Tamar in Genesis: Rabbit Trail or Key to Understanding the Joseph Story?

Sandra Glahn's picture

I’m happy to have Carolyn Custis James as my guest today. In Vindicating the Vixens, she contributed the chapter on Tamar. In November she served on a panel of contributors who talked about narrative analysis at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island. Here are some quotes from her remarks:

[In the Genesis narrative] just as the Joseph story reaches a fever pitch and readers are on the edge of their seats, instead of following Joseph into Egypt, the narrator follows Judah away from his family into Canaanite territory and into a salacious R-rated story involving prostitution with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. From a literary perspective, the narrator’s choice seems counterproductive. From a pastoral perspective, this sordid story is problematic, unsuitable for a G audience and devoid of any spiritual value. Pastors often skip it….

Far from being a literary gaffe, the narrator’s decision to include this “enigmatic” episode is strategic; Genesis 38 is actually the hinge that holds the Joseph story together. It bridges Jacob’s destructive favoritism and the searing father-wound Judah suffers with the climactic meeting between Judah and Joseph in Egypt, where warring brothers finally make peace.

 Here are a few suggestions for teachers to connect this ancient story with twenty-first century congregants:

• God’s love for the unloved and his power to rescue, redeem, and radically transform prodigals

• The power of wounds to destroy or make us

• God’s calling of his daughters to be bold agents for his purposes

• The self-sacrificing brand of masculinity the gospel produces and Judah ultimately embodies

• In the current #MeToo epidemic, Tamar’s story gives pastors a call to courageously engage domestic abuse, human trafficking, sexual assault, and violence against women. This is a #MeToo chapter.

Listen to Carolyn talk about this story on KCBI radio with host Rebecca Carrell:

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