This blog has been following the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark in tandem since 01/01/2015. The whole series can be accessed from my archive. The daily headlines a reminders of the world we live in.
38 (iv) It was at this time that Y’hudah went off from his brothers and settled near a man named Hirah who was an ‘Adulami. 2 There Y’hudah saw one of the daughters of a certain Kena‘ani whose name was Shua, and he took her and slept with her. 3 She conceived and had a son, whom he named ‘Er. 4 She conceived again and had a son, and she called him Onan. 5 Then she conceived yet again and had a son .whom she called Shelah; he was in K’ziv when she gave birth to him.
6 Y’hudah took a wife for ‘Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But ‘Er, Y’hudah’s firstborn, was evil from YHWH’s perspective, so he killed him. 8 Y’hudah said to Onan, “Go and sleep with your brother’s wife — perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and preserve your brother’s line of descent.” 9 However, Onan knew that the child would not count as his; so whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground, so as not to give his brother offspring. 10 What he did was evil from YHWH’s perspective, so he killed him too.
11 Then Y’hudah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Stay a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I don’t want him to die too, like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived at home with her father. 12 In due time, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Y’hudah, died. After Y’hudah had been comforted, he went up to be with his sheep-shearers in Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the ‘Adulami. 13 Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law has gone up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” 14 So she took off her widow’s clothes, completely covered her face with her veil, and sat at the entrance to ‘Einayim, which is on the way to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah had grown up, but she still was not being given to him as his wife. 15 When Y’hudah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, because she had covered her face. 16 So he went over to her where she was sitting and said, not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, “Come, let me sleep with you.” She answered, “What will you pay to sleep with me?” 17 He said, “I will send you a kid from the flock of goats.” She said, “Will you also give me something as a guarantee until you send it” 18 He answered, “What should I give you as a guarantee?” She said, “Your seal, with its cord, and the staff you’re carrying in your hand.” So he gave them to her, then went and slept with her; and she conceived by him. 19 She got up and went away, took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes.
20 Y’hudah sent the kid with his friend the ‘Adulami to receive the guarantee items back from the woman, but he couldn’t find her. 21 He asked the people near where she had been, “Where is the prostitute who was on the road at ‘Einayim?” But they answered, “There hasn’t been any prostitute here.” 22 So he returned to Y’hudah and said, “I couldn’t find her; also the people there said, ‘There hasn’t been any prostitute here.’” 23 Y’hudah said, “All right, let her keep the things, so that we won’t be publicly shamed. I sent the kid, but you didn’t find her.”
24 About three months later Y’hudah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been acting like a whore; moreover, she is pregnant as a result of her prostitution.” Y’hudah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned alive!” 25 When she was brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these things belong. Determine, I beg you, whose these are — the signet, the cords and the staff.” 26 Then Y’hudah acknowledged owning them. He said, “She is more righteous than I, because I didn’t let her become the wife of my son Shelah.” And he never slept with her again.
27 When she went into labor, it became evident that she was going to have twins. 28 As she was in labor, one of them put out his hand; and the midwife took his hand and tied a scarlet thread on it, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But then he withdrew his hand, and his brother came out; so she said, “How did you manage to break out first?” Therefore he was named Peretz [breaking out]. 30 Then out came his brother, with the scarlet thread on his hand, and he was given the name Zerach [scarlet]
This piece of low comedy must have come from tradtions associated with King David who was descended from Perez. The storyteller departs from his more measured style to include an episode of disguise and exposure which both mirrors the ultimate denouement of the Yosef story, and shows a significant development in the character of Y’hudah, who can admit being in the wrong. This foreshadows his honest humanity in the Yosef denouement.
But the story itself is a cracker! First we have Y’hudah’s impulsive attachment with a Canaanite woman, then the deaths of his two sons because they were seen as evil by YHWH. The audience haven’t seen this side of God since the end of the more mythogical stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. What’s going on here? I think that in spite of his subtle portrayal of a God who works by influencing human beings, the storyteller wants to preserve the conviction that God must be handled carefully. Yes, he will work with his chosen human beings but if they become neglectful, as Y’hudah does in choosing a Canaanite woman, then the dark side of YHWH is revealed; he becomes as he was in the time of Noah, an uncreating power, a killer.
There are other episodes in Scripture of YHWH the killer and I will consider them whern I come to sum up the theology of Genesis, in a few weeks time. For the moment it’s enough to note that this disturbing element is present.
To Y’hudah it looks as if Tamar is the cause of death and he keeps his third son away from her, contrary to the custom that obliges brothers to procreate with their siblings’ widows. This leads to the bold deception devised by Tamar to put her father-in-law in the wrong. Her success however rests on the readiness of Y’hudah to accept his humiliation and to acknowledge his offspring. Even then the audience who know the genealogy of King David are made to see that the emergence of Perez as firstborn is either luck or destiny. The whole tale, ending as it does with a firstborn acceptable to YHWH, begins to look suspiciously like one of YHWH’s ‘narratives’ which further his plans in the face of human negligence.
Tamar belongs to the storyteller’s cast of able and determined women, along with Eve, Sarai, Rivka, Rahel and Potifar’s wife.
38 And the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom.
39 And the centurion who stood by over against him, when he saw that he had expired having thus cried out, said, Truly this man was Son of God.
40 And there were women also looking on from afar off, among whom were both Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;
41 who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him and ministered to him; and many others who came up with him to Jerusalem.
Verses 38,39 show Mark’s genius as a storyteller. His gospel starts with Jesus baptism in which the heavens are rent open and God’s spirit descends on Jesus, followed by God’s voice declaring Jesus to be his son. But that revelation happens only for Jesus. Here at the end of the gospel, when Jesus has died broken and defeated, Mark recounts two public signs of his rescuing power:
1. The temple veil concealed the Holy of Holies into which the high priest would enter annually on the Day of Atonement to make sacrifice for the sin of the people. This was the only permitted access to the place of God’s holy presence. Mark tells his readers that Jesus’ death has created open access to the presence of God. In his death the reality of God is made evident for all to see. Movie could show this one split screen, one side of which would show Jesus dying, the other the temple veil slowly being torn apart. Mark trusts his readers to work out the meaning of this sign.
2. The Roman centurion, symbol of Gentile imperialism, faced with Jesus’ dying, makes public acknowledgment of Jesus as God’s son. Given that his emperor liked to be called divine, this is a potent witness to a new sort of power made perfect as Paul says, in weakness. The Gospel, the good news which begins with God’s witness to Jesus is concluded by the witness of human empire to what Jesus has done for God. Because of the life and death of Jesus the goodness of God finds a persuasive way into the heart of darkness, into the powers that rule the world.
As befits a king who rules from a cross, Jesus is attended not by courtiers or bodyguards but by women who have broken social taboos to follow him and help him. Their presence and the absence of male disciples signals a new understanding of what discipleship is, of what God is, and of what human beings are. Deniers of women’s priesthood are not reading their bibles very carefully.