Read and pray through Genesis, chapter 38.
Introduction | This past Sunday, we began the season of Advent, a time of preparation and reflection within the tradition of the Church for the coming of Christmas. As we wait and expect Jesus to be born anew in our lives, we will be engaging in a devotional series looking at the women in Christ’s lineage. Contrary to how we often tell it, the Christmas story as recorded in the Bible does not begin with a narrative.
After the silent centuries that came after the last pages of Malachi, the final book in the Old Testament, the first pages of the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, kicks off with a list – a list of names. “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matthew 1:1). The Christmas story begins with Jesus’ family tree.
Most of us either don’t know or remember this part of the Christmas story because this is one of those sections of the Bible we tend to skip. At best, we might dutifully scan the genealogy of Jesus. However, we make a mistake if we give this list nothing more than a cursory glance. There’s much more here than we realize.
Genealogies were extremely important in the ancient world. Where, and more significantly, whom you came from, informed everyone else’s understanding of both your identity and your significance. Less concerned than our modern pedigrees with scientific exactness, biblical genealogies sought to establish important points of connection in one’s family line.
Matthew’s list, we might notice, is not all inclusive. Instead, Matthew purposefully organizes his genealogy of Jesus with three sets of fourteen names. His intention is to validate Jesus as the long awaited, long promised Messiah. To do this, Matthew establishes two key aspects of Jesus’ lineage – that he was a descendant of Abraham and that he was from the line of King David.
The very moment humanity fell from grace in Genesis, chapter 3, our Creator promised the seed of a woman would crush the head – would break our bondage to sin, death, and the Devil. Much later, God began to narrow down which woman it would be. The Lord did this when God called and enabled Abraham, who was childless, and Sarah, who was long past her childbearing years, together to bring a child into this world.
Through their offspring, God would build a family into a tribe and then a tribe into a nation in order to bless all the people of the earth. Centuries later, as Israel finally became a nation, the Lord narrowed down even more the family line from whence the Messiah would come. As God put David on the throne, the Lord promised to establish the kingdom of David forever.
Through three sets of fourteen names, forty-one generations in total, Matthew connects significant events in Israel’s history: from Abraham to David; from David to the exile; and from the exile to Jesus. But Matthew communicates much more than this in the genealogy he provides. Maybe we never noticed it before or perhaps we’ve always wondered about the five women Matthew includes in the midst of an otherwise long list of men.
Interestingly, women scarcely ever appear in most ancient Israelite and Jewish genealogies. In the ancient world, a person’s lineage invariably was traced from father to son (or vice versa). For a biblical example of this, look at 1 Chronicles, chapters 1-9 and notice the absence of any mention of women. Matthew is breaking protocol here – in more ways than one.
Matthew, in his inclusion of women in the genealogy of Jesus, could have listed the great matriarchs of the faith – Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel. But he omits the mention of them and chooses instead to include women who, on the surface, would appear to embarrass or taint the family line of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. After all, four of these women, with the exception being Mary, were outsiders, meaning non-Israelites. Even more surprisingly, each of these women, including Mary, ended up having questionable and controversial reputations in the eyes of their various communities.
Over these next few weeks of Advent, we are going to look more closely at each of these women to better understand who they were and why Matthew specifically mentioned them in tracing Jesus’ pedigree as the Messiah. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. Each Thursday, one of our female staff members will be offering their own personal reflections as to how the life and witness of each woman teaches us about the hope we have in the coming of Christ. Each Saturday a Lectio Divina prayer exercise will be provided to reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | We begin this devotional series by looking at a woman named Tamar. Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. Her story in Genesis, chapter 38, is sandwiched in between the story of Joseph, the dreamer with a multi-colored coat, being sold into slavery by his brothers in chapter 37, and his encounter thereafter with Potiphar’s wife in chapter 39.
To set the stage, we need to remember Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons and one of Joseph’s older brothers, had left his father’s house and put down roots elsewhere. Judah marries an unnamed Canaanite who was the daughter of a man named Shua. Together Judah and his wife had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Tamar became the wife of Judah’s oldest son, Er. However, she is abruptly widowed when Er so grievously offends God that the Lord takes his life before any children are born to them as a couple.
According to Near East law and custom, if a man died without a child, it was customary for the man’s unmarried brother to marry the widow in order to provide an heir for the deceased. The first son produced in that union was considered the legal descendant of that widow’s dead husband. This custom was known as a levirate marriage.
In keeping with this cultural mandate, Judah instructed his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar, to produce children for his older brother, Er. While Onan complies with his father’s request, he purposefully spurns his marital obligations. He goes to great lengths to make sure that he never impregnates Tamar and thus provide a descendant for his brother. But God was watching. The Lord judging Onan’s disobedience to be wicked takes Onan’s life just like God did with Er.
Judah has one more son, Shelah, and the levirate mandate still remained in effect. However, deeming Shelah to be too young, Judah goes against custom. He directs Tamar to go back home to her father’s house until Shelah is old enough to marry. But Judah’s intentions are not sincere. While it would have been at that time socially acceptable for Judah to serve as a surrogate, he ignores his responsibility towards his daughter-in-law.
Years pass. Tamar waited. Shelah came of age and still, Judah never sent for her. It soon becomes clear Judah has no intention of having Shelah marry Tamar. Judah is not willing to take the risk that he or Shelah might fall prey to the same fate of his first two sons. Rather than recognizing his sons’ deaths are the outcomes of their own choices, Judah puts both the blame and the consequences on Tamar.
In choosing not to act at all, in making no provisions for her future, Judah wrongs Tamar. His inaction cripples Tamar socially and culturally. Because she was intended for Shelah, Tamar is restricted from marrying anyone else. Tamar, once a new bride, now is stuck as a widow without provision or protection. She had no status. No inheritance of her own. No legal recourse. Her only other means of a future is through being a mother and yet she remains childless.
Tamar’s life remained in the hands of a man who was mistreating her. Judah made a promise he never intended to keep. Keeping her out of sight and perpetually in limbo, Judah functionally, practically, left Tamar to die. Even so, what Tamar did next is scandalous even to our modern sensibilities. It is hard to take in.
Judah’s wife dies. After a period of grieving, Judah leaves his house and heads to town for the sheep shearing festival. Learning of this, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in order to conceive the heir she has been denied. She waits for Judah to pass by on the road to the festival. Judah falls for the ruse, propositions her, and as a result of that encounter, Tamar becomes pregnant.
Before Judah leaves, Tamar asks for a token of good faith until he returns with payment for her “services.” Judah hands over his signet, cord, and staff by way of a voucher. In the Near Eastern world this would be the equivalent of giving someone your driver’s license, passport, or other form of legal identification. Tamar is being shrewd in demanding this. Such evidence will later prove her innocence and not only save her life but the lives of the twin boys she’s just conceived.
Judah eventually learns that Tamar is pregnant out of wedlock – when she is supposed to be in waiting for Shelah – and he is furious. In response to the disgrace and shame Tamar’s actions have brought upon the family, Judah hypocritically calls for her to be put to death – burned alive! Judah’s impulsivity is quickly checked as Tamar sends back to Judah his signet, cord, and staff. Realizing his paternity, Judah immediately and publicly admits he is the father of Tamar’s children. He never has sex with her again, implying that he does not take advantage of her position and status for his own gain but instead respects Tamar and provides for her as family.
Tamar is no longer sidelined. Her rights and protections are restored. She gives birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah. Both are named in the genealogy of Christ. But it is Perez through whom the family line of Jesus comes.
Contrary to how this story is often taught and preached upon, we ought to demonstrate far more empathy for Tamar’s actions in a culture where women had few rights and little voice. If anything, it is Judah’s abuse of power and denial of responsibility that deserves more acknowledgement in creating this unjust and abusive situation in the first place. Tamar’s actions are, in my estimation, wrongly characterized as adultery, revenge, or even shameful.
According to the practices of the time, Tamar was justified in her desperate attempt to move Judah to carry out the responsibility he was avoiding. As off-putting as we may find it today, sex for the purpose of continuing the family lineage was not considered sin at this time in history. Lest we forget, before this incident, the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob actually married within their clans as instructed by God. And if we still have reservations about this, we ought to note that Judah, along with his public admission of his paternity, also declares Tamar in her actions to be more righteous than he was!
Depriving Tamar of the opportunity to marry, to bear a child, and to have an inheritance was an act of injustice. It was an act of injustice that not only wronged Tamar but also threatened the continuation of Judah’s family line – and thus, the Lord’s plans for Israel. It could be argued that Tamar’s boldness and perseverance in working for justice within the parameters of the laws and customs of her day, no matter what it cost her in terms of reputation and risk, ensured the continuation of the line of Judah. Because of what Tamar did, Judah thrived and became a major tribe of Israel, eventually the Judean state, and ultimately, the seed from which Jesus, the “Lion of Judah,” would come. The well-being of the family of Judah in Genesis 38 leads to broader well-being of the world in Christ.
Is all this to suggest that God planned or ordained for this to happen? Far from it. There is no indication of divine direction or affirmation of anything in this story. This is a tragic, terrible situation all around. It is reflective of how complicated and messy our relationships can often be – especially within families. No one’s conduct here ought to be held up as an example to follow. What this story gives witness to is how God can and does work for good in the throes of a broken world no matter what the circumstances – even in the midst of our worst or even our best intentions to survive.
Through the actions of Tamar, God transformed Judah. Up to the end of Genesis chapter 38, Judah proved himself to be a man with little regard for the well-being of his family. Of all his siblings, he initiated selling his brother Joseph into slavery. Marrying a Canaanite, someone outside of his clan, he went on to show little regard for the continuance of his family line beyond his own livelihood. But if we follow Judah’s story beyond what he learned thanks to Tamar, we witness Judah become a leader within his clan – someone willing to sacrifice himself rather than let his brother Benjamin be forced into slavery in Egypt (see Genesis 44).
Judah almost destroyed what he should never have had in the first place: the blessing of the line of Christ. And yet, after a dangerous detour, the house of Judah aligns once more with the Lord’s purposes. Such a realignment comes not because of or thanks to what either Judah or Tamar does, but despite what they do or don’t do. The story of Judah and Tamar then isn’t as much an interjection as an interlude that reminds us anew how from beginning to end, grace is what enables our story to keep going, what keeps hope alive, what ensures our faith is not in vain.
Consider & Discuss | In what way can you identify with Tamar’s grief, abuse, and/or longing? Where have you felt confined by unjust circumstances that you can’t control in your life? Where have you witnessed God’s grace in unexpected places? Do you suppose that Judah or Tamar had any inkling of the importance of what God was doing in and through their lives? Do you have any inkling of what God could possibly do through your life if like Tamar you acted “more righteous” despite the behavior and actions of others?
Prayer Focus | Holy God, in this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate You coming down to be with us – stepping into our chaos and confusion to set this world right – inspire us to be people of hope. Give us the strength and courage and bold imagination and intelligence to advocate for all who are being abused by injustice. We confess that we live in a world where plenty of stories like Tamar’s are emerging every day. Lead us in examining our own attitudes and actions in which we have not upheld Your vision of equality and integrity between the sexes. Empower and guide us in ensuring that no one has to do what Tamar had to do in order to receive justice. Enflame us with a love for others, which crosses boundaries of race, religion, nationality, or gender. Stir within us a desire to labor and defend the integrity and rights of others – especially those who have been marginalized or silenced. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!