“Bring her out and let her be burned!” This dramatic pronouncement of judgment gets me every time I read it. And through long familiarity, it has become one of my favorite Bible passages. That’s weird, I know. Yet it’s not a favorite in the sense that I’d recommend it as a life verse or a tattoo or the inside of a greeting card. It’s a favorite in the sense that it speaks so truly about the state of humanity. And it speaks so truly about the way God redeems darkness for his good purposes.
Let’s set our context. Judah has married a Canaanite woman and, through her, had three sons. Years have passed and the oldest, Er, has taken Tamar as a wife. But Er is so overwhelmingly wicked that God puts him to death, and his bride passes to Onan, the middle brother. Onan is even worse than Er and he, too, is judged and killed by God. Now, according to custom, Tamar should become the wife of Shelah, the baby of the family. Judah promises this will happen once Shelah is old enough. But the years go by and it becomes apparent this is a promise he does not intend to keep. I guess it is easier to see Tamar as a bad luck charm than to admit the evil of his own boys. Tamar is destined to suffer the pain and shame of childlessness. Or is she?
Tamar hatches a plan. According to the principles of the culture, it is her right to have a child by Shelah, but since Judah will not grant this right, she will find a way to gain it herself. Knowing that Judah has recently lost his wife and is perhaps eager to find some “comfort,” she dresses as a prostitute (including a veil to mask her identity). She waits for him to pass by and sure enough, he soon does. He spots her, he makes an offer, she accepts, and he “goes in to her.”
Tamar soon realizes she is pregnant and it is not long before it becomes obvious to others as well. The townsfolk are abuzz with news of her great immorality and reports soon reach Judah: “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” It is in this context that Judah makes a snap judgment: “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” But Tamar gets the last laugh. She has kept proof that the father of her child is none other than her father-in-law. He can claim no moral high ground. In fact, he is forced to admit, “She is more righteous than I.”
As I read this story every January (as part of my annual Bible-reading plan) and at various other times, I see such an indictment of not only Judah, but of all humanity. Here is some of what I see.
We see other people’s sin so clearly and our own so opaquely. From a great distance and with the scantest information we can judge another person’s least transgression. Yet we can rack our own hearts and minds and often barely come up with a single way we are anything less than perfect. What we see so well in others we simply do not see in ourselves.
We see other people’s sin as so serious and our own as so insignificant. We judge other people’s actions with the harshest of measures but treat our own with the softest. After all, we tend to grow fond of our sins, and especially those besetting sins. But all the while we hate the sins of others, and especially sins that annoy, harm, or inconvenience us.
We want others to act toward our sin with patience and understanding even while we act ruthlessly toward theirs. We can make any number of excuses for the fact that indwelling sin remains. We can describe a long and happy progress in which we’ve slowly but progressively put a sin to death. Yet with others we demand they put their sin to death today. Right now. The slow progress that encourages us in our own battle against sin exasperates us in someone else’s.
There is much more we could say, perhaps about Judah’s refusal to take responsibility for Tamar when she was out of the public eye but his leap to action when her sin threatened to bring him shame. It is worth pointing out, though, that the Bible speaks no judgment on either character. It neither condemns nor affirms Tamar’s actions. It does, though, tell of the happy ending to the story when she gives birth to not one but two sons. It tells of an even happier ending she, herself, could not have expected, for her name appears in the genealogy of Jesus Christ when it records, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” God brought good from evil, blessing from injustice.