Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genesis 38-39 hmmmm...

Genesis 38

This is one messed up family and God isn't helping any.

The Lord seems to commit the cold blooded murders of Er and Onin.
Judah lays with a harlot/daughter in law, then orders her to be burnt to death for taking his staff.  He backs off at the last minute.

Joseph on the other is righteous and hard working, even as a slave in Egypt.  He wins favor for his honesty and hard work and refuses the advances of his masters wife.

Once again I'm seeing a god that is a easy to anger and violence and the favored family acting only for personal gain.


  1. He didnt say it because she took his staff.

    From NIV: "About three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant." Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!""

    He was told she was a harlot and he said she should die. It was when when she sent a message to him to see the possessions that he found out it was his items.

  2. Nothing like being sold into slavery by your immediate family to make you reassess your priorities! Joseph does seem to be coming around. I expected more pouting and wailing and crying out to god for justice, but no, he's making it work.

    Killing Er comes across as being capricious. Because he was "wicked in the eyes of the lord". What is that supposed to mean? And Onan - who isn't keen on knocking up his sister-in-law, well that warrants the death penalty too. Deceiving your father-in-law to get pregnant by him, though, now that's just fine. Apparently getting someone, ANYONE, pregnant (or being pregnant) - well that's just dandy, regardless of who the father is.

  3. I wonder if God's slaying of Onan in 38:9-10 is the inspiration for the Monty Python line:

    "Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great.
    If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate."

  4. From what I understand of the readings and the explanations I heard growing up in the church, Judah wanted to burn Tamar for not just being a prostitute, but for getting pregnant from it. When he realized that he was father, he changed his mind, and that's why Tamar took his personal items in the first place - to prove it was him. He also probably felt some guilt for her becoming a prostitute in the first place.

    My reading of this story is that Er died of natural causes, and that was pretty common in biblical times. Levirate marriage was required for Onan, both to honor his brother who had died without an heir, and to care for Tamar in a time when women had few other "career" choices other than mother or prostitute. The "sin" that Onan committed wasn't about wasting sperm; it was more about deceiving his family and disrespecting his dead brother. I'm not a believer anymore, but I have always thought it was quite a stretch to make this a story about masturbation when there are bigger cultural issues going on.

    Then Judah was afraid for his youngest son to marry Tamar, even though he had promised her his son when he got old enough. And since he didn't follow through with that promise, Tamar didn't have much choice to become a prostitute, which is probably part of the reason that Judah protected her.

    Anyway, that's my take on this story as a previously religious non-believer.

  5. The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife in 39:7-20 is apparently an example of an extremely common literary motif (Wife tries to seduce a younger member of the household, when he refuses she cries rape and gets him kicked out).

    I forget who, but some scholar of ancient literature found more than 100 examples of this motif in world literature. The most notable example is the much older Egyptian story "Tale of Two Brothers," and some bible scholars take the Joseph story of Gen. 39 to be a Hebraic retelling of that story.

    Apparently this Joseph is a pretty sexy dude. In the version of the story from Islamic tradition, the other women of the community start to gossip about how the wife tried to seduce her Hebrew slave. She invites them all over for dinner and gives them each a knife, then tells Joseph to go stand before them. The women are all so distracted by his good looks that they cut their hands with the knives. The wife then says "See, now do you blame me for trying to seduce him?"

  6. The lesson of Onan could not be clearer: If your father orders you to knock up your brother's widow, by the love and fear of God, you'd better go all the way. This is a timeless moral lesson to which we should all take heed. Death penalty for coitus interruptus!

  7. Chapter 38 breaks the flow of the Joseph story and is obviously an insertion.

    I'd heard of masterbation referred to as "onanism"; this story explains the term. (Technically the crime is "spilling the seed". Obviously the ancient Israelites did not understand that sperm regenerates constantly whether or not it's "spilled".)

    Jacob's sons of course have pun names; Perez means "breaking out", which is what he did. Zerah means "redness", referring to the red string on his finger.

    Chapter 39 has some parallels to an Egyptian story, The Tale of Two Brothers.

  8. The "sin" that Onan committed wasn't about wasting sperm; it was more about deceiving his family and disrespecting his dead brother.

    That makes sense. A lot of the "morals" to these stories involve rather obscure facets of social customs of the ancient Israelites. Which is why I'm highly sceptical of Christian interpretation that doesn't take into account the time and place the stories were written, and their original audience.

  9. Reading any story outside the context of the reader's own 'here and now' almost always results in interpreting it through the narrow lens of self-reference.
    Ignorant of these Bible stories' times and places and cultures, we can only hope to see some bedrock principle or truth that is relevant to any time and any place. One theme I see in these stories was stated back in the Noahic flood story: the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great and all his thoughts were evil continually. That is what we should take away with us - our fallen condition's hopelesness. This theme is always undergirded by the theme that God will provide redemption and renewal.

  10. Euslyss's comment highlights to me the difficulty of debating these stories with christians. Euslyss states as an a priori assumption that without god, man's 'thoughts are evil continually' and we are in a 'hopeless fallen condition'. But these are not 'bedrock principles or truths'. They are extracted from myths in the bible, and so you cannot use the bible to 'prove' these 'truths' - that is just circular logic (Why is it true? Because it's in the bible. Why is it in the bible? Because it is true!) Without the bible, there is no way of deriving the alleged 'principles and truths' of man's fallen condition, its hopelessness, or that god will provide redemption and renewal.

    Far from a theme that 'god will provide redemption and renewal' the only theme I can see so far is that god is a capricious, malicious character who toys with his creations as his whim suits him, plays favourites with one branch of the family (even though presumably all the other people alive at any given time are descended from Noah and his family), and doesn't seem to be very omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent at times.

  11. the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great and all his thoughts were evil continually.

    That's a rather grim assessment of human nature.

    But these are not 'bedrock principles or truths'. They are extracted from myths in the bible, and so you cannot use the bible to 'prove' these 'truths' - that is just circular logic

    I would argue that these 'bedrock principles' are not in fact found in the Bible. They are products of centuries of theology. Yes, the text of the Bible is supposedly the foundation of the theology, but its a long history of interpretation layered on interpretation that has produced the modern Christian worldview that they retcon into the Bible. You could not derive modern Christianity (any form of it) from the bare text of the Bible. The Bible has a multitude of voices (even in the NT) and theology artificially harmonizes them into one "message". Ain't the case.

    Yes, I dropped "retcon".

  12. "but its a long history of interpretation layered on interpretation that has produced the modern Christian worldview that they retcon into the Bible."

    Agreed. Here in comments and with my literalist brother, I feel that some Christians treat the OT as a prequel, a story to read after the NT so you pick up on the "hints" of what's to come.

    I've attempted to read the OT on its face value. Although the cultural/historical insights from comments here have helped me a great deal, it seems we are getting a story that assumes a lot of knowledge about the culture and ethics of the time (I suppose all stories do).

    I've been a amazed how little God has said about the shady actions of protagonists. I grew up where God was the given of laws, but here he seems to take a blind eye as long as his chosen horse wins the race.

    Of course, he haven't gotten to Moses yet...

  13. Dave says without the Bible one cannot discern his fallen condition. How about when he lays his head on his pillow at night and he is alone with his thoughts and he knows, even without the Bible.
    By the way, I thought this blog was to be a conversation among different perspectives and not a debate. Are we to conclude from Dave's remarks that all viewpoints are good but a Christian's?

  14. @Chasia
    If God only allowed people that were perfect to survive and recorded we wouldn't be reading anything right now. God allows things and then has actions so that they may server as an ensample (example) to the rest of us (II Peter 2:6).

    I agree, all have sinned, (Romans 3:23), however there are some that want to designate what is sin and what is not. It's the true for you, but not for me world view.

    Ya "god is a capricious, malicious character". And if He did nothing this whole time, then all of a sudden judgement came upon us what would we say? "Oh... well if this was so wrong why did You let us get away with it for so long and not warn us or let us know You didn't approve of it? You are very unjust and a hater! I thought You were all Love? That was some kind of love You showed us!" See above, God used them as an ensample. Yet why so many people that do things against His character and break His laws? Because He is also showing us His longsuffering to us-ward (had to throw that one in) ( Pslams 86:15, 1 Timothy 1:15-16, 1 Peter 3:20).
    What i hope some will recognize is a pattern. God made the rules, man follows the rules and prospers, man breaks the rules and suffers the consequences. (Hebrews 12:6-8)
    It's to early to call favourites because God does not have favourites. (2 Chronicles 19:7, Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) Remember for whoever much is given much will be required. (Luke 12:48) As we read we will see how much God gives these people, and how much He requires from them. Seeing what He will require let me know if you still think they are favoured above everyone else.

    I am really enjoying this project.

  15. @Bruce sorry that above comment was in reference to what Dave said not you, my bad.

  16. Funny how God said that man is wicked. And all the stories we have read of people who lie and cheat and steal and rape and murder, etc. seem to prove that assertion. But many commenters conclude that God is malicious and weak. Looks like they are also working from an a priori presupposition.

  17. @Euslyss
    Scripture references go nice with posts.
    I Chronicles 28:9, Jeremiah 17:9,10

  18. Is this really where the ban against masturbation and contraception comes from? Are there other verses later on that I'm missing? I'm amazed at how much churches pick and choose their verses in order to control their followers, and how I didn't see it at all when I was a Christian.

  19. It is possible that Tamar was within her rights to get Judah to make her pregnant (and that is how Jewish Midrash treats her). Levirate law required a male kinsman of a dead man to take his childless widow and produce a child for the dead man (usually brother but sometimes further afield as also depicted in Ruth). Onan should have done that but knew any child would inherit the double portion the eldest son was entitled to when Judah died. While if no child existed Onan himself would get the double portion instead of the single portion a younger son was entitled to. Tamar by seducing Judah was getting the child by a male kinsman she was entitled to (and it didn't look like Judah was going to make his youngest son available).

    Another point to note is that Judah's wife, mother of Er, Onan, and Shelah, was a Canaanite, something most of the writers in the Bible tended to frown upon. Tamar is not described as a Canaanite and, oddly enough for a woman, her father's name is not given.

    Keep an eye out for Tamar, two more women in the Tanakh are named Tamar and this Tamar is also listed in Matthew 1.

  20. @Valerie,
    This is a little off topic but as toward masturbation, however (Philippians 4:8) tells us what to think on. (Psalms 101:3) Gives us an ensample of not putting wicked things before our eyes, (Exodus 20:17) tells us not to covet. Ya i went backwards. (I Corinthians 7:1,2) says its not good for a man to touch a woman and to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. As speaking from a mans perspective, usually they need something to stimulate them. It will start at one level, ie. thinking of a girl at school, to another, internet porn/magazines, to another, strip clubs, and on it goes. Annie Lobert has good explanation.

    As for contraception, i am not even sure why they would want to outlaw it? Some people just don't want a bunch of kids.

  21. @Edward
    Not sure I require perfection among the protagonist but I was surprised no rebuke or even mentoring from God (from again my sense of him as a law giver)when Jacob outsmarted Esau, or cheated his father-in-law, or the repeated pimping out the wife to save their own life.

    No the Bible is mum on those things. But he'll kill Onan, Sodom and Gomorrah outright for undocumented wickedness.

    Like I said, I know Moses is coming (to lay down some laws).

  22. @Edward I think the whole contraception thing goes along with not letting your seed fall to the ground. Growing up I was told by using contraception you are not putting faith in God. If God wants you pregnant then he will make it so you are pregnant. Using a condom is like playing God.

  23. @ Euslyss

    Be assured that when I lay my head on my pillow at night, my thoughts turn not to my 'fallen condition' and the fears of the bogey man I left behind with childhood.

    There was a time, in my youth, when I had serious conversations with god and was a professing christian, steeped in these tales and myths, and as I laid my head on my pillow I did indeed fear my condition. Luckily, in my 20's my rationalism overcame my superstition. That said, it is fascinating to revisit these myths, which I have never tried to do since giving up the faith thing :)

  24. @Raven
    Ya i hear what you are saying and what some people teach. Which i think is wrong, but that is my opinion. (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). If there is a way to prevent it, than use it.
    To me they take this verse out of context. It's not the spilling of his seed on the ground (38:9). It was Onan's heart in the matter, not wanting to redeem his brothers wife. He could have said no, (see Ruth 3:9-12;4:1-6) but instead he goes in to get his jollies and then pulls out at the last moment. How used and violated Tamar must have felt? Its one thing to have a wife/husband and you both agree that you don't want to have kids, yet enjoy sex. It's another to lead someone to believe that you are going to have that intimate relationship and have kids, then to do something like what Onan did.

  25. @Chasia
    Forgive my late post - you just stirred the memory of my initial "systematic" attempt to read the OT, after I had read the NT as part of my born-again experience. It was that reading of the OT (that didn't make it more than 6 or 7 books deep) that recast God in my eyes as a pretty primitive, pagan entity not worthy of further reverence. It's much more fun and satisfying to read the OT now with this group, and after many years of skepticism.