Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Relative Righteousness

“She is more righteous than I …”

Judah’s wife had died. He wasn’t exactly a young man at this point, but as they say today, “He had needs.” The cult prostitute he encountered on the road to Timnah was an admittedly sinful but pragmatic way of managing those very normal human impulses so he could get on with the necessary business of shearing his sheep undistracted.

What Judah didn’t know was that the veiled “prostitute” was actually his daughter-in-law, the former wife of his eldest son. She provided her services to him that day in exchange for a young goat from Judah’s flock, which she never received.

Technically, then, not actually a prostitute. Perhaps not a role model exactly, but nobody in this story really is.

Half Canaanite, All Bad

As a child, I remember finding this particular Genesis account bizarre and more than a little distasteful. I wondered why it was there in our Bibles at all. After all, almost everybody in it is a nasty piece of work at one level or another. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of it. If you are unfamiliar with it, it goes something like this:

Judah’s firstborn son Er was a wicked man. We don’t know in what way exactly, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the story. What we do need to think about is where his wickedness came from.

Er was half Canaanite. His father Judah had left his family and was living among the locals. Making friends with the world, rather than living among the people of God. You can bet he was not there to be a testimony to the God of Israel. No, he was checking out other possible lifestyle options. After a time, he saw a Canaanite woman who appealed to him and he took her as his wife.

Idolaters and Baby-Killers

We have already seen several times in the book of Genesis that intermarrying with the Canaanites was a bad idea for the people of God, so I won’t revisit all the reasons for that. You can read them here if you’re interested. Just a few decades previously, Judah’s uncle Esau had done exactly the same thing: married a Canaanite, and a second one just for good measure. Surprise! These women were wicked. The text tells us this explicitly. It’s the same Hebrew word used about Er.

So, wicked in what way? Who knows. Canaanites were idolaters and baby-killers. God had destroyed more than a few of the worst of them already, and he had promised to judge the rest in due course. Their wickedness was not just occasional and personal, but culturally pervasive. They were bad people, and the Canaanite mothers taught their Canaanite children to behave just as badly.

Anyway, Er was wicked, and the Lord put him to death before he was ever able to sire a child with his wife, Tamar. That didn’t make his father particularly happy, but he followed Hebrew custom and instructed his second son Onan to perform the traditional duty of a brother-in-law, taking Tamar as a wife in order to produce offspring for his dead brother. This child would inherit Er’s portion of Judah’s estate.

A Trend Develops

Well, Onan was half-Canaanite as well. Same mom. He too was a wicked and materialistic man, though we get a little more grisly detail about the specific nature of his wickedness. You can hardly expect such a man to have a high regard for Hebrew traditions like Levirite marriage. There is no historical evidence Canaanites had any such custom. After all, why would anyone choose to split an inheritance in four when you would otherwise be entitled to half? (Er, being the eldest, was due a double portion, and Judah had a third son named Shelah.) So Onan failed to do his fraternal duty by Tamar, and God put him to death just like his big brother.

At this point, Judah sees a trend developing. He has gone his own way, and God is judging his family. Judah knows it. His line of descent is not about to revert to pantheism. God will not have that, even if Judah would be fine with it. Judah has no clue that he is destined to be the distant ancestor of Messiah, but God knows it very well indeed. So in order to preserve the life of his third son, Judah refuses to marry him off to Tamar. Forget about duty; this is life and death here. Thus, Tamar is not only cheated of her rightful place in the family of Judah and the benefit that would have come to her through being the daughter-in-law of a wealthy man, she is actually sent back to her own father’s household to live as a widow and to wait for Shelah to come of age, which Judah, the reader and Tamar all know is never going to occur.

The Road to Timnah

So we find ourselves back on the road to Timnah with an explanation for why Judah’s daughter-in-law was posing as a prostitute, trying to entice her father-in-law to sleep with her. From Tamar’s perspective, this is the only way to get back the status and property to which she had been formerly entitled, not to mention that with her cultural obligations as part of Judah’s family, it is the only possible way she will ever have children. From the reader’s perspective, it’s also the only feasible way to keep Judah’s offspring fully Hebrew, since Judah’s conduct has eliminated every other possible option. To make a long story short, Tamar becomes pregnant by Judah. In due course, she starts to show, and Judah decides his “immoral” daughter-in-law must be burned.

This, by the way, is the primary reason I believe Tamar was a Hebrew, and not another Canaanite, though the text does not confirm this explicitly. Judah still exercised a sort of patriarchal authority over Tamar, and it was his word that determined her fate. This would surely not have been the case if she were a Canaanite widow living back home in her parents’ Canaanite household. Israelites and Canaanites did not live by the same rules, and it was the Canaanites who at this point were the dominant culture. The Israelites were passing through what was then foreign territory. Judah would definitely have had to do some serious negotiating with the locals in order to have one of theirs put to death on his say-so. It would not have been a straightforward matter.

But Tamar was subject to the traditions of Jacob’s family, which means she was undoubtedly a member of it. Furthermore, it was Judah who chose Tamar to be Er’s wife, not Er himself. After a couple of decades living with a Canaanite and seeing firsthand the spiritual consequences, it is hard to believe his father would have chosen another Canaanite to marry Er. It has also been pointed out that Tamar is a Hebrew name. It means palm tree. There is another memorable Israelite Tamar in our Old Testaments, not to mention an Israelite city or region called Tamar near the southern border of the tribe of Gad’s territory.

Anyway, Tamar then produces evidence that the father of her child is Judah, and Judah says this: “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

The thing is, he was right. Tamar’s method was not a great one, but she was trying to produce the right result at least. Comparatively speaking, Judah was fighting God every step of the way.

More Righteous Than I

Relative righteousness. It means measuring human conduct against other human conduct. We know it has a certain limited validity, because both God and man refer to it. Saul said to David, “You are more righteous than I.” He was. Abner and Amasa were more righteous than Joab. And the prophet Ezekiel testifies on God’s behalf that Samaria and Sodom were more righteous than Judah.

Relative righteousness is quite a different thing from objective righteousness. On a scale of one to 100, a 95 looks significantly better than a 65. On a scale of one to 6,000,000,000, a disparity of 30 points become too small to be worth measuring. So let’s not forget that in God’s eyes we are all sinners. Outside of Christ, we all stand condemned. This is true whether we are big sinners or comparatively little sinners. It’s all still sin, and the penalty for sin is death. So let’s not pretend we can ever stack human righteousness alongside the righteousness of God. That’s a futile exercise.

But how about on the human level: is it worth making distinctions between acts which are less righteous and more righteous?

I think so. The scriptures do it. Sin is still a matter of degree. We have just been reading that, historically at least, there have been sins committed of such a nature that God chose to judge them instantly, in this life. Er committed a sin like that. Onan did too. There are also sins committed which God did not opt to judge on the spot. Judah’s sin was like that, and so was Tamar’s.

Reasons Not to Double Down

That said, relative righteousness makes a poor excuse for our moral failings: “Sure, I sinned, but I wasn’t quite as bad a sinner as Joe over there.” Sorry, that one won’t fly. A failing mark remains a failing mark even when the entire class fails the exam. Pointing out that the guy behind you failed by five more points than you still doesn’t get you into Harvard.

What is worth keeping in mind about relative righteousness is this: When, as Judah did, we have failed to realize God’s purposes in our lives and have gone seriously off track, there are two ways we can choose to go.

The first is that we can throw up our hands and say, “Well, I’m out of God’s will anyway, so what does it matter what I do now?” That’s probably not a recipe for happiness or fulfillment. It certainly won’t minimize the damage.

The other option is to acknowledge that while we are no longer in a position to enjoy the full benefits of the blessings God originally intended for us, there are still blessings to be had. Furthermore, there are always ways to make any bad situation considerably worse.

That’s what Judah did. Tamar didn’t.

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