“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (ESV)
Today, I want to tell you a story that contains another story. A young friend of mine texted and asked me to recommend some Bible verses to encourage him because he was lonely. I understood why. He had broken up with his girlfriend and, because he had just returned to our area after a year’s absence, most of his friends were two states away.
The cure for loneliness
I commend this young man’s approach, since so many of us look for comfort everywhere else but to God. And the Bible has plenty of comfort and encouragement to offer, along with more than your minimum daily requirement of Vitamin W — wisdom.
In this case, I thought it might be more helpful for my friend to engage with a story instead of a to-do list. Great songwriters will teach you that it’s better to show rather than tell, so I suggested to my friend that he might find some comfort in the stories of Daniel and Joseph in the Old Testament. Both are accounts of young men taken away from everything familiar and persevering in faithfulness. He said he’d like to read about Joseph, so I gave him the scriptural coordinates.
Joseph’s story as inspiration
If you’re interested, you can read Joseph’s story in the book of Genesis — the first book of the Bible — starting in chapter 37. The story is worth your time — a tale of a favored son who is betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, experiences several highs and lows, and ends up providentially positioned to demonstrate faithfulness and forgiveness. I wrote about one episode from Joseph’s life here a couple of years ago.
We interrupt this program…
I thought my friend would enjoy the story of Joseph and find some comfort in relating to Joseph’s periods of loneliness and how he remained resilient. I forgot that just as the story of Joseph gets rolling, the writer of Genesis breaks in to tell the story of Judah and Tamar. You can read it in Genesis 38 — it’s just one chapter long — but let me summarize it.
Judah and Tamar
Joseph’s brother Judah got married and had three sons. The oldest, named Er, married a girl named Tamar but died childless. Judah told his second son, Onan, to sleep with his sister-in-law to give her children and preserve his brother’s family line. Onan slept with her, all right, but instead of inseminating Tamar, every time he had sexual relations with her, he released his semen outside her. Some Bible translations say, “he spilled his seed on the ground.” This disobedience invited God’s judgment on Onan, so God took his life.
Judah said his third son was too young to get married, so he invited Tamar to live as a widow in his house until the boy was old enough. Eventually,Tamar noticed that the promised son was old enough to be her husband but that Judah apparently wasn’t going to keep his word.
So Tamar did what any godly woman would do: she disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced the recently widowed Judah. In the heat of his passion, he told the supposed prostitute that he left his wallet in his other robe. She said he could pay her later, but that she would take his staff, his seal, and his sash — the unmistakable signifiers of his identity and status — as collateral.
They do it. The next day Judah sends a servant to pay the lady, but the locals say there are no prostitutes working in their neighborhood. Judah shrugs it off, rationalizing that at least he tried to pay her.
Then Judah hears that his widowed daughter-in-law has disgraced the family by becoming pregnant. He orders her execution, commanding that she be burned alive. She tells him that the man who put her in this condition is the owner of the staff, cord, and seal. Judah says she is more righteous than he is, and he does not take her into his bed again.
The story ends with the birth of twins named Perez and Zerah. Then we get right back to the story of Joseph already in progress.
What was that all about?
Judah and Tamar’s story is like those occasions where a tv station inadvertently runs adult programming during a kid’s show. My friend wondered, as you might, why that story appears in the Bible.
I’m going to provide my thoughts on why this story appears as it does, and the lessons and encouragement we can all take from it. Go ahead and subscribe via the bar at the top of this page, and you’ll get an email from me as soon as I hit “Publish” on Part II.
So how about you? What do you make of the story of Judah and Tamar? Add your comments below.