November 27 | Expecting Emmanuel: Tamar





Sermon | Tamar and Tricksters
Text: Genesis 38:1-27
Speaker: Barbara Lehman

Well. That is some tale! Convoluted, more than a bit creepy, and, for me, confusing. What in the world is going on? Who is married to whom? Who is living and who is dead? What is the purpose of this story? I was frankly repulsed by this Me Too-like account until I revisited the part about how Tamar tricks Judah. After Tamar has lost two husbands (neither of which may have been her choice, I might add) and Judah has sent her back to live in her father’s house (also not necessarily her wish) as a widow, when she hears that Judah would be traveling nearby, she decides to take action. She disguises herself as a prostitute to attract Judah, who propositions her (which tells me something unsavory about his character and that she probably knew). She asks him what he will give her and then cleverly secures collateral until he can deliver the kid he promises: his signet, cord, and staff, which would identify Judah as the owner, far more than a sheep would. Then she gets pregnant, and Judah, who didn’t recognize her, is informed and condemns her to be burned since he assumes that she had been a whore. But Tamar doesn’t panic when they come to get her. She produces the signet, cord, and staff and declares that their owner made her pregnant, which Judah has to acknowledge.

Aha, I think! Here is a woman—a status that can convey subjugation to more powerful men and a lack of agency over one’s fate—who uses her intelligence and cunning to overcome the tragedy (being taken for two good-for-nothing husbands followed by their untimely deaths) and manipulation (by her father-in-law) that has been inflicted on her.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more that Tamar’s predicament reminded me of a particular Red Riding Hood folktale variant. As I’m sure you recall, in the traditional European version, Red Riding Hood and her grandma are tricked by a wolf, and, if they survive (in some versions they don’t), they are rescued by a (presumably) male hunter. However, in an adaptation by the South African children’s author-illustrator Niki Daly, the setting is West African and the protagonist has a far different role. Pretty Salma is a young girl who lives with her granny and grandfather “on the quiet side of town.” One day Granny sends Salma to market with the strong caution to go straight there and back and not talk to strangers. Her shopping successfully completed, hot and tired, Salma decides to take a shortcut home “through the wild side of town.” There she encounters Mr. Dog, who offers to carry Salma’s heavy basket and then convinces her to turn over to him one by one every article of Salma’s special go-to-market outfit: her sandals, her body wrap, and her headscarf. When she begs to get everything back, he threatens her until she runs away, and then he heads directly for Granny’s house. Just as in the RRH narrative, he tricks Granny with his Salma disguise into what appears will be a dire outcome for her.

However, Salma runs to where her grandfather is telling Anansi stories (from the Ashanti spider folktales) to a group of neighborhood children. There she gets the clever inspiration to scare Mr. Dog with Grandfather’s storytelling props and leads him and the other children home. They give Mr. Dog such a fright, that he hightails it back to the wild side of town. Salma, Granny, and Grandfather then celebrate with watermelon and “ice-cold pink drink” turning the t-a-l-e/t-a-i-l on Mr. Dog.

Now, why would Tamar’s story remind me of Pretty Salma, you may wonder? Well, for one thing, both Tamar and Salma “transgressed.” Tamar “played the whore” to get back at her father-in-law, who had reneged on his promise to marry her to his third son when that boy was old enough, and Salma disobeyed her granny by taking a dangerous shortcut home and talking to a sketchy stranger. Thus, they both landed in big trouble. For another thing, instead of giving up and becoming victims, both Tamar and Salma use their wits to cleverly outsmart a more traditionally powerful character, thereby becoming tricksters.

Now, there is a long tradition of tricksters in literature—an archetypal character found in the mythology of many cultures. Tricksters often disrupt conventional rules, sometimes simply to get what they want, but also at times to make fun of or humiliate figures of authority or oppression. Anansi—the spider trickster of Grandfather’s stories—is from African traditions. Monkey King is a Chinese trickster who can take human form. Coyote is a favorite trickster in indigenous American cultures. Br’er Rabbit was a significant trickster for enslaved African Americans, for whom he symbolized how slaves could outwit their masters. Because of this, Br’er Rabbit seems, to me, most analogous to Tamar and Salma. By co-opting what was used to subjugate them against their persecutors, these tricksters keep hope alive that a wily underdog can ultimately prevail and that they can refuse to be victims by thinking differently. Therein, lies their significance and connection to the Jesus story.

Tamar is named in scriptural genealogy as the direct ancestor of Jesus. So I like to think that Jesus metaphorically inherited her trickster DNA, as well—and not because it is claimed that he performed miracles. Rather, according to the Northern Irish radical theologian, Peter Rollins, Jesus was a trickster because he subverted the existing religious and political order through deftly turning the tables when those authorities tried to entrap him. One example Rollins offers is when the Pharisees asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment in the law and Jesus responded that the foremost precept—to love God—was supplemented with another—to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Or, as Rollins puts it, “one knows one loves God when one loves one’s neighbors”—and in my mind, this profoundly expands the definition of “loving God,” if you think about it.

The Gospels cite many other examples of times when Jesus was asked such ensnaring questions, at least one of which could have applied to Tamar’s situation. Consider this paraphrase from the Gospel of John: the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery (notice that it is a woman who is “caught” although she surely couldn’t have been alone when they caught her “in the very act,” as they claim) and ask Jesus whether they should follow the law of Moses and stone her. After pausing to write something on the ground (the substance of which is not included in the account), Jesus responds, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” When her accusers slink away one after another, Jesus asks her where they went, did no one remain to condemn her? She tells him, “No one,” and he simply says, “Neither do I; go and sin no more,” which I take to mean “sin” in the general sense, as we all do, not the specific act of adultery.

And here’s an example that is a distinctive tenet of our Anabaptist tradition, the one about turning the other cheek. Noted theologian and activist Walter Wink, in a lengthy explication of “Jesus as Trickster Rebel,” uses the account from Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” Wink explains (in much greater detail than I am here) how offering the second cheek to a tormentor would in effect be an insult, essentially saying, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.” Far from passivity, I would argue, such a response is one of a trickster turning the tale on its head.

As the Advent season begins, I see the trickster Jesus as a model with great relevance for our lives today. I will confess that it can be hard to find hope in a world faced with so many problems: climate change, racism, violence, reproductive injustice, political extremism, homelessness, a pandemic, economic inequality, war, famine. And I feel deeply frustrated and saddened that virtually all these issues are directly or indirectly a result of human wrong-doing, even in the face of known solutions.

So I ask, what can we/I do? How can the example of a trickster help us to imagine, take action, and become agents for change? I see plenty of instances of tricksterism (akin to the late John Lewis’ “good trouble”) emanating from this CMC setting, and I offer three points for consideration:

1. Like Tamar, we can assert agency, but not always showily. Before the recent election, I listened to a reporter on the PBS Newshour describe an older woman who claimed that she and 30 of her older women friends would be quietly voting for candidates and issues that might not please their husbands but on behalf of their grandchildren’s future. These women were taking action, even if only they knew about it.

2. Like Salma, as a society, we need to let young people lead the way with fresh vision and ideas, while older people step back and offer support. Here I think of youth leaders like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist who, at the age of 15, went on a simple strike for climate and has bluntly spoken truth to power in global settings such as U.N. climate conferences.

3. Rather than becoming ever more divided as a country, we need to find mutual spaces in which to face our problems together. As an example, I recently came across an intriguing opinion piece about the New Pluralism movement, which originated in 2020 and seeks to strengthen “America’s founding ideals of liberty, equality, and justice” and reduce social divisions with “people of varied backgrounds and beliefs building community, finding belonging, and drawing on their differences to solve shared problems.” The New Pluralists fund projects and engage in activities that present opportunities for good trickster thinking.

These are the sorts of tricksters, along with stories like Tamar’s, that restore my hope when the outlook seems bleak. They exemplify the Jesus as trickster model that I would like to emulate. And since Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere occurs at the darkest time of the year, it came to be celebrated with the trick of using darkness for beautiful light displays, as in other traditions that have festivals of light at a similar time, such as the Jewish Hanukkah or Hindu Diwali. So here’s to Tamar and the good trickster within all of us in this Advent season and throughout the next year!