September 23, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 1.3 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “She Is More Right Than I”: Genesis 38
Some weeks, the only cure for our social malaise may be a good Monty Python song. One of our favorites comes from a scene in The Meaning of Life, when a Yorkshire father arrives home to announce to his scores of children – packed into the rowhouse, stuffed into the cupboards – that the mill has closed, and he has no choice but to sell them all for medical experiments because he can’t feed them. He bursts into a song to explain the Roman Catholic theological reason why:
Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate
The songwriter does not aim their barbed pen at Catholics alone though. As this Oliver Twist musical theater number breaks out into the streets, from their parlor across the street, a repressed Protestant couple offer quiet commentary that equally skewers the frozen chosen. The joke’s on us, too. Every stereotype contains its kernel of hard truth. (Pause)
When it comes to the moralizing of human coupling, Christianity has a mostly terrible track record. Monty Python’s sperm-song first came to mind when I re-read Tamar’s story because… well… the God in this story does get quite irate when Onan spills his seed upon the ground. Not quite so funny if this story has been used against you, if you’ve suffered the sexual shame that comes from damaging interpretations of this text and so many others. We could throw it out. Say it has no relevance in our time and place. Or we could see and hear something of holy righteousness – another shade of the covenant – here in Tamar’s story. (Pause)
Between last week and today, a multi-generational family drama has unfolded. Some of you may know some of these stories. Abraham has two sons, Ishmael (with the slave Hagar) and Isaac (with Sarah). Isaac makes a family with Rebecca, who gives birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob flees to his uncles’ house, where he works 14 years in exchange for wives Leah and Rachel, who come with Zilpah and Bilhah. Together, the four women give birth to 12 sons and a daughter. Jacob’s twelve sons are remembered as the 12 tribes of Israel. About the same time that favored son Joseph is getting picked on, harassed and eventually sold down the road to Egypt… another son, Judah, marries, has three sons of his own and welcomes a daughter-in-law: Tamar. This is her story. Tamar’s story interrupts the Joseph saga, and it’s mostly a sad one. Her first husband dies. We don’t know why. The narrator’s opinion is that God thinks he’s kind of a jerk and offs him. (shoulder shrug) So, Judah tells his second son to perform a brotherly duty known as Levirate Marriage. When one man dies leaving a wife childless, the brother makes a conjugal coupling with the widow in order to produce children. Though for all practical purposes, those children might diminish their uncle’s inheritance, the idea was to care for both the deceased (whose name would at least go on) and for the woman left behind. We have to remember that children are not just sources of motherly pride in the ancient world. They are life insurance and health insurance for women especially. They are the only way Tamar can expect to be sheltered, clothed, fed and cared for in her older age. So when the second brother proceeds to do but not do what his father Judah has asked – and instead practices a form of birth control designed to prevent pregnancy – he is indicating at some level he just doesn’t care. Apparently, the narrator believes God does, though, and God dispatches Onan, too. By this time, Judah is getting nervous about the fate of his sole surviving son. So he sends Tamar back to her father to live as a widow with absolutely no intention of supporting her any more. Understand that in this time, in the way family relationships worked, this is him washing his hands. Severs any responsibility for her care or her future. Tamar, though, knows what is right. She knows covenant means faith lived in relationship. So she bides her time, disguises herself and waits at the roadside. It could be euphemism or it could be narrative irony, when the servant sent to deliver payment asks around, he calls her “the holy woman.” And while the narrator implies not a whiff of moral failing for the patriarch who hires a stranger for sex at the side of the road, Tamar is nearly stoned. When, predictably, family and friends call her whore, she sends that unmistakable signature (seal), staff and cord. Gotcha, she says with these tokens. “I’ve been used, passed around, and cast away. Now, Judah. What is right? What is righteous, ethically and spiritually, here? What is just? (Pause) And then comes that admission so rare in scripture, so rare in the history of the church, so rare in our national politics, and so rare in boardrooms: Judah says, “She is more right than I.” (Pause) “She is more right than I.”
I want us to stop and really hear that reverberate around the room… Judah, son of Israel, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, Judah whose tribe will gain ascendance to the royal throne of David… I want us to fully hear what he says here: “She is more right than I.” Because when it comes down to it, a Monty Python musical and jokes about Onanism are not funny enough to dissipate the pain carried by those harmed by the misogyny that still devalues women’s bodies and lives in our culture and in our churches. How incredibly hard to be a woman in this country this past week. I don’t know one who was able to go about life as usual with any ease. In response to lawyer Christine Blasey Ford informing the Senate that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her in high school, we had national flashbacks, flashbacks to the Anita Hill hearings… and flashbacks to every other time when victims of sexual harassment and abuse have been put “on trial” for daring to say publicly: You hurt me, you used me, and it was wrong. I stayed off social media for big chunks of time, because every story of #whyIdidntreport felt like a stone thrown. Every blog post and tweet and editorial written by women, and some men, about how the abuse of power robbed them of their agency, their humanity, and their life… every one felt like a new collective wound. I had to brace myself… as I’m sure did many of you… for the unsettling message that people holding the highest offices in our land… just… don’t… care. And it occurred to me, that’s the real sin of Onanism: Screw you; I’ll protect me. (Pause)
If you are sitting here this morning under the unbearable weight of having been used or abused, please know you can talk to me if you want to and that you have options. Here locally, our sexual assault support teams know there are so many reasons why we may or may not have disclosed the violence inflicted on us. And the SART team here in Jackson County knows how to support those who have been hurt and harmed. Because so often those who speak for God have made it worse, it is so important to me that here in this church, as an expression of our faith, we teach Our Whole Lives, a comprehensive sexuality curriculum that is values-based. We teach even the little ones K-2, on up to the kids figuring out puberty, and on through the teenagers and young adults and adults, that essential to our interactions as human beings in these bodies are the values of respect, responsibility and relationship. Separated as we are by centuries of changing sexual and cultural mores, those three values are at work in this story of Tamar’s righteousness in Genesis 38, too.
Our narrator in Genesis 38 knows, perhaps unconsciously, what is truly righteous. Righteousness is relationship and responsibility in relationship. I never heard this story preached, though. And there is not a single commentary about it at www.workingpreacher.org No one ever told me there was a story in sacred scripture where a daughter-in-law tricks her father-in-law into impregnating her and the story ends with the revered patriarch declaring, “She is more right than I.” No one ever told me there was a story in the depths of these patriarchal texts where a woman who is cast off when no longer useful to the men in her life stands up for her essential worth… and becomes the predecessor of royalty. It took women… and womanist theologians like Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney wrestling with these texts for me to finally hear this story. No one told me in my religious upbringing that the sin of “Onanism” is not letting human sperm fall outside a fertile womb… but actively preventing a widow from the assurances of food and clothing and care. What else might the holy women in this world need us to hear? (Pause)
“She is more right than I.” The final word is that Tamar – the Canaanite, the woman accused of playing the whore, the widow who won’t be cast off to die alone – is more righteous than Jacob’s son. It’s through her child that the royal line of David, and eventually Jesus, will come. Despite the patriarchy that colors these faith stories, one facet of the promise of this God we are coming to know by stages is that righteousness… is right relationship, it is responsibility for one another. The gospel writer Matthew, a century later, will hear and see what true righteousness is about, too, when he includes Tamar in his genealogy of Jesus, the great, great, great, great-great-great-great-great grandchild of a union that would offend all of our moral sensibilities today, for lots of good reasons. Matthew names Tamar to remind us that there is a line of women who keep asking us to define what is righteousness, what is just, today.
May we hear their voices. And may we listen. Amen.
 Nahum Sarna, Gensis, JPS Torah Commentary.