Genesis 38-40: Morality

compassRight and wrong.  Black and white.  Those annoying grey areas.  Conscience and pleasure.  All trough the Old Testament accounts we see the difficult time people have distinguishing right and wrong.  It surprises me to find that some of them don’t even seem to take much (or any) time in discerning right and wrong, they simply act out their desires.  I always find this difficult, because that struggle between the flesh and the Spirit are taught so strongly in the New Testament and in our church culture.  But as we read these accounts, we find a society with much different moral standards than ours.  Polygamy was common, prostitution was rampant and seemingly acceptable (although God takes a strong stance against it after he rescues Israel from Egypt).  Even rape and incest were tolerated with minimal consequences, although we see a strong reaction to rape in Genesis 34.

The moral compass of the time was slightly off and definitely differed even from the moral standards God would set for Israel through Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Enter the story of Judah and Tamar, a story that is definitely full of moral ambiguity.  Judah’s sons were obviously not upright, upstanding types of fellows, or else God wouldn’t have been so unhappy with them.  According to the local customs and traditions, the continuance of a wife from one brother to another, should her husband die, was completely normal and acceptable.  Judah sending her back to her family with deception in his heart was definitely not acceptable, either by custom or by God.  Deception begets deception I guess in this particular account.  It is funny to notice the double standard Judah lives by in this story.  He was quite willing to proposition a prostitute himself, but when he finds out that Tamar had been prostituting herself, he calls for her death.

The placement of this story in the Biblical narrative is significant.  This is the only snap-shot of Joseph’s brothers we get, other than at the beginning and end of Joseph’s story, and it is a snapshot that comes as an interruption to Joseph’s narrative, and it comes before the account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  It is interesting to ponder: if it had been Judah who was in Potiphar’s service, would he have acted in the moral way that Joseph acts in refusing to commit adultery?  Derek Kidner (writing for Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis), comments: “it puts the faith and chastity of Joseph, soon to be described, in a context which sets of their rarity…”  In other words, having one story follow the other shows us the faith and the moral character of Joseph against the background of Judah’s questionable moral actions.

Again, it makes me comment that I am thankful that the Old Testament shows us humanity at both its highs and its lows, both in the triumph of character and in the moral depravity we can so easily fall in to.  For there are moments we are Josephs, taking the high road, and there are moments when we are Judahs, seeking to fulfill our desires regardless of cost or moral complications.  In and through it all, there is God working in the background, handling our triumphs and our failures in his divine grace, and somehow working his will and his plan through to completion.

You want to know the really interesting part of this story with Judah.  Unknown to Judah and Tamar, the Davidic and Messianic lines were at stake in this sorted affair.  Check our Matthew 1:1-6 to see what I mean.

Happy reading.

  • What was familiar from this passage of scripture?  What was something I already knew?
  •  What was new from this piece of scripture?  What was something that really stood out for me that I have never paid attention to before?
  • Does Jesus appear in this passage of scripture?
  •  How does this passage apply to my life, here and now?  Do I need to do anything about it?
  •  What prayer would I offer up to God after reading this piece of scripture?

Tomorrow’s Reading: Genesis 41-42

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