Who Are We…As Sexual Beings? (Part 1)

I’ve been trying to make the case over the last couple of weeks that our identity does not rest in what we do or how we look or how popular we are. 

We find a stable foundation for who we are when we root our selves in the fact that we are made and chosen and loved by God. It is God’s grace that forms the center of a solid identity.

If I had to pick one thing, perhaps the issue that makes it most difficult to accept ourselves as good creations of God is shame associated with our sexuality. Some of us (often men, but also women) struggle to not let the guilt we feel over our sexual acting-out overwhelm the message that God loves us just for who we are. And some of us (often women, but also men) have been so wounded and hurt and demeaned by others’ sexual actions towards us…the way we’ve been objectified and not seen as a person nullifies the idea that we have worth simply as a creation of God.

I really think we’ve got to get better at talking about a whole lot of these issues in Christian circles. Perhaps the best thing I can do today is open the door to more conversations just by naming some of the things that we too often don’t bring out in the open.

To deny or repress the fact that we were created as sexual beings is a huge mistake. The church has often tried that, and by doing so has given power to secrecy and shame. In the church, we get more wrapped up in actions: what can I do with whom  and when. I want to go today to something much more difficult than actions and look at our attitudes. How do we see and treat each other?

So yes, denying or repressing the fact that we are sexual beings is a mistake.  And seeing ourselves ONLY as sexual beings, not placing our sexuality in the context of our whole selves is also a huge mistake. We are sexual beings, yes… but also emotional and spiritual and relational and rational beings, just to name a few.

We have so much to who we are as children of God!

It’s time to see ourselves honestly. It’s time to treat each other with respect for the whole person the other is created to be, to find ways to break the patterns of reducing others to objects or tools for my own sexual gratification. God, help us see ourselves and others as you made us to be! God, may we find ways to break patterns and ways of treating each other that damage others’ identities and make it difficult for them to see themselves as loved by you!

We’ll take two weeks in this huge area of sexuality. 

Today, we’ll look at Genesis 38, and we will look specifically at the damage that comes when a person sees another person only as a sexual being and refuses to see all that makes that person human. Next week, we will find ways to be proactive…to see each other as whole people.

This is something I care deeply about. It’s something that brings fear as well, because even with the best intentions, I know I can cause hurt.

In 1992, as a 24 year old seminary student down in Southern California, I was asked to be the speaker at Tween Camp “back home” here at Twin Rocks.

That sounded like heaven! I was so excited to get to come home and be with people I loved and cared about, and have someone else pay for my plane ticket. 🙂

Part of what I wanted to share that week came from an area of recent personal growth. Four years before, I had begun the journey of moving out of sexual shame and secrecy toward vulnerability, honesty, and wholeness. At that time I would have labeled the struggle as one with lust, pornography, and masturbation. Since then, I have discovered issues deeper and more fundamental to those “symptoms”; but I don’t want to discount the good, holy work of transformation that was going on within me then, as the result of God’s grace, confession, good community, and accountabilty.

With all the zeal and confidence and hope that comes from being 24 and in seminary, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those middle schoolers. I wanted to save them from my issues and my journey. And with all the myopic vision that can come from being 24 and in seminary, I projected my experiences on the entire group. I do know that my heart was right, and I had zero intention of increasing shame.

But that’s what I did.

I had the microphone, I had the position of power. 24 is young; but as is the case at many camps, I was one of the older ones on staff. The directors were my peers, and the vast majority of the counselors were college age, younger than I was. One of those young counselors did an incredibly courageous thing, something which stung at the time, but taught me something important and lasting.

She confronted me and told me I had caused harm.

As I listened to her, I heard things I had never before considered. She took issue with the fact that the main thing she heard me say to the young women that night was, “It’s ok to say no when a guy is pressuring you for sex.” Why is the responsibility, she said, on the woman? And, she said, what if I, as a young woman, actually am feeling my own sexual desire? By not addressing  or acknowledging that, she said, you are shaming any young woman who might feel sexual arousal, causing her to feel like she is not “normal”.

This counselor was so courageous. So wise. Challenging my blind spots. Confronting ways I, who thought I was being so counter-cultural, was actually perpetuating some of the ways our culture shames women sexually. I still remember and appreciate how this young woman taught me, how she helped me realize other people have different experiences and thoughts than me, and that we are not categorized into gender (or other) boxes.

Since that day I’ve tried to take those lessons to heart, and they are on my mind today. One is humility. I don’t always get it right. Another is to listen to others, listen to those who have a different perspective. I’ve been doing that over a period of years, and one of those ways is to read the thoughts and words of women, who especially in areas regarding the sexual realm, have a different perspective than the dominant culture which is largely shaped by men.

Their thoughts and questions have helped me see the bible differently.

Genesis 38 is one of those parts of the bible that I now see differently.

It’s really an awful story in many ways. But I think we need to open our eyes wide and look at it, because some of the worst things going on in this story STILL go on today. In this story, Judah, the son of Jacob and the patriarch of an important tribe in Israel, violates the God-given identity and personhood of his daughter-in-law Tamar…and he does it in countless ways.

As we look at the yuck, I want to keep in mind the principles we’ve been holding: Everyone has value and worth as a whole human being…emotional, spiritual, rational, relational and sexual. Everyone deserves our respect and honor. No one should be taken advantage of, used, or shamed.

This part of Genesis is the story of Jacob and Jacob’s children. 

Joseph the younger but beloved son has just been sold by his brothers into slavery, an idea hatched by his brother Judah. Judah is not the oldest in the family, but the tribe of his descendants who bear his name will eventually become pre-eminent. King David comes from the tribe of Judah. Judah becomes the name of the Southern Kingdom when the Northern Kingdom of Israel quickly turns away from Yahweh.

Knowing that is the case, it’s pretty amazing how the bible brutally and honestly puts Judah in such a bad light in this chapter. Let’s begin in verse 1:

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 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.

Notice the clues from the very beginning that Judah does not see women as whole people, but rather focuses on his sexual desires.

His wife is not even named. Did you catch that? It’s one of the great ironies. The Hebrew word for sexual intercourse is literally, “to know”…to know intimately, completely, fully. He doesn’t even name his wife. Right from the start of the story there are clues that his attitude is the issue. The verbs used in the original language, that he “saw” her and “took” her as his wife…when those are together in other places in Genesis it has overtones of illicitness, of lust.

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

Years later, Judah is just “getting a wife” for his son, showing the same disregard for her personhood that he did for his own wife. But the narrator fights back. This wife gets a name, and she is Tamar.

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’

Here’s where we need help, because our culture is so vastly different. Land and inheritance and family lines were carefully guarded by laws and customs. Land and wealth passed from father to son. If, as in this case, the heir died before having children, there were customs in place that defined inheritance of the land and also took care of women, who did not inherit property. The younger brother was supposed to marry the widow in the hopes that a child would be born. That child would be seen as the child of the dead firstborn brother, and inherit the land. That child would in turn care for his mother.

What stands out here again is Judah’s focus on the sexual, ignoring all of the other relational and justice pieces of a relationship. Judah does not use Tamar’s name. She is not a person, she is an object. Judah does not mention marriage, which would carry with it responsibility for caring for Tamar; he just wants his next son to sleep with her and create an heir…an heir for Judah. The deeper you look in the story, the more you see examples of wrongs that still happen today-people NOT seen as whole persons, but as objects or tools for sexual gratification and other purposes. This disregard of the worth and value of Tamar as a creation of God is what leads to the horrible things to come.

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. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also

I think the key sentence to unlocking this passage is: “Onan knew the child would not be his.”

Like his father, Onan sees the world through self-centered eyes, and weighs matters based only on his own desires. Onan doesn’t see society or family responsibility; he doesn’t see a woman who is at risk of not having what’s needed to eat and live. He sees only the loss of possible inheritance that awaits his own children if he fulfills the society and family expectations.

It’s selfishness. He still sleeps with Tamar-the original language makes it clear it was multiple times, not just once. He takes the pleasure but not the responsibility. He takes from Tamar, he cheats his family for his own gain. It’s selfishness.

I have to say here that some in the church have horribly misused this passage. This is not in any sense at all about masturbation, as I myself heard taught once. How offensive to ignore the selfish sexual “taking” that is going on here and assign this passage to masturbation. A person, a woman is being used here.

I have to also say here that I struggle with the words which say God put both of Judah’s sons to death. I honestly don’t know which thought bothers me more: that God could possibly deal out death in judgment; or that God would take the life of Er and Onan but let Judah live, Judah who also does great evil in this story. I don’t have an answer, just naming my own wrestling with the text. Verse 11.

  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.

Two quick things to notice here: Judah promises to live into his responsibility to provide for Tamar, and at the same time shirks that responsibility by sending her back to her own father’s house. He puts her in limbo, thinking selfishly all the while that it must be HER fault his sons are dying and that he isn’t going to sacrifice a third son for her.

After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.

  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

Here is where I might make some of you angry.

Because one commentary I read focuses on Tamar as a deceiver here. That line of thinking says, “She knew it was Judah, she set a trap, she hid her face and deceived Judah.” Blame and shame are focused on Tamar alone.

But we cannot ignore the fact that Judah’s selfishness and failure to provide have put Tamar in a desperate situation. “She saw”. “She saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.”

For all intents and purposes, she is engaged or betrothed to Shelah, so she cannot pursue another marriage. She is powerless to make Judah follow through on his commitment. Without the ability to own land or marry someone who can, she has very little hope of providing for herself.

I am not trying to excuse or justify her actions. I just want to name, name in a way that too many commentaries seem to gloss over, that Tamar is in a desperate  spot because Judah refuses to take responsibility. She is not seen as a whole person; no, she’s either seen as a curse who is killing his sons, or as some sort of pleasure-giver and baby-maker.

To view any one of God’s children in such a narrow and selfish way is a sin, and it must be named!

Nothing about this is easy or cut and dried. Even Judah’s horrible choices don’t wipe out his value as a creation of God. But for us to truly live in right relationship with each other, for us to fight the way we make sexual objects of others (both women and men do this)…for us to fight this and live in God’s light and grace, we also have to name things that are wrong. He doesn’t even use Tamar’s name, let alone see and respond responsibly to her needs as a whole person.

Look at how little Judah is able to see.

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.’

Judah doesn’t even recognize his own daughter-in-law! She is not a person to him, she is an outlet for his sexual desires.This story helps us see how much damage is caused when someone narrows their sight, reduces another to a sexual object. Tamar is stuck and has no hope to more forward. She feels her only choice is to offer her body to her father-in-law for his selfish pleasure.

‘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

She is stuck. A child is her key in that culture, and this is how she gets pregnant. While everyone around her tries to reduce her to an object, she shows her ability to take charge and be a subject. She’s smart enough to get something to protect her. Judah’s seal and cord and staff are the equivalent of handing over all his credit cards and his check book. She got what she needed and she got her protection.

Again, I am not holding up her actions as right. In a world that refuses to give her justice, she fights to get it herself. Perhaps if this Canaanite woman had turned to Yahweh, another way would have been provided. I believe and hope the God of widows and orphans would care and notice.

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.’

It’s ironic-Judah hasn’t fulfilled his promise to provide a husband for Tamar even after years…but he hurries to pay the promised price to what he thinks is an anonymous prostitute. Of course it’s because he’s worried about the damage that can come from losing his seal and staff.

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.’

By the law, Tamar was guilty and deserving of death. Of course, so was the man who made her pregnant, yet that’s not part of the discussion.

But Judah heaps it on and demands a drastic, shameful death by burning. Leviticus 21:9 tells us that burning is reserved for particularly disgraceful behavior that doesn’t fit this situation. It’s like David, when Nathan tries to get him to see his sin to Bathsheba by telling a parable, like David demanding a harsh punishment before Nathan cries out, “You are that man!”

In this case Tamar gets to say, “You are that man!” by sending him the physical evidence.

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.

Judah, who can’t truly “see” Tamar all the way through this story, most definitely sees and recognizes the seal and cord and staff. He also sees and recognizes one of the real issues, that he was not responsible as he should have been by giving his son Shelah in marriage. I wish there was a clearer sense of conviction and change on Judah’s part. This is a hint that it may have happened. Another hint is later in Genesis when Judah offers to stay in prison in Egypt instead of Benjamin, in order to protect his father Jacob from anguish.

There are hints that Judah can finally see, can see how his narrow and selfish vision has caused great harm, hints that change in thinking and behavior can come.

May God open our eyes to see our own narrow and selfish vision.

As we force ourselves to look at the damage and pain that came from ignoring the whole person of Tamar and seeing her only in sexual terms…as we force ourselves to perhaps see things in the bible we haven’t wrestled with before, may we allow God to make applications to ourselves.

We are created to be whole people, diverse and multi-faceted people. We ought not deny that includes being made as sexual people. There is not anything shameful in naming that is part of how God has made each of us.

Yet our identity is not limited to our sexuality. Our identity is full and rich and deep! We are made to think and feel, we are made to relate to God and to others.

We wound and hurt others when we don’t acknowledge their full identity. We wound and hurt others when the way we relate with them is to feed only our sexual needs and desires while leaving aside any connection to the wholeness of who they are or our responsibility to them as a person created in the image of God.

Next week, we will try to offer some suggestions for how to live in holistic relationships with others

Between now and then…can we be brave and ask God to open our eyes to our blind spots? In what ways am I objectifying, seeing and relating to others only to meet my sexual desires?

Are there ways I am shaming others for their choices, without recognizing the sin and injustice that has been done to them?

Oh God, open our eyes! Show us the value in our whole selves. Show us the value in others and teach us to respect others.

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