Stick to Your Ticket
Interpreting the Bible with an Eye to Ethics
When I introduce students to exegesis, I start by showing an early scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In it, Rubeus Hagrid accompanies Harry Potter to King’s Cross station, from where Harry is to take a train to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Looking at his watch, Hagrid realizes that it is later than he thought and that he needs to leave, so he gives Harry his train ticket and the following bit of advice:
“Here’s your ticket. Stick to it, Harry, that’s very important, Harry. Stick to your ticket.”
Harry looks at his ticket, a piece of parchment about the size of a bottle label, printed in gold and black, and screws up his face in confusion: “Platform 9 ¾? But Hagrid, there must be a mistake. This says platform 9 ¾. There’s no such thing, is there?”
When Harry looks up, Hagrid is gone. Harry is alone at King’s Cross Station, pushing a trolley stacked with luggage and holding a caged owl, with no idea how to get to Platform 9 ¾.
At this point, Harry could have done a number of things. He could have panicked and cried, which is what I think I’d have done. He could have rounded up that unlikely platform number and gone looking for his train on platform 10. He could ask for directions to platform 9 ¾,
which he tries only to be laughed at. He could have concluded that the ¾ was a typo, and gone to platform 9. None of these options would have gotten him to the right platform.
Fortunately for Harry, he overhears another family on their way to Platform 9 ¾, and with their help, he is able to find it, board the train, and go to Hogwarts. All because he does what Hagrid says: he sticks to his ticket.
What does this have to do with exegesis?
When reading the Bible, it is tempting to correct what looks like nonsense. To round up to 10, to erase inconveniences, to assume that others know better than you, that the difficulty you see wouldn’t be difficult if you were an expert with a long string of letters behind your name.
I tell my students that they … should stick to their ticket, however weird and unlikely that ticket is.Instead of these options, I tell my students that they, like Harry, should stick to their ticket, however weird and unlikely that ticket is. Is your passage Hosea 1, and you don’t know what to do about Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and God’s suggestions for baby names (Jezreel, a sign of the end of the house of Israel; Lo-ruhamah, no mercy; Lo-ammi, not my people [Hosea 1:1-9])? Don’t write a paper about God’s tender love. I have read multiple papers on Hosea 1 and God’s tender love, but the text does not speak about love. It speaks about its absence. Or about love turned bitter, about anger. Sticking with your Hosea ticket requires finding a way to hold together the harshness of God’s judgment, including the seeming use of an actual human family as a sign act of that judgment, and the message of God’s tender love found elsewhere, including in Hosea. It is tempting to skip the hard work of thinking about the uncomfortable parts of the Bible, or the plain confusing ones (Zechariah 11, the whole chapter, stumps me!), but if you skip to an answer you already know, you will not, to return to the ticket vignette, get to Hogwarts. You’ll just find yourself at platform 9 or 10, places you could visit any day.
But the topic of this essay is interpretation and ethics: how do you get from reading a text and figuring out what it says to deciding what to do? To deciding how to live? Once you have found platform 9 ¾, there’s no question what you are going to do, right? You go to Hogwarts! But once you’ve figured out Hosea 1, then what? I can’t even suggest what that might be because I still don’t understand Hosea 1. I am sure the takeaway is not that you too should enter a loveless marriage and give your babies cruel names, but other than that, I don’t know.
Let’s instead look at a story that is a little less confusing, though weird enough in its own right: the story of Tamar and the sons of Judah in Genesis 38.
The story begins with Judah’s marriage to the daughter of Shua, who in quick order gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the eldest, Judah takes as wife for him a woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er is “evil in the eyes of YHWH” and God kills him (Genesis 38:7). This leaves Er without descendants, so Judah instructs Onan to “enter to the wife of your brother and perform the duty of brother-in-law to her, and raise up seed for your brother” (Genesis 38:8). Onan realizes that children born by these means will not be counted as his own, they will not “be his seed” (Genesis 38:9), so “whenever he entered to the wife of his brother, he ruined [his seed] to the earth, so that there would not be seed for his brother” (Genesis 38:9). Like Er’s unspecified misdeeds, this too is “evil in the eyes of YHWH,” and God kills him (Genesis 38:10). With two of his sons dead, Judah gets nervous (maybe Tamar is the problem) and tells Tamar to go back to her parents until Shelah is old enough for marriage, never intending to allow her to marry his youngest son.
how do you get from reading a text and figuring out what it says to deciding what to do? To deciding how to live? Once you have found platform 9 ¾, there’s no question what you are going to do, right? You go to Hogwarts!People have long discussed what Onan does wrong. What is he punished for? Maybe a specific sexual practice? Many people read the story to indicate coitus interruptus. People who have read the story in this way include the Midrash, Augustine, John Calvin, and Pope Pius XI. Others have identified the sin to be masturbation. Modern exegetes have mostly argued against focus on any particular sexual act and have instead drawn attention to Judah’s instructions and Onan’s responsibility to his brother and sister-in-law, to the practice called levirate marriage. According to this practice, Onan is obligated to provide offspring for his brother and continue his line, and by refusing to do so, he claims his brother’s inheritance as his own and leaves his sister-in-law without anyone to care for her. The problem with this interpretation is that elsewhere, in Deuteronomy 25:9-10, the punishment for failing to perform the duty of the brother-in-law is the loss of a sandal, being spit on by one’s sister-in-law, and receiving, for one’s house, the nickname “the house of the pulled-off sandal.” A punishment, in other words, much less severe than death. Finally, some also suggest a pared-down version of this last interpretation, that what Onan does wrong is simply to disobey his father. His father asks Onan to provide offspring for Onan, and Onan pretends to comply. He avoids doing what his father asks and is dishonest about it.
For what it is worth, I believe the story describes coitus interruptus, not masturbation, but that modern exegetes are right: the problem is Onan’s refusal to do the duty of the brother-in-law. This means that the text does not condemn a particularly sexual practice, be that masturbation, non-procreative sex, or the use of contraceptives. These are the means by which Onan skirts his obligation, but the means themselves are not the point. Had Onan point-blank refused to do as his father said, that too may have raised God’s ire, though it would have been less deceptive and would have spared Tamar a sexual relationship unlikely to produce children.
In defense of this interpretation is the latter part of the story, in which Tamar pretends to be a prostitute, has sex with her father-in-law Judah, becomes pregnant by him, and is almost burned at the stake, before presenting proof to Judah that he is the father of her child. Rather than being horrified, Judah exclaims, “She is more righteous than me, because I did not give her my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26). Sleeping with your father-in-law would not have been considered appropriate sexual practice (see Leviticus 18:15 and 20:12¹), but that concern seems to be trumped by Tamar’s pursuit of providing herself and Er with offspring. She does what Onan will not and what Judah, by withholding Shelah, has been reluctant to do. This interpretation also fits with the larger context in Genesis. One of its themes is the continuation of what will eventually be the line of David: the many obstacles that threaten the line, the ways in which God steps in, the cleverness and trickery practiced by humans to ensure babies are born. Tamar works to promote David’s line, Onan obstructs it. Their actions and the evaluations of those actions within the text fit within a larger pattern in the book of Genesis and within the larger concerns of the book.
Dr. Mari Jorstad is the new Academic Dean and Prof. of Hebrew Bible at VST. Mari is a biblical scholar, whose research focuses on ecology, land, migration and belonging in the Hebrew Bible. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, a Master of Religion from the Toronto School of Theology (Wycliffe College), and a PhD from Duke University, where she studied with Ellen Davis.