by Mark Horne
copyright © 1998
Please turn with me to Genesis 38. In the middle of the story of Joseph’s faithfulness in Egypt we are given here a telling story of Judah’s faithlessness in Canaan. Like Judah all of us are to prone to wander from Christ, and God in his mercy restrains us from our wandering. We need to be reminded of our need for Christ, just as Judah did. Judah was reminded by Tamar, and my hope is that Tamar’s story will remind us. Let’s read together verses 1-26.
If you want it bad enough, you can get it. If you don’t get it, it’s because you didn’t want it bad enough.
That sort of cheap philosophy is quite popular in some places. It’s the sort of thing that might be used to motivate athletes, or entrepreneurs, or students thinking about careers. But, any realistic athlete, or businessman, or anyone else who thinks about it, knows that the slogan isn’t true. The fact is that there are things beyond our control that often keep us from getting what we want no matter how badly we want it. To tell people that they only need to want something bad enough and they will get it, is a false and shallow promise…
Except when it comes to Christ.
God promises that anyone who seeks Him with his whole heart will find Him. If you want it bad enough you will get eternal life. Not because you can earn it, or acquire it by your own power, but because of God’s gracious promise that anyone who seeks the Kingdom first will get what he is searching for. God rewards those who earnestly seek Him.
The problem with this gracious promise, however, is that it puts the blame on us. If we don’t have Christ it’s because we don’t want Christ. Jesus asks us what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul. But amazingly, all too many people are willing to lose their souls for a lot less than the whole world. They desire other things more than Christ.
We must desire Christ above all else.
And that’s what this story in Genesis is about. If you read this story as just a lurid soap opera, you’re missing the point.
I remember once, I worked at a bookstore with a woman going to one of the most liberal seminaries in the country. We managed to be on good terms because she was quite friendly and didn’t try to talk theology with me. One time, though, we did have a slight disagreement regarding the Book of Ruth. You remember, don’t you, the faith of Ruth, when she refused to be turned back by Naomi, and insisted on remaining with her? This acquaintance of mine was quite certain that Ruth did not have anything resembling faith in the true God. No, she said, Ruth was just afraid of living by herself and wanted Naomi to take care of her. She was just a tribal pagan who was willing to exchange gods just as she was willing to exchange languages. The idea that Ruth actually believed in God, as we speak of such things today, was simply an unrealistic expectation for such a backwards and primitive time.
None of us, I trust, are theological liberals. But I know that in my own conservative, Bible-believing background, I have come across the idea, that the Old Testament saints did not truly know God and were not concerned about eternal salvation. Rather, they simply used God for temporal things.
But God did not give us stories of merely temporal things in the Old Testament; He gave us the history of our salvation. When Ruth sided with Naomi over against her own people and language and upbringing and religion, she was choosing Heaven instead of Hell, salvation instead of judgment, and life instead of death. The temporal choice represented eternal realities and had eternal consequences.
It is interesting that in the book of Ruth, Boaz is given a blessing for his new bride which explicitly presents Tamar as an ideal for all wives and mothers. Listen as I read what the elders said to Boaz in Ruth 4.12:
Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez which Tamar bore toJ, through the seed which the LORD will give you by this young woman.
The story of Judah and Tamar, just like the story of Ruth and Naomi, is about Heaven and Hell.
As one of the sons of Israel, Judah is part of the covenant line-the Kingdom of God as it existed at this point in time. In this present age, we come to Christ through a church that is catholic-not tied to any one ethnicity or nation-and that is apostolic-founded by Christ’s apostles. But at the time of this story the covenant was centered on a special family that was eventually to become a Kingdom of Priests to all the nations. If you wanted God’s blessing, you needed to bless that family. If you were a Canaanite you especially needed to join yourself with them because God had revealed that the Canaanites were going to be exterminated in a couple of centuries by the Israelites.
The stakes involved in what happens between Judah and Tamar are nothing less than salvation and damnation. How one treats the chosen line of Abraham, demonstrates how one treats Christ and His covenant. Judah and Tamar, despite our different situation, teach us that we must desire Christ above all else.
How must we demonstrate this desire for Christ? By (1) remaining in Christ and (2) by chasing after Christ no matter what the cost. We have a positive example of this in Tamar, and a very negative example presented to us by Judah. Let’s look at Judah first.
1. Remaining in Christ is what all professing Christians are instructed to do, as the Apostle John recorded in chapter 15 of His Gospel. We must not abandon Christ for the world, yet that is what Judah does. In fact, the very language of v. 1 indicates this. Judah literally descended or went down from his brothers and turned aside to visit an Adullamite, just as he later, in v. 16, turned aside to engage the services of a prostitute. He has abandoned the covenant people.
Why did he do that? From our text, it seems for the same sorts of reasons which entice us to abandon our Lord.
First we face the temptation of evil company (vv. 1, 12 & 20). Judah becomes friends with a man who is quite willing to help him hire an harlot. Obviously, this is not the sort of companion a Christian should have. Secondly, we see Judah involved in being unequally yoked through marriage (vv. 2, 15 & 16). Even this early in Scripture, the problem of intermarriage has already become a Biblical theme. In Genesis 6 we read of how the God-fearing sons of Seth were seduced by the pagan daughters of Cain so that no one was left but Noah and God destroyed the whole world with a flood. Abraham considered it extremely important for Isaac to not marry any local Canaanite women. Jacob followed the same course. Yet Judah doesn’t seem to care. When we read this rather terse description of Judah’s marriage, we’re supposed gasp in horror. All the concern voiced by Abraham regarding intermarrying with Canaanites doesn’t seem to matter to Judah.
And what happens when we abandon Christ? We get death. From Judah’s example we see what we’re told throughout the Scriptures: There is no life outside of Christ; only death. Having removed himself from the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Judah is removed from God’s blessing. Judah’s first two sons are wicked and are killed by God (vv. 7-10, 12). His posterity is dying out.
But even worse than death, is that without Christ our own hearts tend to love death. We see this in Judah’s downward spiral into depravity. The man who simply sinned by intermarrying, umpteen years later has become a man who has a reputation for frequenting prostitutes (Tamar’s entire plan makes no sense unless she could predict Judah’s behavior). Furthermore, notice in v. 21, we’re suddenly informed that Judah thought he was engaging a temple prostitute. So not only is fornication at issue, but outright idolatry. Judah is obviously in a downward spiral.
Let’s remember that Judah is not the first person who abandoned the Patriarchs. His behavior should be interpreted in light of what has happened before. A century or more earlier, Lot decided to leave Abraham and instead go and dwell in what looked like "the garden of God"-the valley of the Jordan Now, it’s easy to be hard on Lot, but he had legitimate provocation. There was not enough grass and water for both Lot and Abraham to feed their flocks. Furthermore, why wander in land you cannot own, when there is much better land available? The decision was a no-brainer.
But what did Lot gain by his decision? Sodom and Gomorrah were in that region, and God decided to change the terrain and the climate rather drastically there. Though Lot went there because it resembled the garden of Eden, it ended up as nothing more than a salt-filled pit which we now know as the Dead Sea. Lot lost everything except his two daughters. Instead of going back to Abraham, Lot remained isolated in a cave leaving his two daughters to fend for themselves-All because he wouldn’t go back to the covenant line.
Lot was in many ways, a more righteous man than Judah, but like his initial decision to leave Abraham and settle in Sodom, his refusal to go back to Abraham cost him and his daughters dearly. Outside of the covenant, there is no life.
Judah found death outside God’s covenant, and he also came to love death more and more, but that’s not all that went wrong because of Judah’s drift away from Christ’s Kingdom. Judah also tended to spread death to others. Let’s remember that Abraham wasn’t simply called in Genesis 12 to be blessed so that the rest of the world could be cursed. No, he was set apart to be a blessing to the nations. By abandoning the Abrahamic promise, Judah ceased to be a blessing to those around him. The most obvious way this takes place is in Judah’s horrible example. Nothing short of a miracle would make anyone desire to be part of the Covenant because of Judah’s testimony.
But Judah presents more than just a bad witness, he puts up self-serving barriers. He not only refuses to enter the Kingdom himself, but he prevents others from entering it as well. Tamar, after having a husband so wicked that God killed him, and then another who abused her in order to rob her of his brother’s inheritance, for some reason still wants to become part of Judah’s family. But Judah lies to her in the hope that she will seek another husband, so he can marry off his last son to someone else.
But more than self-serving barriers, sin leads Judah into self-righteous, hypocritical condemnation. This begins when Judah regards Tamar as somehow responsible for the death of his sons, as if marrying his youngest to someone else will take care of the problem. Finally, in v. 24, Judah jumps at the chance to kill Tamar. This way he was going to be able to gain freedom for his youngest son to remarry some supposedly non-lethal woman. Here we see a man known for visiting prostitutes is quite unabashedly willing to condemn someone else to death for the same sin he himself is guilty of.
This is not by any means the only time when the Bible shows us a Christian trying to keep someone out of the Kingdom. Remember how in the book of Ruth, after Elimilech and his two sons leave the Land of Promise for the Land of Moab, they all die and Elimilech’s wife Naomi is left with her two gentile daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. So what does Naomi do? Does she tell Ruth and Orpah that it was wrong for her family to abandon the Land that the true God had given them? Does she invite them to come back with her and learn about the true God. NO! She tries to turn them away. We don’t always realize how evil Naomi is being because we focus our attention on Ruth and how she refuses to leave Naomi.
But what about Orpah? Naomi convinces Orpah to go back to her damnation. A daughter of Israel, who knows the true and living God, doesn’t desire the Kingdom and doesn’t allow one to enter who does desire it. Naomi puts up barriers. This is a Biblical theme. Whether it’s the Pharisees whom Jesus condemns in Matthew 23 for blocking the way to the Kingdom, or Naomi blocking Orpah, or Judah trying to obstruct Tamar, the Bible reminds us that we are supposed to compell people to enter the Kingdom, not turn them away.
Judah’s near apostasy did not happen overnight. Such things never happen overnight. Small imaginations, become slight compromises and then occasional sins, and things go down from there.
I don’t know what temptations you face day by day, but you do. You need to remember the warning facing us in Judah’s story, and guard yourself from all compromise with company you’re not supposed to be keeping. No one ever plans to abandon Christ. No, they drift away bit by bit. So Remember. Remember what’s at stake. Remember that outside of Christ there is nothing but death. Guard yourself. Take note of your weaknesses and guard against them. We must remain in Christ.
And we must share Christ. It is not only for our own sakes that we must guard ourselves, but for the sake of others also. Paul told Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely, for in so doing he would save both himself and his hearers. What Paul says to a Minister of the Word to a certain extent also applies to all of us. We must watch ourselves and so insure our own salvation and that of those around us.
Judah’s sins should and would have led him and his posterity to death. And that would have affected not only him, and those around him, but also us worshipping here today. For Christ was supposed to come from the line of Judah. If it wasn’t for the way God drew Tamar, this would be a very sad story. But by God’s grace, while Judah abandons the Kingdom, Tamar forces her way in.
Now Tamar’s behavior seems to rule her out as a hero of the faith. But we need to remember the difference between our position and hers. Take the story of Abraham offering up Isaac, for example. Abraham was willing to kill his son and burn him up on an altar because God told him to. Obviously, anyone who did anything like that today, would not be a hero of the faith, but a crazed psychopath. Likewise, Tamar’s deeds are not meant to be emulated today.
But the fact that she is revealed in Ruth 4.12 as an ideal, must affect how we interpret what Tamar did. Tamar would not allow herself to be turned back from the Kingdom.
2. We must show we desire Christ by chasing after Christ no matter what the cost. There is no reason to think that Tamar was any less horrified at what she did than we are. And she had every reason to simply forget about Judah’s family and look for a Canaanite husband by which she could gain children. But she wouldn’t take "no" for an answer. Jesus tells us that we must be willing to give up all we have for the sake of the Kingdom. Here we see a woman willing to risk a fiery death for the sake of the Kingdom.
What reward is there in chasing after Christ? As I said before, We will save ourselves (vv 27-30) and others (v. 26) Because of Tamar’s faithfulness despite Judah’s faithlessness she obtained salvation. This is represented in vv. 27ff where we read that she had children-descendants who would not be destroyed when the Israelites later invaded the land of Canaan.
Furthermore, Tamar saved Judah. Judah’s confession is in v. 26 where he acknowledges his hypocrisy and wickedness. Apparently, he truly repented because the next time we hear of him in the Bible, Judah is back with his brothers trying to help his father get grain from Egypt. Furthermore, in chapter 44 v. 33 we find Judah offering to become a slave in order to save his youngest brother Benjamin. The Judah who wanted to abandon his brothers has been radically changed.
What should motivate us to chase after Christ? Because Christ first chased after us. It’s not merely the reward that should cause us to pursue Christ and His Kingdom, but we should also realize that Christ has pursued us. In fact, he’s doing that in our passage. Tamar’s pursuit of the Kingdom is not merely meant as an example, but also as a foreshadowing of her descendant by Judah, Christ Jesus, who suffered more than Tamar did for the sake of the Kingdom. For the sake of Judah and Tamar themselves. For the sake of us.
Indeed, why did God have mercy on Tamar, drawing her to His Kingdom? Was it only for her sake. No, for not only was Tamar saved, but Judah was turned from his path as well. So for Judah’s sake also Tamar was called. But it doesn’t stop there. For Tamar’s son was the ancestor of Jesus Christ, our Savior. That son would not have been born if Tamar had not been called. So it was for our sakes also that Tamar was called into the Kingdom. We’re reading not just about what God did for Tamar or Judah, but what He did for us.
Nothing more is important than Christ. Like Tamar, like the other Biblical saints, and like Jesus whom they represent, we must realize that there is nothing more important than the Kingdom. Do you believe that? More importantly, Do you live like you believe that? We often dream of facing some momentous trial and passing with flying colors. But it is the everyday frictions of life which reveal the commitments of our hearts. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Do you believe that there is nothing more important than God’s covenant? Do you demonstrate that in your everyday life?
Does Tamar’s struggle to enter the Kingdom, apply to us who have already entered? The Bible would indicate that it does. Think about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Tamar’s deeds demonstrate that she is a true daughter of Abraham, no matter what her natural lineage might be. Abraham, remember, had to chase after Christ even after he had been given the covenant of promise. Abraham was willing to give up anything and everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Just as Tamar received the promised seed because of her faith, so Abraham, we’re told in the book of Hebrews, received his son Isaac back from death.
And the text in Genesis 22.16 and following makes it quite clear that because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God renewed the covenant, saying
By myself I Have sworn because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gates of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
This is the same promise which God had made when He first called Abraham and made a covenant with him. Even though Abraham was already in covenant with God, he too had too chase after Christ above all else just like Tamar did.
As Christians who have been put in Christ, none of us have to try to get in from the outside the way Tamar did. But we still have to persevere, and we have to deal with the trials which God puts before us. We still are called and will be called to chase after Christ no matter what the cost.
The message of Tamar is rather simple: Love Jesus.
We read parables about how a man found treasure in a field and sold all that he had so that he could buy that field. And we read about a pearl of great price which a merchant attains by selling all that he owns. We read the words of Jesus when he tells us that we must not put our hand to the plow and turn back. A man should not start building a tower until he has counted the cost.
We must love Jesus more than anything. We must do anything to enter, to share, to continue in the Kingdom.
Here in Genesis we have one of many more stories of how we must be willing to sacrifice all for the sake of the Kingdom.
Zacheus was willing to part with his fortune, Tamar was willing to play the part of a prostitute. There’s nothing more valuable than Christ and his Kingdom.
Abraham was ready to cut apart his own son with a knife, Tamar was willing to risk being burned alive. We must be willing to do anything for the sake of the Kingdom. We must love Jesus more than all else.
And what do we have to do?
Do we have to use deception, like Tamar or Rahab? Do we have to go to a distant land like Abraham or Ruth? Do we have to leave our families and homes like Peter, James, and John?
No matter how close an analogy I draw between our experiences and that of most of the Biblical saints, the fact is that we don’t have to suffer nearly the hardship that the saints of old did earlier in the development of the Kingdom. Christ has changed things; he’s taken away many barriers. We don’t even have to shed the blood of animals anymore. Or be circumcised. Or get baptized over and over and over again in order to have access to the sacraments.
In the New Covenant the entrance to the Kingdom and perseverance in it is much easier than it once was. How much more then, should we be willing to show that we love Jesus. Since it is so much simpler to enter the Kingdom now, how much more should we realize that life is only to be found in His covenant, His Church-it is worth the effort. Since we’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let’s run with endurance the race set before us by remaining in Christ, sharing Christ, and running after Christ as if nothing else matters.
Because, after all, nothing else does.
copyright © 1998