The Real World

On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and went down in the western Pacific after delivering the components of the atomic bomb that would level Hiroshima. Because of the secret nature of their mission and some administrative bungling, the Indiana was not missed. A plane flying over the area happened to spot the oil slick of a sunken ship five days later. Of the 1,196 men on board the Indianapolis, only 316 men were saved-- rest had died in the explosion, from dehydration or were taken by the sharks. Charles McVay, the captain of the Indianapolis, was blamed for the disaster (some believe to cover bureaucratic bungling) and was court-martialed. The evidence shows that McVay was not responsible, but he lived the rest of his life being blamed for those 880 deaths. Every holiday, McVay received cards or  calls saying, “My husband or father would be alive today if it were not for you.” Finally, McVay could stand it no longer. He shot himself to death with his service revolver (his last link to his military career) in 1968.

When we read a story like that, we are struck with a feeling of injustice. It was terribly unfair that McVay was blamed for deaths that were not his fault. It was terribly unfair that he was haunted to his grave by this disaster. In a fair and decent world, all of the cards and calls that he received would have been of support and gratitude for a life spent in service to his country. A fair and decent world would have acknowledged the pain he felt for the loss of his ship and crew. In a fair and decent world, people would have sought to soften his agony rather than add to it. But we don’t live in a fair and decent world; we live in the real world,  Our real world is one broken by sin and overwhelmed with injustice.

That brings us to our reading today from Genesis 38 and the story of Tamar, the wife of Er, son of Judah. The only thing we’re told about Tamar’s husband was that he was such a wicked man that “the LORD put him to death.” (Gen 38:7). The custom of levirate marriage dictated that the closest relative of a man who died before his wife bore children was to marry the widow; the first child would legally be seen as the child of the dead husband (this would later be the background for the story of Ruth). So Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan.  Onan refused to give Tamar a child, and he too was struck down by God. Judah had a third son, Shelah, but he kept putting off marrying him to Tamar.  She told her, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” (38:11).   Judah forgets about Tmar for “a long time” (38:12), and all the while Tamar’s life is in limbo while she waits for Judah to live up to his word,  He never does.

So Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a temple prostitute and positions herself so that she would catch the eye of Judah, while wearing a veil so that he won’t recognize her. She seduces Judah, and they slept together. Afterward, she demanded payment, and he leaves her his staff and seal until he  can send her a goat as payment.  When Judah sent his servant back with the young goat, the mysterious temple prostitute has disappeared. It was not long before Tamar became pregnant; it was not long before that fact became obvious. Word was sent to Judah "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant" (38:24).  In a fit of unbecoming moral outrage, Judah demands that Tamar be brought out publicly and burned to death. As she was being brought out to be killed, Tamar springs her trap--

As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:25–26)

In the only way that seemed open to her, Tamar followed the levirate marriage law that Judah had refused to enforce. Since Judah would not give her Shelah in marriage, Judah himself had in effect become her levirate husband and the father of the twin sons that she would soon bear.

Tamar lived in a real world that was unjust and unfair; she was an innocent victim powerless over her circumstances. Twice she had to live as the wife of men who were wicked; twice she had to suffer through widowhood. She had to bear with the stigma of being sent childless back to her father's house, and she had to make a choice as to how to deal with her plight. There is no doubt that her course of action was itself wrong; the text doesn’t gloss over her deception or her immorality. But what seems to be the point of this story is how God, in a very quiet way, used her plight for His purposes.

This Tamar is never mentioned again in the Old Testament (another Tamar is a daughter of David). But you don't have to read very far in the New Testament before her name pops us

Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram (Matthew 1:2-3)

The genealogy of Christ is traced through Judah, but not through any of his three sons Er, Onan or Shelah. It is Tamar’s twin boys Perez and Zerah that are mented here, Perez as an ancestor of the coming Messiah. God was able to use the real world misfortunes of Tamar to His glory and His purposes. None of the twists and turns of Tamar’s real world kept her from being used by God to His glory. No, she was not perfect, but she struggled to do the best she could despite her circumstance. And despite that circumstance, even because of that circumstance, the world has a Savior.

The story of Tamar sounds like a soap opera, but it isn’t. It’s the real world. And God can use your real world story no matter how many twists and turns there may be.