Monday, October 22, 2007

Justice for a Whore (Gen 38): Final Draft

I will deliver this first person narrative sermon on Wednesday, October 24. Please pray for me. I appreciate the many constructive comments offered by my readers and I thank you for taking the time to do so. I hope that my rendering of Tamar's story is faithful to God's word and evocative of the truth within it.
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Justice for a Whore: A Sermon from Genesis 38

Righteousness.
Vindication.
Justice.

Such clean, uncluttered words—such dignified, uncomplicated ideals. But, I was a woman, a widow—a childless widow. Dignity and simplicity did not exist for me. Justice does not dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. Of this I was certain.

Word of Judah’s arrival in Timnah reached me in the early morning. I was knotting my hair beneath a black scarf when the voice of a servant girl interrupted my thoughts. “Judah is coming! You’re father-in-law Judah is coming to Timnah!”

My heart stung sharply with angst. It had been so long since I returned to father’s household that I had almost forgotten Judah’s promise. Month after month of compounded shame and grief had covered his words like a scab. Suddenly, the flesh was ripped open and I remembered: “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son, Shelah, grows up.” I had been obedient. I had waited for him to send for me, yet word from Judah never came.

But, what could I do? A twice-widowed woman confronting the patriarch of a powerful clan? Impossible. Such things are not done. So, I remained quietly in my father’s house, enduring their resentment and disdain for my childlessness, content to forsake all thoughts of remarriage. But, when I heard the words that Judah was on his way, something stirred within me.

As the freshly exposed wound of my abandonment met the heat of the glaring sun, my heart was ignited with a desperate desire for justice. In that moment I resolved to meet Judah in Timnah and present him with my grievances. If necessary, I would throw myself at his feet and beg for mercy. I had to try. I had to do something.

Removing my well-worn widows garments, I wrapped myself in the amber-hued robes of my sister. Before I left, I retrieved a sepia scarf and covered my face as well. Comforted by the privacy of anonymity, I set out for Timnah. Although the walk was arduous in the desert sun, I was happy for the delay. With every step, I summoned long buried memories and became ever more certain of what I must do.

Er and I were married when I was barely a woman. With four girls in the family, my father was relieved to be rid of me, like a mule unloading a heavy burden. Judah’s clan was large and prosperous. I anticipated a demanding life, but I was na├»ve enough in my youth to hope for a measure of happiness—children, grandchildren, and maybe even the love of my husband.

Our first night together, I was overcome by melancholy and fear, like many new brides. I wept in our marriage bed. But, Er was displeased with my tear-stained, swollen face. He had one purpose for me that night and consolation did not play a part. The next morning, I was still awake when the dawn peeked into the folds of our tent. As Er snored steadily beside me, I hugged my knees and trembled, dismayed at what the coming years would bring.

The months that followed were filled with misery. My only consolation was the hope that I would conceive a son. But, Er’s displeasure with me never lifted and he rarely called me to his bed. He preferred to play upon the fearful innocence of our servant girls. When they found him dead in the fields one day, I felt no grief for him. I could barely bring myself to wail with the rest of the women. But, as I howled in anguish, I begged God to rescue me from childless shame.

Judah gave me to Er’s brother, Onan, while I was still in mourning. Even though I was his second wife, Judah thought he would do what was right and provide a son for me in Er’s stead. I was grateful for Judah’s concern. A son would remove my disgrace and preserve my place in the family. Yet, our first night together, without a single word, Onan made it clear that he had no intention of fathering my child. He used my body for pleasure and then refused to finish the act. The shame was almost unbearable.

Still, a part of me clung to a shred of hope that one day he would change his mind. If I submitted to his desires, if I served him with enthusiasm, if I helped with his other children, perhaps eventually he would give me a child. The day never came. Even now I shudder imagining those hands touching me, taking my body in greedy lust, yet refusing to care for me as a husband. His perverted overtures of lovemaking were worse than rape. I was vulnerable and defenseless. I was completely dependent upon him to relieve my shame and secure my status. I needed him and he used me.

One morning, Onan didn’t rise at the normal hour and I was sent to retrieve him. When he didn’t respond to my voice, I knelt near his shoulders and shook him. When his head rolled lifelessly to the side, I knew he was dead. My gut was flooded with a mixture of horror and relief. He was gone. The monster was gone. But, I was widowed. Again. And, I still didn’t have a son.

With this second death, a great battle was waged in my soul. How could this happen to me? Two dead husbands and no children. Two dead husbands and no children! I won’t deny it: I hated my husbands while they lived. But, I hated them more, dead. How could they do this to me? They left me alone, childless, with a hostile family watching my every move. They looked at me through squinted eyes, like I was a hidden pest, a secret plague. At times, my feelings matched their suspicions. What have I done wrong? Am I cursed? Have I offended God? I could not escape the questions or the fear.

Everyone knew the right thing was for Judah to give me to his last son. It was an unspoken assumption—the way to carry on the family name and care for me. Although Shelah was younger than I, the other women held him in high esteem. They speculated with me that he would finally relieve my disgrace.

But, after losing two sons to me, I guess Judah’s compassion ran out. He said it was because of Shelah’s youth. “Wait for him to grow up,” he said. Sure. Whatever you say. The old man forgot that I had bedded two of his wicked offspring. I was disgraced and humiliated, but I was not a fool. But, what could I do? To what court could I appeal? Who would execute justice for the childless widow? No man on earth would hear my case. So, I left Judah’s family with muffled rage burning in my chest. And, my father had to take me. The mule had received back his heavy burden.

So, there I was, sitting at the gate to Timnah, watching the horizon. As the dust-filled wind swept through the folds of my robes, once again I voiced a desperate plea to God. Righteousness. Vindication. Justice. “Please, God. Please.”

I spotted Judah’s form from far away. As he came near, I observed that the lines in his face were deeper and his hair had grayed considerably. His steps slowed as they approached the gate and my heart thudded a deafening drumbeat.

When he was very close, Judah stopped and studied what he could see of my face. Even with my face down, I could feel his eyes drifting up and down my body. My stomach clenched. Surely he would recognize me. Surely he would remember me. But then what? What would I say to him? How could I explain myself? Oh, why did I decide to come to Timnah? I stared at the dirt willing him to walk on, but Judah stood firmly and spoke: “Come on, let me sleep with you.”

What? What did he say? What was he asking? Then it dawned on me: he thinks I’m a prostitute. He doesn’t recognize me at all. He thinks I’m a whore! All visions of confronting Judah with his injustice vanished from my mind. What would I answer? What could I say to such an insult?

My mind struggled to form a response, but only one thing came to mind: You were no more than a whore in his home. What a terrible thought, but it was true. Maybe in our time together Judah will recognize me, and the shame will overwhelm him. Perhaps the payment he will give me can relieve some of my poverty. Or, maybe, just maybe, since Judah will not give me a husband, in his foolishness he will give me a son.

My throat convulsed with the thought of submitting to Judah’s lust, but I knew I had a small opportunity. Now is my chance. Now is the time to act.

“What will you give me as payment for time in my bed?” My stomach shuddered with the sound of my own boldness. “How about a young goat from my flocks?” he answered. “How do I know you’ll pay me? You’ll have to give me a guarantee until you send it.” “I can do that. What do you want?”

I regretted my audacity almost immediately. How can I play the whore with my father-in-law? I was panicked to reverse my course, so I requested the one thing I knew he would refuse: “I want your signet, your cord, and your staff.” These emblems of his authority were prized possessions. He would sooner lose a hand than give over these things to a prostitute. But, would you believe it? He agreed. He hurriedly gathered the items and held them out to me. My eyes wide with shock, but I reached out and took them. The decision was made.

Mercifully, our time together was brief. My heart was pricked when he spoke of the death of his wife. But, I never summoned the courage to reveal myself to him. And, amazingly, he never realized who I was. I suppose I wasn’t striking enough for him to notice.

When he left my side to retrieve my payment, I was overcome by what I had done. I scrambled myself together and ran almost the entire way back to my tent, still clutching Judah’s things. As my heart slowed its pounding in my chest, I permitted myself a sad smile. What would Judah think when he returned with his goat and found nothing but an empty room? Poor fool.

I knew soon after our encounter that something had happened. I was becoming ill in the mornings and I was sleeping more than usual. When the time for my uncleanness passed twice without blood, I knew. Of course, my secret could not remain my secret for long. As my belly began to protrude in my robes, the rumors swirled.

My family ignored me for a time, avoiding the truth; but finally, my mother confronted me with flashing eyes. She spitted insults and slapped me and accused me of fornication. How could I shame them? What was I thinking? I know that I should have feared for myself, for my child, for my family’s reputation. But, I didn’t care. I was carrying a child. God had heard my whispered pleas.

News of my state finally reached my father-in-law. In our world, my condition was an even greater shame to him. When his servants came to retrieve me, they dragged me from my tent like an animal. They spit at my feet and cursed me for whoring. They warned of the fiery punishment that awaited me. How strange it was. The one who sentenced me to a life of childless disgrace wanted to avenge his humiliation.

But, as their jeering faces and violent hands threatened to bruise my soul, a small voice inside me whispered that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Despite their fury, I begged one of them to carry a message to Judah. Perhaps the strangeness of my words and the intensity of my gaze convinced him. “Tell Judah that the father of my child is the owner of these.”

As he walked away, defiant pride stirred within me. Call me a whore. Spit on the adulterer. Burn me alive, if you want. Within me grows the proof of God’s vindication. If mother and child die today, God has justified me. God, who has the power to open and close the womb, has proven that I am in the right.

By the time I arrived in Judah’s presence, it was clear that he had gotten my message. I was forced to my knees before him and he looked upon me as if in a daze. I was covered in gritty sand, my hair loose and wild, and my eyes narrow and accusing. He didn’t recognize me before, but he knew me now.

Even in my defiance, I knew I was at his mercy. Nothing passed his lips, but I watched the memories flash in his brain like lightening. No one else knew our secret. He could pretend nothing happened and order me to be burned. My lover could become my executioner in one word.

Holding out the signet, cord, and staff to me with trembling hands, the powerful patriarch struggled for words. “I did not give you my son, Shelah. You are more righteous than I.”

Yes, you heard rightly. Judah declared me, me, righteous. At first, we all stared at him in shock and disbelief. But, when he lifted me from the ground, it became clear that he was telling the truth. I was not punished. I was not sent back to my father’s house. I was not shamed or harassed or scorned any longer. From that day forward I began a new life as an honored widow in Judah’s household. What a different kind of life. What a relief from pain and sorrow.

When the time for birth arrived, I had twins: Perez and Zerah. Judah was their father, but he never shared my bed again. At last, I found joy and comfort in a life of quiet motherhood.

So, what do you think of Tamar’s story? Yes, I used sex to get what I wanted. I played the whore with my father-in-law. But, of course, that’s not the really shocking part. The scandal is that I was not alone in my endeavor.

There are many women like me. You avoid their eyes. They do not have a voice because they do not have power. You overlook their stories, because they are scandalous and uncomfortable. But, now you know the truth. Justice does dwell in a home as messy and filthy as mine. God used desperation and foolishness to extract justice. God worked in bitterness and pain to give me sons. God brought forth honor from the depths of desolate widowhood. And, incredibly, scandalously, God who chose me, me and my embarrassing, dirty story, to bring forth the Messiah.

Whatever you think of me, whatever you think of all my suffering sisters, remember: God performs justice. Even for a widow. Even for a whore.

5 comments:

Carn-Dog said...

if I didn't work at the park on Wednesdays I would totally come hear you deliver this.

creative friend

UnderMidnight said...

Just remember to relax and slow down. Whenever I get into Preaching I'll have to read verbatim, which will be very helpful if it is allowed. When I write I kind of dictate the dialogue going on in my head, which means that it usually translates to speech well. Parenthetical statements do not work well in speech.

Lory said...

dr. ngan would be proud. it brings back so many memories of things learned and times shared. thanks for posting this. it is powerful. praying for you as you prepare to deliver these words.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hey everyone,

Thank you for your prayers and encouragement. I think the delivery went well. Of course, the content was shocking, but that was kind of the point, I guess. When I watched the DVD, I see lots of room for improvement in delivery. But, that's life, right? We can always get better. Thanks again!

-Emily

traveller said...

I have not had time to check your blog over the past week or so since I am traveling in Europe and Africa on business. Tonight I had some time and read this revised version.

It is excellent! I am so pleased about the delivery. Be assured that no matter how well the delivery is you will always think it could have been better. But that is where the power of the Holy Spirit is so important, for it is not our delivery but the teaching of the Spirit that is key.