Dear church,

We have a rug in the basement of our house, and I was sitting down there looking at that rug the other day. I noticed how dirty it was. Some of you might call it filthy. There was a mix of dog hair, dust bunnies, bits of paper, flakes of firewood from the stove nearby, crumbs of food, little strings from some unknown source, lint, and miscellaneous dirt. And that’s just what I could see. 

I knew that rug tends to get dirty. After all, we live there, too. The rug needs regular vacuuming. 

A couple of months ago, I was in the basement in the middle of the night, reloading the wood stove, and I was sitting on that rug, waiting for the flames to kick up so I could go back to bed. And then I saw a mouse, sitting on the rug, staring at me. 

It was a live mouse, fortunately – a dead mouse would be one step too far in this story of the dirty rug. And that mouse didn’t seem to mind me being down there with it. The mouse started scurrying around on the rug, stopping here or there to pick up bits of something – potato chip crumbs, maybe – as a snack. The things the mouse was attracted to were so small I could not tell what it was eating. They were just microscopic bits of debris.

Now, I offer that story knowing there are some people whose skin will crawl at a description like that. A rug in that condition in their homes would cause their hearts to palpitate, and not in a good way. There are some who like to keep a clean house – no filth allowed. They even will pull the refrigerator out from the wall every few months to clean underneath it. They can cite chapter and verse from the CDC about how much bacteria is in your shower or on your toothbrush at any given moment. 

The sight of filth, any filth, makes them spring into action. That filth will be made clean, or else. 

This is probably particularly true in this era of face masks and hand sanitizer. There are some who get queasy if you stand too close or at the thought of not washing their hands before they eat. Handshakes? Forget about it. Too dirty, too unclean, too unsanitary.

With all of that said, I think I may begin work on a “theology of filth,” because it seems to me we have shunned the very idea of filth from our culture and our lives. And can be a good, positive place for dirt in our lives. When boys play baseball, I noticed that they relish the most not in the hits and the strikeouts and the pop flies, but in sliding into home plate, where they leave behind a cloud of dust and run back to the dugout streaked with dirt and marked by huge smiles. 

Dirt has a place in our lives whether you like it or not, and Chapter 38 gives us a dirty little story. This wasn’t the good kind of dirt, either – the kind of boys and baseball. This is the kind of dirt that needs vacuuming, and quickly! Judah slept with his daughter in law, who dressed up as a prostitute in order to seduce him, even though Judah didn’t seem to need much seducing. 

We don’t care much for this story. It is very unpleasant, and we wonder why it appears here, breaking up the story of Joseph just as that story was getting going. But there are some reasons for this story’s appearance here. 

Judah appears to have drifted off from the family, marrying a Canaanite woman. This is not what the Israelites were supposed to do. 

But Judah appeared blessed at first. Three sons to carry on the family name is a good thing. Judah found a wife for his oldest son. Her name was Tamar.

However, the first son was wicked, and God took his life. We don’t know in what ways the oldest son was wicked, so it probably doesn’t matter to the course of the story. All that matters was the man was wicked. This likely tells us something about Judah and his immediate family. 

So the oldest brother was dead, leaving Tamar a widow. The custom at the time was for the younger brothers to provide children for their deceased older brothers. But Onan didn’t want to do this. We get a rather graphic picture of how he avoided carrying out his familial duty. God didn’t like what Onan was doing, depriving his older brother and his widow of a child. And Onan was no more. 

Judah didn’t seem to see the wickedness of his two older sons. He seemed to think Tamar was cursed. And so he didn’t send his third son – the last of his remaining sons – to Tamar. 

When Judah’s wife died, a problem immediately arose. If Judah’s third son didn’t produce a son himself, the family line would die out. 

Judah surely knew this. And so did Tamar. She dressed up as a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law. She got pregnant. Fortunately for her, she kept her father-in-law’s staff, signet, and cord, knowing this would help her to prove the child’s paternity. 

What a filthy story. This is worse than my rug. But there it is before us, demanding to be dealt with. We must respond to this story as God’s Word to us.

So why does this story appear here, just after we learn of Joseph’s brothers – Judah included – throwing their brother into a pit and selling him into slavery. 

Joseph was abandoned, and so was Tamar. The family that was supposed to love and protect turned into a haven of betrayal. 

Tamar had nowhere to go, except back to her father’s home, where she could not re-marry and where she would have been treated as a kind of failure. Two men had married her, and two men ended up dead. And it was not her fault. 

And so she was abandoned and left in a state of uncertainty, not knowing what would happen, whether her life and family ever would come to fruition. She was not unlike Joseph, stuck in that pit and the put in chains. What would become of him?

We can learn a lesson here about selfishness. Humans, because of our selfishness, are self-destructive. We tear things apart and withhold good things – think about Joseph’s brothers tearing their kinship apart, and think about Judah withholding his final son from Tamar. We do this in order to please ourselves or achieve the result we have determined to be good. 

And in the process, we just continue to lose. Three sons became just one son for Judah – and then his own wife died. The twelve brothers in Jacob’s house suddenly became just eleven. We imperil our own future because of our selfishness, because of our divisions, and because of our fears. 

And so we are self-destructive. This dirty little story tells us all about it.

But another lesson we can learn is that salvation can come from the strangest of places and in the most unlikely of ways. 

You might notice how disguises were used both in the story of Judah and Tamar and in the story of Joseph and his brothers. The savior came in a disguise, and those who were saved didn’t recognize their saviors at first. 

When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they met Joseph but didn’t know it was him. The story took a few more twists and turns before they recognized him and before they were delivered from the famine that threatened the existence of their family. 

In the dirty story of Judah and Tamar, Judah didn’t recognize his daughter-in-law. And she, it turned out, was the savior of his family. Judah said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son …” (Genesis 38:26).

Why was Tamar righteous? She gets a bad rap. If you are a young woman and seduce your father-in-law, you are always going to get a bad rap. But Tamar was bound by marriage to Judah’s family. There was no undoing that. As much as we like divorce and our individualistic pursuits in our culture, there was nothing noble about that in Tamar’s culture. 

And if Tamar had not remained committed to Judah’s family, there was a real possibility his family line would have died out. And Tamar, as hard as it is for us to wrap our minds around it, served as a righteous savior for Judah’s family. Judah saw her actions as a sign of faithful commitment to her kin – to him.

Yes, salvation can come from very unlikely places. It sometimes comes disguised. 

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrowsand acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

Perhaps, it is no wonder Tamar is mentioned explicitly in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3). Here is a person from Jesus’ family whom we’d rather not talk about – despised, and we esteemed her not.

Frankly, Judah is the same. What an unsavory man – leaving his family to marry a pagan woman, raising two sons who turned out to be pretty bad characters, withholding care from a widow and his own daughter-in-law, and sleeping with a prostitute. And this was all after betraying his own brother, Joseph. 

Judah is mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, too. Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah.

Yet another lesson we might learn from this story, and perhaps the most important lesson we can learn, is that God is not limited by humanity’s sinfulness. Judah and his brothers – and Tamar – were the family of God. These were his chosen people, and they were flawed people indeed. 

Surely their many flaws would throw God’s plan off-track. Surely this dirty rug surely could not be used by God to bring out his purposes for his creation. But God remained in complete control. 

And God remains in control today. Sometimes, we call this the doctrine of providence. This is the idea that nothing is outside the control and plan of God. And God works all things out for good. And this applies to your own life. 

And I’m sure you have a dirty rug or two, rolled up in the spiritual closet of your life. And you probably think it would give us all heart palpitations if we were to pull those rugs out and have a look. But God is at work in your life, too. 

In writing to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul told the church there that he remembered them fondly. He said he prayed about them with joy because they had helped him share the gospel from the very first time he met them.

And then Paul said this, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

I think maybe all of us should keep something around the house that is just dirty. Don’t clean it. Maybe it’s a rug, or a cupboard, or the floorboard of your car. Let it stay dirty and unkept as a reminder – a reminder of spiritual things. Genesis 38, a filthy Bible story, is a reminder.

You’ve got your dirty “rugs.” I’ve got my dirty “rugs.” My theology of filth would say that all that dirt only serves to help us to see the glory of God. God is at work in us and around us. And he has a good work that is moving forward even now in you and in me. And he will bring that good work to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.


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