Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Things Hebrews Says About Jesus (Or, Condensed Christology)

christ pantokratorThe New Testament is chock-full of stunning passages on the nature of Christ. Capable of standing alongside such texts as John 1:1-17 or Colossians 1:15-20, we face the opening lines of the epistle to the Hebrews 1:1-4. While we don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, nor the exact time and setting of the letter, it’s very clear that he had one key purpose in writing to the churches: strengthen, secure, and refocus their faith in the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

In order to do so, he’ll engage in lengthy arguments about his supremacy to angels, Moses, the Priesthood, his better covenant, and more, at length. Unlike other authors, though, he doesn’t slowly work his way around to the conclusion. No, he hits them with both barrels in his opening shot:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

Engaging in a full-blown exegesis of this text is far beyond me–at least in a short post–but I did want to highlight some of the key points of astonishingly comprehensive-yet-condensed Christology. Here are, then, seven things the author of Hebrews says about Christ.

  1. Son. The first thing that the author notes is Jesus is “his Son.” Now, in what exact sense Christ is the “Son” here will be filled out in a couple of the other qualities which he ascribes to him. But whatever else he says, the title under which he possesses all these other categories and accomplishes all of his works is as the Son.
  2. Revealer. Secondly, the Son is the ultimate capstone of God’s self-revelation. In former times, God spoke in various ways, through prophets, through poets, historians, and the other authors of Scripture, inspired by God. But now God speaks–God communicates God’s will, God’s works, and God’s wisdom–in the person of the Son. He is the culmination–though, not the denial!–of all that God has spoken before.
  3. Heir of All Things. It is this Son who has been appointed the “heir of all things.” What could this mean? Well, the Son is Son, in one sense, according to the flesh. As the Psalms testify (2, 110), he is the Royal Son of David, heir to the throne of Israel, the blessings of the covenant, and even more, the true Son of Adam, heir to the kingdom of the whole world.
  4. Creator. Next, this Son who has been appointed heir of all things according to his humanity seems to have a deeper claim on the world: he is the agent through whom God “created the world.” Note the echoes here of God’s Wisdom (Proverbs 8). With that reference in mind, we see the author of Hebrews says something fascinating. Just like the John (1:1-3) and Paul (Col. 1), he operates with the clear, Jewish delineation between the Creator and the creation, but also just like them, he has the Son on the Creator side of the line. The logic is clear: if the world was made through him, what is he not? Any other thing in the world. No, he is their Creator.
  5. Radiance of Glory and Imprint. The Son, we are told, is the radiance, the shining, the “refulgence”, of the glory of God. This is part of his role as Revealer. Of course, in Scripture, God’s glory and God’s person are irrefragably bound up together as a the sun is with the rays of light pouring forth from it. The Son reveals God’s glory precisely because he is the “exact imprint”, the one who has the very “form” and shares the “nature” of God (Phil. 2).
  6. Sustainer. In case you’re still a bit skeptical, we also learn that the Son is the one who “upholds the universe.” How? By “the word of his power.” The Son, then, is not only the one who brings the world into existence, he sustains it in existence at every moment. He is the source of its coherence, integrity, and continued being (again, cf. Col. 1:15-16). Hebrews has a Christologically-focused doctrine of providence.
  7. Purifier. Beyond the work of creation, providence, though, stands that of salvation. This condensed Christology turns out to be short-hand account of the entire economy of redemption. The Son is, in a way that will be filled out at length in the rest of the letter, the one who “makes purification for sins” for his brothers and sisters. He does this both through what he is (the true Priest and Mediator), but also in his work, presenting a better sacrifice to remove the stain of sins, as well as sealing a better covenant in his blood. All of this is confirmed in his being “seated at the right hand of Majesty on high” having completed his work once and for all.

All of these titles and works could be expounded for pages, filled out with multiple Scripture references, and derive multiple spiritual applications from each. For now, though, I simply want to note just how high a view of Christ we are given in these verses.

Jesus, the Son, is the agent of revelation, creation, providence, and salvation–all divine works. Alongside key passages in John, Paul, and Revelation, it’s quite easy to see how the Fathers at Nicaea and Chalcedon came to the conclusions about the person of Christ that they did. It wasn’t a matter of Greek, philosophic, metaphysicalisation (if that’s even a word) of the Gospel. Rather, it was simply an effort to expound and explain the already-dense, theologically-thick testimony to the glory of Christ given in the pages of the New Testament centuries earlier. 

Soli Deo Gloria

What is the Day of the Lord?

last judgmentWarning: Happy Post Ahead!

Although mention is made quite frequently of the “Day” or the “Day of the LORD” in OT prophetic literature many of us would be at a loss to explain what it was. For anybody interested in understanding the latter prophets, and really, having a well-rounded picture of God, it’s an important concept to get a handle on. Thankfully, while studying for my young adult group, I ran across a helpful digression on the subject (pp. 66-67) in Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zephaniah in the Interpretation series.

Origins 
Achtemeier tells us that the theology of “Day” of the LORD originated within the context of Israel’s holy wars of conquest, in which the LORD was pictured as a Divine Warrior, leading the hosts of Israel against her enemies. His weapons were “thunder (1 Sam. 7:10), falling stones (Josh. 10:11), darkness (Exod. 14:20; Josh 24:7),” and especially the terror of the LORD with which he cast Israel’s enemies into confusion (Exod. 15:14-15; 23:27; Josh 2:9, 24; 5:1; 7:5). Israel was reassured that she was safe because the LORD was a mighty warrior on her behalf. When we hear the word “Day” we think about a specific amount of time, but Achtemeier says, it’s more of a specific moment, or event in time, which is left somewhat unspecified, but is known to the Lord. In much of Israel’s theology then, the Day was an event of salvation and rescue from her enemies to be looked to eagerly.

Later on though, the prophets ended up flipping the “Day” on it’s head. When Israel grew sinful, idolatrous, and complacent in her rebellion against God, Amos and others proclaimed a “Day” of the Lord that would include God’s warfare and divine judgment, not only on Israel’s enemies, but on Israel herself for violating the covenant with him (Deuteronomy 29). As Achtemeier points out, the picture is developed explicitly in places like Amos 5:18-20, Zephaniah 1, Isaiah 2:6-22, Ezekiel 7:5-27, and host of other texts.

Getting Specific
What specifically does this new “Day” of judgment look like then? From Achtemeier:

  1. It is near (Zeph. 1:7. 14; Amos 6:3; Ezek. 7:7; Joel 1:15; 2:1; cf. Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Obad. 15; Joel 3:14)
  2. It is a day of God’s wrath and anger against the wicked (Zeph. 1:5; 18; 2:2, 3; Jer. 4:8; 12:13; Ezek. 7:3, 8, 12f, 14, 19; Lam. 2:1, 21-22; cf. Isa. 13:9, 13)
  3. It is a day of darkness and gloom (Zeph. 1:15; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Joel 2:2) or of clouds and thick darkness (Zeph. 1:15; Ezek. 34:12; Joel 2:2; cf. Ezek. 30:3)
  4. The heavenly bodies are darkened (Amos 8:9; Joel 2:10; cf. 2:31; 3:15; Isa. 13:10)
  5. God is picture as a warrior (Zeph. 1:14…3:17; Jer. 20:11; Isa. 59:15-18; 63:1-6; 66:15-16; Zech. 14:3; Joel 2:11)
  6. It is a day of  battle, of trumpet blast and battle cry (Zeph. 1:16; cf. Ezek. 7:14; Jer. 4:5, 19, 21; 6:1; Isa. 13:2-22; 22:5-8; Ezek. 30:4-5; Obad. 8-9; Zech 14:2-3). Of sword (Zeph. 2:12; cf. Zek. 7:15; Jer. 4:10; 12″12; 46:10; Isa. 13:15)
  7. The enemies are dismayed and rendered impotent (Ezek. 7:17, 27; cf. Jer. 4:9; 6:24; Isa. 13:7-8; Ezek. 30:9; Zech. 14:13)/
  8.  God searches out his enemies to destroy them (Zeph. 1:12; Amos 9:2-4; cf. Isa. 13:14-15)
  9. The wealth of the enemies cannot save them and becomes useless (Zeph. 1:18; Isa. 2:20; Ezek. 7:11; 19, cf. Isa. 13:17)
  10. Human pride is destroyed (Zeph. 3:11-12; Isa. 2:11-17; cf. Ezek. 7:10, 24; Isa. 13:11: Obad. 3-4)
  11. It may be that some are hidden in the Day of saved as a remnant (Zeph. 2:3, 7, 9; Amos 5:14-15; cff. Joel 2:18-32; Jer. 4:14; Obad. 17)

-Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum–Malachi, Intepretation, pp. 66-67

A Reminder
The Day of the Lord stands as a reminder that the God of the prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and so forth–is a Warrior. He is the mighty King, the Lord of Hosts who executes judgments on wickedness and cannot be reduced to some postmodern, ethereal, all-spirit of affirmation and cupcakes. Lest we be tempted to think he is a mere tribal god whose judgments can be directed at our enemies, these texts show us a judgment coming on all people, even, and especially, his own covenant people.

Of course Paul dashes our Marcionite hopes that this is merely some Old Testament ickiness we can be quit of now that we’re in the New Testament by linking it with the coming of Christ. Indeed, the phrase is often transformed into the “day of the Lord Jesus Christ”, the “day of Jesus Christ”, “the Day of Christ”, or simply as “The Day.” (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:4) Paul adopts the terminology with all of its apocalyptic background and range of meaning and identifies the promised “Day of the Lord” with the coming of the Lord Jesus. It will be the day of judgment and salvation spoken of by the prophet, only we now see that the agent of its administration is the Christ himself.

Real difference exists for the NT believer, though–in Christ they have assurance that they have found that hiding place from the “wrath that is to come” (1 Thes. 1:10), not because of their own righteousness, but by the same grace offered freely to all.

Soli Deo Gloria