No exploration of the Bible could be complete without a visit to Genesis, Chapter 38, and the sad tail tale of what happened to a man and his family, after getting on the bad side of Yahweh.
That man was Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, and who famously suggested selling his younger brother Joseph into slavery in Chapter 37.
But I must warn you, this is not a feel-good, “Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat,” G-rated Bible story. If you have children lurking about, you’d better ask them to amscray* or else they might learn more about the Bible than is necessary for living a good fundamentalist Christian life.
Judah had a wife who bore him three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Now, it seems that Yahweh, the God of Sensitivity, had a problem with Er, and as almost always is the case when Yahweh has a problem with someone, he kills them.
Here’s the way the economically-worded account in Genesis puts it:
But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD killed him.
Okay. Fair enough. You’re the God of the Universe and when you think someone is waxing wicked, you get to kill him. That’s part of being a Loving Father.
Now, as was the custom in those days, when God killed your first-born brother you were somewhat obligated to marry his widow, which was Yahweh’s way of saying, “Look, I killed the poor woman’s husband, but I aint gonna take care of her, so you do it.”
This practice was known as “levirate marriage,” which was a way the ancients had of preserving inheritance rights and a way in which the dead could continue “living” through their descendents, albeit not in the way God originally intended. But since God killed Er, I suppose one could say that it was the way God intended; however, that is a fine theological point way above my capacity to understand, much less explain.
Anyway, as an aside, the concept of levirate marriage reportedly led to the incarnation of King David, as mentioned in the Book of Ruth, which reportedly led to the Incarnation of Jesus—if you discount the fact that Jesus’ pre- and post-saintly mother allegedly didn’t have sex until after she gave birth to Him (with some folks, mostly Catholics, believing that Mary, poor woman, didn’t have sex even then).
Whew! Biblical copulation is tough to explain.
But back to the story: Judah, the father of the Yahweh-murdered Er and whose arms were apparently too short to box with God, told his second son Onan:
Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.
While Judah may have only said, “Go marry your brother’s wife and raise up a kid for your bro,” apparently what he really meant was, “Go bang your brother’s wife and get her pregnant or Yahweh will be pissed.”
But either Judah forgot to tell Onan to make sure he didn’t spew his sacred seed all over the Persian rug, or Onan thought he could outwit Yahweh.
But nobody outwits Yahweh. Except for the Devil in the Garden of Eden or in the Book of Job, but that’s another story.
You see, the Bible says that Onan, “knew that the heir would not be his.” How he knew this is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure if one could descend into the hell and ask him, he would say, “Boy, was I stupid.”
In any case, the Bible says that when Onan was banging his dead brother’s wife—yes, dear friends, that was the biblical way in those days, so don’t blame me for it—he “spilled” his seed on the ground, “lest he should give an heir to his brother.” That would be his other brother. His other brother Darryl Shelah.
Needless to say, the FCC has rules against saying he “came” or using some other pornographic referent. “Spilled it on the ground” was approved by John Ashcroft while he was George Bush’s Attorney General, so “spilled it on the ground” it will stay. Besides it would sound odd for the account in Genesis to say,
Onan was pounding his brother’s wife and he came on the carpet.
Just wouldn’t do. How do you explain that in Sunday school?
But you get the picture. Poor Onan, trying to game Yahweh’s system, drops his load on the turf and he has hell to pay. And pay. And pay.
You see, apparently spilling your seed where it aint supposed to be spilled is a capital offense:
And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
By now, old Judah was getting a little weary of Yahweh’s lack of affection for his children. He had one kid left, Shelah, who apparently was too young to get into the action, so Judah said to his daughter-in-law, Tamar—the one originally widowed by Yahweh’s deadly righteousness:
“Live as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
This apparently was Judah’s way of getting Tamar out of sight so he wouldn’t have to remember that God demanded that his last son impregnate this bad-luck gal. And it worked pretty well. For a while.
Time passed and Judah’s wife died. After a sufficient period of mourning, Judah got horny and went on the road.
And that’s where the story gets even more weird, so weird that I’m sure they didn’t teach this one at Grace Baptist Tabernacle, where I went to church as a boy. Well, maybe they did in some “back room,” but I wasn’t privy to it.
Judah went out of town to a place called Timnah, ostensibly to get his sheep sheared, but also where presumably he could get laid without consequences. After all, Timnahites were fond of saying, “What happens in Timnah stays in Timnah.”
Unfortunately for Judah, he got his action in a less discreet place.
Timnah happened to be on the same Interstate as Enaim, which is apparently where Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar lived. Genesis picks up the story from there:
13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.
“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.
He said, “What pledge should I give you?“
“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered.
So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.
Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”
“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.
So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ “
Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
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!“
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.”
Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”
And he did not sleep with her again.
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.
So, there you have it.
Tamar outsmarted old Judah and foiled his plan to screw her metaphorically by tricking him into screwing her non-metaphorically.
And God, who killed two of Judah’s sons, ended up having the last divine laugh. In an effort to protect his youngest and last son from any more seed-spillin’ episodes, Judah ends up with his dangle in a tangle: He had twins to take care of!
Sometimes, Yahweh can be a funny guy.
That is, unless you piss him off.
*I promise not to use too many Latin words like this one, but when dealing in Christian theology, sometimes it is unavoidable.
[Lego Onan Image: The Skeptics Annotated Bible]