scouted around and found a huge cloak, thick as a rug almost, stripped off my mourning clothes and wrapped myself in the cloak so that it covered my face. Then I went to the place where Judah would be, and sure enough, he and Shelah were there…I was furious, but I said nothing, just sat there.
Judah stopped, planted himself in front of me, grinned and said, “Come here, woman! Lay with me!’ Well! I was so shocked, I almost fell over! Dignified Judah! But this was just what I had planned – better, in fact!
“What will you give me?” I said, dropping my voice and slurring the words. I was sure he hadn’t recognized me, but I didn’t want to take chances.
He cocked his head and smiled slyly. “A goat – a kid from my flock?’ he asked.
“Oh, no you don’t!’ I thought. “What will you give me to hold until the kid gets here?”
At that he laughed out loud. “What would you like me to give you?”
I laughed too. “Uh – how about – your seal and cord, and – your stick!”
Still chuckling, he gave them to me, and then – well…
When it was over, he went his way, and I slipped off home, put my mourning clothes back on and hid Judah’s seal on its cord and his stick in the cloak and waited. Of course, no goat arrived (and Judah told me later he had sent one with his friend Hirah), for no one knew who I was or where I had gone.
In a month. I knew I had conceived; in three months, so did everyone else. Naturally, some busybody rushed to tell Judah and instead of dismissing me quietly, instantly he ordered, “Burn her!’
So they rushed to my house and dragged me out, but I gave one of them the cloak with the stick, cord and seal wrapped in it and sent him to Judah with the message, “The man who got me with child is the one who owns these things. Examine the seal and cord and the stick and tell me whose they are.” We all waited for the answer. The man I sent told me later that Judah put the cloak on a table and unwrapped it angrily, ready to take the man apart once he knew who it was that had dishonored me, and himself – and turned white as washed sheep’s wool when he found his own seal, cord and staff. But I’ll give him this – he didn’t try to get out of it.
“This is my fault, not hers,” he said. “I should have given her Shelah for a husband, as I promised and the Lord God willed, and I did not.” He received me back into his household, and when the twins were born, he raised them as his own.
So you see, when you follow the Lord God, God takes care of you – though sometimes, you have to go the long way around!
SCRIPTURE: GENESIS 38 Judah and Tamar
38 About that time Judah left his brothers in the hill country and went to live near his friend Hirah in the town of Adullam. 2 While there he met the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite man. Judah married her, 3 and they had three sons. He named the first one Er; 4 she named the next one Onan. 5 The third one was born when Judah was in Chezib, and she named him Shelah.
6 Later, Judah chose Tamar as a wife for Er, his oldest son. 7 But Er was very evil, and the Lord took his life. 8 So Judah told Onan, “It’s your duty to marry Tamar and have a child for your brother.”[a]
9 Onan knew the child would not be his,[b] and when he had sex with Tamar, he made sure that she would not get pregnant. 10 The Lord wasn’t pleased with Onan and took his life too.
11 Judah did not want the same thing to happen to his son Shelah, and he told Tamar, “Go home to your father and live there as a widow until my son Shelah is grown.” So Tamar went to live with her father.
12 Some years later Judah’s wife died, and he mourned for her. He then went with his friend Hirah to the town of Timnah, where his sheep were being sheared. 13 Tamar found out that her father-in-law Judah was going to Timnah to shear his sheep. 14 She also realized that Shelah was now a grown man, but she had not been allowed to marry him. So she decided to dress in something other than her widow’s clothes and to cover her face with a veil. After this, she sat outside the town of Enaim on the road to Timnah.
15 When Judah came along, he did not recognize her because of the veil. He thought she was a prostitute 16 and asked her to sleep with him. She asked, “What will you give me if I do?”
17 “One of my young goats,” he answered.
“What will you give me to keep until you send the goat?” she asked.
18 “What do you want?” he asked in return.
“The ring on that cord around your neck,” was her reply. “I also want the special walking stick[c] you have with you.” He gave them to her, they slept together, and she became pregnant.
19 After returning home, Tamar took off the veil and dressed in her widow’s clothes again.
20 Judah asked his friend Hirah take a goat to the woman, so he could get back the ring and walking stick, but she wasn’t there. 21 Hirah asked the people of Enaim, “Where is the prostitute who sat along the road outside your town?”
“There’s never been one here,” they answered.
22 Hirah went back and told Judah, “I couldn’t find the woman, and the people of Enaim said no prostitute had ever been there.”
23 “If you couldn’t find her, we’ll just let her keep the things I gave her,” Judah answered. “And we’d better forget about the goat, or else we’ll look like fools.”
24 About three months later someone told Judah, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has behaved like a prostitute, and now she’s pregnant!”
“Drag her out of town and burn her to death!” Judah shouted.
25 As Tamar was being dragged off, she sent someone to tell her father-in-law, “The man who gave me this ring, this cord, and this walking stick is the one who got me pregnant.”
26 “Those are mine!” Judah admitted. “She’s a better person than I am, because I broke my promise to let her marry my son Shelah.” After this, Judah never slept with her again.
27-28 Tamar later gave birth to twins. But before either of them was born, one of them stuck a hand out of her womb. The woman who was helping tied a red thread around the baby’s hand and explained, “This one came out first.”
29 At once his hand went back in, and the other child was born first. The woman then said, “What an opening you’ve made for yourself!” So they named the baby Perez.[d] 30 When the brother with the red thread was born, they named him Zerah.[e]
- 38.8 It’s your duty … child … brother: If a man died without having children, his brother was to marry the dead man’s wife and have a child, who was to be considered the child of the dead brother (see Deuteronomy 25.5,6).
- 38.9 the child … not be his: When Judah died, Onan would get his dead brother’s share of the inheritance, but if his dead brother had a son, the inheritance would go to him instead.
- 38.18 ring … walking stick: The ring was shaped like a cylinder and could be rolled over soft clay as a way of sealing special documents. The walking stick was probably a symbol of power and the sign of leadership in the tribe, though it may have been a shepherd’s rod.
- 38.29 Perez: In Hebrew “Perez” sounds like “opening.”
- 38.30 Zerah: In Hebrew “Zerah” means “bright,” probably referring to the red thread.
What are you going to do about it?
The foundational stories of Israel make up the book of Genesis: Creation, Sarah and Abraham, Jacob and Esau, and then, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours which finishes off the book. But today’s scripture doesn’t feel like Joseph’s story – however if you flip back just one chapter, or forward one chapter (from Genesis 38) you read all about Joseph, and Judah, who features prominently in today’s story.
Judah was one of Joseph’s brothers who conspired against him because of his fancy coat, and the arrogance and pride that came along with it. Just as the brothers are about to kill Joseph, Judah steps in to save his brother’s life convincing the others to instead sell Joseph into slavery. Judah saves Joseph’s life; Judah is righteous. Or at least more righteous than the rest. And while that’s an interesting story, it doesn’t pick up again for a whole chapter, as the compilers of stories inserted this story of Judah and Tamar in the middle of Joseph’s story.
For the story of Judah, is the story of Judah-ism, Judaism, Judah the great-great-great – there’s likely a few more greats in there – grandfather of David who would become king. To the people of Israel, this story of these great-grandparents, Tamar and Judah, are more important than even the story of Joseph, whose story will take several more chapters to resolve. And if you flip even farther, to genealogy of Jesus that begins the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, you’ll see the names of Tamar and Judah. Without this story, nothing else happens – and yet – I’ve never heard a sermon on it (you may have heard one on the Rape of Tamar but that’s another person). This text is just as difficult, a little “racy,” a little HBO, even with the cleaned up version we heard. If you want to blush, go back and read the original scripture.
For it tells the story of Tamar unable to become pregnant by Judah’s sons. It begins with a hesitation, as Er was not able to continue the bloodline before his untimely death. Making babies is what grew your tribe, grew your workers, grew your army, so this was life and death to the early Israelites. It also threw into question the promise of God made with Sarah and Abraham, that they would be parents to generations, as many as the stars in the sky. It was not only a biological issue, but a theological one, and left Tamar with very few options, being both childless and a widow. However, she should have been taken care of by Er’s family, as
[p]er the custom of the day, if a man died, the woman to whom he was married had the legal right to marry his younger brother. The first child of that match would become the first born son and heir of whatever fortune was to be had. This is why there’s that funny exchange with the Sadducees in the Gospels about the resurrection of the dead. The oldest son dies and the woman marries the next son, and then he dies and then she marries the next son etc. 
So Onan was tasked to get the job done. And he too fails. In fact, he fails so badly that they named what he did after him: onanism.  (I’ll let you look that one up at home.) Onan meets a similar fate to Er, and dies unceremoniously like his brother. Judah believes Tamar to be cursed. He sends her back to her father’s house, so that she becomes their problem and not his. Gone is the righteous man that we first met in the Joseph story.
It’s easy to become distracted by the details here – but Tamar did everything right, and still suffered because the others – the men in her life did not live up to the customs that were put in place to keep her safe. And while the end of the story vindicates Tamar, at the time, we know she carried the weight of not producing an heir. She went through two husbands and nothing. She carried the guilt. She was blamed not just because of the death, but because of her inability to bring life. She was sent away for ten years. She was constricted and bound by her garments of grief. She suffered, but not alone.
This story acknowledges that when someone has been harmed and wronged, and they find themselves inside an unjust situation, nothing they do is going to look good to the people around them. Nothing they do will convince people they are choosing righteousness. People see what they want to see… [instead, we must consider the] harm people have lived through, the abuse they’ve endured, and admit that sometimes the choices people make are the best and most right choices given their particular set of circumstances. The God we serve is able and willing to look at the heart of the matter. 
Imagine 10 years of your life, just…gone…waiting for someone to fulfil their promise. Like Tamar, we get wrapped up in our grief filled clothing that suffocates the hope right out of you. Like we all felt watching the news this week out of Texas. You know it’s been ten years since someone did something very similar in Connecticut when lives were lost because of the seemingly unstoppable gun lobby and the NRA in the US. And it’s been more than twenty years since Columbine. And this week, we watched the same hand-wringing, thoughts and prayers placating, blaming guns like we should but honestly, I think the issue is even bigger than that. When we fail as a society – people die. When we fail as a community that seeks the wellbeing of all – people die.
When we fail to address systemic issues – the stressors of life that make mental health the more precarious, when long term stress impacts our wellbeing, it festers. There’s plenty of talk about the reality of white privilege, which is real and systemic, but even those supposedly benefiting, there’s just as much suffering when poverty, racism, and sexism are unchecked because that affects all regardless of race, let alone the toxic masculinity and the expectation for men to exist without emotions.
For I want us to feel for Judah, as much as Tamar. Imagine losing your two sons, and the feelings of failure as a parent. Imagine the weight of those in Texas. Grief alone cannot justify a lack of belief in God. Many people make that leap – see if God really was there…if God really cared, then it wouldn’t have happened. But the story of Christianity relies on injustice itself – on a death that shouldn’t have happened – on an execution of one at the hands of another using a tool of torture. When one side feels pitted against the other, we begin to believe that violence is the only inevitable end. This isn’t a US problem, nor is it a modern problem. This is a human problem. And for time immemorial, grief has risen from the ashes of death.
Grief constricts and binds us up, just as it did the partner to one of the teachers slain on Tuesday, who died of a heart attack two days after Tuesday’s tragedy. While that was quick, long term grief and stress impact our wellbeing, it festers and changes into suffering and hatred. When gallows are normalized for protests on both sides of the political spectrum, when F___ Trudeau are proudly stuck on cars and trucks, when we push one another away, send them away to be constrained and bound by garments of grief then school shootings happen. Then shunning and dismissing happen. Have you noticed – they’re always described as a loner. Tamar would have bene labelled similarly. They’re blamed for what we’ve failed to do, in failing to care. It’s the difficult truth in the seemingly Judah inspired hymn from More Voices, written by Sara M. Hall based on a poem by C. M. Battersby:
If I have been the source of pain, O God,
if to the weak I have refused my strength,
if in rebellion I have strayed away, forgive me, God.
If I have spoken words of cruelty,
if I have left some suffering unrelieved,
condemn not my insensitivity; forgive me, God.
If I’ve insisted on a peaceful life,
far from the struggles that the gospel brings,
when you prefer to guide me to the strife, forgive me, God.
We all have our parts to play in the healing of the world. It may begin with the seeking of forgiveness, but it only grows once we reconnect with one another. For Tamar’s life is not just entwined and entangled with the God of provision and hope, but so too with Judah, with her community that should have been looking after and looking out for her. Faith might be the shared relationship between you and God – but it mustn’t – it cannot stop there. For faith is the radical commitment to someone other than yourself. That divine entwining and entangling of your life is only to give you the strength to be there for others in the midst of their pain.
Judah didn’t see this at first, but thankfully does in the end, seeking forgiveness and the restoration of what might have been. “This is my fault, not hers,” he declares – which unfortunately isn’t as beautiful as the scripture writes it. In the original text, Judah declares, She is more righteous than I…She is more holy, she is more God-following…she is more faithful… For Tamar casts aside her garments of grief, and follows God back to Judah.
Tamar embodied – literally with her body – a faith more powerful that rested on the hope of God. A hope that transcends the tragedies of this world, that calls each of us to care for those in our midst for the brief moment we share together. To that end, in 2018, a Grade nine student, and preacher’s kid, Abram Cressman wrote to the preachers of the world at the time of yet another school shooting, and reaffirmed the powerful faith that rests on the hope of God. He wrote:
In this time of darkness, when those who are faithful look deep into themselves and question if their thoughts and prayers matter, I bring to you this quote, and I encourage you to share it with your congregation…“Pray like God is always listening, but act as if you are the only one who can do something about it.” Thoughts and prayers mean nothing if not followed by action. If you, like so many others, sit down for half an hour and pray to God to help these people, then get up and do nothing, trusting in your God to take care of it for you, you are not helping. If you really believe that God will do something, then make sure [God] knows you’re doing something too.
[Our] prayers won’t help if [we] don’t…If [we] want God to put in work, [we] had better do something too. God is all well and good, but God isn’t a person. God can’t send letters to his local government representatives. God can’t donate money to trauma centers… God can’t walk down to [the] courthouse and talk face to face with [the] mayor, expressing…concerns about what’s been happening. [God cannot vote] But [we] can. [We] have the power to save so many others in the future. If [we] want change, [we have] to be that change.
Everyday that I go to school, I risk not coming back. From here there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. So I’m reaching out to you. Every single one of you has an avenue to anywhere from one hundred to one thousand people, and with your help we can make this world a better place. A place where children know when they go school, they will come home. A place where the phrase “just another school shooting” isn’t an acceptable term. A place where we know our actions payed off.
So I beg you to address your congregation. Let them know that they can be the change they want to see in the world. Let them know that God can’t do everything on his own. You can make them care. And that may just be the most powerful tool in the world.
 And this story has likely caused all sorts of shame directed at self-gratification, and the church’s obsession connection sex with shame if not for procreation, etc.