Dear me again ~
You definitely just made my week. Thanks! When I was at the Jerusalem Center, I used to help people study (we had to know pretty much every name in the Old Testament. Not even kidding) by telling the stories in modern terms. It helped that I would tell one person who would spread it, and then others would come ask me, and I would end up telling the same story 3-5 times. By the time I got home I had grand dreams of writing a book of Bible stories in modern-day language. But then I realized how much pressure there would be to get things correct, and really, I'm not much of a true Biblical scholar. I know more than most, but not enough to be considered an expert by any means. So that dream faded. So thank you for giving me the chance to do this again.
I debated and debated what story to tell. My first choice is Tamar in Genesis 38. When you read that chapter, you leave horrified, wondering how in the world you are ever going to explain that chapter to your children in family scripture study. Should you just skip it? You don't even really understand it yourself. But there is a purpose to it. I wrote an exegesis on it my last semester of school. But if you follow the links through the question you linked to, you can actually get to said exegesis. Would it then be a cop out to write about it? But it's definitely the scripture story I know best and can tell you the most culture about. And I love teaching people the principles behind it. Plus, who ever clicks through links? (Also, I just realized that the permissions for it were set to private. Oops. So no one has read it yet anyway. I've fixed that, though, so if you want to read the actual thing, you can.) And lastly, it's written in more of a scholarly tone. If you're looking for a friendly tone, I guess I'll just have to re-write it here. [grins]
Ok, ok. If you still think it's a cop out and want something different, I'll tell you another short one at the end.
Genesis 38: Judah and Tamar
You read the story I wrote up about Ruth, right? If not, go read it. In the middle I sidetracked a little and talked about Matthew and how he's a man writing for men (err… Jew writing to Jews) and never talks about women. Except that he's the one that lists women in his genealogy. (Not Luke who is a gentile writing to gentiles and is the Gospel writer to include most of the stories we have about women.) Why? Because he's about to tell the story of the virgin birth, which he's pretty sure is going to be rejected and ridiculed as a woman breaking the Law of Moses. So he starts by specifically pointing out three women in their genealogy who appear to break the Law of Moses, but are really bringing about God's will. I already told you about Ruth, and honestly I've never studied Rahab (maybe I should do that someday?), so let's talk about Tamar.
When you read this chapter you probably read something like: Judah has a son who marries Tamar. Son dies. Next son marries Tamar. He does something immoral that makes me squeamish and can we please not talk about it? He dies. Dad freaks out about all his son marrying Tamar dying, so he procrastinates letting his third and last son marry him. He sends Tamar to her family and promises that when his son comes of age, he'll send for her. He doesn't. So she dresses up like a harlot and seduces him into sleeping with her (not knowing that it's Tamar) and gets pregnant. He finds out she's pregnant out of wedlock and sends her to be killed until she reveals him as the father and he declares her to be righteous. The end.
No wonder you're so confused. How is that story supposed to be uplifting? Why is in the scriptures? What am I supposed to learn from this? Sleeping with my father-in-law without his knowledge makes me more righteous than he? Whaaaaat? Once again, knowing Jewish culture clears up a lot of confusion. It fills in gaps. So, let's start filling.
Judah, son of Jacob, leaves home and marries a Canaanite. (Note: this is equivalent to marrying a non-member.) She bears him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er, being the oldest, gets the birthright of his father. He carries on the family name, he gets twice the inheritance of any of his brothers, including job, land, house, etc. Birthright is a big deal in Jewish culture. Er marries Tamar (the heroine of our story) and before they have any children, he does something very wicked, so God kills him.
Now we have a problem. Who gets the birthright? If Er had had a son, the son would get it. Without an heir, the birthright transfers down to the next son, Onan. Guess which option Onan prefers.
Unfortunately for Onan, the Law of the Levirate (which I talked about in the Ruth story) requires him to marry Tamar (even if he's already married to someone else!) Any children he has with Tamar will be considered Er's children. So if any of those children are male, Onan no longer gets the birthright, because Tamar's son with Onan is considered Er's son, and thus gets the birthright. Guess how much Onan likes this option.
Well, as the Law demands, Onan marries Tamar. Onan, however, does not want Tamar to bear any children that might potentially rip the birthright away from him. It would be a drastic decrease in wealth and status. And as you can probably tell, Judah isn't exactly raising his children to have strong standards. Onan, being a selfish man, isn't about to not sleep with Tamar, though. He's legally married to her and still wants the pleasure of sex. So he decides to have the best of both worlds. He sleeps with her, but then just before he ejaculates, he pulls out of her and lets all of his semen spill out. Pleasure without responsibility. Any guesses how God feels about Onan right now? Yeah. Not pleased. Not pleased at all. One more of Judah's sons has now been killed for wickedness.
Judah and Shelah are now both freaking out a little. Two sons/brothers have married Tamar and soon after, both have died. (I'm guessing they don't know the details of the deaths, but even if they do, they don't seem the type to really believe in punishment for sin. Plus, it's so much easier to blame the outsider, innocent that she may be, than your own family.) If Judah lets Shelah marry Tamar (which the Law of the Levirate demands), and if tradition follows and Shelah dies, Judah is now left without an heir. He would be shamed forever. What kind of a man doesn't have an heir!? Shelah is also scared to death. He doesn't want to die! Luckily for both of them, Shelah is still young. So Judah tells Tamar that Shelah is simply too young for marriage. "Why don't you go home to your parents? You'll be more comfortable there. Let them take care of you. I'll send for you when Shelah is older." Of course, he doesn't.
Let's talk about the Law of the Levirate a little more. Why is this even a law? Clearly it just causes problems. Why would God put a law into place that clearly causes contention? Well sure, it causes contention if you only look at the men. The men, who want to provide for their families and do so in the best way possible, want the birthright and they want to fight for it. It's understandable. But what about the women? What happens to Tamar if Onan is allowed to just have the birthright? Back in the day, women don't have very many rights on their own. Tamar can't just go out and get a job. She can't even go fall in love with another and get married. For one, not many people would marry another man's wife. They'd rather have someone "unspoiled." For two, until she runs out of Er's kinsmen, she's still connected to that family. (Though, that's only because of the Law of the Levirate. So I fear we're getting into circular reasoning here… moving on.)
When a woman gets married, she becomes part of his family. Judah now has more rights for Tamar than her own father does. Sending her back to her own family is actually kind of a slap in the face. Judah is responsible for taking care of her. She, on her own, has no rights. This may seem incredibly unfair and sexist, and maybe it is. But ideally, God's chosen people are all family-oriented and wonderful, loving people, so they'll put their family first and take care of them. Oh, there's a widow? Let's help her out. Just like if we saw an orphan, we'd happily help them eat and sleep and have clothing and an education. The Law of Moses includes several commands to take care of the widows. This very-patriarchal system has a major flaw if the patriarch is removed. So laws like the Law of the Levirate are in place, in part, to help the widows (and any possible female children she had with her first husband) have a husband to provide for them.
Also, remember how I said the birthright was a big deal? Well, so is the firstborn. The firstborn is very, very symbolic to Jews. Well, and to Christians. We know it's because Christ is the firstborn of God, so all of the firstborn symbology is representative of Him. (The Jews don't yet realize that. But they will. Don't worry. Ok, they realize it's symbolic of the Messiah. They just don't realize that's Christ.) The firstborn male of every female animal is sacrificed. The firstborn male of every woman technically should be, following that law, but is instead replaced on the altar by an unblemished firstborn male animal. (Because we don't want child sacrifices here. That's against the Law of Moses.) So ideally, the birthright should go to the firstborn male. Not just because we're all male-chauvenist pigs in an archaic, backwoods culture, but because the firstborn male is symbolic of the Messiah. Thus, while the second-born can have the birthright (because someone needs to), it's in place as a last resort. Ideally it should go to the firstborn son any way possible, hence the Law of the Levirate.
Whew. Got all that? So, quick recap of Tamar's story: she marries Er who erred (haha. I'm punny. But actually, it's punny in Hebrew, too.) and is killed for his wickedness. So she marries his brother, Onan, who wants sex without giving away his birthright, so he's also killed for his wickedness. Instead of following the Law and giving Tamar his youngest son, Shelah, to marry, he sends her away until Shelah is old enough, with no intention of ever sending for her again. Now we're caught up.
Tamar, remember has no rights. She is living off the charity of her parents. Imagine being a grown woman, widowed twice over because of the wickedness of your two husbands (who you probably were given no choice in marrying in the first place), then being forced to go live in your parents' basement until a child is old enough to marry you. Oh, and you're not allowed to get a job. You have to live off your parents' charity. Even worse, you're only living on your parents' charity because your father-in-law, who is supposed to supplant your own father in love and responsibility, has decided he hates you and is scared to death of you and has sent you away. Feeling bad for her yet?
So poor Tamar is stuck at home, waiting on the whims of her selfish father-in-law to give her any semblance of rights, and after years of waiting, realizes that Judah has no intentions of ever fulfilling his duties. Not only is he leaving her in a hollow husk of a life, but he's denying her children. She was supposed to be the wife of a birthright son. She was supposed to raise children to continue on the family. Perhaps she even loved Er and wanted to give him children. She should still be given the chance to do so, but it has been denied to her repeatedly. And given all of that time to do nothing but think, she probably also realized that, barring her death, Shelah will never be allowed to marry, and thus Judah's line is basically terminated. Not only will she never have children, but her new extended family is basically at an end. Maybe she's even heard the prophecy that the Messiah is supposed to come through Judah's line. (I don't know if she had or not. This is just speculation.) And family is another big deal to the Jews. Judah has effectively stripped almost everything of value from Tamar, temporally and spiritually. And perhaps has doomed prophecy itself. Yipes.
Tamar then realized that she can't wait on Judah to make the right decision. She has to take matters into her own hands. The plotting begins.
Meanwhile, Judah's wife dies. Having little shame or self-respect (you can probably guess my opinion on Judah, can't you?) he waits out the prescribed mourning period, then moves on with life. A flock of his sheep are being sheared in Timnah (which happens to be where Tamar resides (or near it), which probably explains how Tamar knew the family to begin with) and he decides to go with a friend*. Tamar hears that Judah is coming and comes up with a plan.
Did you know that anciently, a woman's clothing was based on her station in life? There were clothing for a maiden or unmarried woman/virgin (which, incidentally, is how Nephi probably new that Mary was a virgin when he saw her in his vision), for a married woman, for a widow, for a prostitute, etc. It's like a way more complicated version of an engagement/wedding ring.
Tamar takes off her clothing of widowhood and dons the clothing and veil of a prostitute. (Of course she wears a veil. She doesn't want Judah to recognize her, after all. In fact, what prostitute wants to be recognized? Most of them are relegated to it because it's the only way available for a woman to make money. If they have no husband, they have no way to provide for themselves outside of prostitution. It's shaming. And another reason people are supposed to take care of the needy! And proof that the people are being wicked and not taking care of the needy.) She goes to the road where she knows Judah will be traveling, sets up her tent, and positions herself in an alluring manner.
Judah, upon seeing Tamar, is immediately tempted. He has no wife, after all. He wastes no time and propositions her to sleep with him. She asks what he's willing to pay and he promises to send for a goat. Uh huh. Like a prostitute is going to accept promises. So Tamar agrees, so long as he leaves collateral. Deciding that's fair, Judah asks what she wants. Oh, not much. Just his seal, cord and staff. Or, in modern terms, his signature, credit cards and driver's license. She basically asks for his identity. Clearly Judah is letting his lust talk, because he agrees to the deal and they go do their thing. Judah leaves and goes on with life. Tamar packs up and changes back to her widow's clothing, returning to her miserable life. But her plan succeeded. She conceived.
Judah finishes up his sheep business and heads home. He sends his friend back to the prostitute with the promised goat and to receive his stuff. Prostitutes generally set up camp in one place for awhile, because their best advertisement is word-of-mouth. When the friend gets there, though, he can't find her. And when he asks around, no one has any recollection of seeing a prostitute around. She had just disappeared. Judah considered his options and decided it was best to just let everything slide. He could have a new seal, cord and staff be made, after all. And, really, he had tried to pay her. If she tried to demand more of him, he had witnesses to prove that he had, in fact, tried to pay.
Three months later, Tamar can no longer hide her pregnancy. (Turns out, she's pregnant with twins. Those show a lot sooner.) Word reaches Judah, who is furious. How dare his daughter-in-law put such shame upon his family?! As she is not married, she must have committed some form of adultery. This looks very bad upon his name. Hypocrite. Now, you remember how by being her father-in-law he has more rights over her than even her own father? Well, he has the right to punish her for her adultery. Do you know what the punishment is for adultery in the Law of Moses? Death. Seeing a way out of both the shame she shadowed him with and the inevitable marriage of her to his last son, he sentences her to burn to death. Lovely man, wouldn't you say?
Tamar lets everything happen for awhile, she doesn't want him to be able to worm out of responsibility after all. As she is being led to her death she sends Judah a message asking if he wanted to know who the father was. Of course he did! The more people he can put the blame on, the less shame is on him! So she tells him, "Here's some stuff that belongs to the man who got me pregnant. Perhaps you can recognize who they belong to." And of course, they're his. It doesn't say so, but I'm guessing there were witnesses to the whole event. Executions and such had to be witnessed to be legal.
Ohhhhh. Take that, Judah.
Finally Judah recognizes the hypocrisy of the whole situation. In trying to preserve and protect his posterity and birthright, he denies the only chance of its fulfillment. By so doing, he forced Tamar, who was also trying to preserve and protect his posterity and birthright, into desperate measures to circumvent the law in order to fulfill it. And then he tries to punish her for taking those desperate measures, when he does the exact same thing, but for pleasure instead of for righteous reasons. At that point, he had no choice but to revoke her death penalty (had he carried through with it, he would have had to sentence himself to death as well anyway) and to admit that she was more righteous than he.
We don't know if she ever married Shelah. We do know that Judah never slept with her again, though. She later gave birth to twin boys, though, so she was no longer left helpless and penniless. She was now the mother of the birthright (grand)son and could take possession of the birthright in his name until he was old enough to claim it for himself. And it was through her line that Christ was born, as told by Matthew hundreds (thousands?) of years later.
*or his shepherd. The consonants are the same in Hebrew for a long time the text had no written vowels. It wasn't until Hebrew stopped being a commonly spoken language that the Massoretes decided to add the vowels to the written text, so it's possible that it got voweled wrong. And really, I think 'shepherd' makes more sense here. Is it more likely that Judah would go to a sheep shearing with his friend or his shepherd?
2 Kings 2: Go up, thou bald head
Ok, you think telling that story was a cop out? Ok. I'll tell you another, much shorter (though probably not short) story to clarify another oft-misunderstood (yet morbidly funny) scripture.
You read: Elijah has been the prophet for awhile, but God decides to twinkle him and makes Elisha the prophet in his stead. Elisha, newly-anointed, starts making the rounds. He gets to Jericho and the people complain to him that the water is gone and the ground is barren and they're all going to die. Would he kindly help them? So he tells them to bring him a new bowl full of salt, which they do, and he throws the salt into the spring and the water was healed and the land saved. Hooray! And then as he left and went to Beth-el, some spoiled little kids come out and mock his baldness (and what man isn't touchy about that?) so he swears at them and calls upon two female bears to come out of the woods and eat them. 42 children dead at the touchiness of a bald guy. And then he goes on his way to Mount Carmel, then Samaria. The end.
Ummm… again. Wha-aat?
Let's try this story again, with more detail from culture and Hebrew.
Elijah has been the prophet. Everyone knows and loves him. When he is taken up to heaven, his mantle (a coat of animal skins, basically) falls off him and lands on Elisha, symbolically showing that the mantle of the prophet now lays upon him. That physical representation is important to show his authority from God. So Elisha goes around, doing his duty as a prophet and is asked to heal the waters of Jericho. Which he does.
Have you ever stopped to consider the ramifications of that act? The water is gone (or poisoned or somehow made unsuitable for humans), yet people are still there. How are they drinking? Bathing? Washing clothing? Water is essential. If there is no water, there is no people. I don't know if you realize, but Israel is a big, giant desert. If the water disappears, the people won't last more than a few days. Luckily, though, Jericho is right next to the river Jordan. In fact, the spring we're discussing here is probably one of the springs that feed the river, as the river Jordan's head is right there by Jericho. There are still people, so there is still water. Probably from the river. So how is it getting to the people? Where there is a need, someone will find a way to make money. A bunch of young men (I'd guess the number to be near 42) see a business opportunity and start hauling water for payment. The river is probably far enough away that most people wouldn't want to make the journey themselves, as they have plenty of other things to keep them busy, so business is booming.
And then along comes Elisha. And rips the rug out from under them. In one bowlful of salt, their income is gone. Would you be pleased? They sure weren't. "Wait, so you're saying they're mad at him so they call him… bald? And he's petty enough to send she-bears to eat them for it?" No, no. That's not at all what I'm saying. Remember the mantel Elisha is wearing? The one made of animal skins? The physical symbol of his priesthood and authority? By calling him bald, they're really calling him hair-less. Or rather, they're denying his authority as a prophet. They're telling him he doesn't have the mantle of a prophet. They are denying his priesthood and authority. And, as is the Old Testament way, God kills them for their wickedness.
"But, but, Dragon Lady! It says they are little children! Surely God wouldn't kill children!" Nope. Wrong again. Look at the footnote of "little children" in verse 23. In Hebrew, the word is youths. Not little children. Chances are, these are boys in their late teens and twenties. Possibly a few in their thirties. Boys that are largely of marrying age. These aren't spoiled kids who are poking fun at an old balding man. These are responsible adults (yes, late-teenage boys were considered adults) who are calling down the prophet of God and denying his authority because of their own selfishness.
Takes on a whole new meaning, doesn't it? Either way, I would suggest refraining from calling President Monson bald. Just sayin'.
~ Dragon Lady