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The Bigger Picture

Date: Jan. 6, 2019

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Genesis 38:1-30

Key Verse: Genesis 38:26

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.

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2019! Can you actually believe that it is 2019 already? It feels like 2018 just started and now it is over. I want to start the new year off with a story. One day a traveler, walking along a lane, came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each was busy cutting a block of stone. Interested to find out what they were working on, he asked the first stonecutter what he was doing. “Can’t you see? I am cutting a stone!” Still no wiser the traveler turned to the second stonecutter and asked him what he was doing. “I am cutting this block of stone to make sure that its square, and its dimensions are uniform, so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall.” A bit closer to finding out what the stonecutters were working on but still unclear, the traveler turned to the third stonecutter. He seemed to be the happiest of the three and when asked what he was doing replied: “I am building a cathedral.” The three stonecutters all had a different perspective. The first one was so focused on what he was doing, that he had no idea of his place in the project. To him, his job was a miserable job of cutting a stone. The second was a little better, but he too did not know the full extent of his contribution. The third saw the project for what it was and was happier than the rest. He was building a cathedral. We all get caught up in ourselves, in our own worlds. It is a fact of life. However, that is not necessarily the best thing to do. We end up miserable or make some dumb decisions all because we lack perspective. Today, we get a little perspective on life through Judah.

We have a new year, but we are back in Genesis again, and it is like a juicy TV show coming back after the winter hiatus. We are at the mid-season premiere of Genesis and it is a doozy of an episode. There are bonehead decisions, neglect, lies, prostitution and deception. In the heart of it all is Judah, Jacob’s fourth son. I feel like we need a recap: “Previously, on Genesis…”. Since chapter 12 of Genesis, we have been focusing on one family, the family of Abraham. We saw Abraham leave his father’s household and go to the land of Canaan, where God promised that his descendants would inherit. Abraham would eventually have a son Isaac, who would inherit that promise and Isaac would have two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob would become the son who would carry on the godly line and take possession of God’s promise to this family. Jacob had two wives who were sisters and two concubines. From these four women, Jacob had twelve sons and they weren’t all good boys. Jacob’s oldest slept with one of his father’s concubines. The next two, Simeon and Levi, murdered an entire town because their sister was raped by one man. Jacob’s second youngest son Joseph had all these dreams about his brothers and parents bowing down to him. He was also Jacob’s favorite and Jacob gave him an ornate robe just because. Joseph was cocky and his brothers hated him, so one day they sold him to some Midianite traders, and Joseph was forcibly taken away to Egypt. The boys reported back to their father that Joseph had been killed and they enjoyed the twenty shekels they received for their brother.

Our passage begins, “At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah.” (1) Right around the time he and his brothers sold Joseph into slavery, he left the region and went to Adullam, which is to the south of Jerusalem. Judah might have been questioning his decision to sell his brother, so he left the rest of his brothers and went to start a life for himself. He went to stay with a friend Hirah. The passage continues, “There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.” (2-5) While in Adullam, Judah started a family. He married a Canaanite woman, who is nameless in the passage. Both Abraham and Isaac made sure that their heirs did not marry Canaanite women because their families would be drawn to worship in the Canaanite ways, but like Esau, Judah marries a Canaanite. He has three sons by her: Er, Onan and Shelah. At this point, it looks like Judah has a good thing going for him. He has three sons and it looks like a guarantee of a successor.

Unfortunately, all was not well in Judah’s family. The passage continues, “Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” (6-7) Apparently, Judah stayed in Adullam for quite a while. Not only did he get married and have children, but his first son became old enough to get married as well. Judah found Tamar and gave her to Er, but, as the passage says, Er was not a good man. He was wicked in the Lord’s sight. The Bible doesn’t mention exactly what Er did, but term used to describe him, “wicked in the Lord’s sight”, is used elsewhere in the Bible and usually refers to a variety of illicit behaviors, including idolatry. Whatever Er was doing, it was bad enough for the Lord to judge him and kill him.

Er died childless and in that area at that time, there was a law about what to do. “Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.’” (8) It was a custom that if a man died childless, then the closest relative would take the man’s wife as his own and the firstborn of that union would be considered to be the son of the deceased man. This was called a levirate marriage. Usually, it was the deceased brother that would honor his brother this way, but it could be any relative, including the father as a last resort. Since Er died, Judah told his younger brother Onan to produce offspring for his brother. It was a very common practice for this to happen, but there was a problem in Onan’s eyes.

“But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.” (9) Onan did the math. If Tamar had a child from him, that child would not be his. It would be considered to be Er’s son. On the surface, it would seem to be an ok thing, but in Onan’s eyes, it was unacceptable. You see, when his older brother died, Onan became the main heir and would become head of the family when Judah died. The line of succession would fall to him, but if he had a son with Tamar for Er, then that son would be the main heir and head of the family when Judah died, since Er’s line would supersede any claim Onan had on the line of succession. Look at it this way. If Judah was a king, Er would the the next in line to be king. Since he died, the kingship would go to Onan unless Er had children. If Onan had a child for Er, then that child would be the next in line to be king and Onan didn’t like that idea, so he had a plan to prevent that from happening.

Whenever, Onan went to sleep with Tamar, he’d pull out and spill his semen on the ground so that he could never provide children for his brother. Honestly, this is the only time that the word “semen” is used in the Bible outside of legal reasons. This is a pretty graphic explanation of what is going on. It is a practiced form of birth control that is called onanism, which is named after Onan. He did this a number of times, but there was someone who was not happy with Onan. “What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.” (10) The Lord saw what Onan was doing and was not pleased. The Lord wasn’t necessarily upset that Onan was spilling his semen, but that he was doing so to prevent his brother from having an heir. Onan was dishonoring his brother and family, and thereby dishonoring God. Just like Er, what Onan did was wicked in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death also. I don’t know how long it was between Er and Onan’s deaths, but I get the sense it might have been less than a year. That would mean that Judah lost two of his sons in the same year, two sons who were having sexual relations with the same woman. From an outside glance, it looks like there is a common denominator, Tamar.

Judah thought so, too. “Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Live as a widow in your father’s household 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 household.” (11) Judah saw Tamar as the common denominator in the death of his sons. He thought that she somehow contributed to her son’s death, so Judah didn’t want this third son to be killed by her too. Instead, he chose to send her back to her father’s household. This seems like an innocuous thing to do, but there are some serious implications. When a woman married a man, she became a part of that family. If the man were to die, like Er and Onan, it would be up to the man’s family to care for the widow. The woman’s children and husband’s family would provide for and protect the widow. Judah promised her to his third son Shelah, but had no intention in making that union. By sending her away, Judah was no having mercy on her, but condemning her to a life of solitude and fruitlessness. Judah could have chosen to release her from her obligation. She was tied to his family and could only get a husband from him, but Tamar could be released to find a husband elsewhere, but that didn’t happen. Judah didn’t want the shame that would bring, but he didn’t want his son to die, either. So Tamar was left in limbo while she waited for Shelah to grow up.

Judah kept on living his life, but one day, his wife died. He mourned her for the required time, and when he recovered from his grief, he returned to his daily duties, like having his sheep sheared. He went with his friend Hirah up to Timnah, where his sheep were being sheared. In that encounter, something strange happened. “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.” (13-14) Tamar realized that Judah had reneged on his promise, so she devised a way to ensure that her husband would have an heir. She was honor bound to have a child for Er, and if Judah was not willing to give his son to this endeavor, he would have to do. She waited until Judah’s wife had died and the time of mourning was over, then she went through with her plan. She took off her widow’s clothes and disguised herself with a veil. Only her eyes were showing. It is not much of a disguise, but it reminds me of Superman disguising himself as Clark Kent. All he really does is put on some glasses and change his hairstyle. That is not much of a disguise, but it works for him in the comics, and Tamar’s disguise works for her.

“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.” (15-16) Judah just saw her covered face and thought that she was a prostitute. He propositioned her for sex. Judah was so clueless that he didn’t realize that he was talking to his daughter-in-law. Tamar asked about wages, confirming her level as a prostitute in Judah’s eyes and, yet, her voice did not give her away. Judah offers to give her a young goat, which actually is a pretty hefty fee. He must have thought highly of his daughter-in-law, but she wanted some sort of collateral to ensure that he would send such a rich payment. Tamar asked for his seal and cord and the staff in his hand. Judah agreed and they proceeded to do seal the deal. He gave the items to her for keeping and he slept with her. Tamar became pregnant and returned home to put her widow’s clothes back on.

Now, Judah wanted to make good on his pledge, so he prepare the goat and sent it along with his friend Hirah. Now, it seems a little odd to me that Judah, himself, did not go, but he sent his friend. Some people speculate that Judah may have been embarrassed to go because of the Hebrew views on prostitution. He may have felt ashamed of his actions, so he sent is friend to make the payment. Hirah was a Canaanite, and the Canaanites did not have any qualms about prostitution. To them, it was perfectly normal. Hirah went looking for the prostitute, but he couldn’t find her, and no one knew anything about a prostitute at that location. She had disappeared into thin air. Hirah went back to Judah to tell about what he found, and 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.” (23) Judah was so embarrassed about what had happened, he didn’t want to investigate the issue any further. If he were to keep looking, he thought that he would become a laughingstock in the region. It was better for the woman to keep the seal and staff than to lose face. With that, the item was out of his mind.

Three months later, Tamar is now showing, and people notice. Now, Tamar was not supposed to have sex outside of Judah’s family, but she was pregnant. To the world, this meant that she had been unfaithful. People told Judah about this and he was furious. “Judah said, ‘Bring her out and have her burned to death!’” (24) Judah wanted to have her put to death by burning. Again, Judah was concerned about his reputation. Tamar was his responsibility, and she had been promiscuous under his watch. He, again, wanted to save face. Unfortunately, according to law it was the elders of the town’s responsibility to judge the promiscuous daughter-in-law, not the father-in-law. Judah had jumped the gun, he wasn’t supposed to pass judgement and the judgement he gave was different than what was supposed to be delivered. The law called for stoning or burning after stoning, but Judah called for burning. Burning was considered to be one of the most severe forms of punishment that would be meted out. Judah was a bit severe and premature in his judgement.

Tamar was in trouble, but she still had a card to play. “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.’” (25) Tamar did not call Judah out on his actions. She did not point her finger at him. Tamar merely displayed the evidence that she had concerning the one who impregnated her. She brought out the seal and cord and staff for all to see, showing who the father is. There was no doubt in her mind that she would be exonerated.

Judah took one look at the items and it hit him. “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.” (26) When he saw his seal and cord and staff, Judah realized his sin. He made a promise, but he did not keep it. His firstborn son would not have had an heir because of his duplicity. It is pretty much the same sin that Onan committed when he spilled his semen on the ground. Although Tamar deceived Judah, she still acted within the law. Judah would have been the next in line after Shelah to take Tamar and have children for Er.

In just one look, Judah realized how selfish he had been. He thought that Tamar was the reason for his sons’ deaths, but it was their own wickedness. He was blind to their transgressions. Judah was selfish in his desire to protect Shelah. You might think that he was just trying to protect his remaining son, but if that were the case, then he could have released Tamar from his family, but he didn’t. Instead, Judah sent Tamar away and essentially cursed her to a life of meaninglessness. Judah was caught up in his own desires when he unknowingly propositioned his own daughter-in-law. He couldn’t see Tamar. He foolishly gave away his main way of identification and lost it when Tamar took off. He handed over his social security number and she ran off with it. Instead of tracking her down, Judah covered it up so he wouldn’t look like a fool, which made him look more like a fool. When Tamar was found to be pregnant, he haphazardly pronounced judgement, when he wasn’t supposed to and pronounced a harsher judgement than was allowed or was necessary. Everything Judah did was all about him. Even when he left his brothers, he was running away to start over with people who knew nothing about his horrendous act of suggesting selling his own brother as a slave.

With all of Judah’s selfishness, there was a great danger in God’s plan. Although, Judah didn’t know it, his line would become the line of kings and the line of the Messiah, but his selfishness could have destroyed that plan. In every way, Judah made decisions that threatened God’s plan for him, but Judah would never have known that because he never came to God. The only time God is mentioned in this passage is when he judges and kill Judah’s sons. Judah had no vision for his life in God’s plan. He was too busy focusing on himself. His view of the world was too narrow and too selfish. He didn’t see the bigger picture. He didn’t try to see the bigger picture. I’m not even sure that he knew that there was a bigger picture. Now, the bigger picture in Judah’s case was the Messiah and the line of promise. Judah would be the progenitor of the Messiah. Out of all the twelve tribes of Israel, the savior of the world would come from Judah. Now, Judah didn’t know this about God’s plan, just like we don’t know God’s plan for us, but he should have known that the bigger picture always lies with God. We are microscopic creatures when compared to God, only he has that greater picture. Only the Lord knows the plans and how they work. If Judah followed God and his ways, he would have had assurance of God’s plans, no matter what they were for him.

We’ve heard in the past few weeks about God’s peace that calms our souls no matter the situation that we are in and the same holds here. When we are myopic in our life view, we become frantic and make our decisions based on whims. We are filled with stress and we barely survive. As we heard last week, we are meant to do more than survive. We are meant to be more than conquerors. We are meant to thrive, and we thrive the best when we focus on God and rely on him for the bigger picture. God was able to orchestrate his son to be the savior of the world. There were so many pieces that had to come together to get Jesus to be the one who could bring salvation to the world, but he did it because he always knew the goal. Jesus knew it too. There were so many times that Jesus could have been selfish and not gone to the cross or stayed on the cross, but he had the bigger picture in mind, to save as many as possible, to forgive the world of all their sins. Jesus could have avoided getting arrested, but then the world would not be saved. He could have come down off the cross, but then the world would not be saved. He could have indefinitely lived on the cross, but then the world would not be saved.

Our society is all about ourselves. We try to make everything about ourselves, but that is so limited. Social media exists to sing our praises. Jobs are all about you, everything is all about you, but that leads to misery. Has anyone ever gone on social media and felt good? Or do you feel wholly inadequate? Everyone is better than you. Everybody is more important that you. That is what we feel because everything is not supposed to be about you. We are not made to stand alone. We are made to be a part of something greater. Remember the story at the beginning. The first stonecutter only focused on his own work and was so gruff about it. He didn’t see the bigger picture and was just an angry man. The third stonecutter knew exactly what he was doing. The work he was doing was a part of something greater, a cathedral. I have seen this sort of thing in my life too. My previous job was at a company that made electric motors and actuators for aerospace companies. I worked on a number of electric motors a little over a foot long. They were simple machines that needed to undergo a lot of testing in various cycles and environments. Much of the work was boring. If I focused on my specific duties alone, it was a pretty miserable job. However, the motors I was working on had a specific purpose. One type cost around $60,000 to $70,000 and another cost $100,000 to $120,000. They were motors that would go on satellites and their main purpose was to be used once to open the main antenna array so that the satellite would work in geosynchronous orbit. These motors had to work 100% of the time or a $2 billion-dollar satellite would not work. They were extremely important motors. There are things that I have worked on that are now in space. That’s pretty cool, if you think about it. It is about perspective and the bigger picture.

In our lives of faith, we have to realize that it is not about us. We are not the focus of God’s plan, but we are a part of it. When we get caught up in ourselves, we are miserable. But, when we focus on God and his plan, whatever it may be, we find contentment and fulfillment. We are all a part of God’s great plan. This church is a part of God’s plan. Now, that part might not seem very glamourous. We are a small church, we could be envious of the mega-churches that bring in thousands, but not all churches are supposed to be like that. We are uniquely positioned to reach people here and that means reaching people around the world. People from this ministry are serving God in various places around this country and the world. We have people in Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria. That is just this chapter. Hearing the word of God here can affect people everywhere. Seeds are planted and people are coming to God.

In our own lives, we can feel confined by our situations. We can feel like we are not worthy to be used by God, but even then, we can look to Judah. As we can see in this passage, Judah was an idiot. He was so selfish, but God wanted to use him to be a part of the line of Jesus. Why in the world would God want that? God loves to do that. God loves to redeem the lost and bring them back to him. He loves to use the foolish. The Bible says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29) The foolish people know that they are foolish and that they need God and give all glory to God because anything good comes from God. Judah repents here in this passage and I believe that this is a turning point for him to finally be used by God. God doesn’t use the proud and selfish, but he uses those who know that they are broken, and through Christ we can be healed and redeemed.

The bigger picture is always with God. When we are with him, we find peace and contentment and fulfillment. We find everything we need is right in front of us. I want to do something meaningful with my life, but I already am, because I am serving the Lord. The small parts that I do have more impact that I can even imagine. The bigger picture means that I shouldn’t get discouraged by only looking at what is right in front of me. The bigger picture means that trusting in God should be my first priority in all that I do. I am doing nothing in vain and neither are you. God’s great kingdom is coming and each of us is important. We just need to trust in God and believe in the salvation work that he is doing. We don’t have to listen to crashing of the waves that is the noise of this world, because our focus should be firmly on the Lord.

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The Result of Complacency and Pride

Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

  “I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”

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