Seek and You’ll Find within the Strangeness

Tyndale House’s Trusting the Bible podcast resumes today with season two, episode one. It’s on a topic near and dear to my heart: how to read the Old Testament.

Pete Williams is the guest for this episode, and early on he mentions how the strangness of some Bible stories can function as a type of moral sieve. If you want to find God in these stories, he can be found. If you want to find something to scoff at, well that’s there for you on the surface, too.

This discussion reminded me of the Judah and Tamar story in Genesis 38. I fell behind in my lectionary reading recently, but I caught up yesterday by reading through the entire Joseph story in one sitting (Genesis 37–50). Encountering the Judah and Tamar story while reading this way was helpful to me. I’ll try to explain here how my own reading experience yesterday was helped by the strangeness of Genesis 38.

Genesis 38 seems like a grotesque, weird insertion into the coherent, beautifully narrated Joseph novella. Judah accidentally sleeps with his daughter-in-law, whom he thinks is a prostitute, he tries to have her burned alive when she becomes pregnant (by him), he realizes his insanity because of Tamar’s craftiness, and in the end sort of repents.

At the end of the story, two things stand out:

  1. From this crazy episode Perez is born, from whom Jesus will be born according to Matthew.
  2. Perez is born in that very Jacob-esque, trickster way, thrusting himself forward ahead of his twin brother Zerah. The trickster, upside down is right side up theme so common in the patriarchal narratives is enforced: normal world patterns — like the older being supreme — don’t always apply to God’s story.

Because of how weird the story is, especially in its placement within the Joseph story, I recalled it at multiple points:

  • In chapter 43, Judah takes on a leadership roll and stands up for his brothers
  • In chapter 44, when the brothers return to Joseph in Egypt, they are referred to as “Judah and his brothers.”
  • Later in 44, when the narrative reaches its climax and Joseph has wrung the last bit of stress and remorse from his brothers, it is Judah who wails on their behalf and pleads to Joseph on behalf of their father’s well-being.
  • In chapter 49, Judah receives the blessing that the scepter shall not depart from him.

You see how the messianic trajectory of Judah’s lineage stood out because of the odd, embarassing episode told early on in the narrative?

I want to highlight one other portion of the text that took on special prominence, especially in light of how I noticed the mention of Perez at the end of the Judah and Tamar fiasco. As Jacob is on his deathbed, he recalls how he burried Rachel “on the way to Ephrath, that is Bethlehem” — just the simple mention of Bethlehem in light of Perez being a descendant of Judah.

For a Christian having walked through Advent and Christmas, the effect of the Judah and Tamar story on this reading of Genesis 37–50 was profound. In summary:

  • The “heroes of scripture” aren’t heros. They are an embarassing mess, like us.
  • God, nevertheless, works through them and us to bring his story to life.
  • From the chaos of Judah and Tamar, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
  • Into Bethlehem, the kingdom broke through like Perez. It looked upside down and backwards to most: overflowing love for the least of these ending in sacrificial death and forgivness of enemies. No Caesar-like veni, vidi, vici here.
  • By the voice of millions, and especially the martyrs and sufferers among us, testimony resounds to the fact that Jesus still reigns above all earthly powers. The scepter will not pass from between his feet until all his enemies — Sin and Death included — are placed as a footstool for his feet.