Friday, January 25, 2013

Jacob's Children and Sexual Ethics

Today is the last day of the third week of our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" voyage together.  Our scriptures are Genesis 38-40 and Mark 15.

Today I want to focus on how the author of Genesis distinguishes between the children of Jacob, in the lifestyles they choose to live.  In chapters 38 and 39, we have two opposing stories--one of a branch of the family that has poor sexual ethics, and another of a branch of the family that practices righteousness.

Chapter 38 shows Judah's family running amok in their sexual lifestyles.  Verses 1-11 deal with the plight of Tamar, who is widowed and can bear no children in her late husband's name.  (Remember how important it was in this culture to have an heir to carry on your name, and how important it was for widows to have grown children to care for them in their old age.)  Onan is told to carry out his legal duty (called levirate marriage), but he engages in intercourse with his sister-in-law only for his own pleasure, refusing to conceive an heir in his brother's name.  The narrator says that his death was the direct judgment of God for this action.  Then poor Tamar is told that she has to go back to her father's house and live as a widow.

Years later, when Judah's next son Shelah is grown and should properly have been given to Tamar as a groom and sire for her first husband Er's children, Judah her father-in-law overlooks this duty.  However, he doesn't overlook Tamar on the roadside.  When he sees her dressed as a prostitute (veiled, so he can't identify her) he lies with her and conceives.  So Judah becomes both the father and the grandfather to this child.  As you can see, the author of Genesis really wants to accentuate how messed-up this family is--sort of like the family in Ray Steven's song (below).  This account is a simple reminder that not every sexual partner a person wants to have is supposed to be available to them, if they want to remain in God's will.

Contrast this with the story of Joseph, in Genesis 39, where the attractive young man is brought out of prison into the house of Potiphar.  His skill lets him rise to become chief of the Egyptian nobleman's household.  When Potiphar's wife (no doubt pampered and beautiful) makes sexual advances toward Joseph, he refuses.  He could have used a new position as her consort to gain even further advantage within his master's house, but he didn't.  He might have enjoyed the pleasure of her company, without any of the responsibilities associated with marriage, but he refused.  Joseph's sexual ethics were impeccable.

When God created humanity, He saw that it wasn't good for man to be alone.  So He created one woman for one man, and blessed that kind of marriage.  Those who find sexual union outside of that context have violated God's plan.  Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that this makes the difference between "good guys" who keep themselves sexually pure and "bad guys" who are somehow deviant and damned.  But the Bible does make it clear that there are sexual ethics to be followed, and God blesses purity.  The good news is that nobody and nothing is irredeemable.  While we like to shake the finger at Judah in this story, we have to remember who Judah's descendant is--Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5)!

So, I hope that as you consider your own sexual ethics, or as you look at the sexual ethics of those around you, that on the one hand you'll understand right from wrong--but that on the other hand, you'll refrain from labeling the "good guys" and the "bad guys."  That's for God to decide--not us.

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