Thursday, September 16, 2010

Er’s Wife, Tamar - Genesis 38:6-11


Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Remain a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up"; for he thought, "I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers." So Tamar went and lived in her father's house.

You have to love scripture. It’s so shocking at times that it makes today’s soap operas look amateurish in comparison when it comes to depicting the drama of life. Here is a story that would normally be beyond belief except for the fact that it is in Scripture and God is the main character. Let’s follow it for a moment.

Judah takes a wife (who is unnamed) and has three sons. Judah gives his eldest son Er a wife whose name is Tamar. But Er was not a good man in God’s sight, so God ended his life, leaving Tamar a widow with no children.

In keeping with custom, Judah goes to Tamar’s brother-in-law (the dead Er’s next oldest brother), Onan, and tells him to sleep with Tamar in order to give his deceased brother some offspring. Later in Scripture, we will see this actually being a Mosaic law required of the Hebrews. Of course, no one knows if anyone asked Tamar about this or whether or not she welcomed it. Most women of that culture, like many Middle Eastern cultures today, simply agreed in silence to what was expected of them by the men in their lives. However, it should be pointed out that as a law of God, there was good reason for it and in this case, this practice did provide widows with children that could later support her. God has a purpose for what He ordains for his children.

Now Onan is no “yes father” type of son. Well, actually he’s an “okay, but it won’t work, cause I’ll outsmart you” type. He agrees to marry Tamar as partial compliance to the custom. Recognizing that any children Tamar has by him won’t be his, he uses the withdrawal method at the time of ejaculation and his sperm is wasted. He did not want to give his brother any children. We can make some notations here.
First, we do not know the real relationship between Onan and his brother prior to Er’s death. We do not know if it was a congenial one or not and that may have somehow influenced Onan’s desire not to cooperate. We do not know if Onan had his own wife. We do not know how Tamar felt about what he did. Neither do we know whether Judah found out from her right away (as compared to finding out months later that indeed she was not pregnant) about Onan’s deed. And if Judah found out, we have no record of what he did about it. All of that is left unsaid and thus to our imagination. What we do know is that God was not pleased with his actions and He ended his life as well. This can be a very emotionally charged portion of Scripture for numerous reasons. Let me explain.

First of all, we have here in just a few verses, not one, but two cases, where God was not pleased with someone’s actions and He took their lives. As some of us have discovered, that kind of action by God does not enamor Him to those who have not yet accepted His Lordship. Why would anyone want to love and worship that kind of God? Every time you mess up morally, you stand a good chance of having your life end. True, the wages of sin are indeed still death today and that was also true back then. God is indeed a Holy God who detests sin. As the Creator, He gets to call the shots. But as God’s letter of love to us unfolds in the rest of the Old Testament and in the entire New Testament, we see how He has provided a way out of this dilemma. I encourage you to skip ahead thousands of studies, verses (and years) to find out about that arrangement.

Secondly, this is the portion of scripture that is used when one is trying to figure out just what the Bible may be saying on the issue of contraception through the withdrawal method and perhaps even masturbation, in which the end result is the same – semen being deposited elsewhere than in a woman’s vagina. I do not purport to be an expert in either of these fields, nor do I wish to get entangled in a discussion on the theological implications of either. What I believe I can say is that scripture is silent on both these topics. Why then did God take Onan’s life? It is possible that God took his life because he was disobedient to what was required of him by custom (or possibly the instruction of God). That is, to provide offspring for his deceased brother. It is disobedience that God will not tolerate. As far as the topics of ‘coitus interruptus’ (the withdrawal method of contraception) and masturbation are concerned, we are best to remain silent on them as the scripture is and allow each family and each couple or individual to determine what he/she should do as God persuades them in their own minds.

But now back to Judah. He has one more son, Shelah, who is too young to marry. He has lost two sons and does not want to take a chance on losing his youngest. Instead he asks Tamar to return to her father’s house and wait until Shelah gets older. Now “what’s wrong with this picture?” you may ask. Well, sending Tamar to her father’s house is the worst thing that could happen to young woman. It is embarrassing no matter what the reason, but especially if she goes there childless after having two husbands and now has to wait for a young boy to grow up before she can get married again. But more importantly, Tamar should have remained as Judah’s responsibility, not her father’s. The onus was on his family, as long as there was another brother living to keep her in the family and supply her sustenance. Instead, he sends her home to be out of sight and out of mind for a while. And Tamar, being left with no other choice, goes.

So again, what are the lessons for us today? I think there are a number. First, we need to realize God does not like man’s disobedience and one way or another He has to deal with it. I know that we are no longer under “the Law” of the Old Testament as Judah and his family was but we still have to be aware of God’s displeasure with our disobedience to what He is convicting us of today in our hearts. And He will address that disobedience. Perhaps it will not be by taking our life because we are His children who have accepted His Son as Lord and Savior. But perhaps it will be by our missing out on a fuller blessing in life today or in rewards in eternity that could have otherwise been ours.

Secondly, I think we need to be careful that we not assume we know exactly why God takes certain action that He does unless He specifically makes that clear to us. Onan died because of disobedience, not because of anything else.

Thirdly, we must realize we have a responsibility to those that come into our family through marriage, even when something goes wrong – like an illness, a separation, or in some cases a divorce where our own relative may be at fault. We cannot just forget about them. That is also true of circumstances where our own blood relative may have died and the “in law” – daughter, son, etc. still lives. And it is especially true where grandchildren are in the picture. One of our good friends had an only daughter who died in childbirth. Her son-in-law has stayed very close to her and allowed her to share quite fully in the life of her grandson. After several years of being a widower, he was remarried to another lovely Christian girl. They now have more children and our friend is still very much a part of their lives. I think that is the way God intends us to respond to the circumstances of life – always loving, always being obedient to God, and always putting others first. Again, may it be so with us.

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