Funny and Ugly

October 17, 2013

Sometimes funny and ugly can show up all at once. In this instance, I don’t mean in people, but in a story. I remembered this while my pastor was preaching a very good sermon on Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. (Who preaches on Judah and Tamar?! This is the first I’ve heard.) The sermon rightly described Judah’s irresponsible and demeaning behavior toward his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and doing that even before she tricked him into using her services when she disguised herself as a prostitute. Rather than following Judah’s ugly example, our pastor insisted, we should treat everyone, women and men, with dignity and respect, as whole persons, a particularly challenging path in our highly sexualized society.

I got the point, but I also laughed (not out loud). The text uses two funny pieces to drive home, not distract from, its message. The first is the story of Judah making arrangements to hire Tamar as a hooker. He promises to pay her a goat, but she demands something to secure his pledge. In this instance, she requests and Judah gives her his seal and cord (a personalized seal used to sign contracts written on clay) and his staff. In effect Judah gives her his credit card and other evidence that will clearly identify him. Trying to deal with this discreetly, Judah later sends a goat with a friend to pay her and to retrieve his pledge. The friend’s search shows subtle humor. In recounting how Judah hired Tamar, Genesis 38:15 refers to her with the Hebrew word for an ordinary prostitute. When the friend searches for her and tries to pay her, however, he uses the Hebrew word for “shrine prostitute” or “holy prostitute.” Many modern translations capture this change.

Judah is trying to save face here, to make his dalliance a bit more respectable (even though Israelites knew that using “shrine prostitutes” was not acceptable practice). When the locals respond that they don’t remember seeing a “shrine prostitute” around there, Judah decides not to keep trying to recover his credit card, lest he “become a laughingstock.” So storytellers and listeners will laugh at Judah trying to escape being laughed at.

cylinder seal - Version 2The seal and staff show up again in a story that explodes with surprise and reversal, a story that gets a laugh. Not from Judah, but from everyone else. When Judah is told that Tamar has played the prostitute and is now three months pregnant, he flies into a (self-)righteous rage. “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” he orders. The story continues: “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.’” (v. 25, NIV)

He recognized them; so did everyone around him. Now maybe you don’t laugh when a guy in a righteous rage gets caught with his pants down, so to speak. But a lot of us do. Laughing here doesn’t lighten Judah’s offense but, instead, puts the exclamation point on his treachery. Now Judah is laughingstock; Judah gets nailed.

He could hardly escape the truth of Tamar having his American Express card, but in some measure (half-hearted, in my opinion), he owns up to his failure. Traditional translations read here, “She is more righteous than I,” which doesn’t really award anyone a blue ribbon for “righteousness.” The sense is that in the history of their long relationship, Tamar had acted more responsibly than Judah. The Message captures it, “She’s in the right; I’m in the wrong…”

So funny and ugly sometimes go together, not news to those who watch Jon Stewart take on tough issues on “The Daily Show.” We can use laughter both to entertain and to make a point. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible does that, too.

A postscript, also with a funny twist: Tamar bore Judah twin boys. The first was named Perez, and according to Matthew 1:3, he was one of the not-quite-kosher ancestors of Jesus.

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Living in Fun

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