Porn Stars, Prostitutes, and the Scandalous Grace of God

Preston Sprinkle —  April 4, 2012 — 5 Comments

Of all the bizarre chapters in the Bible, Genesis 38 has got to be near the top of the list. In it, we read about Judah, the son of Jacob, who lusts over a Canaanite woman (a big no, no), has sex with her (another no, no), and she ends up bearing three sons. Er, Judah’s firstborn son, ends up marrying Tamar (probably a Canaanite and therefore another no, no), but he does what is “wicked in the sight of the LORD” and so God kills him. Then, Er’s brother Onan has sex with Tamar to raise up a son for his dead brother (this is actually a good thing; see Deut 25:5-10), but ends up spilling his “semen on the ground” (38:9), which was evil in the sight of the Lord, not because masturbation is wrong (at least, not according to this passage), but because of Deut 25:5-10. So God killed him too.

Violations of God’s will abound in this rated R story, most of which are of the sexual sort. So if you do your devotions in Genesis 38, you may be threatened by crass and untamed events. But the story is actually a beautiful one, because it highlights the scandalous nature of God’s grace. We’ll get to that in a second; first let’s finish the story.

So Judah is left with his widowed Canaanite daughter in-law, Tamar, and he tells her to wait until his youngest son grows up so that she can marry him. “Shhya right. God keeps killing off your loser sons. I ain’t waiting around to become a three-time widow!” So Tamar and Judah part company.

A few years later, Judah is strolling by the village of Enaim and he sees a sexy prostitute sitting in the city gate. Judah, being the charmer that he is, busts out his best Ancient Near East pick up line: “here now, let me come into you” (38:16 NASB). Yes, “come into you” means just what you imagined when you read it. And so Judah has sex with the prostitute, and since he left his wallet at home, he pays her on credit (38:17-18).

Stay with me. The theme of grace saturates this passage, as you will see.

Come to find out, it wasn’t a prostitute that Judah slept with. It was his daughter in law, Tamar, disguised as a harlot! And he should have taken lessons from his son Onan, because not only did he have sex with his daughter in law, but he knocked her up (38:24). As the story concludes, Tamar and Judah end up having twins—Perez and Zerah—and one of them would end up saving the world.

It’s a weird story, I know, but it’s ultimately a beautiful one, and here’s why. First, check out where it’s at. Genesis 38 occurs right after Genesis 37 and right before Genesis 39. (Brilliant observation, I know.) Genesis 37 begins the “Joseph story,” which runs all the way to the end of Genesis (i.e. Gen 37-50). But Joseph isn’t in Genesis 38. The Joseph story begins in 37, he isn’t mentioned in 38, but he pops up again in Genesis 39 as the main character. The story of Judah and Tamar, therefore, interrupts the Joseph story, and I believe the interruption is intentional. The placement of Judah and Tamar here, at the beginning of the Joseph story, is designed to contrast the characters of Judah and Joseph. And the contrast could not be greater. Joseph flees sexual lust and Judah runs toward it; Joseph is morally impeccable and Judah is an absolute zoo when it comes to righteousness. So, if you were God, whom would you choose to save the world?

Good thing you’re not God. It would make very good moral sense for God to choose Joseph to save the world, and in some ways he does (see Gen 41:56-57). But when it comes to God’s ultimate deliverance of his people through the promised Messiah, God deliberately selected the genealogical line of Judah and not Joseph to bring forth the Deliverer. And that’s the point of the contrast—to show that God is so powerful and so gracious that he can work through any circumstance and use any person he wants to usher in his promised redemption. God used the child conceived through the affair between Judah and Tamar to be the agent of redemption. Jesus would come through the line of Perez—the bastard son of an illicit affair (Matt 1:3). God very well could have chosen Joseph and his line to carry on out the plan of salvation, but he deliberately passed over Joseph and got his hands dirty by molding Judah’s mess into a conduit of grace.

F O R G I V E N

Grace does not mean that God encourages sin or discourages righteousness. Not at all (Rom 6:1). But it does mean that no mess, no addiction, no eating disorder, can loosen God’s tender grip on your soul. Grace means that God delights in using really messed up people to do really great things. Grace means that when creepy sinners like Jeffrey Dahmer get saved (which he did as far as we can tell), we rejoice—even though he killed, had sex with, and then ate (in that order) 17 people. We mourn the creative destruction that sin carves out in the heart of man, but we celebrate even more the conquering power of grace.

Grace. We’ve domesticated the term. It’s too familiar. Too churchy. It’s been overused and abused, and in many cases has lost its profound brilliance. It’s a word that’s best understood from the gutter rather than the burbs—though it penetrates there as well. Grace pursues, forgives, transforms, and tears down stubborn walls of offense. As I’ve said in previous posts, God’s grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. It’s more than just God putting up with us, but seeking out repugnant sinners—the Gomers and Judahs of the world.

And we are Judah.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

Posts

I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Adam

    Another epic post! Along with teaching us about endless grace, these stories also teach us dynamic lessons of life – often how NOT to live!

    Genesis 38 always baffled me with its bizarre break in the narrative. Perhaps another reason for the interruption of the Joseph story with the story of Judah and Tamar is a lesson of what the rabbis called “measure for measure”. Judah certainly had a lead role in tricking his father that Joseph was dead and he is later tricked by Tamar. The interesting phrase in Hebrew often missed in English Bibles is “Hakker Na” – or “recognize this?” Judah, with his brothers, say “Hakker Na” when they showed their father Joseph’s bloody robe. In the following chapter, Tamar says “Hakker Na” when she shows Judah his signet ring. What goes around, comes around. A wicked brother who sought to murder his father’s favored son in deception – ends up losing his own sons and publicly humiliated when he discovers he himself has been deceived.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Excellent observation, Adam! Brilliant. I’ve never noticed the wordplay before. Another reason for viewing the interruption as intentional.

  • Alyssa

    A story of scandalous grace. Love it! Thanks for posting.

  • Joshua Grauman

    And my favorite part is how not only God chooses Judah, but then also transforms him to play the hero at the end of the story: Judah’s speech at the end of the book is just clutch (Gen 44)…

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Great point, Josh! And I wonder if his encounter with Tamar and realization that “she was more righteous than I” (Gen 38) rattled him a bit, instilling in him a sense of humility and grace.