by Ellen Sims
text: Genesis 38
Today we conclude our four-part, PG-13 rated sermon series on some lesser-known women from the book of Genesis. From Hagar to Lot’s daughters to Dinah and now to Tamar, we have brought a few biblical characters out of the shadows. I hope you’ve not only met new characters but also noticed various exegetical means for reading scripture. We’ll be looking at today’s story both through a feminist lens while attending to its literary genre. Knowing what KIND of story we’re reading helps us know how to read it. Believe it or not, I’m suggesting that Genesis 38 can be read as comedy. Yes, there is comedy in the Bible. And as writer G. K. Chesterton suggests, a healthy religion requires some humor:
“Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion) you must have mirth or you will have madness.”
The Bible has a serious intent. But the tone of scripture can include sarcasm, the language can include word plays, the plot may verge on the ridiculous, and Jesus himself often used humor to make a point. Although our holy book witnesses to great tragedy, comedy in its classical meaning is the Bible’s overarching trajectory. Comedy in its classical meaning is more about hope than humor. A work of tragedy follows a great but flawed individual to his or her doom. But comedy ends in celebration. In that sense, the resurrection story is, literarily, comedy. The overarching sweep of the overall biblical story is comedy in its classical definition — where the downtrodden are uplifted and the world’s ways are ultimately upended. The ancient Greek comedies pitted the young and powerless against the elders upholding conventions. The youth resorted to schemes that provoked laughter at the expense of those in power. (See Ryken and Whedbee for more on the conventions of classical comedy.)
Nightly, Steven Colbert is doing that kind of comedy to expose to his viewers that the emperor has no clothes.
The kin*dom’s way of nonviolent activism that Jesus prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount is comedy aimed at the Roman Empire, a method the powerless can use to shame the oppressor.
Comedy, classically defined, tracks the common folks through challenges until they triumph unexpectedly.
The biblical vision is comedy.
I’m going to retell the story of Tamar to tease out the comedic elements that emerge toward the end. Try to listen as a disempowered people might have heard this story of an injustice righted.
Judah, son of Jacob and a brother to Dinah left his family and found a wife among the Canaanites. She bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er was of age, Judah arranged for him to marry a young woman named Tamar. But Er was wicked, so God struck him dead. (The comedy part hasn’t started yet.)
Fortunately, that culture had a provision for vulnerable widows called the levirate marriage: a woman whose husband died childless was given in marriage to the oldest brother of the deceased. This gave the widow a home and also served the dead man because if his brother produced a child, that child was understood to be the dead brother’s heir. So after the death of Er, Tamar was given to his younger brother Onan, who was then obligated to give her a child and help her raise it as her first husband’s child. Since Onan knew if he created a child with Tamar, it would never really be his, he circumvented the law by “withdrawing” in time to keep from impregnating her. The narrator views what Onan did—-or actually what he refused to do–as a great injustice to Tamar. As did God, who killed Onan as punishment. (I know. Still not funny.)
So if you were the third brother, Shelah, you might be getting nervous at this point. God has already zapped both previous husbands of Tamar—-and you’re up next. And life is tough enough for a boy named Shelah! But you’re still young, so Judah orders his daughter-in-law back to her father’s house for a few years until Shelah is old enough to marry her. And then conveniently Jacob “forgets” his family’s obligation to Tamar. Some years pass. Judah’s wife dies. Shelah grows to be a man. Tamar — a pitiable non-virgin, non-wife, non-mother –- remains in this unclassifiable state and knows full well that her husband’s family has failed in their duty to her.
One day Tamar hears that the now widowed Judah will be traveling to Timnah for sheep shearing. Desperate, she hatches a plan and this is where the comedy of errors begins with many of the features of a romantic comedy including the use of disguises and cases of mistaken identity. Disguising herself by taking off her widow’s clothing and dressing as a prostitute, which included completely veiling her face, the powerless one waits along the road where Judah will pass. Supposing she is a prostitute, he solicits her, promising her a young goat as payment. Shrewdly, Tamar gets him to turn over his signet ring, his chord, and his staff as collateral to hold until he can deliver the payment of the goat. And the deed is done. And later Judah sends his dull-witted henchman, Hirah the Adullamite, to bring her the promised goat. The foolishness of Judah is most obvious in the scene in which Judah finally calls off the search for the prostitute lest he seem ridiculous—-this after Hirah has bungled the search and Judah is most certainly being mocked by the town.
Imagine how this search for the prostitute might be dramatized for laughs. Judah has already given up his seal, cord, and staff, “a kind of ancient Near Eastern equivalent of all a person’s major credit cards” (Alter 9) to a prostitute he can no longer find (and whom the reader knows to be his daughter-in-law he did not recognize in the intimacy of sexual intercourse). Striving to maintain his own dignity in this awkward situation, Judah asks his inept buddy to lead a goat, the prostitute’s price, back to the scene of seduction in order to retrieve his symbols of identity and power. Surely the Adullamite is wishing at this point that Judah had negotiated for bracelet or some other less conspicuous form of payment. Hirah undoubtedly thinks he is being discreet, but he must repeatedly ask throughout the village if anyone has seen the prostitute who had been there some days ago — all the while accompanied by a bleating, restive, ignoble goat. There may not have been an ancient Near Eastern equivalent to the modern expression “randy as a goat” — but goats have not changed so very much since that time.
As Hirah leaves one house for the next, perhaps he hears the snickers and whispered jokes coarsely comparing Judah to the sexually insatiable animal that returns in his place. “There go Hirah and Judah!” some chortle. The villagers may have even conspired with Tamar to deceive Judah and later help conceal her identity and so may be in on the joke; at any rate, they know there is no local prostitute. Readers laugh, too, as Judah gives up the search, and thereby gives up his cord, seal, and staff (authority), with the explanation that he does not want to risk being “laughed at” (Genesis 38:23). Yeh, well it’s a little late to be concerned about that!
When months later it’s reported to Judah that his still-unmarried daughter-in-law is pregnant, he declares her a whore and condemns her to be burned to death. But she calmly produces Judah’s signet ring, chord, and staff, saying simply that they are the property of the man who made her pregnant. And here is where the story pivots. Judah acknowledges his unjust treatment of Tamar. Judah’s climactic confession of being a fool takes on religious resonance when his concession speech implies that Tamar has won not simply a contest of wits but also a judgment of her legal and perhaps even religious superiority. “She is more in the right than I” (Genesis 38: 26 NRSV) can be translated “She is within her rights rather than I” (Westermann 268) as well as “She is more righteous than I” (Bos 47). Judah has been foolish —- but he has been saved in this moment, too. But heroic Tamar is doubly saved and rewarded. She births not just a child —- but a son! And not just one son —- but twins! Cue the rom-com happy music!
Across many cultures the “trickster” character in folk tales often turns the tables on the authority figure. The underdogs in folktales like this one are able to triumph over an unjust system through their wits and wily ways. The Book of Genesis is filled with examples of the second born supplanting the first born, for instance, evidence that God often sides with the least and last. Which is at the heart of Jesus’s Gospel and which is the pattern of his life, death, and resurrection.
I’m thankful the Bible’s varied literature includes stories of the powerful getting their comeuppance and the little guys, like little David with his slingshot, bringing down the giants. And the meek inheriting the earth. Yes, Lord. Yes.
From where we live it seems hard to beat the System: when election districts are gerrymandered to favor monied interest groups, when African Americans find it harder to vote, when hard won rights for transgender folks seem on the verge of being snatched back. It isn’t funny when the little guy has to find a way to work around the system to exact justice. But when the underdog wins, how we celebrate! THAT kind of story feels like an ancient form of comedy. More than making us smile, it offers hope.
And on this day of the liturgical year when we acknowledge the saints of the Church, let’s not forget the disreputable saints like Tamar and other women of Genesis with little power. Somehow they believed in their right for justice. Many centuries later we can grieve the limited options for women in the biblical story and in the larger sweep of human history. We can empathize with Tamar’s desperate plight. But at least we can also laugh at foolish Judah. And celebrate the way God’s care for the lowly is threaded throughout the biblical narrative.
On this day, let’s celebrate newly canonized Saint Oscar Romero, who put his own body between the right-wing death squads and the poor in El Salvador, for whom he died. On this day, let’s celebrate an unlikely candidate for sainthood, Saint Tamar, who used her body as a means of justice and gave birth to hope. On this day, let’s honor all who get up each new day without the things they need but who survive and find a way.
O God who loves justice, sometimes this world labels as disreputable the people who have few choices. May we choose to address root causes of injustice. May we choose to regard everyone with your eyes of compassion. May we choose to be gentle with our own selves. Amen
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Altar, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. BasicBooks, 1981.
Bos, Johanna W. H. “Out of the Shadows: Genesis 38; Judges 4:17-22; Ruth 3” Semeia
42 (1988) 37-49.
Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Academie Books,
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. David E. Green, trans. Eugene,
Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1987.
Whedbee, J. William. The Bible and the Comic Vision. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,